I would love to live in a world where Annette Peacock was honored and celebrated as one of the greatest artists of our time. Sadly, the current state of affairs was captured in the title used for the re-release of one of her earlier efforts: I Belong to a World That’s Destroying Itself.
As I write this, the hands on the Doomsday clock have moved to 100 seconds to midnight, the closest we’ve ever been to self-destruction.
We arrived at this point because our world is now controlled by authoritarians who tear up treaties, replace fact with misinformation and prey upon a host of human fears: fear of people who are “different,” fear of change, fear of learning anything outside one’s comfort zone. Authoritarian leaders exploit those self-destructive tendencies, for the weaker we are, the stronger they get. The irony is that history tells us authoritarian leaders are as self-destructive as their followers. Self-destruction is grounded in the fear of losing control, so self-destructive leaders want to control everything and everyone, an impossible task. Eventually, karma catches up with them, but not before they make the world miserable for everyone else.
These leaders know that the human Achilles heel has been and will always be our fetish with familiarity, as manifested in the twin desires to resist change and surround ourselves with people who are “like us.” This fetish represents the height of stupidity from an evolutionary standpoint. Species who fail to adapt to changing circumstances die, period. Authoritarian leaders focus the attention of the populace on the unchangeable past, encouraging them to view life through the gauze of nostalgia—a perspective that accelerates the process of self-destruction.
Most relevant to the subject of this week’s essay is the sad truth that people hell-bent on self-destruction have no interest in the arts beyond its commercial value (see Goering, Hermann, noted art collector and authoritarian toady). The arts represent the highest form of human endeavor, the quest for originality, the search for truth/beauty. Great art makes you think, feel and question. Authoritarians don’t want people to think, feel and question, so they create distractions to keep the populace in line—distractions that represent the lowest forms of human endeavor. War. Patriotism. Demonization. Fear. Superstition.
Self-destructive dynamics wreak havoc on all of us, but they are particularly problematic for the artist. While dysfunctional societies and inhuman behavior provide the artist with plenty of interesting material (and the opportunity to enlighten the populace about their suicidal tendencies), society’s quest for conformity devalues and demeans the artistic quest for original self-expression. While some artists have been punished for the crime of original thought, the more common response is the cold indifference grounded in the self-destructive society’s lack of curiosity. John Doran’s interview with Annette Peacock for The Quietus opened by describing her as a “stone-cold original,” then succinctly explains why she continues to toil in relative obscurity:
There’s often no prize for coming first in music. The preternaturally talented composer, ear-boggling singer, intuitive multi-instrumentalist, vocal manipulation innovator and pioneering synthesizer early adopter, Annette Peacock knows this more than most. During an interview she tells me that every time she makes an album she feels like it’s the right statement for the time but it turns out never to be the right statement for the market of the time. Markets are big amorphous, slow moving bodies that perhaps don’t always respond well to mercurial outlier innovation in music. “I feel like I’m doing the right thing at the right time but then it turns out I’ve been 20 to 40 years too early”, she says laughing.
That laugh may mask some disappointment, but as you read Annette’s responses in the interview, it becomes obvious that truth and artistic freedom are “sacrosanct” to her. Every artist seeks some form of validation, but the true artist refuses to allow creation to become dependent on validation.
The twisting road that eventually led to X-Dreams defies everything you thought you learned in The Byrds’ classic “So You Wanna Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star.” Annette had released the album I’m the One back in 1972, an amazing, innovative record that the record-buying audience largely ignored but caught the attention of an RCA labelmate by the name of David Bowie. Bowie invited Annette to join the Aladdin Sane tour, a golden opportunity that she politely declined. Accepting the rebuff, Bowie arranged to have her sign with his management company, who placed her on the far back burner but gave her unlimited studio time she could use whenever inspiration struck. She described the recording process (if one can call it that) in a later interview with The Quietus:
The publisher provided free studio time and I began to use it. I’d brought a tape of a song ‘My Mother Never Taught Me How To Cook’ and I called Mick Ronson to overdub some guitar angst. A lot of musicians in London had heard that there were going to be sessions and just showed up. There ended up being 22 musicians in total on X-Dreams. Most of them had never played together, and all the tracks were first takes. It was very exciting.
