I’ve always thought of Sandy Denny as an autumn singer. Some of her best songs are reflections on the passage of time, a phenomenon most acutely experienced during that time of transition between summer and winter, when longer nights and dying leaves remind us of our own mortality. Her brief life embodied the autumnal paradox of beauty and decay, the melancholy tones of her music expressing both the hopeless defiance of time’s passing and the grim acceptance of life’s brevity.
Sandy herself was not entirely comfortable with her natural lean towards melancholy songs, as expressed in an interview with Melody Maker less than a year before she died:
Everyone, when they review my records, seems to say the same thing: another load of dirges. The trouble is that one of the reasons I write those dirgy tunes is that I can’t move that fast on the piano. I’m no Fats Waller, and that’s how it comes out, though it’s a real drag, I know. I don’t want to write miserable songs. Do you know how I feel after I’ve written a miserable sad song? Something that’s really hit me and hurt me. I feel terrible. I go and sit down and I’m really upset by it. I always write on my own. It’s like a vicious circle, being on my own. I tend to think of sad things and so I write songs that make me feel even sadder. I sit down and I write something and it moves me to tears almost. I’m fed up with feeling like that. Why do I have to put myself through it? Why can’t I think about other things, try and relax a little bit more?
Her most desperate attempt to break out of the mold was Rendezvous, her fourth and final solo effort, retrospectively described by Brett Hartenbach of Allmusic as “a flawed attempt at gaining a wider audience, by an artist who deserved better and was capable of the best.” Rolling Stone noted that “casting her as a pop singer didn’t quite work on Rendezvous,” an unusually polite and rare example of understatement from that publication. The most revealing song on the album is the closer, “No More Sad Refrains,” a song that confirms the feelings expressed in the interview and would later be used by Clifton Heylin as the title of his Sandy Denny biography.
Sandy’s excuse that she couldn’t play fast enough to write anything but dirges falls into the category of utter nonsense. The sad songs came out because she was disappointed with life and unreasonably disappointed in herself. Heylin’s biography describes a woman who gradually fell apart because she avoided dealing with the causes of what would probably be diagnosed as some form of depression. Too much drink and too much drama combined with an intense desire for mass-market recognition were symptoms of a deeper emptiness, one that would tragically lead to her too-early demise.
It’s hard to get my head around her sense of failure, of disappointment, of not being good enough. Sandy Denny was the central figure in what is considered one of the greatest folk albums ever made: Fairpoint Convention’s Liege and Lief. Readers voted her in as Best Female Singer in two annual Melody Maker polls. Her songwriting skills were first-rate; “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” was famously covered by such disparate talents as Judy Collins and Nina Simone. And in Sandy, she created a work of surprising sonic diversity supported by outstanding musicianship. But instead of taking justifiable pride in the artistic quality of the album, she was disappointed that Sandy failed to bring her superstardom.
I can’t accept that disappointment, that judgment. “You can try the best you can, try the best you can, the best you can is good enough,” Thom Yorke wrote, quoting his life partner’s advice for escaping the black hole of self-doubt. I have neither the skills nor desire to psychoanalyze Sandy Denny; all I want to do right now is to recognize a genuine musical achievement.
Appropriately, Sandy begins with a song about time and mortality. Without naming it, she uses the metaphor of the river of time, describing it as “the cruel flow” that eventually clutches all of us in the grip of death. Why me? Why now? Though the answer is unknowable, the human mind has to come up with a reason, a cause, an explanation of some kind of orderly process:
Oh, it’s like a storm at sea
And everything is lost,
And the fretful sailors calling out their woes,
As to the waves they’re tossed.
Oh, they are all gentlemen,
And never will they know
If there is a reason each of them must go,
To join the cruel flow.
And it’ll take a long, long time . . .
