It’s an understatement to say that the decade preceding Marianne Faithfull’s defining 1979 album ‘Broken English’ was a deeply traumatic one for her.
Ending her relationship with Mick Jagger in 1970, losing custody of her son and consequently attempting suicide, by 1971 both Faithfull’s personal life and professional career had become foreign lands to her, languishing on the streets of Soho in London as she battled cocaine and heroin. In the years that followed, records like her country and western attempt ‘Dreamin’ My Dreams’ (1976) failed to redefine her.
Marianne’s saving grace, however, was yet to come. Moving into a Chelsea squat with future-husband Ben Brierly (The Vibrators), 1977’s punk explosion shattered the Marianne that Swinging London had fictionalised. Faithfull, the doe-eyed English rose with a wispy fringe and coquettish vocals, was finally breaking out of her cage. Whimsical melodies were detonated on the eve of the 1980s with new-wave synthesizers and gutsy lyrics. Worldly, deep-pitched and fearless, what she created was aptly called ‘Broken English’ and its unique sound became, in her own words, “the masterpiece”.
As the staccato-spitting ‘Why’d Ya Do It’ affirms, it was certainly a controversial masterpiece, slicing eardrums with stinging lyrics that makes Madonna’s entire career look like a skip around Walt Disney World. “‘Why’d ya do it,’ she said / ‘Why’d you spit on my snatch? / Are we out of love now, is this just a bad patch?’” Faithfull snarls, ferociously in command of her own identity.
It’s a song that still sparks controversy in 2014, not least for its re-appropriation of a word that can still tease sharp intakes of breath: “Every time I see your dick I see her c*nt in my bed,” Faithfull purges. Here she seizes the misogynistic slang of female oppression, breaks it and remakes it. The word is Faithfull’s now, repurposed into a lyric of defiant strength. Broken English, indeed…
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‘The Ballad Of Lucy Jordan’
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Each track on the album is tinged with raw emotions, fatalism and graphic linguistic truths: ‘The Ballad Of Lucy Jordan’ (originally performed by Dr. Hook) is a housewife’s frustrated lament to suburban surrender; ‘Guilt’ addresses the singer’s Catholic upbringing, confessions that blights the singer “though I ain’t done nothin’ wrong”; and ‘What’s The Hurry’ stars Faithfull herself reflecting on the desperation of being a habitual drug user. But it is the album’s opening title-track that overshadows these kaleidoscopic tales so chillingly. The Cold War still looms and Faithfull’s no idiot: “What are you fighting for?” she asks. “It’s not my security.”
As we celebrate the album's 35th anniversary, let’s not forget or underplay the significance of such musical fire from a solo woman, in a year when the UK’s top album releases were dominated by the likes of Pink Floyd (‘The Wall’), The Clash (‘London Calling’) and AC/DC (‘Highway To Hell’). Slot ‘Broken English’ into context and its significance is unquestionable. Faithfull’s low tones and cracked vocals marbled by years of abuse, coupled with its uncensored lyrics, makes this record a revolutionary moment, not just for her but for future female artists.
In 1979 Marianne Faithfull broke the English language, remade it and in doing so remade herself. Her last words on the album? “Ah, I feel better now.” Thirty-five years later, we still feel better for hearing it.
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Words: Kat Lister