8. A Song about Travelling

‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’ – Glen Campbell

One of the odder effects of Britpop’s plundering of the 1960s was that, for a few years in the mid 90s, “easy listening” music become wholly detoxified. The planes of XFM and Radio 2 crossed without friction, and at clubs like Smashing or Blow Up, you could be dancing one minute to Elastica’s new single, and the next to the theme from Ski Sunday. And so it was that I learned about Glen Campbell through a Best Of album compiled by St Etienne. The fact that this was the first time I’d heard By the Time I Get to Phoenix – the third most performed song in the half-century before that – only goes to show how tribal my musical world had been up till then.

Like Wichita Lineman, another Jimmy Webb song recorded by Campbell, it uses landscape to widescreen effect. Like that song too, it romanticises the road (and the telephone – there’s something incredibly beautiful, and remarkably efficient, about the emotional mileage Webb gets out of the broken connection and the unanswered call in these songs), and exoticises the cities of the American midwest. But By the Time I Get to Phoenix also has a split screen effect in its cinematic toolkit. One the one hand, its vision is expansive – the singer, heading across the vast open spaces of Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma. Back in L.A. however, the view is small-scale, domestic – the lover’s day punctuated by routine: getting up, work, lunch, bed. Each verse is a mixture of both perspectives, a shift in focus: the long-range shot, then the abrupt panning in.

The song also uses time and tense very subtly and very precisely. The action all takes place in the future: “By the time…”. It’s set in the gap after the break-up note has been left hanging on the door, but with that long, long journey still ahead, still the unfulfilled fantasy of a lover who has – unsuccessfully – “left that girl so many, many times before”. It’s a song about the failure of a relationship, but also perhaps a song about the failure of a breakup. I’m not sure which is the sadder.

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