Time Will Crawl

Time Will Crawl.
Time Will Crawl (video).
Time Will Crawl (extended dance mix).
Time Will Crawl (Top of the Pops, 1987).
Time Will Crawl (live, 1987.)
Time Will Crawl (“MM remix,” 2008).

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.”

35 Responses to Time Will Crawl

  1. humanizingthevacuum says:

    Once again, I can’t stand Bowie’s choice of vocal tone: the near-falsetto whine that sounds like inappropriate parody (although you can’t tell who or what is being parodied).

    • col1234 says:

      I think he’s trying to do Neil Young (or “Neil Young of Shortlands” as DB later said).

      • humanizingthevacuum says:

        I read that somewhere too. But as the cover of “I’ve Been Waiting For You” in 2002 proved there’s such a fundamental clash of sensibilities between Young and Bowie that I prefer to pat the latter on the head for having tastes catholic enough to like the former.

  2. Roger L says:

    Thanks – I have been attracted by this song’s driving dirgy undercurrent and feel the ’08 version (which I had never heard before) and its edgy guitar better exploits it. The NLMD version seemed a little poppy and unsure of itself. You’ve put your finger on what it seems to be doing wrong (and right).


  3. David L says:

    this is one of those songs that makes me feel I should like it more than I do. There seems to be something important here but it’s not registering with me, and I find its musical qualities uninvolving. A little like Loving the Alien in that respect for me, though I much prefer the latter.

  4. Maj says:

    A pretty good song I almost never listen to…adding it to my iPod as I type. 🙂
    The MM mix is indeed not much of an improvement, perhaps the drums do sound more organic but not punchy enough.
    Again, this song sounds very a-ha to me, esp the piano bit in the background. But more the East of the Sun… album sound. Actually I think they have a similar piano “riff” in one of the songs on the album…can’t remember which one exactly (Early Morning?). Probably the reason I hear a connection here, nothing more. Oh, and the Norwegian radio station in the quote. 🙂

  5. MC says:

    Great, evocative piece, not only on the song, but on the period, the last gasp of Cold War fallout fear. For me, the song is not just the strongest on NLMD (by far), but one of Bowie`s authentic hidden gems, and it`s the main reason I was so inclined to overrate the album at the time. Personally, I love his vocal performance on it. It`s clearly Neil Young all the way, but at the time especially, it really seemed the return of the Ziggy-Hunky Dory voice (not necessarily a contradiction – Kooks is something of a Neil vocal pastiche as well, it seems to me). The voice for me is central to the song`s power, actually; he sounds harrowed and terribly vulnerable – a nice break from the croon, which was going a little stale at the time. Without making such a fuss about it, the track seems to me to recall the dark urgency of the 70`s work, more so than When The Wind Blows does.
    I hadn`t heard the iSELECT revision till just now, and I agree; it doesn`t improve on the original. I find it odd that Bowie never revisited the song live. I would have slotted in well on the Heathen-Reality tours.

  6. MC says:

    I mean, it would have slotted in well, of course.

  7. PH says:

    This for me is hands down the best song on the album. I recall thinking at the time,sequenced so early on the album as it was, that “YES, finally the great man is back”, after the lightweight dance album, and the dreadful MOR cod-reggae and overwrought Beach Boys covers of the dire Tonight.
    At last it seemed that Bowie the old prophet of doom and apocalypse was back again,and singing in his much-missed Ziggy voice too.
    And I’m not so sure that apocalypse was an “old,tired game” by ’87 either Col 1234. It had only been four years earlier that all-out nuclear conflagration had been narrowly avoided, when the Russians monitoring America’s missile silos in the desert mistook some sun spots for a pre-emptive strike and were set to retaliate.
    I disagree that the lyric compares unfavorably to “Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” too. This lyric takes a back seat to nobody. I put it right up there with anything Bowie has ever written. I love the line about a Moon-blind Government man sending a top gun pilot through an age-accelerating wormhole, where he just flies ’til he bursts. I love the line about taking pills to counter the migraine -inducing warm breeze that melts metal and steel. And how the side-effects are that your fingers drop off.
    If only Bowie could have taken such care with his lyric-writing on the messy ’87 and Cry as well.

