Marianne Faithfull: the muse who made it on her own terms

As the singer prepares to release her 21st album, we look back at a singular career marked by creative restlessness, personal troubles and triumphant reinventions

If you’re looking for a study in contrasts, you could do worse than compare the two albums released this autumn with Marianne Faithfull’s name on the cover. The first is Come and Stay With Me, a collection of her 1960s singles that opens and closes with two Rolling Stones-related tracks: the Mick Jagger and Keith Richards composition As Tears Go By, and Sister Morphine, co-written by Faithfull and Jagger while their relationship was in its death throes. The second is Negative Capability, a meditation on loss, grief and loneliness recorded in Paris last winter with the Bad Seeds’ Warren Ellis and PJ Harvey collaborator Rob Ellis. It also contains a version of As Tears Go By, but there the similarities end. Thematically and sonically, it could be the work of a completely different artist to Come and Stay With Me. Given how often Faithfull’s personal life has overshadowed her music, it is worth noting the artistic distance she has travelled in her career – further than a lot of her more regularly lauded peers.

There was a time when the notion of either of these albums existing would have seemed like a joke. Faithfull’s musical career was not expected to last more than 50 years, nor was it supposed to have the kind of weight that might still interest people decades on. It wasn’t supposed to have any weight to it all. Andrew Loog Oldham, the Stones’ manager who spotted her at a party and launched her career as a vocalist, dismissively described her as “an angel with big tits”. As she later recalled, she was “treated as somebody who not only can’t even sing, but doesn’t really write or anything, just something you can make into something … I was just cheesecake really, terribly depressing”.

Marianne Faithfull in 1967.
Marianne Faithfull in 1967. Photograph: Marc Sharratt/Rex/Shutterstock

Loog Oldham seemed to view her as a repository for the cast-offs that Jagger and Richards would produce as they attempted to establish themselves as songwriters, and as an opportunity to live out his fantasy of being the British Phil Spector and prove that his powers as a svengali extended further than positioning the Stones as the stuff of middle England’s nightmares. He saw Faithfull as a posh adjunct to the ongoing folk revival, her cut-glass voice capable of primly essaying its staple songs for an MOR audience more used to finding music via Saturday variety specials on BBC One than in the spit-and-sawdust environment of a folk club or coffeehouse.

You might charitably describe the results as mixed. As Tears Go By, the Jagger/Richards offcut that became her first hit in 1964, was great, and her version of House of the Rising Sun has a certain unexpected bluesy power. But her cover of Blowin’ in the Wind was almost as catastrophic as the events the song describes, and a Spectorised take on Greensleeves sounds like light entertainment from the pre-rock’n’roll era.

She saw herself as a folk singer. In her mid-teens she had performed a cappella in Reading’s coffee bars. But what Faithfull turned out to be good at – really good at – was a certain kind of wintry-sounding orchestral pop, on which harpsichords, harps and 12-string guitars twinkled, and you could somehow imagine Faithfull’s breath forming clouds in front of her face as she sang. Examples: This Little Bird, Go Away from My World, Morning Sun, Tomorrow’s Calling. More recently, Faithfull has understandably traded on the more painful aspects of her personal history; here is a woman who understands the darkness of which she sings. But the truth is that there was something eerie about the records she made long before the heroin, homelessness and suicide attempts. On the best of her 60s records, her voice injected slightly too much yearning and melancholy into ostensibly lightweight songs.

Marianne Faithfull: This Little Bird – video

She was also much smarter and rather less biddable than you suspect Loog Oldham anticipated. She quickly ditched him as a producer and successfully lobbied her label to simultaneously release two albums – one pop (Marianne Faithfull) and one folk (Come My Way).

By her own admission, she lost interest in her music when she became Jagger’s partner, but in 1969 – coincidentally the year that Dusty Springfield and Sandie Shaw also began exerting more noticeable control over their careers, the former releasing Dusty in Memphis, the latter the self-produced Reviewing the Situation, replete with covers of Dr John and Led Zeppelin – Faithfull put out her first new single in two years, showcasing a very different sound and worldview. Something Better was gritty, country-inflected and featured Ry Cooder on slide guitar; the B-side, co-written with Jagger, was Sister Morphine, a song so bleak in its depiction of addiction that her UK record company withdrew the release. The Rolling Stones claimed it as their own, only giving her a writing credit on the song in the 1990s. Faithfull wouldn’t release another record for seven years.

