MUSIC FOR TIME TRAVELERS
To listen to music is to travel through time.
When we listen to music, we’re being asked to exist – for the length of a performance or recording – not only elsewhere, but elsewhen. That travel through time doesn’t have to be profound. It can be barely perceptible. Often songwriters wish to shift us just a few moments of either side of today, more of a puddle-jump than a voyage. “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away,” sings Paul McCartney in “Yesterday” by The Beatles. “Will you still love me tomorrow?” wonder The Shirelles in their girl-group anthem of the same name. These songs aren’t mere functions of memory or premonition. Both of them – and thousands more like them – jar us from the here-and-now. Tethered only loosely to the present, we become uprooted in time.
Space, too, becomes a variable. That’s only natural, considering the interrelation of space and time, not to mention the way music seeks to transport us. There’s a third axis, though: sound. Far more than language alone, the confluence of lyrics and music is able to strike a resonant cluster of notes, a chord of timelessness. Or timefulness.
H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine was published in 1895, the same year the seven-inch record was introduced to music consumers and phonograph parlors. Each in their own way, these innovative watersheds augured a new way of seeing time in the twentieth century: as a substance that could be defined, contained, and even manipulated – a notion that was soon manifested in everything from Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity to the forty-hour workweek. By midcentury, the seven-inch single had become the staple of commercial music recordings. Its technical limitation was a temporal one, too: The further a seven-inch record exceeded four minutes per side, the more compressed its single, spiral groove became – and the more distorted it sounded. It’s hard to picture a more vivid analogy for time travel.
Upon its advent in 1948, the twelve-inch long-playing record (or LP) began overtaking its seven-inch counterpart. In a conspicuously consumerist, postwar world, more meant better, music included. Rising parallel to this was the notion of leisure time, which in turn allowed society to indulge, more than ever before, its imagination – nostalgia for the past, a mixture of hope and fear about the future. The former became the fodder of literary fantasy; the latter fueled science fiction. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was published in 1954 and ’55, half a decade after George Orwell’s 1984.
Throughout the rest of the century, those two works would inspire dozens of popular songs, from Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On” to David Bowie’s “1984.” Neither The Lord of the Rings nor 1984 is about time travel per se, but they helped codify the polyglot genre of speculative fiction, one that gazed imaginatively both backward and forward. This paradox – along with the breakneck acceleration of atomic and space-travel technologies throughout the Cold War – presented mankind with a previously unthinkable dilemma: Did they live in the past, the present, or the future?
Sun Ra didn’t answer any questions, but he posed some astounding ones. In the 1950s, the LP format – and its elongation of songtime – allowed recording artists to expand the spectrum of their vision. Through this new aural telescope, Sun Ra ogled at the cosmos. Born Herman Poole Blount in Birmingham, Alabama, the pianist and bandleader claimed that, early in his career, he had traveled astrally to Saturn; his obsession with Ancient Egypt reflected an equal affinity for time travel. Drawing anachronistically from both the far future and the remote past, Blount crafted an elaborate, pharaoh-from-the-stars stage persona – complete with dazzling costumes – that made him appear as a wanderer through spacetime, stranded here and now only long enough to make music.
And make music he did. Launching the movement of Afrofuturism, he used big-band bebop and abstract, chilling modulations of sound to turn his rotating LPs into virtual flying saucers. His 1960 song “Music from the World Tomorrow” – recorded with his Myth Science Arkestra – is just one of the many dense, discordant compositions that Sun Ra used to free his music, and his listeners, from the chains of spacetime.
Throughout the rest of the ’60s, popular music became a vehicle for increasingly ambitious sounds and ideas. But it wasn’t until the psychedelic movement blossomed in the last half of the decade that Sun Ra’s music-as-time-travel concept began to take root. One of the most otherworldly practitioners of psychedelic rock, the Texan bard Roky Erickson, led his band The 13th Floor Elevators through a subdued yet trippy track titled “She Lives (in a Time of Her Own)”. Released in 1967 as the psychedelic zeitgeist reached its cusp, the song hints at the way psychotropic substances can alter the way one’s consciousness flows through the chronological continuum. Erikson fixates on an ethereal young woman who seems to traverse time according to her own velocity and rhythm.
