The creation of a haunting alternative classic…
Long afloat on shipless oceans
I did all my best to smile
‘Til your singing eyes and fingers
Drew me loving to your isle
Although now an established part of the UK’s rich musical legacy, there was a point where 4AD were still in the process of acquiring the sound and style that would later form the foundations of the iconic record label. Certainly the signing of ethereal outfit Cocteau Twins was a step towards what would later be regarded as 4AD’s classic period.
Hailing from Grangemouth in Scotland, Cocteau Twins consisted of guitarist Robin Guthrie, bassist Will Heggie and Elizabeth Fraser on vocals. Even in their fledgling days, there was something compelling about the band’s sound, particularly Fraser’s distinctive vocal style and Guthrie’s shimmering layered guitar sound.
It was this unique style that won the favour of 4AD’s Ivo Watts-Russell who subsequently invited the band to record for the label. The initial results of this new partnership saw the release in 1982 of Cocteau Twins debut album Garlands – an album that swiftly won high praise and set the stage for a flourishing period of intelligent alternative music that became synonymous with the 4AD label.
In 1983, Cocteau Twins had the opportunity to play support to Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark (as part of the synthpop pioneer’s Dazzle Ships tour). The opportunity to reach out to a wider audience was an idea that the band readily snapped at, although it wasn’t without challenges.
Heggie had already decided that he’d had enough and the band were reduced to the duo of Guthrie and Fraser. The pair were reserved individuals at the best of times and now had the added ordeal of having to perform before an audience that were there strictly to see the main act. The tour schedule also proved to be a grueling experience and, not surprisingly, the pair pulled out of completing the tour.
Meanwhile, Ivo was engaged with another 4AD signing, Modern English – one of the label’s earliest signings who had achieved some success on the back of their percussive 1982 release ‘I Melt With You’. Ivo had suggested that the band record a combined version of two of their songs, ‘Sixteen Days’ and ‘Gathering Dust’. Modern English had utilised this idea for encores during live shows and Ivo thought a recorded version would work wonders.
Modern English demurred at the time, deciding that their focus was better spent on new music. Undeterred, Ivo decided to press ahead with the idea anyway with the help of other musical talents from within the 4AD camp and John Fryer handling production duties. He approached Liz Fraser to handle vocal duties accompanied by Graham Sharp from Cindytalk (who had previously collaborated with Cocteau Twins on a session for John Peel). The ensemble was joined by Martyn Young (Colourbox) alongside Modern English’s Mick Conroy and Gary McDowell who had agreed to provide the backing music.
While the ensemble successfully completed the recording of the track, Ivo still lacked a suitable B-side, which was when he conceived of the masterstroke of combining Fraser’s vocals with one of his favourite songs.
Tim Buckley had emerged from the Californian music scene of the 1960s embracing a folk style for his early work. Buckley had worked closely with his writing partner (and former school friend) Larry Beckett and it was Beckett who penned the lyrics to a new song which he presented to Buckley in 1967.
‘Song To The Siren’ was a collection of lyrics inspired by a combination of Greek myths and the damaging effects that love could inflict. Even on paper, the words held a power and evocative nature that could hold your attention.
Although Buckley had swiftly arranged a musical accompaniment for the lyrics, he was unhappy with the attempts to record it as a song (bizarrely, Pat Boone was the first artist to release a recorded version). However, in 1968, Buckley appeared on an episode of The Monkees TV show to perform his own rendition of the song. With only his guitar and voice, Buckley delivered a haunting performance that still manages to captivate nearly 40 years later. The song was subsequently recorded for the release of Buckley’s 1970 album Starsailor.
The haunting qualities of ‘Song To The Siren’ struck Ivo as being perfectly suited for the mesmerizing vocals of Liz Fraser. Originally, the idea was for Fraser to simply deliver an a cappella version of the song. However, Fraser had always been nervous during recording sessions and also rarely went anywhere without Guthrie. As a result, the guitarist reluctantly joined the team during the recording.