Jeez—talk about ballsy! The guys on Kind of Blue had at least played together when Miles Davis challenged them with modality, and Miles did allow multiple takes. What she didn’t mention is that the recording and mixing sessions took place over a period of four years. 99 out of 100 producers would have labeled her approach “a complete waste of valuable studio time” and filed her away in the manila folder marked “Nutcase.”
But you know what? The album is damned exciting. The number of recording glitches is much smaller than one would expect in a series of first takes, and the level of musicianship is outstanding. Despite the lengthy, choppy recording “process,” the gestalt is one of unity, of shared inspiration. X-Dreams is a remarkably engaging record, a full-on aesthetic experience that confirms Annette Peacock’s stone-cold original status.
I’ve read several reviews of X-Dreams, some okay, some bloody awful and a few that cross the line into horny male obliviousness. What none of the critics (all male, by the way) seem to notice is that pesky little “X” in the album’s title. Now, I know this is going to hurt, but just for a minute, think back to your years in secondary education and try to remember a class called “Biology.” Somewhere in those unpleasant memories of Petri dishes, microscopes and flunking the weekly quiz there might be a scrap of an engram in your brain labeled “Mendel.” Yeah, yeah—the pea plant guy. Good! Now, do you remember how those pea plants led to at least one lecture on something called “Genetics?” That’s right—X’s and Y’s! You are obviously a biology rockstar! Now, what do the X’s and Y’s mean? “Something about which kind of baby it is?” Yes, that’s right. And when the baby has two X chromosomes, what kind of baby is going to pop out of mommy?
No, not a boy. It’s sad, really. Girls have matching chromosomes X + X. That’s why girls are perfect. Boys don’t match, they’re X + Y. That’s why boys are defective and never match their socks with their shirts or their belts with their shoes. We should feel sorry for boys, and we would if they weren’t the authoritarian assholes mentioned above who are determined to send us all to early oblivion.
X-Dreams is an exploration of the dynamics in male-female relationships from a heterosexual woman’s point of view. From a lyrical standpoint, X-Dreams is a quest for understanding, an attempt to resolve the opposing drives (attraction/repulsion, love/cruelty, together/apart) that make the female-male relationship endlessly alluring and frustrating. “The idea with X-Dreams was to approach the LP as a single, like each side was one piece. Side A very hard and aggressive and Side B very romantic and kind of sweet, really,” asserted Annette, and while that may be true for the prevailing musical mood on each side, the lyrical content is consistently ambivalent, dichotomous, uncertain, unresolved . . . and beautifully truthful.
The lyrics certainly deepened my appreciation of the album, but it was the music that immediately grabbed my attention. X-Dreams is often categorized as “jazz fusion,” an ill-defined genre if there ever was one (I don’t know how anyone can listen to the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Blood, Sweat & Tears and tell me they’re two peas in a pod). The best fusion albums combine the improvisational freedom of jazz with the libido-tingling stylings of rock and R&B, and by that definition, X-Dreams qualifies. To really pull off fusion, you need instrumentalists who combine deep knowledge and appreciation of musical foundations and who know how to “play,” both literally and figuratively. Annette managed to attract some of the best musicians on the planet, a seemingly motley crew of different styles and strengths who left their egos in the reception area and devoted themselves to the creation of great music. The credits include “name” players like Bill Bruford and Mick Ronson and superb session men like Ray Warleigh and Chris Spedding. You put top-flight musicians together with a versatile, commanding and distinctive vocalist/composer like Annette Peacock, and baby, you have a jazz-rock fusion masterpiece.
X-Dreams kicks off with “My Mama Never Taught Me How to Cook,” a low-simmer blues/funk piece that represents a statement of defiance and liberation on multiple levels. The song has no discernible structure in the traditional sense; the “verses” vary in length and form and there is nothing that even resembles a chorus. Annette’s phrasing is largely off-beat; she rarely bothers to hit the notes in the “right” places but instead goes wherever her musical and emotional instincts lead her, confident that the boys in the band will hold things together. The delivery is a combination of understated alto, soaring soprano and street talk punctuated with pregnant pauses that invariably lead to double entendres. The outcome is one of the most unusual coming-of-age stories you will ever hear—unusual because her description of growing up follows neither convention nor linearity, resulting in a story that is more true-to-life than the classic coming-of-age assertion that everyone goes through the same stages of development at roughly the same time.
