Classic Track: The Chambers Brothers, “Time Has Come Today”

Mar 1, 2013 9:00 AM, Mix, By Blair Jackson


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In those days, it was Clive Davis and Columbia’s policy to introduce a new artist through singles, and then if one clicked, the act was allowed to cut a full album. Unfortunately this first version of “Time Has Come Today” was not a commercial success. “We recorded three or four other songs as singles,” Rubinson says, “and a couple of them made a small dent on radio—‘I Can’t Stand It,’ ‘All Strung Out Over You.’ We were chasing singles, which was really a mistake, but we did it. I begged and begged for Columbia to put out an album, and the main reason was that radio was changing. That meant we weren’t stuck with Top 40 radio, and as a result we had a place to put an album that wasn’t aimed at that.”

Through the first half of 1967, the Chambers Brothers toured relentlessly “and built up a big following around the country,” Rubinson says. “They would pack into a station wagon and drive from city to city and play these gigs. They’d play ‘Time Has Come Today’ live, and they developed this whole thing where it would slow down with the cowbell, and they’d have this incredible electric jam in the middle, and it would go way out there and craziness would ensue, and then they’d bring it back to the song and be done 20 minutes later. When I saw them at the Electric Circus [a hip club in NYC], it was mind-blowing; everyone went nuts over it.”

Shortly after that appearance, in early August 1967, the band went into Columbia New York’s Studio E with Rubinson and engineer Fred Catero and cut the epic psychedelic version of “Time Has Come Today” that would appear on The Time Has Come, completely live—trippy sound effects included—in just one take.

Studio E was “smallish, probably 20-by-30, but it sounded great,” Rubinson says. “I worked there a lot in those days. At the heart of control room was what Catero calls “a wonderful-sounding” custom Columbia 12-input console “with rotary knobs, instead of faders, and fantastic pre’s and EQs—all tube—that were in a rack behind; there were no electronics in the board itself; it was more like a control surface.” Catero doesn’t recall specific mic choices he might have made, but believes “it was probably a lot of Neumanns; they had a great collection.” The session was recorded to 8-track one-inch Ampex, with three mics on Brian Keenan’s drums mixed down to mono and placed on the left side of stereo spread, one channel each for guitars and bass, and four for the vocals (one of them also handling the famous cowbell).

Rubinson and Catero did some pre-production before tape started rolling, knowing that the middle part of the song could become a sonic playground for them, but there was no rehearsal per se, and when they launched into the song, all the band members wearing headphones, they had no idea what was about to happen. As the song unfolded, Rubinson and Catero started messing with reverb and echo, creating hallucinatory effects.

“You’d take the signal from the microphone,” he explains, “and as you were feeding it to the 8-track, you were also feeding it to another tape machine, which had a slight delay, called tape reverb, then you would send that signal off the playback head to an echo chamber. The speed at which you ran the tape machine determined how long it was between the original and the delay. Then, if you take that signal and you feed it back to the tape machine again, it starts a loop, so you’re going: input, record head, playback head, echo chamber, output from the echo chamber, back to the record head, back to the playback head, back to the echo chamber and so on. And instead of getting one repeat you start getting multiple repeats. So the cowbell would go ‘tick-ck-ck-ck, tock-ck-ck-ck,’ and you could regulate how much and how fast the reinsertion of the original signal was. Eventually you have this sound refolding on itself over and over, and ultimately it turns into white noise.”

As the effects started coming the through the band’s headphones, they reacted spontaneously with their own screams, shouts and laughs “and I reacted to what they did with the speed of the tape machine. Also, if I flicked the tape, it would go in and out of phase and make these weird sounds, and it just got crazier and crazier. But from having seen them live so much, I knew exactly when the crazy part was going to end—Brian was going to play this big drum fill and it was going to come back to ‘Now the time has come…’ so I was able to shut everything off exactly on cue. We grabbed lightning in the bottle—boom! When they finished, they were screaming and yelling and came running into the booth and we played it back and it felt so good.”

Rubinson was so excited he had Clive Davis come down to the studio at midnight to hear the track, and that is what finally convinced Davis to commit to putting out a whole Chambers Brothers album. Rubinson made an edited single version of the song, eliminating the long psychedelic section, “but an engineer at KFRC in San Francisco made his own edit, which was frankly better than mine, and [Columbia released] a second single based on the KFRC edit and it swept the country, beginning in San Francisco, where it was a Number One record.” Between the single and the album version, “Time Has Come Today” was inescapable in the summer and fall of 1968.

Rubinson and Catero would later make other Chambers Brothers albums, including Love, Peace and Happiness (which was ubiquitous in 1970), and the original group continued touring successfully through the early ’70s. “Time Has Come Today” has been used in many films and TV shows through the years—few songs conjure the psychedelic ’60s more. And no rock song ever used a cowbell more effectively.

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