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The first ever history of 4AD, as told by music journalist Martin Aston, was published by HarperCollins offshoot The Friday Project as Facing The Other Way: The Story Of 4AD last month, with a limited hardback edition appearing on shelves on the 24th October. If you're yet to be convinced that this behind-the-scenes biography of the experimental label – charting the 20 years after its inception in 1980 via 112 interviews with artists, staff and fans – is a must-read, then keep scrolling for a touching extract from the first chapter, exclusively shared with Dummy.
May 1985. The phone rings at Ivo’s home on a Saturday afternoon.
‘It’s David Lynch’s assistant: are you free to talk to him?’
The American film director behind the startling, surreal Eraserhead and the dramatically different, but equally affecting, biopic The Elephant Man had a new film in pre-production, titled Blue Velvet, and he’d fallen for a song that he wanted to use for the opening sequence, set at a high-school prom.
The song was a cover of Tim Buckley’s ‘Song To The Siren’, a mercurial, exquisite ballad that described, in aching and elaborate homage to the ancient Greek poet Homer’s epic The Odyssey, the inevitable damage that love causes. Buckley’s original, which the Californian singer-songwriter had written and first recorded in 1968, wasn’t at all well known, even by 1985. Between 1966 and 1974, he’d recorded a startling array of music over the course of nine albums, from folk rock to jazz to avant-garde to funky soul and AOR. It all ended with a snort of heroin at an end-of-tour party. With rock and pop culture yet to turn nostalgic, Buckley’s reputation had died with him, and punk rock’s Stalinist purge of the past had ensured that Californian singersongwriters of all pedigrees were discourteously dismissed.
But this new cover version of ‘Song To The Siren’, by a studio-based collective named This Mortal Coil, had sprung up in a very different climate. Punk had given way to its more experimental, artful offspring, post-punk, alongside the new electronic sound, and the synthesised pop called New Romantic. ‘Song To The Siren’ had spent more than a hundred weeks in the British independent music charts during 1983 and 1984, and its fame had reached America, as David Lynch’s interest illustrated. He regards TMC’s version as his all-time favourite piece of music: ‘That song does something to me, for sure,’ he told the Guardian newspaper in 2010.
In either version, ‘Song To The Siren’ was an easy track to be infatuated with, given its sorrowful, elegiac mood, and its lyrics haunted by images of the sea and of death. The singer of This Mortal Coil’s version was Elizabeth Fraser, whose performance – supported in spirit by the guitar of her musical and romantic partner Robin Guthrie – suggested that she was the siren of The Odyssey personified, luring sailors/lovers to a watery grave.
‘If you say to somebody, “It’s kind of like a David Lynch movie”, you kind of know what you’re getting. It was like that in the same way for a certain period at 4AD: “It’s kind of like a 4AD record”. Actually, that probably meant it had loads of reverb.’ – Ivo Watts-Russell, 4AD co-founder, in 2006
In their daily lives, Fraser and Guthrie were known as Cocteau Twins, recording artists for the independent music label 4AD. It was 4AD’s co-founder, and singular leader, Ivo Watts-Russell, that had taken Lynch’s call that afternoon. ‘As happens,’ Ivo recalls, ‘when the film went into production, my friend Patty worked as an assistant to the producer on Blue Velvet. She’d call me, whispering, “David and Isabella [Rossellini, the female lead] are in the corner again, listening to ‘Song To The Siren’,” before shooting a scene.’ The cover version, recorded in 1983, had been Ivo’s idea. The late Tim Buckley is his all-time favourite singer, and ‘Song To The Siren’ is still his all-time favourite song. ‘Not since Billie Holiday had recorded “Strange Fruit” was a song and lyric so suited to a voice as Tim Buckley’s was to “Song To The Siren”,’ he reckons.
By 1985, the inimitable Elizabeth Fraser had become his favourite living singer. And here was Lynch, requesting not just the music for Blue Velvet but Fraser and Guthrie to mime on stage in the prom scene. However, the lawyers for Buckley’s estate demanded $20,000 for the rights, scuppering Lynch’s plans (the film’s total budget was only $3 million). The director quickly turned to composer Angelo Badalamenti, who attempted to mirror the track’s displaced, eerie mood with a new song, ‘Mysteries Of Love’, sung by the American singer Julee Cruise with her own take on haunting, ethereal projection. Starting with Blue Velvet, and most famously on his TV series Twin Peaks, Lynch fashioned a world that appeared seamless, unruffled and presentable on the surface, but scarred and disturbed underneath, foaming with a barely controllable darkness. As Twin Peaks’ FBI Special Agent Cooper declared, ‘I’m seeing something that was always hidden.’
