Marianne Faithfull’s “Broken English” album of 1979 carried a lot of shock value for me but not in the way one would imagine. Since the album was the first music by Ms. Faithfull to reach my ears, her legendary haggard vocals were something that I took at face value without batting an eyelash. The jolting shock occurred decades after buying her solo albums from the “Broken English”‘ period onward. One day in the 90s, my wife, who became a fan after diving into the Record Cell in search of new things, brought home a Marianne Faithfull album from 1965 and when I put it on, we finally got to experience the gott im himmel moment of knowing just how much damage she sustained over the 14 years that spanned between “Go Away From My World” to “Broken English.” We absolutely didn’t recognize the plummy schoolgirl investing these trifles with a weightless air.
The album has a definite late 70s muso vibe as produced by Mark Miller Mundy. This was his second production following the tepid 1st solo album by Steve Winwood from two years prior. Winwood plays here as well as Darryl [Curved Air] Way, and Morris [Branx-X] Pert. Lots of prog rock semi-royalty. But a wildcard was the guitar and pen of Barry Reynolds, the only white member of the kickin’ Compass Point All Stars. Another was Faithfull’s husband at the time, Ben Brierly ex-Vibrators. So the ensuing music was smooth and slickly played, encompassing quasi country ballads to Germanic synth-funk. On the face of it, it wouldn’t seem to have the goods to make for the riveting listen that it is, but the most compelling ingredient was definitely Ms. Faithfull who invests these songs with what sounds like all the remained of her life force at the time. The results are spellbinding.
I’d heard the title cut played on WPRK-FM when the album was released and after a friend played me a tape of the whole shebang, I made sure to buy a copy. Little did I know at the time but the cover on US Island, differed from the UK sleeve as shown at the end of this post. The US sleeve had a untinted photo with two diagonal lines intersecting the composition. When I got the “Broken English” album on CD, a decade later, it had the UK cover.
I still think that Quincy Jones heard “Broken English” and made sure that “Bille Jean” lifted a lot of the song’s slinky DNA for Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” The original remains the superior example of European synth funk. Even if the rest of the album was chaff, this still would have made me sit up and notice Marianne Faithfull. The synth bass is incredible and the stabs of guitar and squirts of liquid synthesizer are at once urgent and chilled out. Ms. Faithfull’s arid delivery was surely an influence on the like of Annabel Lamb a few years down the line.
The acoustic folk of “Witches’ Song” is undercut by low, mournful synth lines that add much depth to the song. “Brain Drain” is almost a country blues number as written by then-husband Ben Brierly, but the roto tom fills that punctuate the song urgently counterpoint the fluid guitar and Hammond organ. Side one ended with “Guilt,” an anxiety-ridden number from the pen of Barry Reynolds that starts as an act of contrition that builds to jazzy defiance. All of these songs were written between Faithfull and/or her band. The next track is one of the album’s devastating covers.
I always associate Shel Silverstein with “The Smoke Off” cut that got requested every weekend on Doctor Demento back in the late 70s. I would never have guessed that he was capable of writing such a tender and compassionate a song as “The Ballad Of Lucy Jordan.” The dignified synthesizers add a dispassionate edge to the tale of suburban madness that was probably only a few degrees away from the experiences of the singer at the time of recording. The haze of drugs and desperate living that Ms. Faithfull underwent after the swinging sixties saw her ejected from the orbit of The Rolling Stones can’t be said to have ebbed seriously until the late eighties. Her voice bears mute testimony to her experiences at every point where there is no longer a voice present in her now limited range. The resulting range of cracks only add to the act of self-compassion that the song is in her hands. After 33 years, I can no longer listen to this without weeping.
Another amazing cover that she owns, in my mind, comes with a version of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero.” It sounds like something Bowie might have whipped up in Hansa studios a year or two earlier. The relentless synths are punctuated by bright shards of guitar that presage the same riffs that will be used to powerful effect by Barry Reynolds two years later when Grace Jones covers “Demolition Man.” The synths scurry ratlike around the periphery of this song and the irony is that when Bowie got around to covering this in a ham-fisted Tin Machine rendition a decade later, Marianne Faithfull can be said to have truly smoked Bowie at his own game. John Lennon as well, for that matter.
The final track here is a song that is harrowing enough to strip paint. When the album was released in Australia, “Why D’Ya Do It” was a blank groove on the face of the record as the scorching language was deemed too controversial. Never before [or afterward, for that matter] has such a blistering attack on an unfaithful lover been committed to wax. It’s a wonder vinyl copies didn’t melt upon playing. The underlying reggae skank is shot through with atonal guitar from Reynolds that matches the literary barbed wire of poet Heathcote Williams’ original poem. I can’t imagine hearing anything more scathing and yet this articulate.