That her mother never taught her how to cook or clean tells us she wasn’t raised to be June Cleaver. As she moves to the influence of the men in the family, she leaves us with a trail of bread crumbs that hints at possible sexual abuse by either brother, father or both:
My mama never taught me how to cook
But my brother, now, my brother he taught me how to . . . eat
Daddy never taught me to s-s-suck-seed (succeed)
That’s why it’s so crazy, crazy, crazy
Daddy never taught me how to succeed
That’s why I’m so unselfish
Nice little dig at capitalism there, reinforced by her admission that she was “not good at the wheeling not much better at the dealing.” She then asserts, “But I’m a fantastic ride,” and whether that’s a comment on the validation she received from the men in the family or an embrace of her sexuality is for the listener to decide. After the equally ambiguous line, “Yeah, my daddy never taught me how to succeed but my brother taught me how to turn the other cheek,” the band slows the tempo for a few bars to give the listener time to take it all in. When the foundational beat returns, Annette shifts tone and delivery, emphasizing the recurring phrase “That’s why” in soprano to frame her explanation of how she became the woman she is.
Never had no one to believe in me
And that’s why I’m not so sentimental
Never had no one to say, “Yeah, you’re right, you’re beautiful and free, it gets me high to see you fly, to fulfill yourself, and I’m behind you, I’m there even though it’s not me that’s satisfying you and I’m not afraid that I’ll lose you to your own freedom”
That’s why I’ll never be tame
I’m not rational and secure don’t have that confident assure that I’m cosmic in the touching
Never had no one to believe in me
Even though you know my brother gave me a head . . . start
Even though you know my brother gave me a head . . . start
The guitar in that passage (I’m guessing it’s Ronson) expresses more tension than relief, a combination of sweetness and dissonance that mirrors both the enlightenment and the experience of a dysfunctional family. The passage ends with another downtempo shift marked by a terribly sexy guitar and the culmination of Annette’s coming of age. Free from the noise from the family of origin, Annette has arrived at a space where she is impervious to the bullshit of classic male mating ritual behavior:
And I’ve had men say, “Hey babe, your love is the greatest show on earth, and hey baby, I’m your man with the perfect plan and I’ll give you everything your heart desires, I want you, and I’ll give you everything you dream, everything you need, just let me get close to you, I want you, hey baby, I want to suck your honey, I wanna cop your conception, take your energy, absorb your vibe, preach your philosophy, I wanna become you, I want you and I want you to die so I can be you. Hey, come over here and give your sweet vampire some love. I’m your man. Come over here and pay your landlord some dues. And hey babe that’s what I call love and that’s what I call a relationship—-now do you want to get it on?”
And I say, “Hey man, my destiny’s not to serve. I’m a woman. My destiny is to create.”
Man, I’d wish I’d written those lines. I think I could use another tat.
I’m pretty convinced that the critics who have commented on “Real and Defined Androgens” didn’t really listen to the lyrics. Here are some selected shorts from one of the more enthusiastic responses: “One of the sexiest songs ever written . . . low slung dangerous funk that would just as soon knife you as fuck you . . . Peacock flaunts her vast range, mostly reciting detachedly erotic lyrics . . .”
I won’t name the source to avoid embarrassing the poor bastard, but just calmly point out that “one of the sexiest songs ever written” describes (in excruciating detail) a guy masturbating to a porn mag:
He makes the scene . . . Vaseline
Sometimes conscious and packaged androgen
Perhaps he finds a kind of purity, preferring not to wait, her petals flowering too hot
Refusing her garden, betraying his home
And oiling his machine he works it . . . hard . . .
Rides himself to foam . . .
A magazine in the other hand betrays the airbrushed dream of perfection
A connection which demands that the soul of femininity
Supplant itself into the shell which offers itself to the fancy
But man betrays himself with the seductiveness of media . . . distortion becomes a thrill . . .
Impervious, he ponders his seed of no destiny . . .