Though the song is cast in a tempo usually more suited to closing numbers, the music generates sufficient power to grab and hold the listener’s attention. Sandy approaches the vocal deliberately, easing up on the first two lines of the verses before raising her voice to the level of power that she displayed so memorably on songs like “Matty Groves” and “The Deserter.” She enhances her lead vocal with her own background vocals, her voice veiled in deep echo as if she is playing the part of the angel of death. Graciously, she donates most of the recording space to the work of two outstanding guitarists: Richard Thompson on both acoustic and electric and Sneaky Pete Kleinow on pedal steel guitar. The dual guitar solo in the middle section where Kleinow riffs to the verses while Thompson takes the chorus is one of the most beautiful guitar passages I’ve ever heard, a masterpiece of collaboration between true craftsmen. Both gentlemen appear on several tracks, but its Kleinow who heralds the expansion of Sandy’s playing field with his American country music stylings.
Sandy’s depth in British folk allowed her to write credible traditional songs that reflect the form and language of tunes in the Child Ballads anthology. “Sweet Rosemary” is a simple, straightforward song about a girl gathering flowers as she imagines finding her true love and eventual wedding day. The remastered version of the album includes the demo version featuring Sandy accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, and though I appreciate the more demanding vocal variations, the contributions of ex-bandmate Dave Swarbrick on fiddle and the surprising autoharp sweeps of the full studio take, there’s something terribly charming about the less-complicated version with the pretty melody front and center. At the core, a folk song should always sound perfectly fine with a single voice and a single instrument, and “Sweet Rosemary” certainly fits the bill.
Next up is the even more elaborate “For Nobody to Hear,” a story in itself. I’m not exactly sure how they pulled it off in the primitive pre-Internet era, but former Fairport and Fotheringay mate, future husband and producer Trevor Lucas figured out a way to integrate Allen Toussaint’s horn arrangement recorded in Baton Rouge, Louisiana with the master recording safely locked away in Chelsea. I sincerely hope it involved airmail. Today a producer can upload the base arrangement to a secure site, then the musician can download it, add his bits and then producer the can upload the allegedly new-and-improved master. BO-ring! I love stories of people overcoming impossible odds to get things done, and the ’60s and ’70s are full of them. Did you ever see the Apollo 11 moon lander at The Smithsonian? Shit, man, it’s just some low-end Barcaloungers and a teeny weeny computer with 1/1000000 of the power of an iPhone wrapped in aluminum foil! And it went all the way to the fucking moon! I’m becoming more and convinced that digitalization and the now-now-now ethic have destroyed human ingenuity by making things too easy for us. Fuck Amazon! Bring back parcel post! Fuck the iPhone! Bring back phone booths! Do you really need everything RIGHT NOW?
However Lucas pulled it off, his efforts went for naught. The mix on this song is dreadful, with horns, drums and guitar drowning out the singer. I don’t know if they were intimate at the time, but if they were, I’ll bet Sandy gave him an earful when he got home. The lyrics also drift into self-pity (“But it made me for to write no songs/For nobody to hear”), and even a stripped-down version wouldn’t qualify as one of Sandy’s better efforts.
Fortunately, “For Nobody to Hear” is the only turkey on the album. Sandy bounces back pretty quickly with her version of Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is a Long Time,” a song that had already been covered by Elvis, Judy Collins and Rod Stewart. Sandy makes the song her own with her nuanced vocal alternating between tones of reflection and heartfelt passion, riding the comfy tempo with confidence. Sneaky Pete returns with sweet and lovely work on the pedal steel guitar, coaxing the challenging instrument to produce clear, rising tones that seem to drift on air. Sandy’s selection of Linda Thompson to take the role of harmonic support was definitely an inspired choice, as their voices blend especially well, most notably in the rising crescendo on the closing lines.
Sandy takes it to another level entirely with Richard Farina’s adaptation of the traditional song “Quiet Joys of Brotherhood.” The first two verses describe a natural world in perfect harmony (gentle tides, colours blending beautifully in the sand, the thunder of mare and stallion, the blended flower), while the last verse alludes to the destructive tendencies of man and how they wreak havoc on natural harmony:
But man has come to plough the tide,
The oak lies on the ground.
I hear their tires in the fields,
They drive the stallion down.
The roses bleed both light and dark,
The winds do seldom call.
The running sands recall the time
When love was lord of all.
