Marianne Faithfull: Broken English (Deluxe Edition) – review

Marianne Faithfull's defiant 1979 comeback album shows her as the most punk of 60s icons

In theory at least, there were more opportune moments in pop history for a forgotten 60s legend to stage a comeback than the late 1970s. Admirably less tolerant than subsequent generations of the idea that the 60s were a matchless cultural high-water mark, punks made a great pantomimic show of disdaining the preceding decade. "No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones/ In 1977," sang the Clash. Johnny Rotten was photographed raising his middle finger to a Beatles sleeve he'd covered in chewing gum. At Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood's boutique, Sex, you could buy a T-shirt that not only featured the leather mask worn by the "Cambridge Rapist", but a photo of Brian Epstein and text claiming the Beatles' manager had died "after taking part in sado-masochistic practices".

And yet the punk generation seemed to make an exception for Marianne Faithfull. McLaren attempted to cast her as Sid Vicious's junkie mother in The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle. The songs on her 1979 comeback album, Broken English, were premiered at a gig at the Music Machine in London, the bearpit venue where Bob Geldof was punched in the face in the middle of a Boomtown Rats gig and Richard Hell received such a grim reception that Rotten, of all people, took the stage to ask for calm. "Punk," Faithfull later recalled, "made Broken English possible."

But then, Faithfull was a very punk kind of 60s icon. She was the thinking behind Sex's Brian Epstein T-shirt – that the myth of Swinging London covered up all kinds of darkness – made flesh: a member of the rock aristocracy who'd ended up a homeless junkie on the streets of Soho. Indeed, anyone in search of proof that the rock aristocracy was a horrible, decadent regime ripe for the culling might alight on the weird scorn with which it appeared to treat Faithfull: "As somebody," she later noted, "that not only can't sing but doesn't really write or do anything, just something you can make into something." Her own manager described her as "an angel with big tits". She had to fight Mick Jagger and Keith Richards – both former lovers – in the courts to have her name appended to the credits of Sister Morphine, a song she co-wrote. If you buy the story about the Beatles' And Your Bird Can Sing being a satirical barb aimed at Mick Jagger, then its handling of Faithfull, the "bird" of the title, feels even more sneery and dismissive.

The truth was undoubtedly a little more complicated than that, but if the climate of the era required Marianne Faithfull to play the wronged, ruined woman wreaking a kind of musical revenge on her past, then it was a role that Faithfull, an accomplished actress, was more than willing to take on. She was well equipped for it, too. In the 60s, her voice was prim and weirdly stilted, as if she was struggling to read the lyrics of the folk songs and Donovan covers she sang from an illegible cue-card. Damaged by the excesses of the preceding years, her husking vocals on Broken English seemed not merely ravaged, but imperious and defiant with it, a sensation heightened by the arrangements her rasp was set against: clean, trebly guitars, relentless synth loops, reggae rhythms blanched until they felt taut and clicky. Faithfull later claimed the album had been overproduced, but a second CD containing a synthless version suggests not. They certainly make it sound more icy and clinical, but that simply amplifies the emotional impact of her voice. She sounded like she was telling someone to go and fuck themselves even when she wasn't.

But on Broken English she usually was. If the era called for shock tactics, then Faithfull was happy to be shocking. The concluding Why'd Ya Do It's depiction of feminine hell-hath-no-fury rage contains a fuck, a cunt, two cocks, a dick, a balls, a pussy and a fanny (the latter "full of cobwebs") as well as posing the immortal question "Why did you spit on my snatch?": an impressive tally in a pre-hip-hop world. More impressive still, it retains its capacity to shock: not because of the language, which is unlikely to raise anyone's hair in an age when the Tory PM's wife expresses her love for a record that features the word "cunt" in its very refrain, but because there's something utterly believable about Faithfull's tone of contempt.

Elsewhere, Broken English spent a lot of time picking through the debris of the 60s counterculture with a certain audible relish: "Do you hear me? Do you fear me?" she sang on What's the Hurry? There was, understandably, a lot about heroin addiction, the curdling of the beatific turn-on-tune-in-drop-out ethos into a scrabbling, desperate world of "trying to get high without having to pay", as Brain Drain put it; the petty theft and moral bankruptcy depicted on Guilt; the protagonist of What's the Hurry?, now viewed as a liability by her former friends. There was terrorism too: the brilliant title track deals with the Baader-Meinhof gang, born out of the communes and protests of the late 60s, the Street Fighting Man turned murderous. There's still something jarring about hearing the daughter of an Austrian aristocrat singing John Lennon's Working Class Hero, but it fits in the context of an album about the shortcomings of the decade that made Faithfull famous. The increased social mobility the 60s were supposed to have wrought was, it suggests, a myth, and so too was the sexual revolution. The female characters on Broken English are suicidal housewives and betrayed lovers, at the mercy of men; the most unshackled women are the smackheads.

Broken English careers by, its 35 minutes as bracingly full of venom and spite as anything her punk admirers could muster. For Faithfull, it seemed to work as catharsis. Her subsequent career has relied on her coming to a kind of accommodation with her past. Her stellar range of latterday collaborators – Blur, Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, Beck, Jarvis Cocker, Billy Corgan among them – were, she once suggested, as attracted to her history as to her talent: "I've got all the stories." Certainly, she's never made another album like Broken English.

• This article was amended on 1 February 2013 to clarify the date of the album. Broken English was recorded in 1978 and released in 1979.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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