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Glen Campbell 1936-2017

Quite rightly, the majority of the eulogies for Glen Campbell — like this excellent one from Michael Hann in today’s Guardian — concentrate on the great trilogy of place-name songs written by Jimmy Webb: “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston”. The record I’ll remember him for came from the time before he started his run of hits: a song called “Guess I’m Dumb”, written by Brian Wilson and Russ Titelman and produced by Wilson in 1965.

Recorded at the same time as the Beach Boys Today album, it’s a prototype of what we were going to hear on Pet Sounds the following year: a carefully wrought song of tortured self-examination set to an imaginative adaptation of the techniques originated by Phil Spector, sung on this occasion by a member of the Wrecking Crew who, while trying to kick-start his own solo career, had stepped forward to take Brian’s place in the Beach Boys for a few weeks of live shows at the end of 1964.

“Guess I’m Dumb” opens with flat-toned tom-toms, a conga, a bass guitar and several strummed acoustic guitars layering the baion rhythm. And then: “The way I act don’t seem like me / I’m not on top like I used to be / I’ll give in when I know I should be strong / I’ll still give in even though I know it’s wrong / I guess I’m dumb, but I don’t care…” Campbell sings the beautiful ascending melody with perfect clarity, like an older Wilson brother might do, as the arrangement builds up: anxious bowed cellos and double basses, a thick brass-and-reeds chorale, humming male voices, sweeping violins answered by staccato trumpets in the instrumental interlude, sleighbells doubling the eighth-note rhythm, and female singers chanting the chorus against a trademark Hal Blaine drum fusillade on the fade.

The mono mix is a masterpiece. I’ve described the individual elements separately, but you’re supposed to hear them as a one giant instrument, as if recorded by a single microphone. It doesn’t have the steamroller impact of a vintage Spector 45, but Wilson and his friend Titelman were after a subtler and more complex portrayal of teenage uncertainties, and the result belongs up there with “Caroline, No”, “I Know There’s an Answer” and “I Wasn’t Made For These Times”. I’m still amazed that, in the greatest of all years for pure pop music, it wasn’t even a tiny hit.

* You can find “Guess I’m Dumb” on Ace Records’ Pet Projects, a 23-track compilation of Brian Wilson productions released in 2003.

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17 Comments Post a comment
  1. I could not agree more with the above thoughts. Guess I’m Dumb is a genius record.

    August 9, 2017
  2. sure is…and a bit fed up of a minority of mates who seem to think his irrelevant (if true) Republican sympathies are, well, relevant!

    August 9, 2017
    • GuitarSlinger #

      See my comment below .. the sad reality is those RNC sympathies along with his ultra conservative Evangelical leanings are completely relevant to the man’s career … both being unassailable walls to both creativity and art in anyones vocation/avocation .

      August 10, 2017
  3. steve goldsmith #

    yes, but, Wichita Lineman – an existential masterpiece; who else could sing that song this well.
    It reminds me how little classic stuff is coming out these days

    August 9, 2017
  4. chris kennedy #

    Great post, enjoyed it. Thanks.

    August 9, 2017
  5. Roy Kelly #

    While being perfectly Brian Wilson it also evokes flavours of both Bacharach and Bond music, making it absolutely of that time, but also timeless for many of us.

    August 9, 2017
  6. Barry J. Faulk #

    Thanks for the post. It’s a wonderful appreciation, and worthy of the man and his talents.

    August 9, 2017
  7. Thank you for this excellent writing of a song I have treasured since I heard it for the first time in the 1990´s. Totally agree.

    August 10, 2017
  8. Bill White #

    Am I right in thinking Glen Campbell sang uncredited on the Crickets’ hit, Don’t Ever Change? I’m sure I read this somewhere some time ago and it certainly sounded like him when I checked it out as it did this morning when I listened again!

    August 10, 2017
  9. GuitarSlinger #

    What all the tributes and eulogies miss out on was Glen’s extraordinary session musician career before he became a pop/country star . Suffice it to say the man swung a mighty fine guitar himself before seeking celebrity . As for me .. Wichita Lineman will always be the pinnacle of Glen’s pop/country career and .. its a damn shame in my opinion that later in life Glen didn’t take a Johnny Cash w/ Rick Rubin like detour from the pop/Nashville sound to return to his guitar slinging roots instead of continuing to waste time and effort trying to regain Nashville’s favor long after they’d abandoned him completely . Hmm .. Glen Campbell and Daniel Lanois … now that would of been a paring . Hmm … hate to say it but perhaps it was his RNC sympathies along with his ultra conservative Evangelical leanings ..( neither of which ever benefitted any artistic endeavor ) that kept the man shackled … Oh well .

    August 10, 2017
  10. Wow. I had never heard that, and that is one great melody line and singing performance. As great as it is, I can see why it might not have been a hit, it’s not a simple singable melody–but again, wow!

    August 10, 2017
  11. If you’re going to start diminishing the art because of the unsavoury sympathies and behaviour traits there’s a pretty long list of 20th century immortals you’re going to have to take down too. Campbell’s politics don’t impact one iota on the greatness of those songs. One thing that still needs stating is that the rock literati didn’t give a fig for those great Jim Webb songs at the time. They were dismissed as pop pap. The rock literati were as usual wrong. The eulogising of Wichita Lineman etc was a slow fuse burning. It took 20 years or more for those great songs to be lauded. Lovely piece of writing Richard. I’d just like to add a word of praise for Where’s The Playground Susie, because no one else has. Another great yearning interpretation of a great yearning song.

    August 11, 2017
    • Mick Steels #

      Spot on about the dismissal of Wichita Lineman, when it was released it was not considered worthy of serious critical appreciation. It would have been categorised as MOR if such a thing existed in 1969.
      Btw on the strength of Campbell’s interpretation I bought his next single unheard, predecessor to Susie, the wonderful Galveston

      August 12, 2017
  12. sorry you guys never got to do a session with Glenn…he made it fun and a half, couldn’t read more than chord changes but made the music happen by take 2, and had a left hand on him the likes of which i’ve never seen before or since. last time i played with him was at John Hartford’s house outside N’ville in 1998; Glenn played his ass off. RIP my friend.

    August 13, 2017
  13. Paul Crowe #

    Another lovely piece, Richard. Like some of the other contributors, I did appreciate those Jimmy Webb songs but my hair was too long and the money went on Beefheart and Jefferson Airplane albums.

    August 17, 2017
  14. Adam Morris #

    Thanks Richard. A fantastic post of a sadly little known pop gem in a career of many gems. Thanks for honouring it with your post.

    August 20, 2017
  15. John #

    I only discovered this song about a year ago and was posting enthusiastically about it. It’s as good as anything on Pet Sounds or Smile, a masterpiece of 60s pop. And it wasn’t even a hit!

    August 24, 2017

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