“I couldn’t think of what to do between the verses” recalls Ivo in the book Facing the Other Way: The Story of 4AD, “so Robin had, very reluctantly, put on his guitar, found a sound, lent against the studio wall looking decidedly bored and played it once to Tim Buckley’s version in his headphones”.
The result was a sparse, isolated guitar sound that formed the perfect backdrop for Fraser’s ethereal vocals. The original plan to stick to the a cappella version were swiftly dropped as Ivo realised that it worked better with instrumentation. In fact he was so struck by the mesmerising tones of ‘Song To The Siren’ that it became the A-side track for the 7” version of the release.
The recording was not without other issues. Lacking a transcript of the lyrics, Fraser had to interpret one particular line so that “Were you hare when I was fox?” was misinterpreted by Fraser as “Where you here when I was flotsam?” In hindsight, it’s not difficult to have assumed the nautical theme would be consistent, although Fraser was apparently mortified at getting it wrong. Back when the song had first been recorded, Buckley himself changed one line as “I am puzzled as the oyster” to “I’m as puzzled as the new-born child” when someone had laughed at the original line.
Meanwhile, Ivo also had another issue in that the single featured cover versions by a hybrid of musicians culled from different bands. What title could he give to the project? Ivo settled on This Mortal Coil – a phrase that Ivo had culled from a lyric by 60s outfit Spirit.
The release of ‘Song To The Siren’ was, arguably, the single that placed 4AD on the map. The record managed an impressive 101 weeks on the UK independent singles chart and reached No. 66 in the UK national charts selling over half a million copies. As well as a promo video, the song’s success was boosted by a live studio performance on a late night BBC show.
Up to this point, Cocteau Twins had signed one-off contracts for their releases on 4AD, but now the duo signed a new contract for five albums. They received stellar reviews for their next album Head Over Heels and, enjoying a creative surge, the duo also released a new EP Sunburst & Snowblind hardly a week after the release of the album.
The success of the song had, however, caused some fractures in the relationship between Cocteau Twins and Ivo/4AD. “I was really sick when I saw that [‘Song to the Siren’] getting played on the radio all the time and the Cocteaus had never been played” commented Guthrie at the time, ”So the only way we could get played on the radio was to do somebody else’s song under a different name”.
Despite these grumbles, the duo felt at home with 4AD in these early days and, equally, Ivo was incredibly happy with the Cocteau Twins – at one point even considering managing the pair and giving up 4AD altogether.
David Lynch had approached 4AD with a view to including the song in the soundtrack to his 1986 film Blue Velvet, but had been daunted by the fees demanded by Buckley’s estate (the singer had sadly died at the tragically young age of 28 of a heroin overdose). Instead, the song inspired the work of Julee Cruise whose music later became synonymous with Lynch’s work. Lynch finally managed to get the song for his 1997 film Lost Highway. The song also features in Peter Jackson’s 2009 adaptation of The Lovely Bones.
Meanwhile, the song’s power has continued to exert its hold, prompting a variety of cover versions by other artists, including Sinéad O’Connor, Bryan Ferry and even George Michael.
The success of ‘Song To The Siren’ had also inspired Ivo to continue the idea of This Mortal Coil. Keeping the initial template intact, future This Mortal Coil releases would be marked out by innovative cover versions featuring a revolving line-up of musicians and collaborators. Musicians involved in these works would include Lisa Gerrard (Dead Can Dance), Howard Devoto, Simon Raymonde (later to join Cocteau Twins) and Deirdre and Louise Rutkowski. ‘Song To The Siren’ itself also featured on This Mortal Coil’s 1984 album It’ll End In Tears.
This Mortal Coil itself created its own legacy, including a revival of interest in many of the obscure and leftfield artists that the ensemble covered. This included not only Tim Buckley, but also Big Star/Chris Bell, Gene Clark and Roy Harper.
Yet, ‘Song To The Siren’ somehow remains the signature This Mortal Coil release – and perhaps also is the signature 4AD song.
The history of the 4AD label is covered in depth in the book Facing the Other Way: The Story of 4AD by Martin Aston