Radio smow: A Clocks Playlist…….

The sense, logic or otherwise of the biannual changing of the clocks is a subject that can keep any conversation animated until the next change occurs……When it can start all over again.

The biannual repositioning of the hands of time is however also an opportune moments to consider our relationship to time, for all our measurement of time, our harnessing of time, our charting of time, and of time metaphoric and time symbolic as represented by that embodiment of time tangible … the clock.

Radio smow A Clocks Playlist

As we noted in context of the exhibition Time, Freedom and Control – The Legacy of Johannes Bürk at the Uhrenindustriemuseum Villingen-Schwenningen, “back in the day time had little popular relevance. The sun rose. The sun set. Between the two one did what needed doing. Time as such didn’t exist.”

Or at least not to the extent it does today. While previous civilisations knew regular, recurring events, festivals and seasons, and the Romans developed a calendar based on definable months, albeit initially with only 10 months, winter, not unlogically, being considered one dark, cold, undefinable void; the day was an entity determined alone by the movement of the sun. Which rose. Then set. And although since the Babylonians sundials have been used to chart and measure that movement, for centuries sundials were largely centralised structures whose function is today unknown, and whose presence or absence, in all probability, had no great relevance for the vast majority. For the vast majority the sun rose. The sun set.

First with the development of mass religion, and the need to ensure the faithful assembled orderly for prayer and communion, arose a dependence on accurate timekeeping and presentation, before the development of the new religions of industry and commerce in the course of the second half of the 19th century firmly established the clock at the centre of society: not only did workers, be they manual, commercial or clerical, have to be at their posts simultaneously, and stay there for the same duration, but the regulation of the transport of raw materials and finished goods via the new railways required unified timetables. And unified timetables required unified, standardised, time. And clocks to depict it.

And since when the clock has increasingly become a, the, defining factor in industrial societies; the seconds, minutes and hours have become as important to our civilisation, as the months and years of previous civilisations.

A situation we all know is based on artificial subdivisions, is based on a scientific rationalisation of something intangible, and we all understand that measuring and visualising time isn’t actually necessary for the functioning of a society; however, we all, or at least a significant majority us, like, want, need, the security and baubles participation in an economic society can bring, when luck is on one’s side; we all kind of like the houses, holidays, cars, coffee machines, et al, certainly the dream of the promise of the possibility of the houses, holidays, cars, coffee machines, et al, that successful, fortuitous, participation in an economic system can bring us. And accept that such is only possible if we subjugate ourselves to time, and thus acquiesce to the limitations and controls of a society ordered and defined by time, and dutifully keep setting our alarms, checking our watches, and counting down the hours.

And all the while questioning why we’re doing what we’re doing, and watching the sun rise, and the sun set……

To accompany that questioning, and to fill the extra hour many of us will enjoy at some point this autumn, a Radio smow playlist devoted to the cultural, social, symbolic, and for all central, role of our clocks, watches, sundials, et al…………..

In the end – Linkin Park

Does time exist?

On our clocks and watches sure. But otherwise, naturally, as it were, if one doesn’t measure time, doesn’t artificially divide time into portions, does time exist? Does a sound exist if no one hears it? Does time exist if no one measures it? Seasons change, organisms grow, minerals form, mountains rise, but does time exist, does time progress………?

Possibly. Possibly not.

“But in the end it doesn’t even matter”

Because we have harnessed time, have artificially divided it into portions, and in doing so have made time a commodity, and a not irrelevant commodity; rather, “Time is a valuable thing”, as Linkin Park’s narrator reminds us.

And thus not something to be wasted.

And something to hold on to.

Even if the latter is impossible, no “matter how hard you try”, and a fact we can’t ignore in that we,

“Watch it fly by as the pendulum swings
Watch it count down to the end of the day
The clock ticks life away”

And as it does our obsession with not wasting that time, our limited time, becomes ever greater, with every swing of the pendulum we understand a little more time has gone “right out the window”.

