The Infinite Jukebox: The Distractions’ ‘Time Goes By So Slow’


Despite the existence of Oasis’s extensive back catalogue, there are remarkably few specific references to Manchester scenes and places in pop music. One splendid exception is an obscure Graham Gouldman song, written for and recorded by Herman’s Hermits. “It’s nice to be out in the morning” namechecks places like Ardwick Green, Irlam o’th’Heights and Besses of the Barn before finishing up at Old Trafford with the Holy Trinity of Bobby Charlton, Best and Law.
Off the top of my head, the only other song to reference a Manchester landmark is The Distractions’ legendary “Time Goes By So Slow”, one of the best singles of 1979 but, of course, a flop.
The Distractions were a five-piece band and a much mixed bag. Singer Mike Finney looked like a schoolteacher and sang like a white soulboy, Steve Perrin and Adrian Wright played guitars, Pip Nicholls, a tiny wee lass who styled herself pipnicholls, played a solid and pounding bass, and veteran skinsman Alec Sidebottom pounded the hell out of the drums.
The Distractions were incredibly popular around Manchester when I was living in Nottingham, which didn’t believe in punk. They were inspired by the energy and rhythm of punk but also the melody of Sixties music and, with Finney’s voice ultimately too good for the purely raucous, their sound evolved as a fruitful mixture of the two roots. Their first release was a 12” four track EP on TJM Records (which I never heard of releasing anything else) that I had to buy when visiting home. It’s rough, it’s crude, the production is unpolished to say the least, but in “Doesn’t Bother Me” and “Maybe It’s Love” it contained two bloody good, energetic songs, full of urgency, melody and compelling choruses. For their second release, whilst already formulating a deal with Island Records, the band signed a one-off single deal with Factory Records, and came out with “Time Goes By So Slow”.
In a summer of great new music, The Distractions stood out for producing a perfect pop-punk single, with a glittering melody line, a surging beat, an air of undefinable melancholy in the heart of bright, joyous music that was the band’s trademark mood, and a killer chorus. They were acclaimed on all sides. Everyone loved it. Except Radio 1, of course, which didn’t play it, the splendidly essential John Peel aside.
Though the Finney/Perrin partnership was The Distractions’ main source of songs, it was Adrian Wright who wrote ‘Time Goes By So Slow’. It’s a typically Distractions mournful lost love song, conducted with great vigour, in a rush of bass and drums, guitar and organ. Never has misery sounded so much of a rush.
And at a time when I was conscious of living in another city, where I had no roots, Finney was singing about places with which I was wonderfully familiar. They put your statue up in Albert Square, he sings to the girl who has blown him out and about whom he still dreams. And all the people standing by just stare. But Albert just won’t do, Finney sings, I don’t need him but you. When Nick Lowe had gone to the Heart of the City that was it, just a generic place, every city’s got one, but Mike Finney singing Adrian Wright’s words was in the heart of a real city and I could picture its streets and, when I came home, I could drive those pre-pedestrianised streets and pass by and not care.
But it was more than the call to home that led me to take this song to heart. I was in love, and had been for a long time, with a woman from whom I was forced to conceal my feelings, and melancholy was my place, my Albert Square. I loved the brashness, the simplicity, the energy of punk whilst never foregoing my love for the stunning chorus, the line that pulls you in to lend your inadequate voice, to find a space inside the song that makes you a part of it.
If I’ve a criticism of the record at all, it’s that it’s ending is a little weak. In the first use of a trick the band would later make a regular part of their repertoire, after the second chorus the music drops out, leaving only the bass and drums, lowering the tension. Well I wonder why you had to go, Finney croons, repeating himself, and again, as the music crashes back with the timeline, but only so that it can lead the record to a definitive end instead of one more valedictory rush.
Interestingly enough, “Time Goes By So Slow” was originally meant for the b-side. It and the song “Pillow Fight” had been recorded after the You’re Not Going Out Dressed Like That EP and were the only other recordings in existence when Factory offered the deal. “Pillow Flight” was offered as the a-side but the single was flipped at Tony Wilson’s suggestion. But “Time Goes By So Slow” had been treated as a b-side in the studio, recorded almost live, with minimal overdubs added and harmonies that simply consisted of following Steve Perrin’s lead. Apparently, the whole thing took about three hours total, and that just adds to the purity of the song. Maybe a more polished version might have been better, but I doubt it, because this song has no sag, no weariness, no over familiarity. It’s pure, it’s complete, and it’s raw edges complement the rawness of the feelings.
Nearly forty years later, the song is still as fresh as ever, the loss is undiminished, and when she has to go, time still and always will go by so slow.