This is a 1979 recording by
Marianne Faithfull, of whom many won’t have
heard. If it doesn’t wrench your soul well then you don’t have one.
(“5★♫” series introduction here; with an explanation of why the title may look broken.)
The Context · What happened was, I just finished the months-long task of listening to my entire collection of LPs, deciding what to keep and what to sell. The months were full of pleasure; certain black disks stood out above the crowd and I’m hoping to write a few more of these. But Broken English hit me the hardest; it wasn’t even close.
Marianne has a long colorful history that I’m not going to replicate here. Having lived through the first waves of Pop music when it was a thing that mattered, and was actively suppressed, isn’t a news story I suppose, and nearly killing yourself repeatedly with drugs isn’t either, nor even having romanced some Rolling Stones. But it’s been a big colorful life; a lot of the colors dark.
She lived through it which lots didn’t and along the way wrote some wonderful songs and did some spine-chilling singing.
The Music · There’s just nothing remotely approaching a weak song here. The subjects are life and love and truth and lies and sex and death and magic. The words and melodies are loaded with inspiration and feed off each other.
Marianne’s voice isn’t pretty at all, it’s an oversmoked croak with lots of cracks in it, but ruthlessly in tune and on the beat, and given good music to work with, more than beautiful. And all the music is good.
Not all of it is Marianne’s. Notable covers include Shel Silverstein’s The Ballad of Lucy Jordan (to my discredit, I’ve never driven any woman through a warm wind in Paris in a sports car. I must correct that. But I digress) and then Working Class Hero. And if you read the songwriting credits it seems like this was pretty collaborative, lots of inputs and I don’t know exactly what Marianne wrote but damn it came out well.
I’d try to pick a favorite song but I can’t. The opening pair, Broken English/Witches’ Song, is full of bright flashes of melody and poetry and pain and love against an extremely dark background. Brain Drain and Guilt, which close out side 1, are merely ordinary by this album’s standards which means they’d be eye-openers on most others. If some of the lyrics to Guilt don’t make you wince, they will after you’ve lived some more.
Side two opens with Lucy Jordan and segues into What’s the Hurry, the rhythmic core of this collection. Go listen and tell me I’m not right.
Then there’s Working Class Hero and I’ve never heard a better take on You’re still fucking peasants far as I can see. And then there’s That Song.
That Song · It’s called Why D’Ya Do It and opens like this:
When I stole a twig from our little nest
and gave it to a bird with nothing in her beak...
Then it hurtles into a howl, six minutes and 45 seconds long, of pure sexual rage. Which is to say that when he says he “passed along that twig” he means that he slept with another, then suffered the consequences, which are narrated in gruesome detail. Any man with a commitment that matters and whose eye is attracted by others and who’s been feeling like falling should probably go and listen to this to hear about the downside.
In good conscience, I should mention that it’s extremely obscene. Sexual rage is obscene. Get the children out of the house before it starts.
I love it. Music should matter; listening to this might make you wonder about the lightweight fluff at the center of most of what’s on the radio. On top of which, all the sexual high explosive aside, it’s a really good rock & roll song.
Sampling It · It’s produced by Muff Winwood, otherwise best-known for the first Dire Straits record, which is some pretty august company. Muff’s younger brother Steve, you might’ve heard of him, is on keyboards. If I were doing this kind of intensely-emotional music I probably would have picked a more traditional acoustic backdrop; but this is a 1979 prefiguring of Eighties sound; dry, full of keyboards and processed background fill, with an electronic-pulse feel about the rhythms. Obviously Muff was right and I would’ve been wrong, because the backdrops get out of Marianne’s way and she’s the reason you cued this one up.
As for getting it, I can’t help you much. The only version I have is on 33⅓ RPM vinyl, and every time I put it on I listen to both sides and often more than once. Along with being soul-shaking music it’s an audiophile fave, so I suppose you can get it on shiny silver disks too. You could even maybe download it, but it’s sort of painful to think of anyone listening to this with data compression involved. Because you can’t compress love and fear and worship and anger when they explode out from the middle.