He half-dreams her, reams her taut, rotten body
Caught at the wrists
The twisting thrusts to the rhythmic beats like the sound of a whip drowning in the waves of sensation
Abandoning himself to the abstract contact takes him closer to his senses
Further from defenses to the absolute surrender he craves
The lyrics—especially that last passage—use intensely erotic imagery to underscore the emptiness of the fantasy. There’s no contact, no closeness, no merging, just a fucking fantasy based on “abstract contact.” The music is superficially sexy, just like the airbrushed babe in the foldout.
Androgens, by the way, are mistakenly identified as “male hormones.” The truth is androgens (like testosterone) exist in both men and women. I think what Annette is driving at here is there are natural causes for triggering testosterone (real) and culturally-sanctioned catalysts (defined), and those culturally-sanctioned catalysts are the ones we need to worry about. Men are under tremendous pressure to “stand up and act like a man,” which usually translates to “be tough” or “be aggressive in your pursuits.” Because many men have been trained to view women as objects, property or pieces of ass, dehumanization is a socially-acceptable stance for the male half of the species. Jacking off to a porn mag dramatizes the dehumanization, taking it to another level entirely.
When I tell you that “Real and Defined Androgens” features a grand total of two chords alternating back and forth for eleven minutes, you might conclude that the music is the aural equivalent of Chinese water torture. Au contraire! The music is frigging brilliant! There are few songs that build tension as magnificently as “Real and Defined Androgens,” and the impact is similar to a thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat. The basic pattern is F-F# and back again and again and again. Half-step moves always express tension by their very nature, but the scales in use are blues scales, adding a double serving of tension through their flatted notes. As the song progresses, the band increases the volume one decibel at a time (or so it seems); as the volume increases, the players gradually move from modest riffs and understatement to more intricate solos and counterpoints—screaming sax, thrusting power chords, bashing drums, flying piano. Occasionally the musicians play tricks with your ears by shifting the emphasis of the note in a given “chord” away from the root to the third or fifth, making the descending move sound like the elevator’s going up and the ascending move like the elevator’s going down. The ultimate act of tension creation comes from Annette herself, who remains largely cool and calm while all this drama is building up around her, keeping her flights of soprano to a bare minimum and delivering her narrative in a voice marked by detached curiosity. “Real and Defined Androgens” is pure and simply a masterpiece of musicianship and the testimony to the immense potential of improvisational musical collaboration.
Side A ends with “Dear Bela,” an expansion of the metaphor used in “My Mama Never Taught Me How to Cook,” namely, “Hey, come over here and give your sweet vampire some love.” The depiction of male-as-vampire here is based on 18th and 19th-century tales of vampires seducing and despoiling maidens, one of the most curious inventions of the human mind. “A vampire stole my baby” is just a more imaginative display of the same emotions expressed in many rock and country songs from the mid-20th century (“Bye Bye Love” is a good intersectional example). “‘Isn’t love the greatest gift?’ the vampire thinks before he sucks the juice,'” Annette wails in the final verse, having already challenged that supposition in the chorus:
And is it love you feel at all?
Or is it the fear that makes you so mean to me baby?
Or is it the hate that gets you off?
Toxic masculinity has an infinite number of mutations.
The music is somewhere between small-combo Harlem jazz of the 1930’s and Charles Mingus, with tight harmonies (Harlem) and the integration/reinterpretation of early jazz and blues (Mingus). There is a touch of the diva in Annette’s vocal, reminiscent of Billie Holiday’s my-man-has-done-me-wrong numbers.
The music on Side B is “kind of sweet,” as Annette put it. And while it is more “romantic,” she explores her own conflicting feelings about love while not entirely ignoring the challenges presented by insecure men trying to “be real men.” In the definitely romantic “This Feel Within,” her vocal oscillates between half-whispered spoken word and melody, frequently within the same musical line. The delivery and the lyrics communicate doubt about her ability to hold such powerful feelings for a man:
Is the distance harder than this closeness closing in on me
I’m lost in your love and can’t begin to show or to hold this feel within
So I thought I might fuse the beauty that I see in you, the melody in that . . .
