Modern Life Is Rubbish would have appeared in my Britpop series if it hadn’t been for that damned skinhead controversy. From Wikipedia:
Modern Life Is Rubbish was released in May 1993. The announcement of the album’s release included a press photo which featured Blur, dressed in a mix of mod and skinhead attire, posing alongside a mastiff with the words “British Image 1” spraypainted behind them. At the time, such imagery was viewed as nationalistic and racially insensitive by the British music press; to quieten concerns, Blur released the “British Image 2” photo, which was “a camp restaging of a pre-war aristocratic tea party”.
I would have had to waste a lot of blog space explaining my way through that crap, diverting attention from the overall narrative. It was a dumb thing for Blur to do, given their already questionable standing with the British press, who had dismissed them as “bogus trend-hoppers” trying to latch on to the dying Madchester scene. It was a really dumb thing to do because they were also £60,000 in debt, had completely bombed in an extensive tour of the United States and were on notice from their record company that they had to produce something of commercial value pretty darned quick or find themselves out on their collective arses.
There is an old saying, “Great music conquers every ill.” Actually, there is no such saying: I just made it up. Nonetheless, the adage certainly applies to Blur because Modern Life Is Rubbish is so good that it saved their careers and turned skeptical listeners into happy campers. The turn towards socially-conscious, British-centric music in the tradition of Ray Davies and Paul Weller suited their talents, and the stylistic change from Madchester to solid rock played to their musical strengths. Though somewhat compromised by record company demands and a few questionable choices, Modern Life Is Rubbish is a vibrant, cheeky, ass-kicking experience.
If only they’d consulted me on track order, the album could have been so much better. Wait a sec . . . let me count . . . oops . . . I was only eleven years old when the album was released, so I guess I wouldn’t have been much help with the layout and probably would have developed a crush on Alex James. Hereby amended: If I could use Mr. Peabody’s WABAC machine to transport me back to early 1993, I would have told the band that they were about to make a big track-ordering mistake but that the problem could be fixed in a jiffy: move the opening track to the end and all the other tracks up one notch.
“For Tomorrow” is essentially an okay song damaged by serious over-production. It didn’t exist when Blur submitted their work to Food Records owner David Balfe, a truly villainous presence in this story. He rejected the album, told them they were committing artistic suicide and demanded more singles. Poor Damon Albarn had to give up his Christmas Eve to please his master and came up with “For Tomorrow.” Though written under protest, the song isn’t half bad, a more-than-competent slice of London life. The last two verses are not only very well-written but also gave the album its title:
Jim stops and gets out the car,
Goes to a house in Emperor’s Gate,
Through the door and to his room,
Then he puts the TV on,
Turns it off and makes some tea,
Says “Modern life, well, it’s rubbish”
I’m holding on for tomorrow,
Then Susan comes into the room,
She’s a naughty girl with a lovely smile,
Says let’s take a drive to Primrose Hill,
It’s windy there and the view’s so nice,
London ice can freeze your toes
Like anyone I suppose
I’m holding on for tomorrow . . .
All very well and good, but the melody is strained, the la-la-la-la’s that form the chorus nothing more than placeholders and . . . whoever made the decision to add strings to the arrangement deserves life imprisonment with no chance of parole. The music doesn’t fit particularly well with the other songs on the album, but . . . if you make it the closer, it takes the role of the song that tells you where Blur is headed next (a notion initially applied by Thom Yorke to Radiohead albums). Dump the strings, stick it in the back and the emergence of the album title at this late juncture beautifully summarizes all that has come before. The title itself demands such placement.
