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.