The 10 best songs about time travel

Today has been named Back to the Future Day, as nerds celebrate the date Marty McFly and Doc Brown visit in the 1989 sequel.

While Back To The Future Part II suggested we’d all be traveling around in flying cars, cooking tiny pizzas and wearing self-lacing Nike boots, it all turned out to be the stuff of fevered Hollywood dreams. They haven’t even made Jaws 18 yet, so who looks foolish now?

But it got us thinking – what are the best songs about time travel? And yes, we’ve included Huey Lewis’s Back In Time, because it’d be foolish not to, today of all days.

BLACK SABBATH – Iron Man (Paranoid 1970)
The song featuring one of metal’s most satisfyingly basic riffs also boasts some of Geezer Butler’s most sensitive and imaginative lyrics. The titular man has travelled to the future and witnessed the apocalypse; on his return he was turned to steel, and cannot communicate his warning. However, when mankind is hostile towards him, his vengeance becomes the destructive force that causes armageddon. Our lesson, people: never laugh at an iron man.

QUEEN – ‘39 (A Night At The Opera 1975)
A dreamlike acoustic stomp with opaque, otherworldly lyrics and a hauntingly melancholic conclusion, ‘39 is arguably Queen’s finest Brian May-fronted song. It concerns an astronaut who travels the Milky Way throughout the year of ‘39, but on return finds “The earth is old and grey” and “So many years have gone though I’m older but a year.” Primarily concerning Einstein’s theory of special relativity, Brian later admitted there was an allegory for life on the road.

IRON MAIDEN – Caught Somewhere In Time (Somewhere In Time 1986)
Launching with the quintessentially 1986 sound of a guitar synth – a controversial experiment at the time for the no-frills British metallers – this crypto-title track is an under-appreciated gem from the band’s bulging ‘80s catalogue. With the transition from bouncy tempo to resolute gallop, and the epic, mystical terrace-chant chorus, this is a classic Maiden opener, and the time travel theme is subtle, tempting the listener into the experience of a lifetime.

LED ZEPPELIN – Kashmir (Physical Graffiti, 1975)
“I am a traveller of both time and space,” sings Robert Plant in this iconic orchestral epic, although that may just be a reflection of the allegorical spiritual enormity radiating from this mesmerising song. However, there’s an online lyrical analysis from a Doctor Who fan suggesting that “Talk and song from tongues of lilting grace whose sounds caress my ear” might have something to do with the Ood, a species that didn’t appear in the show until 40 years later, making Robert Plant a literal time traveller, albeit one with nothing better to do than watch telly.

INTERNATIONAL SUPERHEROES OF HARDCORE – Back To The Future (Tip Of The Iceberg, 2008)
New Found Glory’s tongue-in-cheek side-project, knocked out in their pants for a laugh with a focus on silly pop-cultural themes, got round to their unambiguous homage to the classic movie on this 2008 EP, alongside songs like Screamo Gotta Go and Hardcore Hokey Pokey. However, in these lyrics the band yearn for Doc Brown to take them back to the early days of the hardcore scene, to see “Youth Of Today at the Anthrax” and “Cro-Mags at the Ritz”.

ORANGE GOBLIN – Time Travelling Blues (Time Travelling Blues, 1998)
Although primarily a positive song, with ten separate uses of the word ‘baby’ and promises of seeing the sunshine (baby), the ‘blues’ of the title derives from the line: “Time travel, it’s been getting me down, been gone so long I don’t think I’m ever coming down.” It’s hard not to imagine this is another metaphor for life on the road, where Orange Goblin largely remain, 18 years later…

HUEY LEWIS AND THE NEWS – Back In Time (Back To The Future: Music From The Motion Picture Soundtrack, 1985)
“I didn’t fancy writing a song called Back To The Future,” says Huey Lewis in USA Today this week, coolly explaining his initial instinct to turn down the chance to write a song for the movie. However, after penning the smash hit theme song The Power Of Love, Huey made Back In Time refer more specifically to the content of the film: “Tell me Doctor, where are we going this time? Is this the 50s? Or 1999?“

URIAH HEEP – Traveller In Time (Demons And Wizards, 1972)
Bursting open with a massive swaggering riff, the Heep’s 1972 ditty reads like it’s written from the perspective of the then-incumbent Doctor Who, Jon Pertwee’s third incarnation, who had been put on trial by the Time Lords for meddling and exiled to 1970s England (result!). Who else could have inspired lines like “I have a feeling that there must be a time when I’ll get a chance to go home, ‘cause I’m just a traveller in time, trying so hard to pay for my crime.”

HAWKWIND – Silver Machine (In Search Of Space, 1972)
After the song’s original vocalist, Bob Calvert, was sectioned under the Mental Health Act, Lemmy took the Hawkwind mic for the first time and secured the acid-fried space rockers their first and only major hit single, an iconic and parodic love letter to the titular sci-fi device. “It flies sideways through time,” explains Mr Kilmister, adding “It’s an electric line to your Zodiac sign,” which is a neat trick.

THE GATHERING – Strange Machines (Mandylion, 1995)
The curtain-raiser on the most pivotal, game-changing album from this dreamy Dutch sextet, *Strange Machines *was our first glimpse of new frontwoman Anneke van Giersbergen, whose ethereal, impassioned ululations enlivened this song of yearning for the gift of time travel, even in lines like “Russian Revolution, let’s do it in one day, Beethoven and Gershwin, I think that would be OK.”

Back To The Future gets the metal treatment

Chris Chantler

Chris has been writing about heavy metal since 2000, specialising in true/cult/epic/power/trad/NWOBHM and doom metal at now-defunct extreme music magazine Terrorizer. Since joining the Metal Hammer famileh in 2010 he developed a parallel career in kids' TV, winning a Writer's Guild of Great Britain Award for BBC1 series Little Howard's Big Question as well as writing episodes of Danger Mouse, Horrible Histories, Dennis & Gnasher Unleashed and The Furchester Hotel. His hobbies include drumming (slowly), exploring ancient woodland and watching ancient sitcoms.