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Tim Buckley’s Starsailor: “It was just so good in the studio”

Bandmates recount the making of his mercurial masterpiece


by Jon Dale

The current issue of Uncut – in shops now or available to buy online by clicking here – includes a six-page feature on Tim Buckley, taking a deep dive into the making of his legendary Starsailor album.

Jon Dale discovers that while Starsailor may now be regarded as Buckley’s masterpiece, its release in October 1970 put the brakes on a promising, if already unpredictable career, confusing fans and leaving him in the commercial wilderness.

“He sacrificed previous audiences, his manager Herb Cohen, his record company,” says guitarist Lee Underwood. “All he had left was his vision and his music and a few musicians who believed in him.”

Buckley had started preparing the material for Starsailor in late 1969, and his new band had already begun to breathe the songs into life while on tour. There was also a new member of the band, Bunk Gardner, joining in on flutes, tenor saxophone and bass clarinet.

When he first saw Buckley, he was fixated on his singing – “one thing for me [that] stood out was Tim’s range. He could do a lot of things with his voice” – but he soon learned that Buckley was after the very essence of the musicians he played with.“Tim actually gave us free rein to express ourselves musically. I could see that Tim was going in a more progressive direction.”

In the studio, the music flowed from the players, their near-telepathic understanding of one another, honed by time on the road, allowing the music to travel far and wide. But while Starsailor might sound off-the-cuff at times – there are moments of improvisatory splendour on the album, where it sounds as though the musicians are responding as one, in real time, to Buckley’s cues – it was also a deeply considered, rigorously planned album, as Underwood explains.

“Tim spent a lot of time writing the lyrics, and even more time working with the odd time signatures and unusual melodic and harmonic factors as well. Improvisation is involved on Tim’s part and the other musicians’ parts as well, but a lot of conscious artistry was involved on Tim’s part before he and the musicians ever got into the studio. This was not a slap-dash ‘shot in the dark’ effort. Tim worked hard on every aspect of it.”

“Song To The Siren” was almost three years old by the time it appeared on Starsailor. It made its first public appearance on the final episode of The Monkees television series, in 1968 – typical of Buckley to use a high-profile promotional appearance to debut his latest song, as yet unavailable on any album.

“No thought of merchandising whatsoever,” laughs lyricist Larry Beckett. “Let’s do the edgiest, strangest thing we have. That was beautiful.”

The version of “Song To The Siren” that appeared on Starsailor, though, had changed a little since its premiere, given Buckley’s embarrassment over the first line of the final verse, “I’m as puzzled as the oyster”.

“He was sensitive about criticism of that line,” Beckett sighs. “He always believed the worst.”

He changed “oyster” to “newborn child” and then botched the second line, too. “Though it’s a very strong song, he ruined the last verse,” Beckett told me. “I’m standing right there as he’s recording the song, but his performance was so outstanding that I thought, ‘I’m just gonna let it ride.’ Let’s just let that be the take, because I don’t think he can sing it any better.”

“I really had high hopes after that session,” Gardner adds. “It looked like Tim was starting to be recognised as somebody to check out, because he was so different and was really radically going in another direction. But I know that it felt very comfortable because we had been playing together a while before we made Starsailor. It was just so good in the studio, that feeling of even though you’re recording, let’s go for it, no holds barred – anything that you can come up with, as far as being fairly wild and experimental in your approach, the better!”

You can read much more about Tim Buckley and Starsailor in the September 2020 issue of Uncut, out now with Peter Gabriel on the cover.


© 2020 Dale/UNCUT

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