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The unseen performance of “Time Will Crawl” on Top of the Pops

I typically don’t like to simply post somebody else’s story in this blog, but I came across a reference to this video in Nicholas Pegg’s The Complete David Bowie that in terms of facts I have nothing more to add. The story is that this is a video of Bowie performing “Time Will Crawl” on the British show, Top of the Pops, that never aired. It seems that the show had a policy never to feature a song that was on its way down the charts. “Time Will Crawl” was released as a single and peaked at #33 (on the British charts), but by the time this segment would have been broadcast had dropped to #40. Pegg speculates that the dropped segment may have reinforced the single’s plummet.

I read Pegg’s story while I was preparing to write my Tuesday entry, which features the cover of the week, which this week was a cover of this song. As I mentioned then, I think it is one of Bowie’s most underrated songs, largely because it appeared on the unloved album, Never Let Me Down. Here you see Bowie performing it outside that context. Actually, he’s apparently lip-syncing to the pre-recorded version of the song from the record, but nonetheless you get to hear it on its own, not flanked by “Day in Day Out” and “Beat of Your Drum.”

I would say that in some respects Bowie looks good in the video but there are also hints as to why he might have already been slipping into his un-cool phase. He looks good in the sense that at 40, he looks young and vibrant. He moves like the rock star that he is. He and the band seem to have a lot of energy. But his hair and clothing seem far more of the time rather than ahead of the time, which is what he looked like for most of the previous 15 years. To be clear, from a point in the early 70s through the mid-80s, Bowie’s sense of style either anticipated nascent trends or set the trends. Here, he looks like he was taking a cue from the hottest high school fashions. He wasn’t confronting his audience in such a way that they have to rethink their assumptions— he’s making assumptions about what he thinks they wanted to see.

In the weeks and months that followed the taping of this segment, Bowie would abandon this persona only to reemerge as the lead singer of Tin Machine. That effort, which I’ve also discussed in recent posts, yielded some good stuff but didn’t do much to help his popularity either among fans or critics. By the time he secretly released the song, “Pallas Athena” six years later in 1993, he did so without his name on the records sent to dance club DJs. It became a minor hit in the clubs, in part because Bowie’s voice was distorted and apparently nobody knew they were listening to the by-then unfashionable former trendsetter.

Bowie’s reputation would slowly come back to life and now, in death, he’s probably appreciated more than ever. I don’t want to suggest that this video captures a turning point— it doesn’t. The turn had already happened. And like, “Pallas Athena,” this song might have been better appreciated had it not been packaged as pop-star Bowie’s latest. Its a good song.

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