This is the song that gave this blog its title, so it seems right to open with it. Although it’s a cover, this is the most famous version and, I’d claim, the definitive version.
Recorded by Liz Fraser and Robin Guthrie of 4AD act Cocteau Twins, this was released on the B-side of a 12” release, then the A-side of a 7”, before appearing on the first This Mortal Coil album It’ll End in Tears
This Mortal Coil was a music collective led by Ivo Watts-Russell, founder of the British record label 4AD, and featuring a wide variety of artists, many of which were already part of acts signed to that label.
The TMC project kicked off with a re-recording of a pair of Modern English songs, which appeared as a medley on the A-side of a 12” release. The B-side tracks included this version of Song to the Siren. It subsequently became the A-side of a 7” release.
This recording features Liz Fraser and Robin Guthrie, both of 4AD band Cocteau Twins.
The original recordings were made in the 1960s by Tim Buckley, this song being written by him and collaborator Larry Beckett.
There are a few different recordings by Buckley, and this cover fairly closely follows the version on Starsailor LP, with the addition of Fraser’s distinctive vocal style. Buckley had played the song live a few years earlier on The Monkees Show.
There is a haunting quality to the recording, which well matches the lyrics - about a possibly unrequited love, presented in terms of a sailor being drawn onto the rocks by the siren.
The song has seen many covers over the years, from Robert Plant to Half Man Half Biscuit, from George Michael to Wolf Alice. George Michael follows the This Mortal Coil version so closely he even gets the same lyrics wrong (it should be “were you fox when I was hare?”).
Robert Plant’s take on the song is a spectacular error of judgement. It’s truly appalling.
The versions by Wolf Alice and Sinéad O’Connor are my favourites after This Mortal Coil. O’Connor’s version was released on a 2010 compilation of music from Irish Artists, before appearing as a bonus track on the iTunes release of How About I Be Me (and You Be You)?
This Mortal Coil would later cover another Buckley song - Morning Glory appeared on the second TMC album Filigree & Shadow, with lead vocals by Louise Rutkowski.