BBC4's superb documentary about Glen Campbell reminded me of the singing career I never had

Fizzing with anecdotes and full of good humour, this show - still available on iPlayer - showed a singer at the height of his powers and left our writer feeling nostalgic
  • @Simon_Kelner

I have always thought it was one of nature's cruel jokes. I cannot believe that there is anyone who enjoys singing more than I do, and yet I have been cursed with a prodigious inability to sing. Tone deaf, I believe, is the technical term

That doesn't stop me trying, however, and I have discovered that the art of pub singing is less about reaching the notes, more about remembering the words. And thankfully I have a good memory. I have even been committed to vinyl: a few years ago, a friend and I found ourselves in Jools Holland's studio in south London, headphones on, recording a track for a charity album.

Lightning in a bottle

My observation at the time was that this was in aid of the hard of hearing - to make them glad of their affliction. Anyway, this was all brought back to me at the weekend when I watched a superb BBC4 documentary on the life of Glen Campbell. The song we recorded was “Witchita Lineman”, an evocative mixture of the elegiac and the prosaic, Jimmy Webb's homage to the man who drives the highways of Kansas to fix the telegraph wires, and sung with piercing clarity by Campbell. “And I need you more than want you / And I want you for all time”, may just be the best lyrical couplet ever written in popular music.

In the documentary, made by BBC Wales, Webb tells how, following the success of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” Campbell rang him up to ask him for a song “about a town”. When the master songwriter said that he didn't feel like writing another song about a town, Campbell said: “Well, give me something geographical, then”. Webb, inspired by seeing a worker at the top of a telegraph pole and imagining he was up there talking to his girlfriend, spent an afternoon writing the song and then sent Campbell the unfinished draft of “Witchita Lineman”.

However, Campbell couldn't wait for the final version. Instead, he went straight to the studio and recorded it as it was, which explains why the song doesn't quite end, more just peters out. The programme was full of great stories like this, and some wonderful quotes. One interviewee, explaining how country music and its practitioners are lacking in pretension, said that “if you don't like hugging fat women, don't go into country music”, while Micky Dolenz, the former Monkee, said that the combination of Webb and Campbell was like “capturing lightning in a bottle”.


I saw Campbell, now an Alzheimer's sufferer, on what he called his farewell tour in 2011. He had the words to the songs on boards at the front of stage, and would occasionally repeat his stories, excusing himself with a heartbreakingly charming “I forget things these days”.

But the voice was still pretty good, notwithstanding the ravages of age, and a punishing period when he fell victim to drink and drugs. I was so grateful to fall upon this documentary - it's available on iPlayer, and I urge you to look it up - even if it did make me tragically wistful for a time long gone, and for a singing career that never quite reached the high notes (mine, not Glen's).