It was a beautiful day and we were outside on a small piece of lawn facing the Alps and the lake. Our engineer, who had been listening to the radio, shot out of the studio and shouted: ‘There’s a whole lot of shit going on in Russia.” The Swiss news had picked up a Norwegian radio station that was screaming—to anyone who would listen—that huge billowing clouds were moving over from the Motherland and they weren’t rain clouds.
David Bowie, 2008.
On 26 April 1986, while Bowie was recording at Mountain Studios in Switzerland, a reactor exploded in the Chernobyl nuclear power station (in the then-Soviet Union), sending a cloud of death into the air. He heard the news in fragments over the radio. The memory of standing outside in the sunlight, knowing that a cloud of radiation was sailing his way from the East, unsurprisingly proved a potent image for Bowie—shades of the last Australians in Nevil Shute’s On the Beach—and inspired him to write “Time Will Crawl,” one of the few strong tracks on Never Let Me Down.
The central theme was powerlessness, passivity and deference in the face of a death owed to the hubris of others. Bowie’s first lines are a run of consecutive humilities, a man bowing to church and government (in the refrain, man is compared to just another poor animal), while the last recall when Big Science came to town: soon enough “we only smelled the gas/when we lay down to sleep.” The second verse, placed out of sequence, is the after-effects: rotting fish, anti-radiation pills, bloated corpses, nature itself weaponized.1
Bowie had once written rapturous apocalypse songs—“Five Years” sang out the death of the world like one last pub chant. “Five Years” was operatic in its structure and intent, grandly building to annihilation, and Bowie had wept at the mike while he sang it (in one take). But apocalypse was an old, tired game now, and there was no use in getting torn up about it. Chernobyl had offered a preview of how it could play out: the end caused by arrogance and sloppiness, the unhappy result of a bureaucratic bungle for which no one would take responsibility.
So “Time Will Crawl” sounds drained, its singer hardly bothered to care, let alone rousing to anger: he just documents horrors in his near-monotone. Bowie’s phrases in the verse mainly keep to a three-note range (a typical phrase is “drowning man,” which nudges up a semitone, then falls by a second) while his lyric dispenses with rhyme in favor of a slow, nagging momentum, as though the singer is being prodded to offer something else in his deposition. Bowie uses a short three-note phrase (“I felt a”) to hook into a longer one (“warm warm breeze”) and then, a beat later, brackets that with another short hook (“that melted”), and so on, which means the verses have no natural end point and could ramble on indefinitely (“There is a rudeness about it musically. It doesn’t do very much. It just sort of plows through,” Bowie said of “Crawl” at the time). And the intro, verse and chorus have the same minimal chord structure—a progression that moves from tonic chord (B minor) to either the VI or VII chord (G or A), then falls back to B minor.2
Bowie said he was inspired by Neil Young in writing “Crawl,” and the verses seem crafted for Young’s voice (see Young’s contemporary “Weight of the World”). Another obvious influence is Dylan’s “Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” also a stream of post-apocalyptic imagery, though the comparison of “Hard Rain” and “Crawl” highlights the deterioration in Bowie’s writing by the mid-Eighties.3 Take the stumbling, prosaic Major Tom section of the second verse: “he took a top gun pilot, and he/ he made him fly through a hole/’till he grew real old.” Even the refrain (inspired by “this week dragged past me so slowly/the days fell on their knees” from “Stay”) is clunky and thudding, the harsh “AWL” sound left hanging in the air whenever the title phrase is sung. But this fits with the sense of bitterness and exhaustion in the song. The end of the world is no longer worthy of grand anthems.
In 2008, Bowie released a remixed/re-recorded version of “Time Will Crawl,” which he said was meant to correct the sins of its production and so reclaim one of his best songs of the period. The problem was that “Crawl” was the least of the offenders on Never Let Me Down, with its production fairly minimal by the album’s gaudy standards. There’s actually space in the mix for once, with Erdal Kizilcay and Carlos Alomar’s guitars giving the track a lustrous, deep tone, and each verse has a slightly different arrangement: Phillipe Caisse’s piano line from the intro reappears in the first verse; massed “oohs” show up halfway through the second; the higher-mixed acoustic guitar in the last. The backing vocals are also used well, with Bowie’s voice double-tracked at points throughout the verse, while the start of the refrain, sung a fifth above Bowie’s vocal in the verse, provides the only moment of drama in the track.
There’s a sense of everyone contributing to the whole for once, rather than talking over each other. So Sid McGinniss’ guitar is confined mainly to the second refrain, where it roars up in the vocal pauses, while the trumpet (Erdal Kizilcay, and/or possibly Laurie Frink and Earl Gardner) is dispersed-sounding, its solo a muted, echoing lament.
Bowie’s new “MM” mix also aimed for more drama and sweep, keeping the drums in reserve until the refrain, cranking up the guitars and Bowie’s vocal (and so overpowering the new string arrangement done for the remake); it looped the trumpet into a Geiger counter while the new “live” drum track, by Sterling Campbell, came off sounding weaker than the original’s programmed drums. It’s understandable why Bowie remade the song, but he didn’t improve it.
Recorded ca. September-November 1986, Mountain Studios, Montreux, and Power Station, NYC. Released as a single in June 1987 (#33 UK), with a video in which Frampton and Alomar mug while Bowie and his dancers train for the Hunger Games. Performed only during the Glass Spider tour. Bowie’s revised “Time Will Crawl,” which appeared on the Iselect compilation in 2008, is of this writing the last “new” piece of music that Bowie has released. (It makes you wonder if Bowie could pull a Frank Zappa and start re-recording parts of his old albums.)
1: Bowie was possibly recording “When the Wind Blows” as the Chernobyl disaster was occurring, which would be ironic. “Time Will Crawl” seems like a sequel to it.
2: The choice of B minor was apt, as it’s notoriously the key of darkness (“schwarze tonart,” Beethoven once described it in a sketchbook), despair, suffering and melancholy (from Bach’s “St. John’s Passion” to Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”).
3:Not that Dylan was doing any better in ’86-’87 (see Knocked Out Loaded, Dylan and the Dead).
Top: Igor Moukhin, “Вильнюс [Vilinus], 1987.”