Certain Songs #1091: Marshall Crenshaw – “What Time Is It?”

Album: Field Day
Year: 1983

If Marshall Crenshaw’s 1982 debut was a skosh too retro to fully connect to me, then 1983’s follow-up suffered no such issues. As produced by Steve Lillywhite, Field Day positioned Crenshaw as a contemporary artist simply by giving brother Robert Crenshaw the same big echoey boomy drums as he gave U2 or Big Country.

It probably shouldn’t have worked, and definitely sounds the most 80s of all of Crenshaw’s early records, but at the time, I loved the contrast between Crenshaw’s songs and Lillywhite’s production, especially on songs like “Whenever You’re On My Mind,” “For Her Love” and “Hold It.”

Which is why it’s ironic that my favorite song on the whole record was not just the most retro-sounding song, but a cover, as well. A doo-wop cover.

With Lillywhite adding Brian Wilson percussion — alternating finger snaps and woodblock — “What Time Is It” starts off with an exquisite call-and-response between the backing vocalists and Marshall, breaking their otherwise steadfast chant of “Tick-tock, listen to the clock” at the exact right moments.

(Tick-tock)
(Listen to the clock)
(Tick-tock)
(Listen to the clock)
(Tick-tock) What time is it?
(Listen to the clock)
I’ve just got to know (Tick-tock)
(Listen to the clock)
What time is it?
(It’s five o’clock)

“What Time Is It?” is basically the internal monolog of a guy waiting to see his baby, alternately daydreaming of of what is going to happen on the date, and watching the clock slowly slowly getting to that moment.

So every time the backing vocals move us forward an hour — 5:00, 6:00 — the entire song changes, soaring into backing-vocal drenched verses of exquisite anticipation, until we finally get to 8:00, and he arrives at her door for the date.


(Tick-tock) What time is it?
(It’s eight o’clock)
Now I’m at her door
(Tick-tock, tick-tock)
And my heart is beating fast
(ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh)
The moment’s here at last
(ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh)
What time is it?
Its time for love

Now this might all sound a bit cheesy on paper, but Crenshaw clearly loves this song and sings the hell out of it. So the gorgeous sincerity of the whole thing completely kills me every time, going back to when I was a cynical 20-year-old. My favorite bit is at the end, when the backing vocalists sing “Tick-tock, listen to the clock” over and over again while Crenshaw counters with some lowdown guitar.

“What Time Is It?”

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