Album Rescue Series: Marianne Faithful ‘Broken English’

Like a lot of people, my earliest recollections of Marianne Faithful is of a 17-year-old pale waif princess singing the Jagger/Richards 1964 composition of When Tears Go By on a flickering black and white TV. Marianne Faithfull was one of the most photographed women in the world during her youth. With her angelic English looks, large breasts and long legs, she was the physical embodiment of the sexiest part of the 1960s, particularly when draped around the rock stars who made up her inner circle of lovers David Bowie, Gene Pitney, Brian Jones and Mick Jagger. She was the 60’s quintessential rock star girlfriend, the beautiful young exotic woman envied by everyone, men wanted to fuck her, and women wanted to be her.

Marianne Faithfull was born the daughter of an idealistic British gentleman, army officer and professor of English literature Major Robert Glynn Faithful. Her mother was Eva von Sacher-Masoch, the Baroness Erisso, whose family had originally hailed from Vienna. During the 2nd World War the von Sacher-Masoch family had secretly opposed the Nazi regime in Vienna and helped to save the lives of many Jews. This is the same family line as Leopold von Sacher-Mascoh who lends his name to the Masochism part of Sadomasochism. Major Faithfull’s work as an Intelligence Officer for the British Army brought him into contact with the von Sacher-Masoch family where he met Eva. A family background that reads like a combination of narratives from Blackadder meets the Von Trapp family. Faithful is probably the only daughter of an Austro-Hungarian Baroness to ever spend time in Ormskirk, west Lancashire while her father undertook his PhD in English Literature at the nearby University of Liverpool. She was largely schooled at a north London Catholic convent that temporarily sheltered her from the outside world. With such a family background, Faithful’s life should have being one of middle class privilege, comfort and free of celebrity notoriety. All that went out the window when she was sucked into the blossoming rock ‘n’ roll scene via the irrepressible gravitational pull of the Rolling Stones.

Andrew Loog Oldham is one of last century’s most radical and mysterious musical Svengali icons. His pivotal role and contribution to creating the popular culture in which we live cannot be underestimated. He was only 19 years old in 1963 when he commenced his four year tenure managing the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band. The Rolling Stones are shrouded in myth and legend, which makes it virtually impossible to identify what is fact and truth. According to Loog Oldham’s 2001 autobiography Stoned, he understood that the Stones would not get rich as an R&B covers band. So he took the radical and unconventional step of locking the glimmer twins into their kitchen and would not let them out until they had penned some original material. His instructions where “I want a song with brick walls all around it, high windows and no sex” and the Glimmer Twins delivered to specification with As Tears Go By. Originally it was called As Time Goes By but Loog Oldham changed its title and probably claimed a writing credit in the process. It may be pure conjecture but it’s quite possible that Loog Oldham had an inferiority complex and as such he measured himself harshly against people like The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstien. Epstien had a stable of talent to whom the Beatles contributed material to e.g. Cilla Black. When Loog Oldham re-titles and re-appropriates As Tears Go By and sends it in Marianne’s direction he gives it a totally new meaning; genius.

Once Faithful had entered the orbit of the Rolling Stones it proved almost impossible to break free. Originally the girlfriend of Stones guitarist Brian Jones, Faithfull moved her allegiance to Mick Jagger in 1966, then had a very brief fling with Keith Richards, before a well publicized split with Mick in 1970. Her life went into a nosedive with heroin addiction, anorexia nervosa and her son (Nicholas), from her first husband (John Dunbar), was taken into care. Rock ‘n’ roll always had a non-existent duty of care policy with no support network. She lived rough on the streets of Soho, London for a few years. This lifestyle of heroin addiction and ill health irreparably changed and damaged her voice. Her career was resurrected in the late 1970s when she met and then married Ben Brierly, the guitarist of punk band The Vibrators. Between 1970 and 1979 Faithful made a few attempts to return to music including an album with producer Mike Leander, Rich Kid Blue, started in 1971 but not completed until 1985. There was also a country sounding single Dreamin’ My Dream.

After a lengthy absence, Faithfull resurfaced in 1979 with the album Broken English, which took the edgy and brittle sound of punk rock and mixed it with a shot of studio-smooth fusion disco. Marianne had lost all but her diehards audience long before Broken English’s release; hence it was never a commercial success only achieving number 75 in the UK and 83 in the USA charts. She had been a hit-making folk-pop singer with beautiful good looks and an angelic singing voice, but who quickly became a washed-up junkie, largely due to the Rolling Stones. The Stones have this devastating effect on people e.g. Gram Parson, Mick Taylor, Jimmy Miller, Bobby Keys, Andrew Loog Oldham and the death of the Peace and Love generation at Altamont. Years of heavy drinking, smoking and drug taking had taken their toll on her once frail voice. Of Marianne’s key personal traits are being able to adapt and survive, she has the knack of turning disadvantages to her advantage. On Broken English, her voice was very different from the pre-Stones records; it was far stronger, dirtier, harsher, worldly and capable of expressing her inner being.

