Behind the Album: How Marianne Faithfull Remade Her Legacy with ‘Broken English’

As quickly as Marianne Faithfull emerged as a star in 1965 with her rendition of “As Tears Go By,” she disappeared from the spotlight. On the heels of her first single, which was written by Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham, Faithfull would reach the Billboard Hot 100 four more times over the next 13 months. She would not make it onto a Billboard chart with a song again for another 14 years.

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With the 1979 album Broken English, Faithfull didn’t just revive her career. She dramatically altered its trajectory. If not for that album and its surprising level of success, we may still think of Faithfull—inaccurately—as a one-hit wonder. Decades later, we know of her as an adventurous singer and songwriter who has collaborated with many esteemed artists. Faithfull’s path back to musical prominence was a long and difficult one, but the resulting comeback album is one that holds up well nearly half a century after its release.

Falling from a Pedestal

Faithfull’s music career was linked to The Rolling Stones right from the start. Oldham was key to Faithfull starting her recording career, and she was at least as well known for being Jagger’s romantic partner. In addition to recording “As Tears Go By,” which the Stones would also record and release as a chart single, Faithfull inspired several of the band’s songs in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. She also co-wrote the Sticky Fingers track “Sister Morphine,” though she was not credited for her contribution on the Stones’ version until 1994.

After releasing Love in a Mist in 1967, Faithfull’s recording career all but ground to a halt. After putting out a single for “Something Better” (with a B-side of “Sister Morphine”) in 1969, Faithfull would not release any new material for another seven years. She struggled with heroin addiction, anorexia and laryngitis during the ‘70s, though she did release an album of country songs called Dreamin’ My Dreams in 1976. (An expanded version of the album, retitled Faithless, was released in 1978.) The album did not chart in any country, though its title track topped the singles chart in Ireland. As Faithfull put it in her 2002 song “Sliding Through Life on Charm” (which she co-wrote with the band Pulp), she fell from a pedestal I was never asked to be on in the first place.

A Hip and Edgy Success

As little interest as there was in Dreamin’ My Dreams, the album laid the groundwork for Faithfull’s comeback. She put a band together to start touring again, and producer Mark Miller Mundy caught one of her shows. He was sufficiently impressed that he worked with Faithfull and her band to record demos for two of the tracks that would end up on Broken English—the title track and “Why D’Ya Do It.” On the basis of the demos, Island Records signed Faithfull to an album deal.

A remake of the Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show song “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” was the first single released from Broken English, and while it peaked at No. 48 on the UK singles chart, it went unnoticed in the U.S. The title track was the follow-up single, and it caught on in dance clubs, spending 10 weeks on Billboard’s Dance Club Songs chart and topping out at No. 59. It also received airplay on album-oriented rock stations, introducing a new generation of rock fans to Faithfull’s music.

“Broken English” was edgy and stripped down enough to be hip, but it still stood out when played alongside other late ‘70s and early ‘80s AOR fare. Faithfull’s voice was far lower and raspier than it was in the ‘60s, and along with spooky keyboards and echoey guitars, she gave this song about a German terrorist group an added layer of menace. While bands like Blondie and Talking Heads were already getting rock fans acclimated to punk and new wave, “Broken English” was one of the more dangerous-sounding representations of those genres to reach mainstream radio.

More than Just Punk

The album was not quite as punk as its breakout single suggested it was. Musically, “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” and “Guilt” sound as if they belong on a Steve Winwood solo album. There is a good reason for that, as Winwood played keyboards throughout Broken English. However, the album’s last three tracks—”What’s the Hurry,” a searing cover of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band’s “Working Class Hero,” and “Why D’Ya Do It”—hit every bit as hard as its title track. The album’s different moods not only demonstrate Faithfull’s versatility but also serve to deepen the bite of its most trenchant tracks.

An Impressive and Varied Discography

Broken English turned out to be Faithfull’s highest-charting post-’60s album, and it earned her a Grammy Award nomination for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance. Faithfull has gone on to record and release 13 more studio albums since Broken English, Her recording of the Kurt Weill opera The Seven Deadly Sins (1998) went to No. 38 on Billboard’s Classical Albums chart, and Before the Poison (2004) and Negative Capability (2018) reached the Top 40 of Billboard’s Independent Albums chart (Nos. 37 and 38, respectively). Following Broken English, Faithfull became a more prolific songwriter while also working with a wide array of collaborators, from Billy Corgan to PJ Harvey to Blur.

Faithfull’s catalog deserves a wider following, and that includes the album that kicked off her musical renaissance. Fortunately, enough people listened to Broken English upon its release to give Faithfull the momentum she needed to build a remarkable discography. The album marked an important turning point in Faithfull’s life and career, but it’s worth appreciating simply for the performances she turned in on each of its eight songs.

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