Such a move places “Advert” in the opening slot, a song that makes a clean and decisive break with the shoegaze-Madchester sound of their first album, Leisure. The patched-in voice of an American announcer proclaiming “Food processors are great!” fits perfectly with the theme contained in the album title and what follows is not the meandering sound of their maiden release but a band seriously intent on kicking ass. After a cheerful introductory build, Graham Coxon arrives with a series of slashing power chords, leading the band in a memory-erasing all-out bash. As Damon Albarn waits in the wings, you wonder how they’re going to connect such delightfully rough music to food processors, but when Damon arrives on stage in the guise of a bloke waiting for the next Underground train, it all becomes crystal clear:
It’s six o’clock on the dot and I’m halfway home
I feel foul-mouthed as I stand and wait for the underground
And a nervous disposition doesn’t agree with this
I need something to remind me that there’s something else
You need a holiday somewhere in the sun
With all the people who are waiting
There never seems to be one
Say something, say something else
Say something, say something else
The chord change from the A-G pattern to Bm-F#-A-G in the chorus is absolutely thrilling, with Albarn lowering his pitch to intensify the effect. It’s logical to assume that “you need a holiday somewhere in the sun” comes from an advert posted in the station, the empty something to remind the man of “something else,” an assumption confirmed later in the song. As is so often true in modern life, advertising is equally likely to produce revulsion instead of the intended effect to entice the viewer into pissing away their money. Our man in the subway is wise to the con, and knows that the failure of an ad to address one “need” ironically creates another “need” for which advertising has a ready-made solution (of course):
Advertisements are here for rapid persuasion
If you stare too long you lose your appetite
A nervous disposition doesn’t agree with this
You need fast relief from aches and stomach pains
Our hero tries to get the ads out of his head by counting away the time, but the ad has planted a small voice in his brain to remind him of the holiday, this time attached to a “special offer!” By this time, we can all empathize with his aching desire for the ads to “Say something else!” “Advert” is a great opener that deserved the top slot, and when I listen to the album on my nano, I change the track order on iTunes to put the world right.
The disastrous U. S. tour did have the positive effect of getting Damon Albarn hooked on Ray Davies, and the album features some rock-oriented character sketches similar to what you’d find on a Golden Period Kinks album. The first is “Colin Zeal,” which opens with a rolling bass run from Alex James that prefaces a simple Dm-Am chord progression attached to a latin-tinged beat. The rhythm is then overlaid with a Graham Coxon solo featuring disciplined use of the wah-wah pedal. Damon Albarn’s vocal is delivered in a flat, matter-of-fact tone as he describes a man obsessed with fitting in:
Colin Zeal knows the value of mass appeal
He’s a pedestrian walker, he’s a civil talker
He’s an affable man with a plausible plan
Keeps his eye on the news, keeps his future in hand
A brief caesura marked by the phrase “And then he . . .” leads us into the chorus, where key and tempo changes herald the significance of what Colin considers his most important achievement:
Looks at his watch, he’s on time yet again
Looks at his watch, he’s on time yet again
He’s pleased with himself, he’s pleased with himself
He’s so pleased with himself, ah ha
I die laughing every time, and I love the way Blur shifts seamlessly from latin to rock in verse and chorus.
The title of “Pressure on Julian” gives one hope of another witty character sketch, but alas, it’s a bad inside joke involving Julian Cope, the lead singer of The Teardrop Explodes. Cope’s musical collaborator during their heyday was none other than David Balfe, and apparently Damon Albarn liked to insert references to Julian because it “drove him bananas.” The sophomoric motivation wastes an interesting piece of music, with Coxon’s guitar sounding like a malfunctioning siren and Alex James thumping away with all his might.
“Star Shaped” takes us back to the existential challenges of modern humanity with a character who is hoping for a future as an “unconscious man” where he can revel in the feeling of being unnecessary, fully interchangeable with another organic unit. The voices in his head (manifested in trailing responses sung in falsetto) encourage him to follow this hopeless course of action by telling the bloke he’s “star-shaped,” i.e., has the right DNA to make a real splash in the world (likely echoes of corporate bullshit). This is a pretty accurate representation of the psychological state of many in the workforce, who know in their hearts that climbing the corporate ladder is a completely meaningless effort and that “starring” in such a role both requires and results in an unconscious state where learned behavior conquers native intelligence. Musically, the song is marked by dramatic and demanding chord shifts in different keys, so if you’re looking to increase your chord change speed and improve your fretboard dexterity, look up the tabs online and have at it. But before you go there, listen to one of the loveliest oboe solos on record, courtesy of the well-traveled, multi-instrumentalist Ms. Kate St. John.
