Marianne Faithfull is one of those legends of rock that really didn’t have to do much to be famous. She was the blonde girl wrapped in a fur rug when the cops took to trying to raid the Rolling Stones, although rumours of a Mars bar were greatly exaggerated. She could sing quite well as a sixties moppet, although her voice was nothing special. She did lend a weariness and sadness to songs like ” As Tears Go By”, and she did inspire Stones classics like “Wild Horses”. But her life was marred by a famous and protracted battle with drug addiction, which ended up doing to things. It made her a legend, and it fucked up her voice. Or did it?
When you listen to early Faithfull recordings, there is a melancholic loveliness to her songs, particularly her Stones recordings like “As Tears Go By”. Her voice is very simple and lacks any vibrato, but also lacks any characteristics that make it particularly memorable.
While she occasionally recorded throughout the seventies, it was 1979’s magnificent Broken English that showed a return to form. Or something. The sweet melancholy of her early vocals left and in came a broken, harshly deep sound, a result of years of poor living. But considering the songs she ended up singing, it was the perfect marriage of voice and theme. It’s a dark record, and a violent one.
Take the title track, a disco-rock beat with lyrics inspired by the rash of seventies European terrorists. It’s a questioning look at the Baader-Meinhof gang, desperate people who lack empathy, but Faithfull attempts to empathize with them, asking them “What are you dying for? It’s not my reality.” She is trying to understand a mindset that many of us find confusing at the best of times. She’s curious enough to ask while being disgusted by the group’s need for violence. And all this with that ravaged voice, which adds a weariness that shows she has seen it all, and even this seems too much.
The album has a cover of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero”. It remains the single greatest Lennon cover ever. Faithfull was in no way working class, a daughter of a psychologist and a titled Hungarian ballerina, but unlike many of her station, she had actually hit rock bottom thanks to her addictions, so she did not come at this with an idealized vision of working class life. That, along with gender expectations of her class, made her the greatest feminist and classless icon. Her voice adds again a texture that Lennon, the working class lad he was, strived for. It’s brow beaten, but inspirational.
The album’s lone single was a cover of the Shel Silverstein classic “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan”, a tale of a middle class housewife finally snapping after years of suburban ennui. There is a sadness to the song, despite it’s driving synth undertones. A lot of it has to do with the perfection of Faithfull’s interpretation of the lyrics, as she spits out the words with a ferocity at the beginning before settling into a peaceful understanding at the end as Lucy is taken away. Whether it’s by death or the nice men in the white coats isn’t clear to me, but where Lucy is certainly somewhere quieter.
“Guilt” touches on the classic themes of religion and denial, “What’s the Hurry” tells a tale of addiction. But the final track, the brutal, vicious, profane, angry “Why D’ya Do It?” is a song not for the faint of heart. As a couple spiral down in a fury, tainted by sexual jealousy and compulsions, Faithfull spits out lyrics so provocative that one feels dirty even if you know why she’s saying them. The lyrics were written by Heathcote Williams, poet and painter, and caused enough of a furor to get the song, with its four letter words and references to various sex acts, banned in Australia. Which leads me to ask why it only ended up being banned in Australia.
Warning: the following song does contain graphic language. Definitely NSFW.
An album that ended Faithfull’s years of exile from music, and allowed her to regain the love she had in the late sixties, it remains the album of the ultimate survivor, a woman who overcame drugs, misogyny, notoriety, urban myths, the loss of her family, and ridicule by her class and exclusion from all others to become an icon of feminism. Marianne Faithfull lived her life the way she wanted to. Everyone else can just fuck off.
When one ends up with an album as powerful and beautifully messed up as this one, I say forgive her for all her trespasses.