  8. Pierce says:

    Not the worst Bowie track here, but certainly nothing approaching the stratospheric genius of his 70s work either. I like your Dylan analogy too, although Bowie’s sins of the 80s should be considered masterpieces in comparison to Dylan’s unlistenable trilogy of Knocked Out Loaded, Down in the Groove, and …the Dead.

  9. diamond dog says:

    Time will crawl was an awful single , too clunky and not much of a hook the weak shouted time will crawl is awkward and not catchy enough. The top of the pops performance was not shown at the time due if I remember to it dropping like a stone from the uk chart. Its an interesting song there is something about it I like possibly the trumpet refrain but the and some of the phrasing but the lyric is awkward and the threat revealed in the lyric in this article does not come across at all and I agree that nuclear threat was something from another time. The sci fi doom and paranoia about silent nuclear death of the early seventies was a long distant memory in the privatising money mad 80,s. People being far more interested in owning property than in nigel kneale ideas of creeping unknown. The new revision of the song adds some power pounding and comes across as a bit more in tune with Bowies then current sound but does not improve it. I would love to hear the demo recording as I think the whole thing is lost in translation. Still for all its wrongs it is one of the better songs though it echo previous work it reveals how far away from the road he had wandered.

  10. PH says:

    Another line that really resonated with me was the one about “the drowning man with no eyes at all”. Around the time that this album was released a friend of mine was pulled out of St. Kilda Bay, after having spent several days in the water.
    He had always been a bit of a hell-raiser, and had crammed more dangerous experiences into his short life than most people do in a lifetime. The circumstances around his drowning were murky, and it was never established if his death was as a result of misadventure, foul play, or suicide. Whenever I hear this song I still think of him.

  11. Diamond Duke says:

    Far and away the best song on Never Let Me Down. Relatively minimal, uncluttered and to-the-point musically, and Bowie’s own special brand of apocalyptic lyrical imagery is once again quite startling. Granted, it’s not Five Years or Big Brother, but nobody can conjure up that sort of imagery quite as (seemingly) effortlessly as Bowie. MC said something interesting about how the song could potentially have fit quite comfortably into the Heathen/Reality tour set lists. I personally think the references to the “government man…as blind as the moon” and the “drowning man with no eyes at all” weirdly resonate with the cover image of Heathen, Bowie’s milky, clouded-over eyes representing a kind of spiritual blindness of the modern, 21st century man.

    Also, the MM Remix from the iSelect compilation was okay. I really liked the string section a lot. But like col1234 has stated, of all the songs on Never Let Me Down, this particular song was one of the least in need of a remix job! 😀

    Also, the line about the “top gun pilot”…Can it be a coincidence that The Hunger and Top Gun shared the same director, Tony Scott?? Perhaps… 😉

  12. Pinstripe Hourglass says:

    A pretty good song! Gotta love that drum intro, though. “HEY, REMEMBER WHAT DECADE THIS IS!?”

  13. Jeremy says:

    Great song! Loved it at the time and still do. I agree that the remake is not an improvement. Loved the return of his Ziggy voice at the time and it had an edge and tone that was botched on some of the other NLMD tracks. Gave me hope at the time and I still play it now.

  14. diamond dog says:

    Dug out the vinyl of this album today and gotta say I really enjoyed it , I was surprised how much of it is good. Compared to tonight its way better it does suffer some over egging and the odd naff tune but I enjoyed it. Makes me feel I’ve been a bit harsh its not the disaster I had in mind. I even sang to em all and the vinyl I listened to sounded great. Gotta say I prefer the original drum track on time will crawl it really stomps on vinyl. I’m gonna dig out the cd tomorrow and some 12 inch vinyls I’ve enjoyed revisiting it.

