This Mortal Coil article was written by Nick Palmer, a GIGsoup contributor
In 1983, Tim Buckley was a virtually unknown singer songwriter who had been dead for close to a decade This all changed when mega fan and founder of 4AD, Ivo Watts-Russell, selected ‘Song to the Siren’ from Buckley’s 1970 album, Starsailor, for a new musical collective, This Mortal Coil.
The song which would go onto become one of 4AD’s most celebrated (and commercially successful) releases in its history was originally only a B-side. Watts-Russell was enormously fond of 4AD band, Modern English’s two songs, ‘Sixteen Days’ and ‘Gathering Dust’ and wanted them to release a medley version of them. When the band declined, Watts-Russell decided to take it upon himself and a bunch of musicians of his choosing to record the medley which would serve as (now largely forgotten) the A-side. ‘The Sixteen Days’ part of it isn’t too interesting, but ‘Gathering Dust’ is improved upon, with the inclusion of a female vocalist and odd-sounding electronic squeals.
For this foray into creative territory, Watts-Russell enlisted Cocteau Twins, Robin Guthrie and Elizabeth Fraser to do the bulk of the work and it was, in all but name, a Cocteau Twins record (a fact that irked Guthrie for many years). Still, what a fantastic combination, and what an ear Watts-Russell had to pair them in 1983; Tim Buckley’s tortured and brilliant songwriting, recorded and produced by Cocteau Twins, with Fraser’s gorgeous vocals and Guthrie’s deft instrumentation. Whilst, it would not have sounded out of place on a Cocteau Twins album, it does differ subtly. Fraser is left almost on her own here, and her infamous self-consciousness would have undoubtedly made this much more difficult than she makes it seem. Where most Cocteau Twins material is filled to the brim with thick layers of instrumentation, Guthrie, as if aware of just how powerful ‘Song to the Siren’ already was, restrains himself. A single layer of watery guitar flits in and out, spiralling around Fraser’s centrepiece vocals, and that’s all the song needs. This song introduced the wider public to what Cocteau Twins could do, even if their name wasn’t on it.
Given the sheer quality of the track, it’s unsurprising that it took the charts by storm (well, at least in comparison to other 4AD releases). ‘Song to the Siren’ remained on the UK Indie Chart for a staggering 101 weeks, making it the fourth best selling UK independent release of the 1980s. It had its share of famous fans, including film director David Lynch, who used the song in his 1997 film, Lost Highway and, apparently listened to the song before shooting scenes in 1986’s Blue Velvet.
It’s odd that a cover has become one of 4AD’s most popularly enduring releases, given the boundless creativity and originality that the label has thrived on for 35 years. Though, in some ways, it’s impressive in itself to take an old song and create something so different, yet still respectful of the original.