It’d tell you better than I could how much you mean to me
Since you play the song, chew on the heart, tell me what I really feel
I fall apart when he’s for real
The feel of the music is swank night club, with a shimmery synthesizer providing a satiny background for outstanding contributions on piano, flute and guitar. The liner notes don’t attach the players to specific songs, but whoever is playing that guitar is the guy I want in my band—the oscillating sustains melt me every time I hear them.
“Too Much in the Skies” explores the expectation-defying experience of an intimate relationship with a creative type. True creatives have no tangible connection with time or convention, so you can’t expect such a person to meet you at the corner espresso stand Wednesday at 12:30 . . . or show up on time for your flight to Vegas . . . or return your phone calls within a week. When a true creative is in the zone, there is nothing you can do to shake them out of it—the guilt trips you throw their way bounce off like their auras are made of plexiglass. According to the wisdom found on dating sites, creatives make terrible partners because they are inherently unreliable and deceptive.
Annette struggles with those stereotypical projections but is also capable of perceiving the potential advantages:
My love has a soul of a poet
I’m losing control and I know it
My dreams have come true, I won’t change him
One change might undo or estrange him
His promise is all he can promise . . .
And all I need do is to love him and let it be me whom he’s dreaming
This is sweet, romantic and perfectly pragmatic. How can you truly love someone if you can’t allow them to be who they are? The music is soft funk emphasizing piano, bass and faintly Latin drums; the chord pattern is similar to something you might hear in mid-period Steely Dan. Annette’s vocal alternates between breathiness and her gorgeous deep tones, eschewing the occasional bursts of soprano. At first listen, this is about as close as Annette gets to “adult pop,” but the nine-syllable lines she sings defy standard meter (and no, they’re not anapestic trimeter). In any case, the result is the most purely beautiful song on the album.
Annette’s version of Otis Blackwell’s “Don’t Be Cruel” is a complete reconstruction that bears little resemblance to the Elvis original and the “rhythmic insistence” of the stutter-step boogie-woogie beat featuring Bill Black on double bass and the “bop-bops” of The Jordanaires. The beat here is still syncopated but smoother, and the rhythm takes several turns away from the main beat as the song progresses. The Elvis version featured the classic major, minor and seventh chords used in 99% of rock songs; the reconstruction substitutes major seventh and minor seventh chords for the expected fourths and fifths. The melody undergoes a complete overhaul, in part due to the change in chord structure but primarily because Annette follows her emotional and musical instincts to leap octaves or tone it down to a low-register whisper-in-the-ear sex kitten purr. The arrangement features an outstanding growling sax solo tinged with greater jazz sensibilities, and Mick Ronson (confirmed) absolutely kills it in the fade with a solo designed to put even a celibate in the mood to get down and dirty.
The words are pretty much the same with two important differences. Annette dispenses with the “let’s walk to the preacher” verse; when I try to imagine her delivering that verse in the context of the album, it just doesn’t ring true. All the other lyrics remain intact but take on a completely different meaning when sung by a woman, particularly in the context of a record that (in part) explores the cruelty of the male half of the species. When Elvis sang “don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true,” he only had to fear rejection, not getting the shit beaten out of him. Though it sounds like Annette is having the time of her life with this piece, the sentiments of “Dear Bela” linger in the background. Intentional or not, the effect is rather chilling.
X-Dreams closes appropriately with a song called “Questions.” We all go into relationships with baggage, largely in the form of insecurities. When that special someone assures us that they will love us forever, we may experience momentary relief but those insecurities ensure the relief is of a transient nature. Annette refers to “the silent past to which I’m bound still holding me,” likely the many disappointments she has experienced (that we’ve all experienced). The questions she poses, though, cast doubt on not only the partner’s ability to “be true,” but her own depth of commitment:
If I could love you more than I do
What could I give you to make me true?
If you believed me
What would you say?
How would you leave me?
What would I be?
The song is in the form of a waltz, giving the music a cast of romantic nostalgia. Annette’s “sweet” tone glides beautifully through the expansive melody, and the last sound we hear is the fade of that lovely voice.
