Marianne Faithfull celebrates her 70th birthday on the 29th of December. John Scott takes a listen to her 1979 album Broken English.
In 1964, The Rolling Stones had not yet ascended to the rock aristocracy that they would come to epitomise. Seventeen year old Marianne Faithfull on the other hand was the daughter of a real-life aristocrat; her mother was a member of the Austrian house of Sacher-Masoch. Faithfull is the great great niece of the author of Venus In Furs ( Leopold von Sacher-Masoch), the erotic novel which inspired The Velvet Underground’s song of the same name, and coined the word “masochism”. Not long out of convent school, Faithfull had began a fledgling career as a folk singer in London’s coffeehouse scene when she attended a Rolling Stones record launch party with her boyfriend John Dunbar and was spotted by Stones’ manager Andrew Loog Oldham. Shortly afterwards, she had her first hit As Tears Go By, written by Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Oldham. Faithfull married Dunbar in 1965 but by the end of the year, shortly after the birth of their son, she left to live with Jagger.
As a couple, Jagger and Faithful helped to define the hedonism of the Sixties as the Stones moved away from pop music, crafting their blues and rock and roll influences into a new kind of rock. They became famous for more than just the music; newspaper headlines trumpeted drug busts and rock and roll mythology gained a possibly apocryphal confectionary-based scandal. There is a long list of people who have joined the Stones’ inner circle and found it a tough gig to handle. Marianne was no exception. Her drug dependency was chronicled in Sister Morphine, co-written with Jagger. When the couple split in 1970 she was addicted to heroin, became homeless and although she intermittently released records, it seemed that her career was behind her.
Faithfull had lived a lifetime in the ten years between 1969 and 1979 and it showed in her voice. Her sweet, light voice was now cracked and broken, irreparably damaged by years of laryngitis and abuse, but it perfectly suited the character of the songs she had been working on. A band had been put together for a 1977 tour of Ireland and this band – Barry Reynolds and Joe Mavety on guitars, Steve York on bass and Terry Stannard on drums – formed Faithfull’s co-writing partnership and became the core musicians for the record. Chris Blackwell of Island Records heard some early demos and funded the recording of the album
As Bob Dylan wrote in Like A Rolling Stone : When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose. Broken English was a make or break effort from Faithfull. She needed someone to help her shape the album, someone with something to prove and she found him in producer Mark Miller Mundy, who was desperate to make a name for himself.
Broken English was a complete change of direction for Faithfull. Her previous records had blended pop, folk and, more recently, country influences. Broken English was informed by punk and new wave. The songs were raw, like Faithfull’s voice. Reynolds’ slashing guitar on the title song underpin bleak lyrics about European terrorism. Guilt is influenced by Faithfull and Reynolds’ Catholic upbringing. A stark cover of John Lennon’s Working Class Hero was recorded as a tribute to Faithfull’s own heroes including Lennon and Jagger. Shel Silverstein’s The Ballad Of Lucy Jordan, written for Dr Hook and who performed it in their customary country rock style, is given a wintery, futuristic production that underscores the helplessness of a woman whose dreams will never be realised. The production of the album was not without its problems though. Mundy recorded the songs for the album with Faithfull, Reynolds, Mavety, York and Stannard but decided that a more modern sound was required and called in established musicians like Steve Winwood on keyboards and Morris Pert on percussion to provide an extensive overhaul. In particular, Winwoods’ sequenced synthesisers added a modern touch that pointed the way to the Eighties and the albums that Grace Jones would record on Island a few years later. Barry Reynolds would also help to shape Jones’ sound – the signature guitar sound of the Broken English title track turns up again in Walking In The Rain from her Nightclubbing album.
If Broken English is famous for resuscitating Marianne Faithfull’s career, it is equally infamous for the track Why D’Ya Do It. Why D’Ya Do It is a frank, brutal, no-holds-barred story of betrayal. Its genital and oral sex references were shocking, even by the standards of the time, and led to the album being banned in Australia. Broken English was a commercial success elsewhere however, going on to sell more than a million copies and re-establishing Marianne Faithfull as a credible artist.
Broken English is now available in a deluxe version that brings together the released version of the album with the original mixes, some extended remixes, and Faithfull’s own version of Sister Morphine. The original mixes stand up really well and are worth a listen in their own right as an alternative version of the album.
Broken English probably saved Marianne Faithfull’s life. She has gone on to record more than a dozen discs, becoming a respected interpreter of songs by songwriters such as Kurt Weil, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits as well as working with a younger generation of artists like Jarvis Cocker, Rufus Wainwright and Teddy Thompson. I hope she has something special planned to mark her birthday. She’s earned it.