So the album is a powerful cathartic wail from the depths of a woman who still had enough power to make it as though it would be her final act of work in a life that could have ended at any time then. The original album is remastered on disc one with three bonus videos for the songs “Witches’ Song,” “The Ballad Of Lucy Jordan” and the title track as made by Derek Jarman at the time of release. Disc two incorporates unused early mixes of the entire album abetted with single mixes as released on 7″/12″ and the re-recording of “Sister Morphine” that was made during the “Broken English” sessions and issued as a B-side to the re-release of the song “Broken English” as a single in 1982. It’s this last track that I’m most eager to hear since I have the US “Broken English” 12″ single. It’s my hope that the early mixes of the album differ greatly but I’m penciling this in on the want list on the principle that there’s no such thing as too much “Broken English.”
Marianne Faithfull: Broken English UK DLX RM 2xCD 
Disc 1 | Remastered Album + Videos
1. Broken English
2. Witches’ Song
3. Brain Drain
5. The Ballad Of Lucy Jordan
6. What’s The Hurry?
7. Working Class Hero
8. Why’d Ya Do It
9. Derek Jarman videos: Witches’ Song/The Ballad Of Lucy Jordan/Broken English
Disc 2 | Unreleased Mixes + Singles
1. Broken English
2. Witches’ Song
3. Brain Drain
5. The Ballad Of Lucy Jordan
6. What’s The Hurry
7. Working Class Hero
8. Why’d Ya Do It?
9. Sister Morphine 12″
10. Broken English 7″
11. Broken English 7″ remix
12. Broken English 12″ remix
13. Why’d Ya Do It? 12″ remix
Such an amazing album. It’s always been interesting to me that so many “studio” musicians worked on this album but were very much interested in following the direction of Brierly and Reynolds. It’s what makes the album so strong and allows Faithfull to transcend the music throughout the album.
Why’d Ya Do It is my favorite Faithfull track of her career. Second would be She from the mid 90’s which she wrote with Angelo Badalamenti.
I’ve had the pleasure of seeing her twice at St. Anne’s in Brooklyn over the years and she is a consumate performer.
I remember aside from initially hearing Broken English on the radio in NYC, I first got a copy of the song on the 1980 Warner Bros. Troublemakers album, which was their remake of their famous Lost Leaders series. It is an amazing album and possibly the end of the Lost Leader Series – I never followed if there was an 81 or 82 release.
This was the two lp song list:
A1 Sex Pistols – Anarchy in the U.S.A. [Live] 3:30
A2 Urban Verbs – Subways 3:39
A3 Robin Lane & the Chartbusters – Don’t Wait Till Tomorrow 3:32
A4 Wire – Map Reference 41°N 93°W 3:36
A5 Marianne Faithfull – Working Class Hero 4:40
A6 John Cale – Temper 4:50
B1 Urban Verbs – The Only One of You 4:50
B2 Gang of Four – Damaged Goods 3:25
B3 Wire – I Should Have Known Better 3:49
B4 The Modern Lovers – I’m Straight 4:16
B5 Devo – Social Fools 2:50
B6 Public Image Ltd. – Public Image 2:58
C1 Buggles – Video Killed the Radio Star 4:08
C2 Pearl Harbor & the Explosions – You Got It (Release It) 2:29
C3 Nico – My Only Child 3:27
C4 The Modern Lovers – Government Center 1:59
C5 Robin Lane & the Chartbusters – Kathy Lee 3:28
C6 Brian Briggs – Nervous Breakdown 3:43
D1 Marianne Faithfull – Broken English 4:35
D2 Pearl Harbor & the Explosions – Busy Little B Side 3:00
D3 Buggles – Clean, Clean 3:53
D4 Gang of Four – Anthrax 4:20
D5 Public Image Ltd. – Swan Lake 4:12
D6 Sex Pistols – No Fun [Excerpts] 4:35
Aside from Robin Lane & the Chartbusters, which was all over the radio for a while, this is a pretty amazing album. The Sex Pistols track, I believe, is from the last show at the Wintergarden in SF.
Echorich – Wow. You mention Robin Lane + The Chartbusters. I swear I’ve only read about them for the last 34 years! They remain a group I’ve never heard. And you say they were all over the radio? College radio? Hmm. Looks like Warner was distributing Island back then.
Yes they definitely were distributing Island. From 79-81 Warners distributed Island, Virgin in the US, Elektra and Asylum of course and they picked up a lot of artist though Atlantic/Atco from Europe like Gary Numan.
Robin Lane and the Chartbuster seemed, for some reason too manufactured to me. They had a punk meets pub rock sound, maybe new wave at times. Lane’s vocals annoyed me in the same way Hazel O’Connor and Toyah’s vocals always grated.
Yes, Robin Lane & the Chartbusters were all over the radio, @ least here in Boston because that’s where the band came from. They played the Rat (there’s YouTube evidence of that). A couple of members came from the Modern Lovers (not the first version). They put out 2 LPs & an EP between 1979-81. Robin Lane now lives here north of Boston. My friend Barrence knows her.
diskojoe – It’s many years later and now another mention of Robin Lane + the Chartbusters pops up. Of course, if I ever ran across one of her records at this point, it would certainly get purchased, just to hear what all the talk was about.