The fact that much of Annette Peacock’s work over a period of nearly forty years is hard to come by is a crime against humanity. Her oeuvre is expansive and diverse, and I’ve never been bored by an Annette Peacock album. Some are exciting, some are deep and some (like An Acrobat’s Heart) a perfect complement to a grey Sunday afternoon. X-Dreams is definitely one of her best, a tour de force that represents two qualities we could use in bulk during this self-destructive phase: artistic integrity and creative spontaneity.
Marianne Faithfull’s early fame had little to do with musical talent and lots to do with image and connections. She was everywhere in the 60’s, an essential component of the Swinging London scene, the innocent-looking girl with the long blonde hair languidly offering her bedroom eyes to the cameras. She hung out with Donovan, Dylan and the Maharishi, lent her voice to “Yellow Submarine” (good luck trying to pick her out), and was scandalously attired in nothing but a fur rug when the cops showed up at Keith Richards’ place sniffing for illegal substances. As the decade wore on and the hits stopped coming, she remained in the public eye in part through her work in film and on stage, but most of her press clippings came from her status as Mick Jagger’s main squeeze (after dumping her relatively new hubby and grabbing the kid on her way out the door). During this period, she co-wrote “Sister Morphine” and served as inspiration for a few Jagger-Richards compositions, receiving a heroin addiction in return. After leaving Mick, he went on to pursue other broads with more promising futures while she lost custody of her son, tried to commit suicide and wound up living on the streets of Soho, a former media darling reduced to a washed-up junkie.
During her period of homelessness, she breathed in more than her fair share of carbon monoxide from cars, buses and cigarettes, magically transforming her fairytale princess voice into that of the fairytale frog. After one attempt at a comeback that failed to make it out of the studio, she released a modestly-successful country album, leaving the critics to debate whether her new voice qualified as “whisky-soaked” or “vulgarized.” By the second half of the 70’s, she had graduated from the streets to an electricity-free and waterless squat she shared with future hubby and aspiring punk musician Ben Brierley, then shared flats with fellow muse and hedonist Henrietta Moraes. Her climb out of the gutter was nearing the end when she hired a gent named Barry Reynolds to serve in her backing band. Together they co-wrote and demoed a couple of songs that caught the attention of Chris Blackwell of Island Records, who signed the lost child of the 60’s to a recording contract.
Marianne Faithfull recently released her 21st studio album, a total that doesn’t include some of her 60’s albums released in the U.K. Most of her albums have been ignored by fans and critics alike, but every few years she does something that lifts her out of purgatory and back into the limelight. Broken English was the first of those somethings, a daring album from a woman who had little to lose by pushing the envelope. As opposed to the material that dominated her 60’s records—soft, romantic folk-tinged music designed to reinforce the fairytale princess image—Broken English gave us an edgier Marianne delving into topics such as terrorism, suicidal ideation, guilt and cock-sucking as the ultimate act of betrayal. Her now raspy voice may have surprised listeners at first, but having a sandpapery voice certainly hadn’t presented an obstacle for Janis Joplin, Suzi Quatro or Stevie Nicks, and it worked well with the darker subjects she chose to explore. Marianne’s vocals on Broken English are stronger and more deeply felt than anything she’d done before. The voice on “As Tears Go By” and “Summer Nights” has an airy, surreal quality; the voice on Broken English is as real as it gets. Her performance is commanding without crossing the line into overbearing, evidence of her earlier theatrical training. Mark Mundy’s production is suitably restrained, giving Marianne lots of room to maneuver through the various roles demanded by the songlist.
Though she labels herself on her highly sanitized website as a singer-songwriter, the vast majority of her work has been devoted to covering other people’s songs. On Broken English, she earned co-writer credit for three songs written in collaboration with band members. Barry Reynolds, guitarist Joe Mavety and Ben Brierley each contributed one song; the other two came from John Lennon and Shel Silverstein. The collaboratively-written title track opens the album, the synth and bass-heavy beat tuned to contemporary tastes. The song is allegedly about Ulrike Meinhof of Baader-Meinhof fame, though had I not told you that, you’d never have been able to deduce it from the lyrics. The song takes the form of a one-way conversation where the narrator essentially asks, “What the fuck are you doing?” It’s a question that could have been posed to any member of the IRA, the Symbionese Liberation Army, The Red Brigade, The Weather Underground, or any of the other criminal organizations of the era who posed as freedom fighters and defenders of the people but were really just psychopaths in face masks:
Could have come through anytime
Cold lonely, puritan
What are you fighting for?
