Jimmy Webb: On Record

Photo by Sasa Tkalcan/Helsinki Festival

“I think the word is getting across,” says Jimmy Webb, “that we do have some great composers in our generation.” He’s doing his part to spread the word on his new album, Slipcover, for which he strips down songs by the Rolling Stones, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, and Joni Mitchell. Paring them down to solo piano amplifies the decisions these composers made: the melodic arcs and swells, the ingenious structures, the elaborate progressions, and the very specific emotions those elements convey. Of course, Webb belongs among the ranks of great composers, having written more than a few songs that are now considered pop classics, including “McArthur Park,” “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” and “Wichita Lineman.”

Videos by American Songwriter

What does paring these songs down to just piano accomplish?

There’s an ongoing myth that all the great composers died in 1951. The idea is to redirect the attention towards some of these people who were truly gifted composers and start a Great American Songbook Part II. When it comes to chord structure and melody, we had some of the best composers ever in our ranks. Our generation didn’t fall on our face when it came to creating real music. Sometimes that gets lost in the glitz and glamour that surrounds rock and roll.

What was it like being part of that generation and having to prove yourself?

When I started out in ’64, I was sixteen. I walked into Hollywood at a time when there was a tremendous demand for songs. It was a great place to be, especially as a beginner. There were lots of opportunities. If you had 40 or 50 songs in your notebook, Hollywood was the place to be. The records that Glen [Campbell] and I made were some of the first crossover records that ever made it onto the Top 40 charts. You can go back before that and can find things like Bill Anderson’s “Still,” which was a country song that did really well on the Top 40, so I’m not saying that we were the only people who did this. But Glen and I had a certain kind of song that had enough pop elements that it would go right to the top of the pop charts, and at the same time and it would be number one country.

Do you think younger listeners are revisiting the Beatles and even Billy Joel? Are audiences looking for this sort of music, even if it’s not as popular as it once was?

It feels really good to me just as a human being to know that kids are buying records and setting up turntables. As Isaac Newton said, wherever there’s an action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. There’s always a kickback. Even stereo had a kickback in the ’60s. We had these pins and bumper stickers that said “Back to Mono,” and that was because of stereo. There were some hardcore guys who thought that Sun Records was the epitome of making records. You put the whole band in a room and you cut it live. All this technology leads down a dark path.

How so?

Technology was great for a while. Pet Sounds wouldn’t have been made without the studio, and it was, I think, the first technological art. And Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was cut on only four tracks! How do you even do that? It must have been some very careful overdubbing. And probably two years later, we jumped from four tracks to 8 tracks to 16 tracks. It wasn’t long before we had 24 and then 48. And now, we’re in a digital environment where the number of tracks has no meaning. It’s an infinity symbol. So I think we’re walking down a path, whether we realized it or not, toward a more technologically dominated music.

I remember, for instance, when producers started using drum machines instead of drummers, which didn’t seem like a big deal because drum machines were always on the beat. We weren’t really thinking about the possibility that we were losing something, that there was something in the human drummer, with his foibles and fallibilities, that couldn’t be duplicated. If you listen to Charlie Watts play drums, you’re not hearing metronomic music. So even when we were making fabulous progress, we were dropping some of the most important stuff about music, which is the human element. We didn’t have time for what I call the “divine mistake,” because now you don’t have to make mistakes.

How does that inform the songs on Slipcover?

It’s one of the reasons that I’ve started the record, and Slipcover is going to be a series. It’s my way of saying: No, these are songs. They have chords, they have melodies, they have lyrics. Well, the lyrics aren’t there in my versions. There’s a void where the lyrics are, and you can sing along. So, to know that kids are out there listening to vinyl, loving the Rolling Stones and Billy Joel, it’s very encouraging to me. I don’t know if we’re looking at a revolution that’s going to make changes in the way people approach music.

Jesse Dayton: Mixtape Vol. 1