Psychedelia crossed over with folk as the ’60s oozed into the ’70s, softening the sharper edges of such transcendental sounds. Accordingly, folk artists picked up on time travel. In 1969, the duo of Zager and Evans had a fluke hit with the eerie single “In the Year 2525,” which skips like a stone across a still pond, revealing various dystopian scenarios between 2525 and the mind-numbingly distant 9595. It’s nowhere near as far-off as the year 802,701, which is where the Time Traveler of Wells’s The Time Machine finds himself. But the song is clearly inspired by Wells, pessimism and all. Less famously but more potently, English folkie Mick Softley released a song called “Time Machine” in 1970. “Who were you in 2000 B.C.?” Softley asks before demanding, “Who will you be in 5000 A.D.?” By grafting the more traditional sounds of folk music to the science-fictional possibilities of time travel, these artists became the first to traffic openly in temporal paradox and anachronism – elements that would surface more frequently as music pushed further into the future.
Progressive rock, as its name implies, sought to probe tomorrow with a restlessness that bordered on vengeance. Hard rock rose to satisfy the demands of the masses – Grand Funk Railroad’s 1969 song “Time Machine” is an ode to sex with groupies, nothing deeper – but progressive rock took that heaviness to a cerebral extreme. Rejecting the short, crude, simple formula of the conventional pop-rock song, the genre of “prog” – as it became both affectionately and derogatorily known – infused jazz and classical structures into rock. Not only did this allow prog musicians to distend and distort the skin of popular music to a previously unimaginable degree, it encouraged the tackling of headier subject matter such as time travel. With twenty-minute-plus songs that routinely took up entire sides of LPs, prog bands dabbled routinely in science fiction and fantasy. Despite the stereotype, though, prog’s conceptual palette was much broader, and time travel didn’t factor significantly into it – at least not literally. Rather than singing about journeys to the future, prog artists tended to act like they were already there.
Curiously, time travel as a lyrical theme is most prominent in the early ’70s in the overlap of prog and hard rock. Uriah Heep and Hawkwind were two British bands who could only marginally be considered prog; in fact, they had more in common with the emerging sound of heavy metal. Yet in 1972, each band immortalized itself in the annals of time-travel music: Uriah Heep with “Traveller in Time” and Hawkwind with “Silver Machine.” (Three years later, Hawkwind would release an album titled Warrior on the Edge of Time, based on the books of science-fiction/fantasy author Michael Moorcock and his time-bending Eternal Champion.) More startlingly, the German jazz-rock outfit Dzyan – associated with the movement known as Krautrock, which would birth the futuristic group Kraftwerk – released an instrumental record in 1973 titled Time Machine. Free of vocals or lyrics, it instead uses intricate, radically shifting tempos and time signatures as metaphors for time travel.
Some of the strains of progressivism reached the mainstream in the ’70s – and many of those bands are now considered staples of classic rock. Many such acts managed to smuggle an incredible amount of weirdness onto the airwaves, though. Time travel included. Although the lyrics of Steely Dan’s 1974 hit “Pretzel Logic” are as arch and abstruse as most of their work, songwriter Donald Fagen revealed years later that the song was, in its own cryptic way, about time travel. In 1975, two of classic rock’s biggest bands, Led Zeppelin and Queen, touched on the time-travel theme: Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” contains the mysticism-laden lines, “I am a traveler of both time and space,” while Queen’s “’39” – sung by guitarist and future Ph.D. in astrophysics Brian May – relates the tale of space explorers who, much to their alarm, return to Earth a century after they depart due to Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity. Also in 1975, a scrappy, lurid stage production called The Rocky Horror Picture Show made it to the big screen. With it came its indelibly glammed-up theme song, “Time Warp.” Although neither the film nor the song deal explicitly with time travel, their grab-bag pastiche of eras and aesthetics took the free-for-all anachronism of the decade and spun it into a catchy, danceable, cult-worthy anthem.
Things got grimmer in the ’80s. The imminent approach of the year 1984 was an almost oppressive reminder that Orwell’s dystopic predictions half a century earlier had been specious in some ways, prescient in others. The future had arrived, and it was both more boring and more chilling than predicted. Brian Eno, former keyboardist of the temporally unhinged band Roxy Music, got a jump on the ’80s with 1977 album Before and After Science. As if its title was enough of an indication that Eno viewed time from multiple angles at once, many of the album’s songs brush on time travel – including “Here He Comes,”in which Eno sings of “the boy who tried to vanish to the future or the past.”