It’s not my security
It’s just an old war
Not even a cold war
“Puritan” works as well as “psychopath,” for these people used ideological purity as justification for their murderous and ultimately pointless acts. Marianne’s phrasing here is direct and to-the-point, tinged with hints of grief over those who lost their lives for nothing much, a mindless crusade of violence that had zero chance of achieving its stated ends.
Darkness gives way to a nice easy beat and the sound of acoustic guitar fronting the bass and synth in the opening to “Witches’ Song,” another collaborative songwriting effort. The song is sort of an anthem for witches, describing how they form the magic circle to contain sacred energy in order to enhance their meditations and provide magical protection. It also covers the duotheistic orientation of Wicca, which gives practitioners a different perspective on good vs. evil:
Father, we are waiting for you to appear
Do you feel the panic, can you see the fear?
Mother, we are waiting for you to give consent
If there’s to be a marriage, we need contempt
Though it comes across as musically pleasant, the ancient stigma attached to witchcraft gives the song a dark cast that fits nicely with the album’s themes.
“Brain Drain” describes the energy-sapping experience of living with someone who wants more and more but instead of doing anything to help just whines and moans away. The more practical and optimistic narrator tries their best, but there isn’t a whole hell of a lot you can do with a whiny moaner:
Got so much to offer, but I can’t pay the rent
I can’t buy you roses ’cause the money’s all spent
Well, you sat in my car, you drank my champagne
You stole all my silk but you gave me no change
You’re a brain drain, you go on and on like a bloodstain
You’re a drain brain, you go on and on like a bloodstain
The loping music is based on a nice, swaying beat, and Marianne completely immerses herself in the groove, her lazy phrasing and pronunciation a perfect fit for the subject matter.
The opening lines of “Guilt” clearly identify solo songwriter Barry Reynolds as a recovering Catholic:
I feel guilt, I feel guilt,
Though I know I’ve done no wrong I feel guilt.
After a superfluous synth burst, Marianne delivers the first verse in near-empty space, accompanied only by faint acoustic guitar and a synthesized drone in deep background. The music slowly intensifies as the verse proceeds, particularly as the lyrics change from “I feel guilt” to the more-to-the-point “I feel bad.” The entire point of a laying a guilt trip on someone is to make them feel bad, defective and weak so that they turn to the source of the guilt for help, be it an abusive partner or the church. It’s the ultimate mind-fuck, and human beings have been pulling it off for centuries, twisting purely natural impulses into evidence of evil intent:
I never gave to the rich, I never stole from the poor,
I’m like a curious child, give me more,
More, more, more, more, more, more.
There’s an interesting change to that first line when the verse reappears later in the song: “I never stole from the poor” becomes “I never gave to the poor.” I interpret the first version as the human tendency to lie about things other people are likely to condemn them for, and the second version the honest truth. In our presentation-oriented world, people lie about all kinds of guilty pleasures from smoking to eating to drug use. Given her history, Marianne was an expert at the game, and here she delivers a grim yet impassioned performance about getting trapped in the guilt cycle.
Shel Silverstein is near and dear to my heart because my parents read me his children’s books when I was little. I still have a copy of The Missing Piece Meets the Big O, which I’ll pull out every now and then to remind myself that it’s okay to be different and even better to change and grow. Marianne chose his “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” because she identified with the anti-heroine’s descent into mental instability, and that identification comes through clearly in her empathetic and impassioned interpretation. Trapped alone in the burbs while daddy goes to work and the kids go to school, Lucy suffers through the indentured servitude of housewifery by singing “Pretty nursery rhymes she’d memorized/In her Daddy’s easy chair.” At the age of thirty-seven (I suppose such women were erroneously considered past their prime back in the day), she has bitterly accepted she will never live her film-inspired dream:
At the age of thirty-seven
She realized she’d never ride
Through Paris in a sports car
With the warm wind in her hair
I guess no one told Lucy that the gendarmes clear the streets to make such scenes possible, but even if she’d known that, the power of the image would not have been diminished. The image is so strong that when she is helped off the roof by the man in the white coat and taken to a mental hospital, she convinces herself she has finally made it to Paris, riding in a sports car, the warm wind in her hair. I have no problems with Marianne’s performance here, but I wish they’d shelled out a few bucks for a proper string quartet.
