Time's Arrow

T h e   C o l o u r   O f   Y o u r   D r e a m s

I can't remember the first time I heard backwards music. It may have been in November 1963 when Doctor Who first appeared on British TV - Delia Derbyshire's amazing theme has all sorts of reverse tape effects hissing and bubbling beneath the iconic melody line, but my 12-year-old self and the rest of the Stewart family would have been too stunned by the on-screen black and white psychedelic graphics to notice. A few years later my ears had become attuned to such nuances, and when The Beatles started messing about with backwards tapes on 'Rain', my music-loving schoolmates and I sat up and took notice. Then came 'Tomorrow Never Knows', and after that nothing was ever the same. To us countercultural '60s teenagers that song represented a changing of the guard, a kind of creative green light telling us it was OK to use our imaginations and express ourselves however we liked.

The great thing about this era was that weird stuff was actually popular. Nothing was off limits, so as soon as we were let loose in the studio, my bandmates and I began experimenting with tape effects. Though older than us, the studio engineers joined in the fun and on occasions even contributed mad noises of their own - I guess it was a welcome break from their normal routine, and they entered into the revolutionary spirit in the same way that George Martin had done with his Liverpudlian protégés. Consequently, you'll hear backwards tape noises on most of my early bands' albums. The habit persists to this day: barely 20 seconds into Star Clocks there's a reverse echo 'swoosh' into the opening verse of 'Wings On Our Shoes', after which the backwards music reaches a climax in the closing track 'Time's Arrow', which we'll examine in this article.

S a t u r n ' s   M e a s u r e d   T r e a d

Like the aforementioned 'Wings On Our Shoes', 'Time's Arrow' derives inspiration from a MIDI programming technique called 'step time recording', first heard in our song 'Henry & James'. It's good fun: you play a series of chords or single notes one step at at time in no particular rhythm, pausing for inspiration between events; you can insert rests and ties as you go along, but you don't get to hear what you've programmed till you play it back. With 'Henry & James' this musical roll of the dice yielded a useable chorus and middle eight at the first attempt, after which I spent years trying to repeat the trick. By the time Star Clocks came around I'd amassed hundreds of these improvised step-time sequences, and back in summer 2018 I decided it was high time I started making sense of them.

I found the following step-time passage buried in the MIDI data of a demo I'd made a few years ago. It originally sounded at double the notated speed - unplayable at that tempo, but as I've mentioned before, I never intended such parts to be played live - they perform a fast rhythmic function, with slower keyboard and vocal parts superimposed.

'Time's Arrow' Intro Keys 2

Just for a laugh, I reversed the MIDI note order. Though that's a simple enough procedure in Logic Pro's sequencer (just open the MIDI editor and click on 'reverse'!), you then have to edit the note durations to get rid of unwanted overlaps and gaps (a brain-twister I'm sure some of you will enjoy working out - are you listening, Mr. Hayton?). The reversed sequence sounds like this:

'Time's Arrow' Intro Keys 1

This sequence also sounds nice at a slower tempo - I've included the chord names so you can play them slowly and maybe figure out the voicings. In order to make the passage sound more mysterious, I made a recording of the original MIDI sequence and played the audio backwards:

You can see where this is going! I added these keyboard parts to the sequence:

'Time's Arrow' Intro Keys 3

Played together, these parts gave me the inspiration to write 'Time's Arrow', for which they serve as the song's intro and playout.

A   S t e p   I n   T i m e

The next step-time sequence to find its way into the song sounds like this:

'Time's Arrow' Verse Keys 1

I added this chordal part and a 4ths synth strings drone of C and F:

'Time's Arrow' Verse Keys 2

Played together:

This became the song's verse music.

C h o r u s   O f   V o i c e s

When we reach the chorus, the atmosphere changes - Barbara double-tracks her voice (not alway obvious with her vocals, as she sings so precisely) and the rhythmic parts give way to a sustained keyboard pad:

'Time's Arrow' Chorus 1 Keys 1

The pad part is supplemented by the quiet, high string-like line shown below. In an orchestral arrangement, it would be played by first and second violins.

'Time's Arrow' Chorus 1 Keys 2

Here are the chords our guitarist Beren Matthews plays on the first chorus. Each chord is played for one bar, with the 'Db add 2' shape in bar four sustained for two bars; the last two chords are two beats each, with a single-note movement of G to Ab (one beat each) played over the last shape.