But in that moment, in that period, have we been wasting time? Or has our fixation on the measuring of time and our commodification of time twisted our perspective? Our ticking clock measures time passing, but provides no information on the value of that time beyond that measured and weighed in our seconds, minutes and hours. And it invariably has a value beyond such an abstract assessment.

However, as Linkin Park’s narrator implies, and Søren Kierkegaard teaches us, one can only understands in retrospect the true value of one’s time, can only understand, if one so will, in retrospect if one has wasted one’s time. Or not. And so we should probably all concentrate less on the ticking clock, which, when all is said and done is “so unreal” and “in the end it doesn’t even matter”.

Turn back the clock – Johnny Hates Jazz

“I wish that I could turn back the clock” laments Johnny Hates Jazz’s narrator.

And of course you can. Around the globe millions do every autumn. You can turn clocks back, turn them forward or if you take out the battery they stop. Clocks are utterly at our mercy.

However, turning back a clock, can’t, won’t, “Bring the wheels of time to a stop”.

You can turn a clock as far back as you want, your mortal being will remain in the now, and continue moving towards its end. And ever further away from those “days when life was so much better” which the narrator seeks to revisit.

But were they? Or just so much different?

Is it the case, as the narrator implies, that turning back the clock would allow a return to “when life was so good”?

Or is it more a case that the memories of those days have become simplified and apotheosized as the complexities and compromises of life assail the innocence and idealism of youth?

Our narrator believes firmly in the former, and for all understands that in order to cope with the present it is essential to not “let the memories slip away”.

Yet as Meat Loaf sagely cautions, “objects in the rear view mirror may appear closer than they are.” Is our narrator, are we all, guilty of amplifying our memories and creating out of them a metaphysical safety blanket against the reality of the world, rather than looking the contemporary in the eye and considering if we aren’t in actual fact all now living “the best years of my life”, a life lived in context of the experiences and lessons of the path hereto.

Or put another way, if you “wouldn’t change a single day” from then, why from now? Is now not a future then?

Workers Song – Dropkick Murphys

Whereas measuring and charting time as embodied by clocks allowed and allows for a degree of structuring and ordering in society, it’s essentially a passive harnessing of time: one looks at it.

That, somewhat inevitably, wasn’t going to be enough for the unending curiosity of the human species and so an active harnessing of time was developed: the stopwatch. A device that allowed us to quantify actions in context of time. And then compare them and try to do them quicker, more efficiently. And, as we all know, greater efficiency ≡ improvement.

An ability to quantify actions in context of time that increasingly became a mania with the Taylorist Scientific Management of the early 20th century and the compulsive, near pathological, measuring, quantifying of work, work processes, work systems and the allied considerations as to how they could be optimised, made more efficient, improved; time and motion studies becoming a ubiquitous tool in organising and managing labour of all genres, and remaining so well into the 1980s.

Yet, and with so much that arises from the unreflected application of the unending curiosity of the human species, the effects weren’t all positive, or better put, weren’t positive for all; the control of the individual through the active harnessing of time being a manifold of that known from the passive harnessing, and many a worker discovered that in the interests of efficiency, improvement, their job became “streamlined”, and that “with sliderule and stopwatch our pride they have robbed”.

And while the Dropkick Murphys are clearly referring to the global working class and their reduction to a component of the capitalist machinery, it is a very simple extrapolation from the mania of Taylorist Scientific Management to the mania of contemporary “self optimisation” apps via which millions try to streamline their lives, and that largely, though not exclusively, on the basis of an active measurement, quantifying, of time. And striving as they do for greater efficiency and the thus promised improvement…..What could possibly go wrong……

Alarm Clock – The Rumble Strips

Few items so perfectly illustrate how the industrialisation of the late 19th century irreversibly changed society, or at least society in those lands where industrialisation established its primacy, as the alarm clock.

Whereas in centuries past clocks on religious institutions would chime out the time for prayer and communion, the private individual was, largely, awoken by the sun, the family, on Wednesdays, rudely, by the dustmen, or on important occasions by people beating drums.