Band member Joe Mavety gives Marianne the chance to sing about life as a drug user in his composition, “What’s the Hurry?” The arrangement is similar to “Broken English,” combining synth with pulsating bass at a slightly faster tempo and a teeny bit more edge before shifting to something closer to rock. The lyrics qualify as opaque, but successfully describe the instinctual reactions and distorted lens of the paranoid drug user. Marianne’s tone here is something between impatience and disgust, as if she couldn’t wait to move on to the next song and leave all that shit behind her.
That next song is one of John Lennon’s greatest solo contributions, “Working Class Hero.” Rather than acoustic guitar, we’re greeted with an ominous bass pattern from Steve York (who is excellent throughout the album), giving the song a menacing flavor. Over the course of the vocal, Marianne shifts from singing to narrating to spitting out the words, maximizing every bit of the subtext of the song. The chorus is punctuated by a treble-heavy guitar chord that feels almost frightening as it bursts from the dark background. Her handling of the line “But you really can’t function, you’re so full of fear” is uniquely feminine, a half-whisper that conveys compassion and understanding, strengthened by a brief echo at the end of the line. And I love how she dispenses with Lennon’s horrible last line, “If you want to be a hero, well, just follow me.” Marianne Faithfull’s version of “Working Class Hero” is an interpretive masterpiece, easily one of the best covers of any Beatle/ex-Beatle songs ever.
Broken English is an album that builds in intensity, and the album closer is absolutely fucking explosive. I’d ask you to pardon my language, but you know I wouldn’t do that, and anyway, Marianne uses words that are much naughtier than that single f-bomb in “Why’d Ya Do It.” The backstory is that Marianne had to beg songwriter (and playwright) Heathcote Williams to let her have the song, as he was intent on having Tina Turner record it. While I fully agree that Tina Turner would have given us a ripping and heartfelt rendition, Marianne’s argument to Mr. Williams that there was no fucking way that Tina Turner would ever sing such a raw, uncensored piece of musical literature was 100% correct.
“Why’d Ya Do It” establishes itself as a hard rocker with the distorted opening riff, leading to a three-chord pattern that serves as backing for Marianne’s largely spoken word vocal. She has claimed that the song is an early version of rap, to which I say, well, okay, if you feel you have to go there to remain relevant, whatever. To me it’s a performance piece of the highest order where Marianne plays a double-edged role: the narrator of the song is a man relating what one of his female lovers said to him when she found out he was sticking it to another broad. It’s pretty obvious that Marianne directs most of her energy and empathy to the woman’s side of the story, spewing out the words like poison-tipped bullets:
Why’d ya do it, she said, why’d you let her suck your cock?
Oh, do me a favor, don’t put me in the dark
Why’d ya do it, she said, they’re mine, all your jewels
You just tied me to the mast of the ship of fools
Why’d ya do it, she said, when you know it makes me sore
‘Cause she had cobwebs up her fanny and I believe in giving to the poor
Why’d ya do it, she said, why’d you spit on my snatch?
Are we out of love now, is this just a bad patch?
Why’d ya do it, she screamed, after all we’ve said
Every time I see your dick I see her cunt in my bed
Marianne doesn’t just perform here, she revels in the freedom of unfettered expression granted by the ultimate act of betrayal. It’s not a song I “like,” but it’s a song I respect because hearing about the wrath of a woman scorned is one thing but “Why’d Ya Do It?” turns that trite phrase into something live, personal and very, very real.
Marianne’s first comeback was somewhat short-lived, as she wound up at Hazelden for treatment in 1985. Her life chart reads like an unstable stock market, booming and crashing at unpredictable intervals as she battles addiction, health problems and occasional legal troubles. Despite all the noise in her life, she has persisted, and Broken English was the first solid evidence that despite all her difficulties, Marianne Faithfull wasn’t about to give in and give up.