This time, the choice of songs was a little more challenging. There are a million songs that mention time, or are about other meanings of the word, as in the expression these times (Sign O’ The Times by Prince, or The Times They Are A’ Changing by Bob Dylan), or as in every time (like Time After Time by Cindy Lauper). But this issue is about songs that deal specifically with the notion of Time.
Pink Floyd: Time (1973)
This is a terrifying song, as dark as the Brothers Grimm children tales. I should know, because I was exposed to it early in my life, and it somewhat stuck with me (and also scaring me into action, as songs sometimes do). It’s included in the most popular album of that decade, The Dark Side Of The Moon (TDSOTM). I didn’t quite speak english at that time, so for a while this song was the beautiful ballad before the climax☊ that closed the first side of the LP. It has a very effective melody, and it makes you want to sing along, until you realize what you’re singing:
Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day, you fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way. Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town, waiting for someone or something to show you the way.
Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain, you are young and life is long and there is time to kill today. And then one day you find ten years have got behind you, no one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.
So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking, racing around to come up behind you again. The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older, shorter of breath and one day closer to death.
Every year is getting shorter never seem to find the time, plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines. Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way: the time is gone, the song is over, thought I’d something more to say.
Over forty years later, I can see the point of passing such a message to younger people. Still, I find this song harsh and brutal (maybe because I’ve known people who actually missed the starting gun). Musically, Time is 100% Pink Floyd territory, and it’s one of the molds for the band’s later music; this whole album is. But TDSOTM has a huge problem: it’s overshadowed by its own popularity (it sold around fifty million copies), and by the total fetishization of Floyd fans. There are TDSOTM cover bands (like this one, whose slogan is “Remember when you were young!”), something perhaps unique in the history of Pop music. There’s even a Reggae band, Easy Star All Stars, that play a Dub rendition of the LP♾ (The Dub Side Of The Moon). Pink Floyd themselves never play single songs from this album: they stage (very pompous and geriatric) concerts in which they play the whole thing – in sequence. And then there’s the story of Johnny Rotten, and his I hate Pink Floyd T shirt. But if you listen to TDSOTM, it’s a collection of (perfectly sequenced) good songs, that would also work with bare bones arrangements. Unfortunately, the Pink Floyd versions are so crystallized in the audience’s ears that not many people have dared to mess around with them. Too bad, because the few examples there are – like the inspired acoustic versions of Breathe, Have A Cigar and Time♾, played live by (Slipknot’s lead singer) Corey Taylor – are outstanding.
The Rolling Stones: Time Is On My Side (1964)
The Stones’ first american hit has an interesting little story. Written by Jerry Ragovoy in 1963, was recorded in the same year by jazz trombone player Kai Winding (who was looking for more commercial appeal). In 1964 Soul singer Irma Thomas’s version☊ was released as a B-side, which one month later was “covered” by The Rolling Stones. The brackets are necessary because the right term here would be steal: the two versions are incredibly similar. But, at the time, this was common practice. Time Is On My Side became a hit also because the band performed it live on television, in their very first appearance at the Ed Sullivan show: “Sullivan was shocked by their appearance, because long hair on men was considered outrageous to older people in the US at that time, and declared that they would never be invited onto the show again, but he subsequently invited them back several times.” (From the song’s Wikipedia page)
I believe there’s more: the tune itself is an innocuous teenage love song (“Now you are saying that you want to be free, but you’ll come runnin’ back, time is on my side.”). Sure, the way the Stones look while singing, or even the way they sing it, could be considered outrageous in 1964. But I have reasons to believe* that one of the disturbing elements was the title/chorus. Because, as Sullivan and other older people in the US probably knew, the world was rapidly changing, and maybe time was no longer on their side.
*One of the reasons is that fifty years later, the relevance of this song is mostly in the title, and it’s that phrase that has become a symbol of the importance of youth in post 1960s popular culture. Which makes it a bit odd when you hear a septuagenarian sing it.
Charles Bradley (& The Menahan Street Band): How Long (2011)
In the age of Vintage, someone like Charles Bradley is a treasure. Because where most artists try hard to sound like 1973, Bradley was actually there. He’s not a kid, and that helps. He sings it like he means it, not like he imagined it: the man’s been there. Also, Charles Bradley has a very special entry in his curriculum: “In 1996, aged 48, Bradley moved back to Brooklyn, where he began making a living moonlighting as a James Brown impersonator in local clubs under the name Black Velvet.” That position demands “a very particular set of skills”, which Bradley has honed for a long time: “In 1962 (aged 14), his sister took him to the Apollo Theater to see James Brown perform. Bradley was so inspired by the performance that he began to practice mimicking Brown’s style of singing and stage mannerisms at home.” (Both quotes are from Bradley’s Wikipedia entry)
He is simply fantastic, and The Menahan Street Band is discreet and effective. The song, from his 2011 album No Time For Dreaming, sounds like a timeless classic: “How long must I get going on? How long must I get going on? To see all this hate in the world. How long? oh, tell me, tell me, tell me, how long?” It could really have been written in 1973. Because Soul will always be Soul, and when it’s so sincere and direct, it will always work.
Gillian Welch: The Revelator♾ (2001) from her third album entitled Time (The Revelator), here’s a tune about a special quality of time also described by Shakespeare: “Time is the justice that examines all offenders”.
Grace Jones: I’m Not Perfect (But I’m Perfect for You)♾ (1986) A fantastic video (with a bunch of cameos, including Andy Warhol), an interesting message, and a very funky final hook, exploited to death in the magnificent Nile Rodgers remix☊: “Right on time, I feel on time, tonight I’m right on time.” Very true: in 1986, Grace really was.
Cindy Lauper: Time After Time♾ (1983) Although not exactly about the notion of time, this is the tune with Time in the title that everyone remembers. Included in Lauper’s first album, Time After Time has been a hit for very diverse artists, from Miles Davis♾ to Eva Cassidy☊ and R’n’B singer Lil’ Mo☊.
James Taylor: Secret O’ Life♾ (1977) One shouldn’t expect to find the secret of life in a James Taylor song. But this one is also about Time itself (It begins by saying that “the secret of life is enjoying the passage of time”, full lyrics here), naming Einstein and planets spinning through space. Over the years, Secret O’ Life has become a staple in Taylor’s gigs – the part where he plays amazing acoustic guitar all by himself (see linked video).