Marianne Faithfull

Broken English (reissue)

The most telling moment in the smattering of extras accompanying Marianne Faithfull’s Broken English reissue isn’t from the album proper at all, it’s not even especially new or exclusive, having been available on a compilation already. Nevertheless, it’s an extraordinary token of who Faithfull was when the album, her first in years, emerged: a 1979 re-recording of ‘Sister Morphine’, the song penned with Mick-and-Keef ten years earlier and one of her first releases with genuine musical weight. Musically it’s not a great stretch from the version Faithfull put out in ’69, a little dubbier, a little looser, a little more sessiony, but the voice it supports is nearly unrecognisable. A decade of struggles with relationships, with drugs, with booze, with life had taken her voice down in register and soaked it in tar. It now cracked, growled and purred. It was a voice that had been lived in. The posh totty on Mick Jaggers arm was gone- this sounded like someone new, a hundred years older, someone dangerous and sexy and angry. The Marianne Faithfull of the original ‘Sister Morphine’ was a girl telling a story, the 1979 version is a woman living one.

Not for nothing is Broken English seen as the highpoint of Faithfull’s musical career, which started with her simpering over Stones’ cast offs and flower power standards like ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ in the mid 60s, and probably reached its nadir as she growled husky backing vocals on Metallica’s ‘The Memory Remains’ in 1997, by then rehabilitated as something of a grand dame of rock n’ roll. Smack in the middle of the two poles lies Broken English, which 34 years later remains a remarkably sharp and potent work. Faithfull and her collaborators created a personal and dark record that borrowed musically from across the sounds of the time. There’s nods here to the widescreen rock of Fleetwood Mac (‘Brain Drain’, ‘Guilt’), the burbling synths of kraut rock (‘The Ballad of Lucy Jordan’), the darker end of dub (a particularly vicious version of Lennon’s ‘Working Class Hero’), and even some of the intensity of New York punk and new wave- there’s definitely a kinship here with Patti Smith, and Blondie would start to lean heavily in this direction as their pop sheen wore off.

The broken, cynical spirit of the record is best captured by its bookends. The title track opens proceedings, propelled along by an almost disco beat stabbed by slashes of awkward guitar and a nagging synth riff. The original mix included on the bonus disc here reveals an even heavier debt to funk and disco, with a bubbling bass groove replacing the synths. Over the top Faithfull croaked the slogans and story of the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group. It’s urgent, aggressive, a little weird and utterly at odds with anything Faithfull had put her name to before. At the other end of the record is ‘Why’d Ya Do It?’, a dubby jam worthy of the Clash that allows Faithfull to rant. It’s one of the most graphic and furious songs of the era, as the sometime-Aristocrat and flower child asks "why’d you spit on my snatch" and declares "everytime I see your dick I see her cunt in my bed". It’s amazing.

These days Marianne Faithfull is very much that grand dame, collaborating with whoever she feels like (the incredibly sexy Blur-collaboration ‘Kissin’ Time’ is well worth checking out) and happily spinning stories of rock’s golden age for anyone who asks. It was Broken English that set her on that path, that pulled her out of the gutter and for the first time showed a genuine and passionate talent, and though she never quite bettered it the record marked the beginning of a much richer musical journey than most would have predicted ten years earlier. All these years later it remains just as potent.

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