When a new chart record is broken, chartologists (or anorak’s as we’re often called) lap it up. In August 1965, Bob Dylan entered the UK chart with Like A Rolling Stone which timed in at exactly six minutes, beating the previous record holder by 12 seconds, which was the little remembered Steptoe & Son At Buckingham Palace monologue. In June 1968 that record was broken by the Jimmy Webb-penned epic MacArthur Park as sung by the Irish actor Richard Harris, it weighed in at seven minutes and 19 seconds.
Jimmy began songwriting in 1966 and is often associated with Glen Campbell and the songs Wichita Lineman and Galveston. His song Up Up And Away was a hit for the Fifth Dimension in the US and for the Johnny Mann Singers in the UK but probably his best known song has never been a UK hit despite recordings by Dean Martin, Glen Campbell, Gary Puckett, Frankie Laine, Thelma Houston, Georgie Fame, a 19-minute epic by Isaac Hayes and Frank Sinatra among many others and that is, By The Time I Get To Phoenix. But seemingly his most confusing is MacArthur Park.
My co-author on the 1000 Number Ones book, Spencer Leigh, interviewed Jimmy a few years ago and asked him what he recalls of his first impression, “I met Richard Harris in 1965 at his flat in Belgravia, London. He was an incredibly seductive man and a complete charmer who was so full of life. He was also so full of humour and warmth. He had this grand piano and a lovely fireplace. After a while I sat down at his piano and played all the songs I knew, in fact I had a briefcase full of them and at the bottom was my music for MacArthur Park. I had written it for The Association but they passed on it so I set the music on the piano and said, ‘Well, there’s always this one’. I played it through a couple of times and Richard said, ‘We’ll do it.’ What about the line, ‘Someone left the cake out in the rain’ meant, was it a wedding cake?’ Spencer asked. Somewhat reluctantly Jimmy replied, “Yes it was, but I am sick and tired of talking about the song, no offence. It was meant to be a hallucinogenic image in the same style as many songs that were written around the same time like Nights In White Satin, Strawberry Fields Forever and I Am The Walrus.” When asked if he thought those songs were written about drugs, he said, “I doubt it, I seriously doubt it.”
Jimmy doesn’t generally like talking about the track, even at live shows, but he has said that it was never meant to be a single because it was written as a lengthy track and knew it wouldn’t get airplay. American FM stations began playing it and slowly but surely the Top 40 stations started playing it.
Now here’s my guess as to why he doesn’t like to talk about it, the inspiration came from a relationship break up between Webb and his girlfriend Susan Rondstadt (Linda’s cousin). At the time, Susan worked for a life insurance company and MacArthur Park, which was located opposite her office block, was where they used to meet for lunch and enjoy happy times. Webb explained in Q magazine that the cake reference, “It’s clearly about a love affair ending, and the person singing it is using the cake and the rain as a metaphor for that. OK, it may be far out there, and a bit incomprehensible, but I wrote the song at a time in the late 1960s when surrealistic lyrics were the order of the day.” If you happened to have read a copy of the Daily Mail in April this year, you might have read an interview with Colin McCourt who was a staff writer at Edwin H. Morris music who published the song. Colin revealed a story that Webb had told him at the time. He said, “Jim was in love with a girl who left him. Months later, he heard she was getting married – in the park. Broken-hearted, he went to the wedding and, not wanting to be seen, hid in a gardener’s shed. As the open-air ceremony was taking place it started to pour with rain and the rain running down the shed window made the cake look as if it was melting.” Even more interestingly, the man she married was a phone engineer from Wichita.
Webb produced Richard’s version and although Richard had a few moans about the orchestra being a bit loud, he was pleased with the end result in what Jimmy managed to bring out in Richard’s voice, especially the B flat that concludes the marathon.
Throughout the song, Harris continually sings ‘Macarthur’s Park’ and it is believed that Webb has said he tried to correct Harris a number of times, but gave up when he simply couldn’t sing the correct words. Despite this, the song won a Grammy the following year for Best Orchestration in a song.
In 1978, a disco version by Donna Summer made the chart and peaked at number five, one place lower that the Harris version. Donna’s single was a mere three and a half minutes unless you picked up the 12″ version which was an impressive 17 minutes and 31 seconds but that did include an interpolation of the Summer & Moroder compositions One Of A Kind and Heaven Knows before reaching the crescendo with a reprise version of the main track. The song has also been interpreted in a country version by Waylon Jennings, jazz style by Stan Kenton and Woody Herman, a parody version by Weird Al Yankovic and a cartoon version when Homer sang it in an episode of The Simpsons.
In one interview with Webb, when he was obviously completely fed up talking about it, the interviewer asked what the song actually meant, Webb’s reply was, “It means I don’t have to write another song in my life.”