This is the poetic version of the evolutionary history described in Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, where man’s evolution is linked to the blind destruction of thousands of species, flora and fauna alike (the book has many flaws in addition to being positively depressing, but the self-destructive tendencies of our species has been well-documented). What makes Sandy’s interpretation of the story more credible and aesthetically pleasing is the power of her voice, a capella. Singing a capella is always a risky proposition, but when it’s done well, there are few musical forms that command one’s attention so thoroughly. The opening verse is captivating enough, but when Sandy adds three-part harmony (in her own voice) in the second verse, the effect is absolutely stunning—and in the last verse, when she adds a fourth part at the top of her range, the chills run up and down my spine. That fourth voice is not a decorative element, but a voice that expresses infinite sadness, a voice dying in the wilderness. The song could have ended there, but Sandy brought in Dave Swarbrick for the finishing touch: a sensitive violin elegy that expresses mourning more powerfully than words possibly could. This part always makes me tear up, as Swarbrick brings out the feeling of loss through a perfectly executed solo focused on the lower strings of the violin. The backstory is Sandy and Swarbrick didn’t get along all that well, but here they put their differences aside to create a great moment in music.
“Listen, Listen” has become one of Sandy’s signature songs, the title of a solid introductory compilation released at the dawn of the millennium. The strength of the song is its stirring melody, further powered by Sandy’s confident, free-spirited approach. She also handles the foundational 12-string guitar and receives more than enough support from Richard Thompson on mandolin, Pat Donaldson on bass and Timi Donald on the drums. I could have done without the string section, an unnecessary appendage to a song with strong bones. The lyrics are on the awkward side and the storyline (such as it is) eludes my ability to make sense of it all, but the melody and strength of the performances carry the day. There is a French version available on the remastered release (“Écoute, Écoute”) that works if you’re not too bothered by less-than-stellar articulation.
“The Lady” catches the listener’s attention from the get-go with a dissonant E flat augmented chord, inverted to place the G note at the base to make the transition to the main melody less jarring on the ears. Again, I would have dispensed with Harry Robertson’s strings (or turned them down to half-volume), as I think the song would have had much more impact with just piano and Sandy’s exceptionally strong, passionate vocal. Given the heartfelt intensity she displayed, we can assume that the lady in question is Sandy herself, and the picture formed by the lyrics describes a woman who struggles with the feeling of not being good enough (“The lady she had a silver tongue/For to sing she said/And maybe that’s all”), yearns for a moment when the audience is struck dumb by the sound of her voice (“Wait for the dawn and we will have that song/When it ends it will seem/That we hear silence fall”), loves well but probably not too wisely (“The lady she had a golden heart/For to love, she said/And she did not lie”) but still clings to the dream of breaking through cold indifference to transform the world with her music:
We heard that song while watching the skies,
Oh the sound it rang
So clear through the cold.
Then silence fell and the sun did arise
On a beautiful morning of silver and gold.
Those are pretty heavy expectations to carry in a world where people are always looking for the shiny new thing.
Mainly Norfolk, the invaluable source of all things English folk, accurately describes Richard Thompson’s guitar on “Bushes and Briars” as an “obligato,” a musical term used to describe “an instrumental part, typically distinctive in effect, which is integral to a piece of music and should not be omitted in performance.” Imagine “Aqualung” without Martin Barre’s guitar or “Comfortably Numb” without Gilmour’s fabulous solo, and you’ll get an idea of the indispensability of Richard Thompson’s contribution here. While he’s probably not the first name that pops into your head when you think of country gee-tar pickers, Richard channeled enough Sneaky Pete to master the essence of the style while adding his own distinctive mark to the piece. His slides, bends, vibrato, arpeggios are as clean as a crystal stream. Meanwhile, Sandy holds up her end of the bargain with an exceptional performance that spans the mood spectrum from wistfulness to righteousness as she strolls through a bleak winter landscape to arrive at a church, empty save for the “clergy’s chosen man” and the graves of past parishioners:
I wonder if he knows I’m here
Watching the briars grow.
And all these people beneath my shoes,
I wonder if they know.
There was a time when every last one
Knew a clergy’s chosen man
Where are they now? Thistles and thorns
Among the sand.
It should be noted that “Bushes and Briars” is not the song classified as Roud 1027, but a Sandy Denny original.