In 2006, Ivo pointed to a similarity between label and director. ‘I feel that 4AD is like David Lynch,’ he told the Santa Fe Reporter. ‘If you say to somebody, “It’s kind of like a David Lynch movie”, you kind of know what you’re getting. It was like that in the same way for a certain period at 4AD: “It’s kind of like a 4AD record”. Actually, that probably meant it had loads of reverb.’
By this, Ivo wasn’t referring to something hidden – more that it was a brand that could be identified, where the term 4AD had become an adjective of sound. Yet in the music that the label was producing, there was the same sense of beauty as a mask for the true emotions coursing beneath. By 1985, the so-called ‘classic’ 4AD sound was all about dark dreams and hidden depths, performed by supposed fragile characters on the verge of anguish and breakdown. Take Elizabeth Fraser. After the drooling reception for her performance in ‘Song To The Siren’, she didn’t grow in confidence, but began to sing in what resembled a made-up language, or simply by enunciation, making it impossible to be understood. With a voice like hers, she didn’t need words; it was all there in her delivery, a shiver of emotion from agony to ecstasy.
'When it first emerged in the 1980s, 4AD felt like one of the most enigmatic worlds, the sort of label that you wanted to collect, that brought a sense of “brand loyalty” way before it occurred to anyone to talk about music in such crass terms.’ – Richard Vine, The Guardian, in 2012
March 2012. It’s been thirteen years since Ivo stood down from running 4AD and sold his 50 per cent share of the label back to his business partner Martin Mills, the head of the Beggars Banquet group of companies. But his legacy clearly lives on. The weekend edition of the Guardian has just published a feature on 4AD. ‘What is it about a record label that makes it the sort of place you want to spend time in?’ asks writer Richard Vine. ‘When it first emerged in the 1980s, 4AD felt like one of the most enigmatic worlds, the sort of label that you wanted to collect, that brought a sense of “brand loyalty” way before it occurred to anyone to talk about music in such crass terms.’ Vine cites Ivo as the reason, adding, ‘But arguably just as important to the label’s cohesion was designer Vaughan Oliver and photographer Nigel Grierson whose covers gave 4AD its distinct, haunted, painterly quality. It felt like you were peeking into a carnival full of beautiful freaks who didn’t want to be seen.’
So much of the music released on 4AD during Ivo’s era had this same creative tension, beauty masking secrets, feelings buried, persisting in anxious dreams and suppressed fear, hope and anger; lyrics that don’t explain emotion as much as cloud the issue, penned by a carnival full of beautiful freaks who didn’t want to be seen. Isn’t that what music does best, express feelings that words can’t articulate? Emotion that can’t be attached to a view or opinion, to a time or a place, is often the most timeless and precious.
People have long attached an obsessive importance to 4AD, and cited its enduring infl uence. On its own, This Mortal Coil’s ‘Song To The Siren’ drew extravagant praise. At the time, vocalists Annie Lennox (Eurythmics) and Simon Le Bon (Duran Duran) voted it their favourite single of the year. Today, Antony Hegarty (Antony and the Johnsons) calls it, ‘the best recording of the Eighties’. The song was to make an indelible impression. ‘For years, I was spellbound by the Julee Cruise catalogue but I didn’t know why,’ says Hegarty. ‘It was so beautiful and yet so horribly cryptic; there seemed to be something terrible lurking beneath the breathy sheen. Years later, I understood when I discovered that Lynch had originally wanted to license “Song To The Siren”.’
Irish singer Sinead O’Connor was just seventeen when her mother was killed in a car crash. ‘It was the record that got me through her death. In a country like Ireland where there was no such thing as therapy, self-expression or emotion, music was the only place you had to put anything. I played “Song To The Siren” nearly all day, every day, lying on the fl oor curled up in a ball, just bawling. I couldn’t understand the words much, but [Fraser’s] way of singing was the feeling I didn’t how to make. I still can’t move a muscle when I hear her sing it.’
The Friday Project (HarperCollins) will publish a Limited Collectors' Edition of Facing The Other Way: The Story of 4AD on the 24th October 2013.