“Time Has Come Today” was everywhere in the late 1960s. The song kicked serious ass as a jukebox number, sounded great blaring out of a VW van’s AM radio, and proved plenty mind-blowing for free-form FM radio.
The number was written by Joe and Willie Chambers (according to the disputed credits). The first-person tale of displacement was inspired by the waves of hippie transients headed for the coasts. (A simpler reading would be that of a man thrown onto the streets by love gone wrong.) The high-speed call-and-response format reminds the listener that time never lets up:
Now the time has come (time!)
There’s no place to run (time!)
I might get burned up by the sun (time!)
But I had my fun (time!)
I’ve been loved and put aside (time!)
I’ve been crushed by the tumbling tide (time!)
And my soul has been psychedelicized (time!)
Even as pop radio eased up on its song-length restrictions, the Chambers Brothers’ 1968 hit was far too long for prime time: more than 11 action-packed minutes. Columbia, which rejected an earlier version of the song, found success with two single versions: one at 3:05 and the other at 4:45.
Brian Keenan’s psychedelic percussion work dominates the song, but everyone remembers the cowbell that kicks things off (as a Brother cries “coo-coo”). It was played by Lester Chambers. Throughout, the bell is used to represent the ticking away or speeding up of time — or its Einsteinian distortion. At the end of the song, the cowbell winds down in dramatic fashion, making the ending as memorable as the beginning.
What makes “Time Has Come Today” a psychedelic rock classic — rather just a terrific rock song — is its thundering middle section, an in-studio jam.
Let’s have a listen:
It’s like an echo chamber in here. A heavily distorted guitar flirts with a phrase from “Little Drummer Boy.” An electrified sitar flies by. Screams, primal howling, maniacal laughter — the ingredients for a bad acid trip. All this swirling around The Cowbell.
The producer was David Rubinson, who’d just worked with one of the top San Francisco bands, Moby Grape. The song required one glorious take. Psychedelicized, indeed.
The song made the Chambers Brothers an immediate draw on the rock festival circuit, sometimes playing on the same bill as Pacific Gas & Electric, another California-based interracial act that brought blues/soul music into the almost exclusively white rock scene. (Sly and the Family Stone found fame in this period as well.) The Chambers Brothers were regulars at the Fillmore.
As a bow to “Time Has Come Today’s” iconic status, the PBS documentary series “American Experience” uses the song as its theme music. That’s just one of dozens of appearances “Time Has Come Today” has made in films and TV, often in connection with scenes of Vietnam War protests. “Coming Home,” with Jon Voight and Jane Fonda, used the song most effectively, for a drawn-out scene of violence.
Artists who covered “Time Has Come Today” include the Ramones (video below), Steve Earle & Sheryl Crow, Willy DeVille and Joan Jett.
A new generation knows the song via the video game “Homefront,” which uses “Time Has Come Today” in a key helicopter action sequence.