A word of advice: don't go to a Jimmy Webb concert with a breaking heart. His songs will finish the job. There must be a lot of breaking hearts in London right now, judging by the many rows of empty seats. Maybe they're at the Radio 2 Folk Awards, or Roxy Music, but if one thing's for certain, it's that the absentees are missing one of the true greats. No songwriter alive is more skilled at locating the epicentre of romantic pain with scalpel precision.
Now 64, sensible of suit and serious of brow, Webb looks like Artie, Rip Torn's producer character from The Larry Sanders Show, or maybe a senior Wall Street banker. But this man was once one of the renegades. Born in what he calls a "one-elk town" in Oklahoma, Webb moved to California and took his first steps as a mercenary in the Tin Pan Alley/Brill Building mould, penning shlock like "My Christmas Tree" for the Supremes and commercial jingles for General Motors.
He made his breakthrough in 1967 with a prime piece of easy-listening cheese, the Fifth Dimension's "Up, Up and Away" (which, tonight, elicits a surprisingly harmonic response of "beautiful balloon!" from the audience). At that year's Grammy ceremony, "Up, Up and Away" shared eight awards with another Webb composition, which could not be more different. Glen Campbell's impossibly cruel "By the Time I Get to Phoenix", in which the narrator imagines his lover going through the banalities of her daily routine as it slowly dawns that he has left her.
For three years, Webb emerged as a Baroque pop auteur with the melodic facility of Burt Bacharach and the visionary poeticism of William Blake. But from 1970 on, Webb's talent was largely lost to pop as he concentrated on musicals, film scores and a scattering of obscure solo albums. Tonight, however, it's his imperial phase that dominates. He sits at a grand piano, breaks the ice with a gag involving a flaccid microphone ("I've been having this problem at home ..."), and continues talking while tinkling, telling tall tales of raising hell with Richard Harris, Waylon Jennings, Harry Nilsson and John Barry.
His virus-ravaged voice strains at times, and there's a little too much in the way of melodic reinterpretation, notably on the Civil War-based "Galveston", and the much-mocked melodrama "MacArthur Park". It's easy to titter at the lines "Someone left the cake out in the rain/I don't think that I can take it/Cos it took so long to bake it/And I'll never have that recipe again", but as a metaphor for lost love, it's unbeatable.
Other songs are delivered straight, such as "The Highwayman", in which a restless, reincarnated spirit moves through four lives as a robber, sailor, Hoover Dam construction worker and spaceship captain. Or the peerless "Wichita Lineman", which has the room rapt, right through to that telegraph-imitating plink-plink at the end. If a refrain as beautifully logical and concise as "And I need you more than want you/And I want you for all time" doesn't get to you, maybe you never had a heart in the first place.
In February 2006, The Daily Telegraph ran a cooing piece about a wealthy gallery owner who had vacated her £2.45m Fulham maisonette so that her two teenage sons could use it as a base to become rock stars. One of those boys, Tom Cowan, found fame as Tomethy Furse of The Horrors. The other, Freddie, is now guitarist with The Vaccines. I recently wrote about the fact that 60 per cent of British artists in a recent Top 40 either attended a private school, a stage school or both (compared with just one member of one act in the same week 20 years ago). If anyone symbolises the current posh pop takeover, it's The Vaccines, who are essentially a British Strokes, without any of the game-changing freshness.
Freddie Cowan, a dead ringer for Benjamin Disraeli, isn't the only well-connected Vaccine. Chubby-cheeked, stubble-faced singer Justin Young has already had one bite at this as Hoxton troubadour Jay Jay Pistolet, hitching a ride on the coat-tails of fellow toffs Marling and Mumford.
I can't even remember the other two, but I'm sure they play their part in the Vaccines' rudimentary but admittedly effective sound. With their big, blaring chant-a-long tunes and simple basslines, they're shamelessly derivative of the Jesus and Mary Chain and the Ramones.
If we must have toffs with too much time on their hands, why can't they do as toffs did 100 years ago, and invent actual vaccines? The next cure will never come from this generation. Instead, we'll have to make do with ever more clichéd indie bands like this one. Great. Look past the catchy choruses and they're completely vacuous. There's nothing about The Vaccines, and The Vaccines are about nothing.
Simon experiences a Valentine's Day tearjerker from Bright Eyes
Mike Skinner showcases the Streets' valedictory album Computers and Blues with a UK tour which opens in Edinburgh's HMV Picture House (Fri) and the ABC in Glasgow (Sat). Meanwhile, Super Furry Animals leader Gruff Rhys, with second solo album Hotel Shampoo just out, starts his latest tour tonight at Blackpool's Gresham Hotel.