Eno – along with his most notable collaborator in the ’70s, David Bowie – was an architect of ’80s new wave. One of his many disciples was the band The Human League. Driven by synthesizers, robotic vocals, and the cryogenically frozen remnants of prog, The Human League wrote “Almost Medieval” – a 1979 song obsessed with century-hopping and jumbled timelines – before morphing into a romantic, soft-pop band as the ’80s progressed. New wave was an amalgam of the punk, glam, and art-rock movements of the ’70s, so it only makes sense that the ’80s bands most conversant with time travel were comprised of actual ’70s holdovers. In 1980, former Hawkwind frontman Nik Turner led his punk-fueled freakout ensemble Inner City Unit through a frenzied song titled “Watching the Grass Grow”, which opens with the shrieked lines, “We are the survivors / The eternal survivors / Androgynous energies / Traveling through time!” A year later, the iconic Krautrock group Kraftwerk reached the zenith of its android-encased electronica. Their 1981 song “Computer World” mentions “time, travel, communication, entertainment” as four of the vectors of existence that will be precisely regulated in its cybernetic vision of the future. The fact that “time” and “travel” are mentioned in the same breath seems like no coincidence.
Another band that came of age in the ’70s was Electric Light Orchestra. Led by mastermind Jeff Lynne, ELO became one of the ’80s most accomplished proponents of time-travel music. In fact, the band’s 1981 album Time is the first major concept album devoted entirely to time travel. The basic premise: A man from the 1980s is catapulted to the year 2095, where he’s confronted by the dichotomy between technological advancement and ages-old heartache. “Though you ride on the wheels of tomorrow,” Lynne sings poignantly on the Time song “21st Century Man”, “You still wander the fields of your sorrow.”
After 1984 came and passed, the future seemed not so terrifying. That milestone had passed without major incident; it was time to start looking fondly backward – or at least recalibrating our sensibilities so that we realized, once and for all, that we were now living in the world of tomorrow. Cue Back to the Future. The 1985 film not only gave the musty old time machine a spiffy chrome finish, it produced one of the most recognizable time-travel songs of all time: the equally shiny “Back in Time” by Huey Lewis and the News, who, oxymoronically, played an entirely retroactive kind of old-school, meat-and-potatoes pop rock.
Catchy, cozy, and utterly unchallenging on a musical level, “Back in Time” ushered in a decade of music – the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s – that was relatively quiet in regard to time travel. The exception was heavy metal. Unafraid to keep the dread of the future and the wonder of the past alive, metal masterpieces like Fates Warning’s 1985 song “Traveler in Time”, Iron Maiden’s 1986 album Somewhere in Time, and Blue Öyster Cult’s 1988 album Imaginos reimagined time travel in harder, darker ways. In particular, Somewhere in Time has stood the test of time. Lean, menacing, and yet subliminally progressive, the album’s loose concept covers everything from memory to history to destiny – all aspects of the mercurial commodity of time.
Perhaps because they were starting to feel the march of time themselves, many rock veterans worked time travel into their music from the late ’80s through the late ’90s. While alternative rockers like Nirvana to Beck became fixated on irony and emotional expressionism rather than high concept, prog legend Rick Wakeman and metal stalwarts Black Sabbath kept time travel on life support – the former with his 1988 album Time Machine, the latter with their 1992 song “Time Machine”. (That formula would repeat itself in 1999, when prog legend Alan Parsons released his album The Time Machine and metal stalwarts Saxon unleashed their song “Are We Travellers in Time.”) Still, it was clear by the mid-’90s that that time-travel music had hit a slump.
Then came Dr. Octagon. One of many alter egos assumed by the rapper Kool Keith, Dr. Octagon is both the creator and the main character of his 1996 album Dr. Octagonecologyst. Not only is it one of the most vital and enduring hip-hop albums of the ’90s, it almost singlehandedly revived the concept of time travel in popular music. In a scrambled conglomeration of genres and storylines, the album follows the twisted trajectory of its time-traveling, extraterrestrial doctor. Fans of Doctor Who might notice some basic similarities, but The Doctor is only one of many time-warping, science-fiction archetypes Dr. Octagon weaves into his dizzying mosaic of beats, rhymes, and spacetime.
Inspired by that madcap genius, hip-hop crew Arsonists weighed in with their clock-spinning 1999 song “Rhyme Time Travel.” As if to offset those teeming expressions of lyrical acumen, the long-standing experimental project Coil recorded their 1998 album Time Machines. According to Coil’s leader, the late John Balance, the vocal-free, minimalist, electronic tones that make up the album might sound hypnotic, but they’re actually intended to induce a mental state that would facilitate time travel. With the help of choice hallucinogens, of course.