While the routine of modern life can be soul-draining, it also has the advantage of comfortable and comforting predictability. This is the slant taken in the song “Blue Jeans,” a more melancholy look at the issue of psychological survival. The opening drum pattern from Dave Rowntree foreshadows a Phil Spector-like arrangement with its deep thumps and echoes, but the song turns out to be one of the gentler songs on the record, marked by a not-quite mid-tempo rhythm with smoothly syncopated punctuation, morose-sounding keyboards, imbalanced lines in the verses, and a gorgeous melodic line supported by plethora of tasteful chord changes. The narrator is a shy and awkward sort, the kind of guy you never notice at the open-air markets or anywhere else for that matter. He admirably takes pleasure in the small blessings of the humdrum:
Air cushioned soles
I bought them on the Portobello Road on a Saturday
I stop and stare awhile
A common pastime when conversation goes astray
And don’t think I’m walking out of this
She don’t mind
Whatever I say, whatever I say
I don’t really want to change a thing
I want to stay this way forever
An uplifting note of triumph comes from an organ at a higher pitch between verses, a sort of ironic validation of the man’s choices. The second verse indicates he’s fully aware of the risks of banality, just like the “unconscious man” in “Star Shaped”:
Blue, blue jeans I wear them every day
There’s no particular reason to change
My thoughts are getting banal,
I can’t help it but I won’t pull out hair another day
By this point in the song, the arrangement has taken on more texture with Graham Coxon’s guitar moving to the fore, but remarkably, the melancholy mood isn’t compromised but intensified. A quick, rising riff from Coxon cues the song’s bridge, a slight variation from the main theme that seamlessly blends with the chorus:
You know it will be with you
And don’t give up on me yet
Don’t think I’m walking out of this
She don’t mind
Whatever I say, whatever I say . . .
That passage makes me want to reach out and hug the guy and make all his insecurities go away. While Blur is certainly accomplished at the skeptical-cynical perspective on life, let us not forget that they could activate empathy as well, with often beautiful results.
Next up are two of the singles from the album. “Chemical World” was another track commissioned by the record company masters, this time the American contingent. The power chords are grunge but the dominant beat is positively bouncy and un-grunge-like. Graham Coxon has a good time with some sweet filler riffs and fulfilling the lead role in the call-and-response vocals with Albarn. It’s a solid rocker that was understandably chosen as one of the singles, but the lyrics fall short of conveying a meaning that comes anywhere near impactful. Tacked on to the end is an “Intermission” that is best described by the phrase “boys will be boys.”
“Sunday Sunday” falls somewhere between a thumping rocker and a tune played by the town band perched in the gazebo on the village square; with a little imagination and a downward adjustment in power, the song would fit quite nicely into Village Green Preservation Society. Keeping with the theme of routine, the song describes the narcotic effects of the typical Sunday meal and the traditional boring activities of walks in the park and Sunday night bingo. Everyone in this song falls asleep from an overdose of food or old age, but Blur is a good enough band to keep the listener awake, ramping up the tempo midway through the song for a little boost. I would have chosen “Advert” or “Blue Jeans” over “Sunday Sunday” for the single release, but the song definitely fits in with Blur’s desire to produce British-centric music.
“Oily Water” was singled out by critics for echoing Blur’s short-lived shoegaze era, but I’ll just say right now that I love the sound of those chords, shimmering in so much vibrato that they seem out of sync with conventional notions of time. Albarn sings through a filter similar to the one used by John Lennon on “Tomorrow Never Knows” to mimic the sound of “the Dalai Lama singing from a mountaintop.” The lyrics aren’t half as memorable, though, and the arrangement gets too dark and heavy for the content.
The working title for the album was Britain Versus America, a message in itself but more colorfully explained by Alex James: “It was fucking scary how American everything’s becoming . . . so the whole thing was a fucking big two fingers up to America.” When I was old enough to pick up on the anti-Americanism I experienced when traveling to Europe to see the relatives, I remember feeling hurt (I think I was about twelve) and demanded an explanation from my mother (most of the shit came from the French, not the Irish). She responded by giving me a thorough history lesson, but when she was finished, my dad summed it up in a more pithy manner.
“Most Americans are alright, but we have more than our fair share of assholes who make the rest of us look bad.”