As is “It Suits Me Well,” a tale about the perpetual wanderer—the gypsy, the sailor, the circus trouper. The attraction is in the freedom, to be able to say “There are no chains about me, I am me own man,” to “stand upon the salty deck and feel the wind blow.” Sandy wrote the song in the old vernacular, a proper choice for a lifestyle that seems to be dying, replaced by a new class of itinerants who have no choice in the matter—the refugees, the homeless forced to live in cars or makeshift shelters. The characters in the song “never had a proper home . . . never had a garden or a place with windows,” finding those trappings to be unbearable attachments that interfere with personal liberty. “The living it is hard, but oh, it suits me well,” they sing, prioritizing validation of the spirit above creature comforts. Though none of the lifestyles described in the song would suit me, I understand the yearning for a life without compromise. Sandy gives us another strong vocal performance, channeling the moods and motivations of the characters to perfection, conservatively limiting her use of portamento to give the vocal gymnastics more prominence. The band of Thompson, Donaldson, Donald, Lucas (on acoustic guitar), John Kirkpatrick (concertina) and an uncredited harmonica stylist fashion a comparatively understated background that highlights Sandy’s vocal (as it should) and echoes the ambivalence of freedom won at such a steep price. One of the strongest compositions on the album, “It Suits Me Well” evokes latent feelings of resistance to conformity that might help listeners survive another day of wage slavery and activate their inner gypsies.
The original album closes with the achingly beautiful “The Music Weaver.” The third time turns out to be the charm for Harry Robertson, whose string arrangement is both rich and thoughtfully restrained, allowing plenty of room for Sandy’s flawless vocal and simple piano patterns. In tone and lyric, this is the most honest song on the album, where Sandy drops her tendency to communicate in passive-aggressive hints in exchange for honest, mask-off communication. In the first verse, she calls herself out for communicating in half-truths:
I’m a long way from you,
I’m a long way from home.
And who cares for the feeling
Of being alone?
The notes and the words
They will always unfold
And I’m left with a manuscript
That will grow old
And the secrets all told anyway.
After a lovely instrumental passage, Sandy shares her closing thoughts with her faraway partner, thoughts that reflect the desire for symbiosis but close with an escape route. Though life for a musician on the road is far more comfortable than the experience of a hobo riding the rails, Sandy feels a bond with those roamers, suggesting that the music they weave embodies the same melancholy displayed in her work.
The remastered version also features two tracks from a single released in support of an obscure, short film called Pass of Arms about two knights pointlessly battling to the death in a forest. While that description may bring up memories of the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, these Don Fraser compositions are both powerful anti-war songs that Sandy delivers to perfection. “Here In Silence” is the stronger of the two, with an arrangement that integrates oboe, piccolo and bugle in the style of Joshua Rifkin’s ear-catching arrangements on Judy Collins’ In My Life album. The most powerful verse in terms of lyrical content and Sandy’s delivery highlights the inexplicable justification for waging war in the name of the Prince of Peace:
Take my children, golden children
Grow them, train them, cut them, kill them
For the justice of your Jesus
For the service of your leaders
Can you feel me, can you touch me
Can you leave me here in silence?
“Man of Iron” features another strong arrangement but the dominant imagery of knights in armor brings up too many images of John Cleese’s armored body shrinking limb-by-limb for me to embrace the song, though I do admire Sandy’s performance.
Both songs were recorded around the time of Sandy, serving as potent evidence that this was the period when Sandy Denny peaked as a solo artist. Like an Old-Fashioned Waltz gave us Sandy’s first attempt to expand her listening audience by introducing jazz and pop influence (an attempt that failed to chart); the aforementioned Rendezvous left her fan base puzzled as to why she refused to play to her strengths. While she expanded her stylistic range on Sandy, the connections between British and American folk are well-established; jumping from British folk to jazz is another thing entirely. Given the evidence of an increasingly fragile psyche, Sandy Denny was not only asking too much of the listening audience but too much of herself.
I wish she were still alive today, for even had she given up music for another calling, a mature version of Sandy Denny would look back and chalk up the mistakes to experience and take justifiable pride in the beauty she created.
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.