In fact, her years of heroin-soaked seclusion weren’t quite as secluded as they’re often painted. She gave a remarkable interview to the NME, equal parts coy and frank, in which she said of the Rolling Stones: “I slept with three and then I decided the lead singer was the best bet.” (She declined to name the other two.) She appeared on David Bowie’s 1973 US TV special The 1980 Floor Show, performing Noël Coward’s 20th Century Blues and duetting with Bowie on I Got You Babe, sounding more like Nico than the singer of As Tears Go By.

The decadent Faithfull would have been good in the glam era, but that show with Bowie was as far as it went. A 1976 album, Dreaming My Dreams, was both very much of its era – slick country-rock was having a pre-punk moment – and apparently constructed with one eye on the past: there is occasionally something of Andrew Loog Oldham’s Spector infatuation about the production.

Marianne Faithfull and Mick Jagger.
‘I decided the singer was the best bet’ … Faithfull and Mick Jagger in 1969. Photograph: Five/Rex Features

Broken English, however, from 1979, was something else entirely. The punk era was not kind to most 60s icons, especially those such as the Stones, who had continued into the 70s, getting more successful, remote and aristocratic in their bearing. But Faithful turned out to be a very punk kind of 60s icon: a living embodiment not of some unsurpassable golden era, as smug baby boomers had it, but of its darker side. She was a figure wronged by the era’s casual sexism and ruined by its unthinking excesses; not a pampered rock’n’roll sun god, but someone who had wound up homeless and survived on the street. She was the snarling wronged woman on Why Did Ya Do It?, a ghost at the feast of nostalgia on What’s the Hurry? “Do you hear me? Do you fear me?” she sang, with the relish of someone who knew where the bodies were buried. She picked through the wreckage of the decade with a certain venomous glee on the title track, which concerned hippy-idealists-turned-killers the Baader-Meinhof Gang, and also on Brain Drain, about how turn-on-tune-in-drop-out idealism could curdle into a desperate scrabble of “trying to get high without having to pay”.

Broken English also demonstrated Faithfull’s ability as an interpreter. As sung by Dr Hook’s Dennis Locorriere, a man who frequently sounded as if he was on the verge of tears, the original version of The Ballad of Lucy Jordan was filled with sympathy for its titular heroine, a housewife bored to the point of suicide. Rasped by Faithfull, it was full of empathy.

Although it was critically acclaimed, Broken English didn’t quite re-establish Faithfull commercially in the way she may have hoped. In a 1984 interview, she complained that she was less popular than her manager’s other client, Toyah. Nevertheless, the album laid the foundations of her later career. Her music from then on was invariably tinged with darkness of varying degrees, the original material frequently dealt with bleak themes – bitterness and romantic perfidy, loss, dissolution of various kinds – and it increasingly leaned on her interpretative skills. She also displayed a genuine musical restlessness. Her 1987 album Strange Weather found her inhabiting the role of a ravaged torch singer performing The Boulevard of Dreams; the ensuing 20th Century Blues (1997) and The Seven Deadly Sins (1998) evinced her interest in Kurt Weill.

Her 2002 album Kissin’ Time demonstrated the regard in which Faithfull was held by a younger generation of musicians. A noticeably hipper record than anything the Stones had recorded in years, its supporting cast of players and writers included Beck, Blur, Billy Corgan and Jarvis Cocker. At its best, as on the dubby Blur collaboration of the title track, it took Faithfull’s voice into entirely fresh musical territory. It also found her burnishing her own myth on Sliding Through Life on Charm, which was perhaps understandable. As Faithfull was the first person to point out, younger artists were attracted to her as much by that as by her talent (“I’ve got all the stories,” she noted).

The follow-up to Kissin’ Time, Before the Poison, added Nick Cave and PJ Harvey to her list of contemporary collaborators, while its successor Easy Come Easy Go found her covering the Decemberists and Espers alongside Randy Newman and Smokey Robinson.

This isn’t the standard behaviour of a 60s rock legend, content merely to mine past glories in order to give them an album to tour the old hits around. But then, as Marianne Faithfull established some time ago, she wasn’t the artist people thought she was. “She walked through the whole thing on her own terms,” Warren Ellis noted recently, reflecting on her career. He has a point.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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