'Time's Arrow' Chorus 1 Gtr

Following immediately on from the keyboard and guitar's last pair of notes is this vintage slice of '60s psychedelia. As you've all guessed, it's the verse music played backwards!

In a classic juxtaposition, the backwards music meets its forwards counterpart at the top of the second verse, after which the chorus repeats. To take us into the ensuing instrumental section I created the following mini-extravaganza, whch contains combined forwards and backwards step-time sequences. Due to the need to 'think backwards' it took days to get it right, and was the hardest piece of music to write on the whole album!

'Time's Arrow' Link Keys

I n s t r u m e n t a l   B r e a k

The song's 16-bar instrumental section changes key to Bb major. It's a simple movement from the F minor tonality of the verse and chorus, and at first I felt it was too obvious - thankfully, the dreamy backwards passage that precedes it blurs the harmony and makes the incoming Bb music sound more unexpected.

The instrumental features this step-time sequence, based on another as yet unused fragment. The audio clip demonstrates the last eight bars.

'Time's Arrow' Mid Keys 2

Underpinning the step-time sequence is this simpler pad part:

'Time's Arrow' Mid Keys 1

Beren plays it as follows - the initial sequence of six chords is played three times before moving on to the final Eb-Bb-Db-Ab four-bar turnaround. As you'll hear in the audio clip, brackets denote a single one-beat note movement.

'Time's Arrow' Mid Gtr

Here's a mix of the instrumental section. Have fun playing your own solos!

V e r s e   G r o o v e

There's some quiet funky stuff going on in the third's verse backing - check out Beren's single-note picking that comes in halfway through! The bass part I improvised reminds me of the late lamented Mick Karn, a highly original and inventive bassist who was a member of the band Japan and a friend of our colleague Gavin Harrison.

F i n a l   C h o r u s

The final chorus extends the chord sequence played earlier - I overdubbed the notes marked in blue (too few fingers to nail the whole chord in one go).

'Time's Arrow' Chorus 3 Keys

Beren plays these voicings, some of which bring out the upper notes of the keyboard chord:

'Time's Arrow' Chorus 3 Gtr

O v e r   A n d   O u t

At the end of the song we return to the beginning and repeat the intro music, with Beren adding this simple but effective part:

'Time's Arrow Playout Gtr'

'Time's Arrow' then fades and flies off into the cosmos, a quiet ballad built on shifting patterns of forward-travelling and reversed note patterns. Who knows where the time goes?

N o   M a t t e r   H o w   T h e   T i m e   F l i e s

As someone once said, the Sixties never die. The revolution continues, and it's now in colour - somewhere near you, there'll be a young band trying to make their voices heard, flying the creative flag and pushing the envelope with experimental musical structures and sounds. Now more than ever, those musicians need your support, so while you're dusting down your treasured vinyl and CD releases of the last century, don't forget to check out the experimental stuff taking place today. Though it's sometimes hard to spot amidst the blizzard of marketing hype, there's some great new music out there which deserves an audience. The spell is over, but the magic remains.

Here's an extract from 'Time's Arrow':

Watch Beren play his 'Time's Arrow' parts

More guitar videos here


Time's Arrow (D. Stewart)

It's like a wave breaking inside you
It's like the wind sent to surprise you
As the future recedes and the past flows by
Out of a darkened sky, time's arrow flies

On a special day, in a silent way
Deep inside of you
Just out of view, time's arrow flies
Straight and true

Through empty halls in the palace of memory
We're doing time, chasing the deadline
Star clocks inside our heads
Track Saturn's measured tread
And when it's over, let there be rainbows

On a special day, in a silent way
Deep inside of you
Just out of view, time's arrow flies
Straight and true

Forgotten dreams, yesterday's cameras
Faces and places, pixels and chimeras
Nothing is lost and nothing gained
The spell is over, but the magic remains

On a shining day, in a silent way
It will come to you
Just out of view, time's arrow flies
Time's arrow flies, time's arrow flies
Straight and true


Thanks for reading!

Dave Stewart, UK

'Time's Arrow' by Dave Stewart, © Barbara Gaskin Music 2018.
From the album Star Clocks by Dave Stewart & Barbara Gaskin, ℗ Broken Records BRCDLP-07.
See Inside The Music Vols. 1 & 2 for more Stewart / Gaskin song deconstructions.

Stewart / Gaskin home page

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