Some covers are more equal than others. Good, Better, Best looks at three covers and decides who takes home the gold, the silver, and the bronze.
Tim Buckley first debuted “Song to the Siren” on the final episode of The Monkees, and as a folk song, it was lovely and approachable. Then he refused to record it for three years – the line “I’m as puzzled as the oyster” had drawn mocking, and Buckley felt the song too flawed to release, which meant Pat Boone, of all people, was the first to issue it on vinyl. When Buckley finally followed suit, on 1970’s Starsailor, he revealed a changed song (and not just the switch from “oyster” to “newborn child”). If the original take was a quiet den, here was a cavernous ballroom with crumbling pillars, as Buckley’s exotic, five-octave voice stretched through otherworldly echoes, with nothing to hold it up and nothing to hold it back.
Starsailor was panned – “tuneless wailings and Doctor Who effects,” Britain’s Record Mirror called it – but at least one of its passengers survived the journey past the rocks, across uncharted waters, to a new world. Today “Song to the Siren” is regarded as a classic, and a host of cover versions have arisen that leave Pat Boone’s take far, far behind. Let’s look at three of them…
The Robert Plant cover is good.
The Czars cover is better.
The This Mortal Coil cover is best.
Led Zeppelin were explorers of all sorts of music, so one could easily believe that Robert Plant, who loved Moby Grape and the Incredible String Band, would be aware of “Song to the Siren” when it was originally released. As it turns out, that wasn’t the case, but that doesn’t prevent Plant from bringing Buckley’s vision to a new kind of life on 2002’s Dreamland.
The Czars’ cover of “Song to the Siren” appeared on 2000’s Sing a Song for You: A Tribute to Tim Buckley. Closing out a two-CD cover collection with the artist’s best-known song is a daunting task for any artist, but the Czars proved more than up to the challenge; they turned the song into a true epic, more than doubling the original’s length and doubling down on the heroism found within. John Grant’s singing evokes Buckley with its grace and power, holding back even as it expands, and the nearly eight minutes fly by.
It’s difficult to describe the sheer impact of This Mortal Coil’s 1983 cover of “Song to the Siren.” To start with, Buckley was eight years dead and close to forgotten; most of his albums were out of print, and the singer-songwriter movement was four or five life cycles behind the sound of the times. But 4AD label owner Ivo Watts-Russell was a devotee of Buckley and of “Song,” so when he put together an all-star collective of his label’s artists, he tapped Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins to sing it. On this recording, with Fraser’s bandmate Robin Guthrie providing guitar atmosphere, the lyrics were not so much sung as released. Not yet 21, Fraser sounded eternal, arresting hearts and souls alike with the intense beauty of her voice. Originally a B-side, the song was on the charts in Britain for over two years; it introduced people from all walks of life to Tim Buckley (including the artists above – this was how Robert Plant first heard the song, and John Grant said, “The reason I love ‘Song to the Siren’ is because of Elizabeth Fraser, not because of Tim Buckley”), and along with the emergence of his son Jeff as a brilliant artist in his own right, it was responsible for Buckley’s reemergence as a championed musician. It was as though Greek mythology had been turned on its head, and Eurydice had successfully brought Orpheus back from the underworld.