As with 1984, the year 2000 defused much of the mystique surrounding a chronological milestone. If 1984 marked the end of yesterday, 2000 truly marked the start of tomorrow. Following the comical-in-hindsight panic that occurred during the buildup to Y2K, though, the twenty-first century wasn’t as terrifying as everyone thought it might be. (The fact that the year 2000 was technically part of the twentieth century didn’t seem to bother anyone.) Then the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, cast a new kind of shadow across the future. Music grew either grim or escapist – but few musicians were thinking of time travel as thematic vessel for those impulses.
Leave it to the cheerful, acid-damaged indie rockers The Flaming Lips to breathe new life into time-travel music. With the post-9/11 clouds beginning to part slightly, there was a sliver of sunlight for The Lips’ 2006 song “Time Travel … Yes!!” to flourish. Released in no less than three different versions that year, the song features guest singer Steve Burns, former host of the children’s show Blue’s Clues. Accordingly, the song is breezily innocent in its celebration of skipping through time.
The rise of geek rock in the new millennium was certainly inspired in part by the science-fiction whimsy of The Flaming Lips. But it was Barenaked Ladies that formed a cornerstone of that foundation. The Canadian pop band’s 1998 song “It’s All Been Done” is one of the more imaginative examples of time-travel music: the witty tale of two lovers who cross each other’s paths throughout time, only to wind up disenchanted. Geek rock’s rap-centric cousin, nerdcore, also came into prominence in the ’00s. And the subgenre’s prime mover, MC Lars, naturally dabbled in time travel; the title of his 2006 song “If I Had a Time Machine, That Would Be Fresh” pretty much says it all.
But the most unique, involved, and innovative of all twenty-first-century musical time travelers is the avant-R&B artist Janelle Monáe. The backstory of her 2007 album Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) is so elaborate, it might as well be the product of its own time-travel paradox. Actually, it sort of is: Like Dr. Octagon, Monáe obliterates the fourth wall in her interweaving of artist and character – to the point where she’s stated that the protagonist of her songs, the twenty-eighth-century android Cindi Mayweather, has traveled back in time to inspire Monae herself. She also draws sounds and/or inspiration from generations of Afrofuturists, from Sun Ra to Parliament Funkadelic to Grace Jones. To a far lesser degree, rapper T-Pain does the same with his 2007 song “Time Machine” – but what it lacks in complexity it makes up for in hooks, sweetness, and old-school nostalgia. And when rapper Dead Prez delivers Egyptological verses about hieroglyphics and the Eye of Horus in his 2012 song “Time Travel”, it completes the Afrofuturist circuit Sun Ra established over fifty years earlier.
And the circle keeps on spinning. Indie-pop collective The Apples in Stereo released its geeky, infectious concept album Travellers in Space and Time in 2010 – and it’s a direct descendent of ELO’s Time from thirty years prior. A profusion of pop artists of all levels of notoriety have kept the time-travel flame alive in the twenty-first century. Mega-successful pop singer Robyn released the single “Time Machine” in 2007, complete with frigid, futuristic beats. On a more modest scale, Never Shout Never and Blouse – both of whom released songs titled “Time Travel” in 2011 – have explored different sides of tomorrow-pop.
Metal bands are still in on the time-travel act as well, with brutal groups like Agoraphobic Nosebleed and High on Fire slicing through the time stream with 2009’s Agorapocalypse and 2012’s De Vermis Mysteriis, respectively. And then there’s Mastodon’s masterful, metallic epic Crack the Skye. The 2009 album posits the traversal of spacetime via astral projection, much as Sun Ra did; the result is a voyage through a wormhole, back to czarist Russia, and into the soul of Rasputin.
Like Sun Ra, Dzyan, and Coil before them, some current groups have found instrumental music to be the most efficient method of conveyance through time. The one-woman electronic project Motion Sickness of Time Travel – comprising Rachel Evans on tone generators, oscillators, and other supposedly archaic analog noisemakers – composes symphonic paeans to the temporal slipstream. Meanwhile the maestro known as Mickey Moonlight crafts uncategorizable albums such as 2011’s The Time Axis Manipulation Corporation, a kaleidoscopic blend of space-age kitsch lounge music and adrift-in-spacetime electronica. Even seasoned electronic artists like Thomas Dolby (of “She Blinded Me with Science” fame) have hitched their wagon to time travel – in Dolby’s case, literally. His 2012 Time Machine Tour was conducted in a chrome-plated trailer of his own design, a self-defined “time capsule” cobbled together from bits of technology from the past, the present, and presumably the future.
