Released: 19 April 1973
Mick Ronson: electric guitar, vocals
Mike Garson: piano
Trevor Bolder: bass guitar
Mick ‘Woody’ Woodmansey: drums
Notable for Mike Garson’s strident piano work, ‘Time’ kicked off the second side of David Bowie’s sixth album Aladdin Sane.
This is truly one of my favorite songs ever. Only David could figure out how to mine every style of piano playing I had learned the prior twenty years and find a place for each style in his vast library of songs.
This is a style of playing called stride piano which came from a 20s ragtime technique with that old corny rinky-dink sound. He even altered the piano to sound old. But then BOOM he brings in the pop elements and changes things.
Mick [Ronson] played the most beautiful lines. Both David & Mick were masters at musical hooks. They gave me all the freedom to play stride style and in some places very avant-garde with some outside touches. Middle section and chorus I’m playing straight pop.
Sometimes I think now as I’m more of a matured musician that maybe what I did back then doesn’t stand up. Nearly 50 years later, it’s humbling to hear how good the song was and, to be honest, how well I was playing in my 20s.
Twitter, 28 June 2020
‘Time’ was one of the last songs written and recorded for Aladdin Sane, and its composition and arrangement owed much to the recruitment to the Spiders From Mars of Mike Garson, a New York pianist who became Bowie’s longest-running bandmate.
With ‘Time’, he told me he wanted it to sound like one of those old pianos from the early 1900s. So I did that style, but he wanted a twist on it, so I played some of those runs a little wacky…
When we did ‘Time’ they found that truly humorous, and David being almost like a Broadway singer and knowing all the German stuff, everything about it was David Bowie. But I was playing the piano how I think he would have played if he could play at my level. He could play, he played well, but it was very basic piano. I think, if he had my chops, that’s what he would have done.
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)
The song started life as ‘We Should Be On By Now’. A demo recording was made in the summer of 1971 with Bowie’s friend George Underwood on lead vocals. At that time the lyrics were almost wholly different.
The new words were completed on 14 November 1972 in New Orleans. As on several other Aladdin Sane songs, Bowie inserted references to people of his acquaintance: Billy Dolls was New York Dolls drummer Billy Murcia, a former lover of Angela Bowie. Murcia had accidentally overdosed at a party in England earlier that month; he was dumped in a bath and force-fed coffee, resulting in his asphyxiation and death.
Bowie had performed Chuck Berry’s ‘Almost Grown’ and ‘Round And Round’ during the early Ziggy Stardust period, and the line “Well I look at my watch, it says 9:25″ was a conscious echo of Berry’s ‘Reelin’ And Rockin”, the verses of which began “Well I looked at my watch, it was…”
British listeners would have been struck by one other line: the mention of “wanking” in the second verse. Although American radio stations censored the mention of Quaaludes, they missed the euphemism for masturbation. The BBC, though, was more vigilant, and banned ‘Time’ from its radio playlist.
When Bowie recorded the vocal on this song he stopped the whole studio with the line ‘falls wanking to the floor’ … We were all busy asking each other, ‘Did he just say wanking?’ ‘It sounded like wanking to me!’ At the end, when he’d finished the song, someone asked him if that’s what he’d actually said and he just rather coolly replied, ‘Yes.’ At the time we thought, ‘Can you actually sing that in a song?’
Spider from Mars: My Life with Bowie
For the recording of the 1980 Floor Show in October 1973, Bowie substituted “swanking” for the offending word.
Bowie’s lyrics were becoming more opaque and cryptic with each new release, and shortly after recording ‘Time’ he told the NME’s Charles Shaar Murray that he had unwittingly written “a gay song”.
I must explain that I don’t necessarily know what I’m talking about in my writing. All I try to do in my writing is assemble points of interest me and puzzle through it, and that becomes a song and other people who listen to that song must take what they can get from it and see if information that they’ve assembled fits in with anything I’ve assembled and what can we do now? All I can say is say ‘have’ you noticed that and ‘have’ you noticed that and – what does it mean? That’s all I can do with a song. I cannot say, this is where it’s at. I cannot do that because I don’t know I don’t know! All I can do is assemble information that I’ve received. I’ve written a new song on the new album which is just called ‘Time’, and I thought it was about time, and I wrote very heavily about time, and the way I felt about time – at times – and I played it back after we recorded it and my God, it was a gay song! And I’d no intention of writing anything at all gay. When I’d listened to it back I just could not believe it. I thought well, that’s the strangest…”
New Musical Express, 27 January 1973
Although the Grim Reaper looms large in the lyrics of ‘Time’, there may have been another, more prosaic, inspiration for the song’s opening lines, according to one of Bowie’s former roadies:
I always thought that ‘Time’ was Bob See, our lighting man. He always worked in the wings, not at the back of the hall. He would shout his lighting directions into a head mic – which only the lighting guys understood – hence, ‘He’s waiting in the wings/He speaks of senseless things.’
Any Day Now, Kevin Cann
The descending chords of the chorus, meanwhile, were a clear echo of ‘All The Young Dudes’, but an earlier precedent can be found in ‘Cygnet Committee’ from Bowie’s second album. The second beginning “And the road is coming to its end” bears a notable resemblance to ‘Time’.