Marianne Faithfull-Broken English (UMC/Island Records)
Marianne Faithfull’s Deluxe Edition release of her classic ‘Broken English’ album gets a review by LTW’s David Marren.
After a well publicised descent into heroin addiction and a suicide attempt which placed her in a coma for six days, Marianne Faithfull decided enough was enough and exited her role as chief consort and erstwhile muse to his satanic majesty, Mick Jagger, as a means of self preservation. Her concerns were not unfounded at the time as many involved in the Rolling Stones coterie were spiraling uncontrollably into a demi–monde which took no prisoners and whose chief casualty had been the band’s founding member, Brian Jones. Faithfull, seemingly the only one in the Stones retinue who showed any grief, was the hardest hit by Jones’s untimely demise and escaping the world and decade she had, in part, created seemed the only way out as the sixties ended and the seventies hovered into view.
The following decade was not particularly kind to Faithfull as she staggered in a heroin induced narcotic haze from one disaster to another. The split up from Jagger coincided with her losing custody of her son before succumbing to the indignity of living on a wall in SoHo alongside other penniless street junkies. The removal of the protective world of the Stones revealed her vulnerability but allowed her to find an inner strength few had suspected. It was, however. also a hard fall for one who had emerged as a beautiful, almost virginal ingénue only six years previously and one which threatened to engulf and ultimately destroy her.
By the time 1979 rolled around and the world was still reeling from the aftermath of punk, Marianne Faithfull meant little to the public at large. Mainly a forgotten figure in a series of played out dramas from the sixties, her relevance and influence at that time had not only been forgotten but also overlooked. Few would have expected her to consider attempting a comeback never mind her actually getting it together to actually do it. Fewer still would have expected her to do it with a work as blisteringly real and abrasive as the resulting album ‘Broken English’.
Essentially this is the sound of someone who had stared into the abyss and realised they had already lost everything therefore there was nothing else to lose. Influenced heavily by Lou Reed’s ‘Berlin’ and Patti Smith’s ‘Horses’, and in the process capturing the nihilism of the former and the energy of the latter perfectly, the album in question fitted perfectly into the post punk landscape. It forged a sonic musical template that prefigured the coming decade and whose re-release featuring remixes and original studio tryouts show it still has a place in modern music.
The message was clear from the opening title track which bubbled and growled its way along as if it had been cooked up out of a secret recipe which had simmered over from a post apocalyptic cauldron. Faithfull’s voice which had once been the symbol of purity (check her debut single her original reading of the Jagger/Richards penned ‘As Tears Go By’ for confirmation) was now a whisky soaked, nicotine stained, drug drenched bellwether of an instrument which was as blunt in its delivery as of the message it was delivering. Delving into the world of terrorism via the Baader Meinhoff Gang, who had been making world headlines, its subject matter was controversial and relevant. The track throbbed along on its own agenda and from the outset it was clear Faithfull was back in a way few could ever have envisioned.
Barely pausing for breath she was then off into the second track ‘Witches Song’ (from a woman who had been denounced by both the Vatican and the Archbishop of Canterbury before she was barely out of her teens the title was especially poignant) and the tell-all lyric of “Danger is great joy, dark is bright as fire” showed a woman who no longer cared what others thought and more importantly was certainly not to be messed with. ‘Brain Drain’ strolls along at its own pace before she offers up the purging Catholicism of ‘Guilt’ which allows her to maintain “Though I ain’t done nothing wrong I feel guilt” unapologetically.
‘The Ballad of Lucy Jordan’ was an electro refashioning of a Dr. Hook song and the most obviously commercial track. Therefore it was singled out for release as a single, eventually becoming Faithfull’s most recognisable tune. It was a sympathetic reading of the tale of a suburban housewife whose lifestyle was suffocating her and Faithfull related to the protagonist as it resembled the life she may have led if she had stayed with her first husband rather than take up with Jagger and tried to live like a Rolling Stone. ‘What’s the Hurry’ in hindsight seems like filler in an album which otherwise houses classic tracks but it still manages to capture the nagging insistency of a junkie continually on the prowl for their next fix.
Her reading of Lennon’s ‘Working Class Hero’ confused observers at the time (being a true blue blood herself her aristocratic Hungarian background meant many felt she was unable to perform the songs sentiments convincingly) but it is a powerful version which lingers and pulsates with real malevolent intent and apparently Lennon himself totally approved the version proclaiming it his favourite interpretation. This was only a palette cleanser however before the final track ‘Why D’ya Do It’, which must still rank as the ultimate angry female song.
To hear the former convent girl snarl and growl across a rock/dub hybrid backing track (Grace Jones lifted this sound wholesale a year later and fashioned a career out of it which is still going strong today) spitting out such venomous lines as “Every time I see your dick I see her cunt in my bed”, “Why d’ya let her suck your cock” and the remarkably gracious “She had cobwebs up her fanny I believe in giving to the poor” may have shocked some but convinced others that she was a real driving force behind the Stones during their most febrile and creative period.
Re-released on January 28th, with a second disc made up of original session versions of the album’s eight tracks before producer Mark Miller Mundy applied a high gloss techno sheen to it, provides proof this album is still relevant today.
These previously unheard versions although interesting offer little to the original album’s legacy but as a work in progress they are intriguing as they show the original mixes were rawer and more in keeping with the post punk/new wave trend of that particular moment. What Mundy did however was take this sound and fashion it into a proto-techno sonic soundscape which gave the album a longevity the original mixes could never have provided.
The most interesting addition however is a recording of ‘Sister Morphine’ which she had recorded back in 1969 only to have it pulled from the shops a day after its release for being too controversial. No such qualms were expressed when the Stones recorded it for their album ‘Sticky Fingers’ two years later, but women in the supposedly liberating sixties still had a long way to go before they could express themselves in the same way as men. Faithfull’s version however emerges as the definitive one as although an observer in her original reading she had become the protagonist in the intervening years and her experiences are clearly heard.
There are also three Derek Jarman videos included in the package showing that Faithfull had managed to retain some credibility during all these years in the wilderness. At the age of thirty-two Faithfull may have seemed old to the punk generation but it is interesting to note that she was still two years younger than Debbie Harry who was emerging as the new face on that scene. Faithfull had by this juncture had her first record in the charts fifteen years previously and was seen as being of the previous generation whilst Harry conversely was thought of as the harbinger of the new.
Despite all this on its release, Broken English was hailed as something of a triumph and Faithfull once again a credible artist, if not even more so than she had ever been before. Released at the end of January by UMC/ Island it could quite easily be the first essential release of the year some thirty four years after it originally came out. Go figure what that says about the state of so much modern music!
Marianne Faithfull is online with an official website.
Words by David Marren. More writing by David on Louder Than War can be found here.