  15. Frankie says:

    A strange, cyclical track, and perhaps the song sounds most like Bowie. I remember on my first listening liking the unpredictable cause and effect/stream of consciousness lyric, but often wondered why he constructed a song that was trapped in itself. It certainly does crawl, but over its own body. It kind of continues in the same spot. It’s more like Time Stand Still (Not the English lute song by John Dowland or anything by written by Rush)

  16. david says:

    Best song on the album for me, by a country mile. It seems to be the trad thing to lambast the production on this album, but people forget that Bowie was just tuned into the zeitgeist, and was just channeling what was generally the sound of the timel. Perhaps that’s the problem,but In an age when Stock, Aitken and Waterman were dominating the charts, this was a breath of fresh air at the time and the demented gurning at the end of the video had me thinking he was clearly off his rocker, and a million miles away from some shit by Rik Astley or Phil Collins.

    Still, I wonder what people would have preferred him to do, if he could reboot that era. Perhaps ambient Jazz like Sylvian and Sakamoto, or the melancholy pop of Mark Hollis? Maybe the bedsit ennui of Morrisey or the motorik sheen of Art of Noise? I think Bowie was asking himself the same question at the time, by trying out so many musical styles, but kept coming up with acts that played the numbers-Prince,Springsteen etc-when really he wanted to just go and be the Pixies, which is what he did next and I hear seeds of it on Time will crawl.

    Theres a telling part of an interview I remember at the time with Jules Holland, in which they play a word association game-Cliff Richard=Harry Web…America=Chasm(?) and so forth. At the end Holland says Bowie’s name, to which David answers by saying ‘lost’.

    Says it all really.

    • humanizingthevacuum says:

      S-A-W made a lot of terrible, cheap records but also quite a few fantastic ones (e.g. “You Spin Me Round,” Bananarama’s “Venus,” their collaborations with Donna Summer, etc).

  17. princeasbo says:

    “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”).”

    And yet it’s not the saddest of all key, see Nigel Tufnel of UK heavy-metal band, Spinal Tap: “It’s part of a trilogy, a musical trilogy I’m working on in D minor which is the saddest of all keys, I find. People weep instantly when they hear it, and I don’t know why.”

    Prince Asbo of Thrify Vinyl http://thriftyvinyl.wordpress.com/

  18. Merav says:

    A question: you mention that Bowie cried during the “Five Years” take, but I couldn’t find any reference to that, including in your own (brilliant) analysis of the song. I’ve read pretty much every Bowie biography out there, and I don’t recall Buckley or Trynka (or anyone else) mentioning this… is this just one of the many Ziggy myths?

    • col1234 says:

      it’s a piece of info just revealed in a great Uncut article on the making of Ziggy Stardust (on newsstands now, I think). It’ll be incorporated into the book revision of “5 yrs”.

      another great anecdote was Ronson sitting around listening to Cilla Black records for orchestration ideas.

      • Frankie says:

        I’ve heard a fantastic version of Five Years without any of the music, simply the vocals. Quite astonishing, and near the end, when he’s screaming, you can quite clearly hear that he’s also sobbing – making the song quite convincing – rightly so if you’ve got only 5 years.

    • PH says:

      It was in the latest issue of UNCUT magazine, and was recounted by the session’s engineer so it’s certainly no myth.

  19. algeriatouchshriek says:

    ‘By a country mile’, I was wondering when that phrase would pop up. It’s become associated with TWC after a review in the contemporary music press… Smash Hits I think and I like the way it follows discussions of the track around. Us fans and our habits!

    I too recall the interview with Jools Holland, I’m thinking it was on The Tube with Dave in ebullient mode and mullet hair do. He referenced CJ Jung and … oh look its here

    • col1234 says:

      that’s the interview where DB calls Reagan “ol’ Hopalong,” too.