As the twenty-first century loses its new-car smell, musicians intrigued by time travel must find new ways to interpret the musty old notions of H.G. Wells – and the recording limitations of the past. Where the evolution of recording formats, from the seven-inch phonograph to the compact disc, once gave artists more conceptual spacetime to play with, the ascendancy of digital recording and streaming means the cloud is the limit. Neither music creators nor listeners are beholden to outmoded interpretations of the future.
The future, actually, doesn’t even have to be futuristic at all. The literary genre of steampunk has catalyzed a movement of music that acts as its unofficial soundtrack – a genre, not coincidentally, that counts Thomas Dolby as one of its godfathers. Thriving in the same anachronistic soup as the literature that spawned it, steampunk music draws from a variety of historical eras, past and future, both real and imaginary. Alternate history clashes with retro-futurism; Victorian and/or Edwardian values jostle with cybernetics and post-humanism. In most of twentieth-century time-travel lore, paradox is a thing to be avoided or explained away as logically as possible. With steampunk, chronological quirk is embraced, not buried. So when a prominent steampunk group like Abney Park constructs an overarching meta-narrative about the band’s tenure on a time-traveling dirigible, it all plays into the immersive listening experience of being both audience and scientific observer. And when steampunk troubadours Vernian Process fuse together a panoply of centuries-spanning styles – from rag-time to progressive rock to trip-hop – the polyglot sound represents the fractured linearity and immediate accessibility of music in the digital age. Vernian Process’ 2013 album is titled The Consequences of Time Travel – and for the first time in the history of recorded music, it feels as though the possibilities of time-travel music are finally, fully being embraced with a sense of adventure.
We are living, these old-fashioned, newfangled steampunks might say, in a post-chronological world. But this isn’t a new idea. As the brainy punk-pop band the Buzzcocks sang in their 1978 time-paradox anthem “Nostalgia,” “Sometimes there’s a song in my brain / And I feel that my heart knows the refrain / I guess it’s just the music that brings on nostalgia / For an age yet to come.”
Or, in other words: To travel through music is to listen to time.
A Time Travel Playlist
13th Floor Elevators, “She Lives (in a Time of Her Own)”
Abney Park, The End of Days
Agoraphobic Nosebleed, Agorapocalypse
The Apples in Stereo, Travellers in Space and Time
Arsonists, “Rhyme Time Travel”
Ayrean, Universal Migrator Parts 1 and 2
Barenaked Ladies, “It’s All Been Done”
Black Sabbath, “Time Machine”
Blouse, “Time Travel”
Blue Öyster Cult, Imaginos
Brian Eno, Before and After Science
Coil, Time Machines
Dead Prez, “Time Travel”
Dr. Octagon, Dr. Octagonecologyst
Dzyan, Time Machine
Electric Light Orchestra, Time
Fates Warning, “Traveler in Time”
The Flaming Lips, “Time Travel … Yes!!”
Grand Funk Railroad, “Time Machine”
Hawkwind, “Silver Machine”
High on Fire, De Vermis Mysteriis
Huey Lewis and the News, “Back in Time”
The Human League, “Almost Medieval”
Inner City Unit, “Watching the Grass Grow”
Iron Maiden, Somewhere in Time
Isis, “In Fiction”
Jonelle Monáe, Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase)
Klaxons, “Gravity’s Rainbow”
Kraftwerk, “Computer World”
Led Zeppelin “Kashmir”
Mastodon, Crack the Skye
MC Lars, “If I Had a Time Machine, That Would Be Fresh”
Mick Softley, “Time Machine”
Mickey Moonlight, The Time Axis Manipulation Corporation
Motion Sickness of Time Travel, Eclipse Studies
Muse, “Knights of Cydonia”
Nena, “Irgendwie, Irgendwo, Irgendwann”
Never Shout Never, “Time Travel”
Rick Wakeman, Time Machine
Robyn, “Time Machine”
The Rocky Horror Picture Show Cast, “Time Warp”
Rush, “Cygnus X-1 Book I: The Voyage” and
“Cygnus X-1 Book II:Hemispheres”
Steely Dan, “Pretzel Logic”
Sun Ra and His Myth Science Arkestra, “Music from the World Tomorrow”
T-Pain, “Time Machine”
Uriah Heep, “Traveller in Time”
Vernian Process, The Consequences of Time Travel
“Weird Al” Yankovic, “Everything You Know is Wrong”
Wings, “Backward Traveler”
Zager and Evans, “In the Year 2525”