Blur avoided direct commentary on the American scene, and since they all left the States with a bad taste in their mouths, that was probably a good idea. What we get instead is “Miss America,” a song spare on lyrics but full of musical imagery that gets the point across. The exceptionally relaxed music consists of little more than acoustic guitar and claves and sounds like it was recorded in an echo chamber, the perfect environment for an intellectually-challenged beauty who goes through life with people constantly telling her how wonderful she is. She begins the song sitting in the shower “plucking hours from the sky,” makes a phone call, wishes people well with infinite sweetness and politely engages in empty conversation with well-wishers (“Here is here and I am here, where are you?”). There really isn’t much more, which I believe is the point. Miss America is a symbol of a culture that is all surface, no substance and anything but genuine.
Blur now shifts to overdrive with three solid rockers in a row. “Villa Rosie” doesn’t exist in the real world, and the unusual chord structure suggests that if it were a real-life watering hole, you’d find it somewhere far off the beaten path. The lyrics aren’t much help in describing the ambiance or the clientele, leading me to believe this was another inside joke among the band members, similar to “Pressure on Julian.” The guitar work is definitely on the exuberant side, and the “woo-hoos” add to the playfulness of the piece.
“Coping” is the strongest of the three, combining hard rock drive fueled by the combination of electric and acoustic guitar hammering out the chords. The lyrics are coherent and interesting, covering the fuck-it level ennui later explored in the context of suburban life in “Tracy Jacks.” We’ll start our psychoanalysis of the song with the definition of “coping mechanisms” from goodtherapy.org:
Coping mechanisms are the strategies people often use in the face of stress and/or trauma to help manage painful or difficult emotions. Coping mechanisms can help people adjust to stressful events while helping them maintain their emotional well-being.
With modern life designed to produce more stressors than most humans can handle, coping mechanisms are seen as valuable tools to help us get through the day . . . but pay careful attention to the underlying assumption. Coping mechanisms are necessary because human beings are unable or unwilling to fix the problems that lead us to booze, drugs, cigarettes, medication, meditation or a million other temporary fixes. “Coping” calls that assumption into question:
It’s a sorry state you’re getting in
The same excuse is wearing thin
There’s no self control left in me
What was not will never will be
And I’m too tired to care about it
Can’t you see this in my face, my face
When I feel this strange can I go through this again?
When I feel this strange can I go through this again?
(…Or am I just coping?)
The high heat of the smoking guitars is somewhat offset by wild synthesizer runs, adding a bit of wackiness to the piece. I would have preferred a Coxon solo in the instrumental break, but the synthesizer does have the advantage of adding to the feeling of mental instability that runs through the lyrics.
“Turn It Up” has a palpable resemblance to the more melodic Oasis songs, and from a musical perspective, it’s one of the best pop-rock tracks Blur ever did. But the lyrics . . . what the fuck?
Kazoo, kazoo you are mine, kazoo kazoo every time
Turn it up, turn it off, turn it in (x2)
Anyway you choose, anyway you choose at all
Some days you get too much, some days it all gets too much
Kazoo, kazoo you are mine, why do you turn your back on me?
Turn it up, turn it off, turn it in (x4)
Anyway you choose, anyway you choose at all
Some days you do too much, some days it all gets too much
Kazoo, kazoo you are mine, kazoo kazoo every time
Turn it up, turn it off, turn it in (x4)
Seriously, boys, the melody and chord structure deserved a far better fate than this.
My final piece of evidence in favor of changing the track order to place “For Tomorrow” at the end is the actual album closer, “Resigned.” The music is dull, dull, dull, the lyrics say nothing much and the track goes on and on and on long after the two short verses fade into memory. Once the song finally gives up the ghost, Blur inserts a “Commercial Break” where the boys take out all their testosterone on their unsuspecting instruments. Yes, boys will be boys, but I suppose they deserved some release after all they’d gone through to make this record.
Damon Albarn’s retrospective view on the creation of Modern Life Is Rubbish is a valuable lesson in motivation: “Suede and America fuelled my desire to prove to everyone that Blur were worth it. There was nothing more important in my life.” The dumb ass sentiments featured on Successory products won’t supply a hundredth of the motivation of a threat to one’s existence or identity. Though I think he was too hard on Brett Anderson (and that his views were skewed by personal noise), Suede and America provided the foils he and the band needed to up their game. What’s wonderful about Modern Life Is Rubbish is the way Blur responded to that threat—not by getting serious, but by getting playful.
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.