      • Frankie says:

        And he also says “Bob’s your uncle.” Love the bear massage story and the way that he pronounces “massage”. Erdal Kizilcay sounds great in theory, after watching the interview. Bowie gives such an unreserved endorsement. Unfortunately I didn’t concur after hearing his pinnacle results, which leaves me more and more puzzled, funky Turkish or not. Again, I would say his work on Buddha of Suburbia is far better (even though it’s not quite an album) and its my favorite of the collaborations between Bowie and the guy from Julliard.

  20. Ofer says:

    Well, iv’e never really fell for this song but surely it’s the best track of the bunch. In a way, the original and the remake are very similar – they are OK, but also just slightly miss the mark. I actually figured he was gonna make a velvet-style remake but he made it “a proper rocker”, which the original is anyway, only with a gated snare sound.

    But i actually wanted to say something else – for me, this is the first song of bowie’s “third” period (i’m excluding the early work for the sake of the argument). The first period was genius, the second was crap with hints of greatness; the third is fine. TWC isn’t a bad song, but it also just aint genius and isn’t really nodding at genius. It’s good work by a nice guy and a talented songwriter. And that’s it.

    I would also make the claim that bowie was, in many cultural ways, a lot more interesting as a former genius turned crap artist than as a regular guy – even if the records got considerably better – but that’s for another time i guess.

  21. diamond dog says:

    With hindsight I actually quite like this album for all its faults I think its time to show it some love. Although the albums have inproved he has never got back to the golden age and seems never will. I lost touch with Bowie at the time of blk tie which I think is an awful album …sorry but I would take this over that album anyday.

  22. fantailfan says:

    Listened to this on the way to work today. It definitely could have been done by Neil. He would have cut down the lyrics, making it something like “Rockin’ in the Free World” . He also would have made it much simpler (or dumber, if you will)–simple enough to be recorded with Crazy Horse. It is way too complex to be a true Neil song, though. I think “Crime In the City (Sixty to Zero)” on Freedom is about as complex as Neil Young has ever got*, and it’s toy compared to Time Will Crawl.

    It will be fun to see what you have to say about “Never Let Me Down” and John Lennon.

    *excepting his work for Buffalo Springfield.

  23. I like this song and did even before the remake, but lyrics like “top gun pilot” just make it seem so hopelessly dated.

  24. Slight amendment – I liked this song before the remake, but the remake actually had me pining for a “Toy” album of his 80s stuff or even a “Let It Be Naked.” There’s so much that could be reclaimed by someone with his head back in the game.

  25. Brian says:

    Good but not great. Certainly grabs your attention, but only because you’re hoping something great might happen. It doesn’t. The lyrics aren’t memorable, but at least it sounds like a weaker track on a great Bowie album.

  26. JB says:

    Never Let Me Down and Tonight illustrate how Bowie had got a taste of MTV success/sales from Let’s Dance, but couldn’t reconcile his artistic inclinations with his desire to be an MTV hit-maker. His insistence on writing songs during this period which are tributes to his heroes/early influences fall flat (unlike they had in the 70’s) as the bedrock of the music is tacky 80’s stylings and production rather than a more appropriate approximation of his source material. In his other songs that are more political/socially conscious the cheapness of the instrumentation and production undermine his lyrics.

    Bowie was always great at finding music trends (glam, disco, krautrock, world music, etc) that were just under the mainstream at the time and adapting them to his purposes. Unfortunately the inspiration he was drawing on in the mid-late 80’s was not undiscovered, but mainstream itself. So Bowie doesn’t sound like he’s cutting edge, he just sounds like he’s riding the coattails of other artists who’ve done him one better already.

    I also feel that Erdal Kizilcay is one of the worst collaborators he chose to work with over his career. Maybe it’s just that Bowie was out of ideas during the time he heavily worked with him, but I have just never been much of a fan of how Kizilcay translated Bowie’s ideas.

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