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Music

Remembering R.E.M's unlikely cover of 'Wichita Lineman' by Glen Campbell

We love an imaginative cover here at Far Out, and they don’t get much better than this: R.E.M’s rendition of ‘Wichita Lineman’, perhaps one of the most evocative songs of the entire 1960s. Here, the classic track is given new life by Michael Stipe and company, who performed it live in Houston back in 1996.

Though it found fame in the hands of Glen Campbell, ‘Wichita Lineman’ was originally written by Jimmy Webb, who was also responsible for crafting Campbell’s ‘Galveston’ and ‘By The Time I Get To Pheonix’. The story goes that the songwriter was driving along the Kansas-Oklahoma border when he spotted a solitary telephone lineman working at the top of a tall telephone pole. The strange romance of the image stuck with Webb, who used the worker as the subject of this song.

Speaking about the track on the BBC’s Soul Music program, Webb recalled driving through the endless flatlands around the border: “As it happened, I suddenly looked up at one of these telephone poles and there was a man on top of it talking on the telephone. He was gone very quickly, and I had another, you know, 25 miles of solitude to meditate on this apparition. It was a splendidly cinematic image that I just kind of lifted out of my deep memory while I was writing this song about an ordinary guy, you know, working-class type of dude.”

When Campbell took Webb’s track to the studio, he struggled to capture the way he’d heard the songwriter play ‘Wichita Lineman’ for the first time when Webb had accompanied himself on the Hammond organ. Feeling something was out of place, Campbell decided that the only way to capture that same emotion was to stick closely to Webb’s original arrangement and subsequently added a Hammond organ line into the mix.

Those iconic organ pulses – designed to mimic the sound of telephone signals – lend a certain existential longing to ‘Wichita Lineman’. R.E.M take great pains to keep as much of the song’s original magic intact as possible while also bringing their own flavour to the fore. While Peter Buck’s dirt-driven guitar provides the chord progression, a whirling organ replicates the signature Americana chime of Campbell’s original. But the cherry on the cake, as you will no doubt discover, has to be Stipe’s vocal line, which floats above everything just like that lonely telephone worker Webb spotted back in 1968.