Marianne Faithfull – Broken English – Classic Music Review
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.