Hey, hey, he’s on The Monkees: Tim Buckley’s Song To The Siren at 50

On the 50th anniversary of the earliest known recorded version of Tim Buckley’s beautifully bewitching ballad, this is a Song To The Siren.

Song To The Siren is one of those enduring classics which has been covered so many times that not everyone is familiar with its long history. Some of those who’ve taken the song under their wing have done wonders with it – This Mortal Coil dashed off a version with the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Frazer on vocals that was so impactful that the collective’s career was defined it. So much so that there are actually people that believe the song’s life started on 4AD in ’83.

The bandits have never quite succeeded in taking over the boat house, though. Some attempts—Sinéad O’Connor, George Michael, Bryan Ferry, Robert Plant—were passable, while others downright farcical, butchering the song as if they were carving lumps of meat from a carcass. Be gone with you, David Gray and a thousand other mediocre singer-songwriters.

No-one has quite matched what Timothy Charles Buckley III (father of Jeff Buckley) put into it in the first place. The song is an uncannily haunting ballad, co-written by Buckley and Larry Beckett in 1967, which is emotional, divine, troubled, restless and as deep as that “floating, shapeless oceans” and it takes a voice like Buckley’s to really emphasise the song’s trippy, other-worldly sensations.

Talking of which, here’s a more recent rendition from a not so new sensation.

With its images of the sea, doomed romance and drowning, you could be forgiven for thinking Ferry might have composed it himself. The song, which owed a debt to Homer’s The Odyssey, is a forlorn ode to “the inevitable damage love causes”, cleverly using the ancient Greek mythic nymphs luring sailors on to rocks by their singing as a chilling metaphor. Both its music and lyric captured the fatalistic Irish part of Tim’s soul.

Long afloat on shipless oceans
I did all my best to smile
‘Til your singing eyes and fingers
Drew me loving to your isle
And you sang, ‘Sail to me, sail to me
Let me enfold you
Here I am, here I am
Waiting to hold you

Not long after it was written, Tim premiered the song at a taping of the The Frodis Caper, the 58th and very last episode of The Monkees TV show, taped in November 1967 and broadcast on 25 March 1968.

Buckley had befriended woolly-hatted Monkee Michael Nesmith at the Troubadour’s hoot nights. ‘This is Tim Buckley,” announced Monkee Micky Dolenz, who was also directing. With Beckett standing offstage, holding the lyrics in case his co-author forgot them, Tim walked onto the set – an old car with a smashed windshield – and slumped atop the hood. Accompanied only by his crystalline twelve-string, he caressed the melody, his large brown afro slowly bobbing back and forth as he sang.

 

The telecast version is more of a straight-ahead folk ballad, instead of the eerie rendition that appears on his Starsailor album, released in the US on Frank Zappa and Herb Cohen’s Straight label the same first week of November 1970* as David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World. With his heartbreaking five-octave-spanning tenor, it actually sounds like it was recorded by someone ready to cast themselves on the rocks in despair, while occasional high-pitched ‘siren’ wails (is it his voice? An extremely flanged guitar?) and stark waves of progressive reverb-filled guitars entered stage left.

In fact, the whole of Starsailor (a literal English rendering of the Greek-derived word astronaut), hits sixth album, is an excursion into an out-there zone where Buckley’s freeform folk, soul and jazz articulations make perfect sense. Like his son Jeff, Tim had that chameleonic ability to defy musical genre. Blues, rock, pop, folk, jazz, even libidinous funk: no problem. However, the peak of his experimental phase was a commercial disaster that Record Mirror called “a collection of tuneless wailings and Doctor Who effects. It should have been titled Daleks For Breakfast.”

 

While the revival of Song to the Siren renewed interest in Buckley amongst independent artists in the 1980s, the success of his estranged offspring Jeff in the 1990s inspired countless indie rock artists to look at the career of his father. Wigan wonders Starsailor derived their name from the album, while Song To The Siren remain the work of a unique artist making music which no-one else could even dream about, and due the scores of artists who’ve covered it became Buckley’s most famous song since his death in Los Angeles from a drug overdose on 29 June 1975, three days after I turned six.

“I always felt there was a prophecy of death in that song,” says Sinéad O’Connor, who first heard the song just after her mother had died. Keeping on that route, 66 was the chart position This Mortal Coil’s Liz Fraser sung version reached in the UK in October 1983, giving Buckley with his first ever chart entry in Britain.

No.1 at the time? The immovable Culture Club. Tim Buckley’s son Jeff wrote to Fraser when he heard the Coil’s cover and, a couple of years before he drowned, aged 30, in 1997, they had a relationship.

That’s karma, chameleon.

Steve Pafford

BONUS: *With more than a little bit of nous or just complete incomprehension of the lyrics, grizzled old ham Pat Boone, America’s answer to Cliff Richard, beat Buckley to release the first studio version of Song To The Siren on his 1969 album Departure, prefacing his version with “Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!” like a drunken thespian, He almost killed it, and not in a rockin’ good way.

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