But then in the course of the 19th century all had to be at the factory, the mine, the shop, the office, and for all, be at the factory, the mine, the shop, the office on time. The age of the alarm clock had arrived. A typology of clock we’ve still not fully accepted, a clock of which we can all sing in chorus “ain’t no friend of mine”; and who could or would form a friendship with anything prone to breaking the early morning peace with a shrill,

Get on your feet!”


But, what’s the alternative……..?

Yes, one can, as the The Rumble Strips protagonist, “hit him with a hammer”, and yes, that will leave your alarm clock “quite subdued”, but will also place you outwith our contemporary economic society. And given that before resorting to the hammer the narrator was in need of gainful employment, was “in too deep” to continue, we find it hard to swallow his claim that “I ain’t ever been so happy As what I am right now”. We believe his hammer attack has had a negative impact on not just his alarm clock, but his situation. And that regardless of the sense of freedom it may have (temporarily) brought him.

And so, on reflection, it might be a good idea for him, and indeed us all, the majority of whom would similarly find themselves “in too deep” without gainful employment, to reach a compromise with his/our alarm clock, we don’t have become friends, that would be going too far, but some form of tolerated coexistence appears, regrettably, still to be, necessary……

Cuckoo Clock – The Beach Boys

Essentially The Beach Boys’ canon can be divide into three categories: songs about surfing, songs about cars, and songs about teenage boys and teenage girls being teenage boys and teenage girls.

Cuckoo Clock is an example of the latter. Or would be. If it wasn’t for “that doggone cuckoo”, which like some eternally vigilant guardian ensures the boy and girl don’t, can’t, get too cosy in front of the fire.

And as work is not only one of the more inventive and satisfying uses of the Beach Boys vocal harmonies; nor only one of the best examples of the Beach Boys at play, having fun with their art; nor nor only only includes the ever epic line “I put that birdie away”, which sounds like a euphemism. But isn’t. Is about the narrator literally putting the bird into the clock … oh stop it, you lot are awful….

But for all in its lightness and formal reduction Cuckoo Clock allows for reflections on the anything but light and reduced aesthetics of the cuckoo clock.

There is absolutely no reason why cuckoo clocks should still wear their cloak of mid-19th century romanticism. No reason. Zilch. Nada.

But if they didn’t, who would buy them?

Who actually needs a cuckoo clock?

Who actually needs a clock where once an hour a cuckoo appears. And cuckoos?

Certainly not the Beach Boys’ teenage boy and teenage girl, and beyond them?


Yet cuckoo clocks are purchased. The cuckoo clock market is, like the cuckoos they employ, buoyant.


Reflections which can only lead one to the inescapable conclusion that that which those individuals who purchase cuckoo clocks need is not the cuckoo, nor the clock, but the cloak of mid-19th century romanticism. That for all the discussions and discourses on beauty, form-function relationships, semantics, integrity, et al that have taken place in context of object design over the last 150 years, there remains a popular demand for idealised romanticism. For the picturesque. That despite the arguments and considered reasoning of Art Nouveau, Art Déco, Jazz, Functionalism, Rock n Roll, gute Form, Radicalism, Pop Art, Punk, Postmodernism, Hip Hop, Rave, Drum n Bass, et al, there remains a popular demand for a clock in the form of an idealised, romanticised Schwarzwald train station, farmhouse and/or hunting lodge.

And, yes, you could consider that to be purist cuckoo.

But it does also allow us all to approach an understanding that in terms of aesthetics the clock doesn’t tick, there is no progression, no passing, no swinging pendulums, everything exists in the now, and that as with simultaneity aesthetics is not absolute but dependent on the individual’s frame of reference. There is no collective aesthetic. Just a commonwealth of varying perspectives. And which, yes, does sound like the development of a parable, so we’ll stop……

The Radio smow Clocks Playlist, and all Radio smow playlists can be found on the smowonline Spotify page.

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