Probably one of the perceived issues with this album is one of authorship. In essence this is a multi-authored piece and many consumers consider that Faithful is not the auteur of Broken English. Of course I would dispute this. Just because Marianne only co-wrote three of the eight tracks doesn’t mean that this isn’t a great album. Her role on this record is as interlocutor, as the voice positioned within the narrative. This is a narrative record, disjointed and unconnected narrative, but a collection of narratives that works to express her inner most feeling. She may not posses the expressive tool of being a writer but she still manages to make herself heard through what tools she did have at her disposal. Essentially on this record Faithful is a curator of other people’s material ranging from Shel Silversteins The Ballard Of Lucy Jordan, originally recorded by Dr Hook in 1974, Heathcote Williams’ Why D’Ya Do It? and John Lennon’s Working Class Hero. These days, curators of other people’s material are celebrated e.g. DJ’s such as David Guetta, Skrillex, Deadmau5 and Moby. I guess curating musical material was not a valid metric back in 1979?

Faithful’s role as interlocutor makes this album great. In each song, Faithful takes on the role of the lead character. She does this so well that it feels like she owns each and every song. Her sneering cover of John Lennon’s anthem Working Class Hero, which is sang as though she lived through it personally is totally convincing. As I’ve mentioned above Faithful cannot be described as working class by any stretch of the imagination. Every song here stands out in it’s own right, because there are simply no fillers. Read Shel Silverstein’s original poem The Ballard of Lucy Jordan, or Jordon as he wrote it. Then compare it to Faithful’s version; she delivers a totally absorbing, believable performance.

I’ve always adored the outrageous Why’d Ya Do It? which sees Marianne playing a bitter pissed off harpy who is delivering a fierce, graphic rant to her husband’s infidelities. The lyrics were far too rude for radio and caused a walk out by female packing staff at the EMI pressing plant. In Dave Dalton’s 1994 book Faithful, there’s a great account of how Faithful went to visit poet Heathcote Williams to claim this song. Williams came from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, a perfect match for Faithful. Record producer Denny Cordell claims this song was originally destined for Tina Turner; I really can’t see Tina taking ownership of this song as convincingly as Faithful does.

Faithful was married to guitarist Ben Brierly of English punk band The Vibrators during the making of Broken English. In Dalton’s book she claims it was the affair that Brierly was having that drove her to seek out this song and record it. The opening track, Broken English, comments upon the rise of the German 70’s terrorist group Baader Meinhof, forerunner of the Red Army Faction, and their leader Ulrike Meinhof. I also like the idea that this track is a self referenced comment upon the bastardization and purposely distressing of her own voice through the negative lifestyle choices of the last decade.

Part of the credit for this album must go to Chris Blackwell who signed Faithful to his Island record label. Blackwell has a knack for sniffing out the bizarre, unusual and off-kilter artists. Only a label like Island would release a record such as Broken English and be comfortable with it. Just as George Harrison’s Handmade Films had a sort of house style, so does Island Records. There’s always this implied reggae feel or beat. Compare Broken English to Grace Jones’ Island Life, another record that only Island would and could release. Sonically this album is superb, its a testament to the quality of Matrix Studios in North London which had the most up-to-date recording equipment available. The arrangements and production work by Mark Miller Mundy is impeccable. I don’t know how much time was spent recording and mixing this album but my educated guess is a lot.

A sound engineer friend of mine once provided some very vocal opposition to me playing this album over the PA while I was sound checking the system. His objection was it sounded like “its music to slit your wrists too”. He was totally wrong, this is an album NOT to slit your wrists to; it is an album that celebrates surviving not dying. I often say to my audio students that you know when a record is well produced because you can’t hear the production it becomes transparent. According to my own metric, the studio production and arrangement by Mark Miller Mundy is spot on. The Dennis Morris album cover of Faithful as the ravishing, disheveled wreck is perfect. It’s a strong image and according to Morris it’s a shot that took considerable time, red wine, cigarettes and self-restraint to produce. The husky croak of Broken English rescued Faithfull’s image from legends of fur coats, Mars bars and as a background figure in the history of the Rolling Stones. This album put her back into contention as a solo artist. OK this record is sloppy but I find Faithfull worth listening to even when she’s sloppy, or maybe because she’s sloppy, like Dylan when he’s at his best.

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