I have a few albums in my collection that do that thing where the whole work revolves (no pun intended) around one track. It may not be the best track on the album, but it centres it, acts as a focal point and can create the impression that all the other songs emanate from that source – the wellspring, if you like. A few records that, to my mind, do this thing: Astral Weeks (Madame George), Sgt Peppers (A Day In The Life), Marquee Moon (the title track), Stone Roses (I Am The Resurrection), Clear Spot (Big Eyed Beans From Venus). I didn’t think very long or hard about that list and I am sure some, if not all, of my choices are disputable but, for me, these songs do exactly the same job as Why’d Ya Do It? on Marianne Faithfull’s scathing 1979 comeback album Broken English.
I will always be able to recall the first time I heard this track. I had played the first side of the album a number of times already and loved what I had heard. The opening (title) song immediately stopped me dead on first listen. I was expecting to hear a floaty, wispy, 1960s folk-waif type of voice warbling above sparse and neatly strummed acoustic guitars. In fact I had very low expectations for Broken English…as I fired up the turntable in anticipation, I wasn’t really sure why I had bought it, other than the fact that it has a pretty unequivocal reputation. Imagine my surprise when a voice akin to a female equivalent of Tom Waits came creaking and croaking out of the speakers, whilst an early incarnation of The Knife layered glacial keyboard washes over an eerie and ominous bassline overlaid by shards of guitar set to emphasise the perilous nature of the subject material (the end of the world, of course…this was 1979, after all). The next three songs are all great but not quite as impactful. They smoulder rather than ignite but I would have been happy enough with my purchase even if side two turned out to be a dud.
Well, it turns out, that’s where the real treasure lies. The first time I played the second half of Broken English was on a sunny Sunday morning. My 10 year son, Kit, and I were in the dining room – him drawing cartoons and me pottering around. As close to familial tranquility as we come! A perfect time to check out that second side…or so I thought.
The single The Ballad of Lucy Jordan kicks things off – a sweet song that burrows its way into your psyche with repeated listening – first time through it seems a tad lightweight but its (Dr) hooks are undeniable and soon work their way in.
For me the album just goes from strength to strength from there on. What’s The Hurry has been described as filler by some, but I love it. Next up is Faithfull’s rendition of John Lennon’s Working Class Hero – never has a plodding dirge sounded so appropriate, which is ironic given Faithfull’s aristocratic background…but surely that was the point! It also contains the first undeniable (as in clearly audible) use of invective on the album. It’s not a good word, it is used repeatedly but it expresses ire, so that’s kind of OK – I don’t think Kit clocked it anyway. Let it pass, don’t allude to it and I might just have got away with it.
Well, how was I to know what was to come! Strangely, given how closely it resembles a Grace Jones song (any Grace Jones song will do), Why’d Ya Do It shares none of Jones’ love of innuendo and suggestion (essential ingredients if you are to get away with it whilst listening with a ten year old). So whereas Kit has heard Pull Up To The Bumper on numerous occasions and, presumably thinks it about neat parking or traffic jams or some such, there’s no possible misinterpretation of what Faithfull’s getting at when she sings:
Why’s ya do it, she said, why’d ya let her suck your cock?
Every time I see your dick I see her cunt in my bed.
Listening that Sunday morning, I was caught in two minds – turn the record down, or off and run the risk of drawing attention to it or let it play on and hope that the boy had other things on his mind….or hadn’t learnt any of those words yet! I can’t remember what I did in the end, but Kit has never mentioned the incident to me since and doesn’t seem to be any more traumatised than normal, so presumably no harm was done.
To be honest, I’m not sure what to make of the track. It’s immense and incredible but it sullies the listener to such an extent that it is hard to enjoy. I’ve never heard lyrics like it and, whilst I’m sure they exist on other records, context is everything and I never expected to hear something like this coming from the mouth of the woman who, just over ten years previously, had sung As Tears Go By as sweetly as you like. The transformation is unbelievable and surely this record could only have been made by someone with nothing to lose – a super-successful starlet of the 60s who came upon hard times, developed a heroin addiction that left her on the streets, penniless and led to the forced removal of her only child into the custody of her ex-husband, John Dunbar. Faithfull was arrested for possession of drugs in the late 60s, attempted suicide a few years later and suffered from anorexia nervosa for much of this period. To make matters worse, if that’s possible, she was vilified by the press whilst Mick and Keef perpetrated many of the same crimes but were hero worshiped in return. Not surprisingly, by the time she came to record Broken English, Faithfull was well and truly pissed off. Hence, the inclusion of Why’d Ya Do It – a song so scathing and hateful that it could only really make sense when sung by someone who had lived through the darkest of times and survived, just, to tell the tale.
So, in context, its inclusion makes complete sense, and knowing Faithfull’s back story has meant that I am able to enjoy the track all the more. Whilst it’s not surprising that the song was censored out of the Australian release of Broken English (it’s not surprising per se but it is, admittedly, surprising that this should have happened in Australia of all places!), its non-inclusion would dramatically alter the album and, I would have thought, significantly weaken it.
In fact, I now have proof that this is the case. Obviously God, or the boss at Devon Electric, doesn’t like the thought of us playing such filth at record club. I kid you not, in a moment of perfect timing to die for, at the start of the third line of the song where Faithfull just begins to warm up the lyrics, we had a power cut. But not one of those thirty second affairs. No. One that lasted just long enough to get the other three out of the house and safely on their way home to bed to dream their sweet dreams, unsullied by what is surely one of the most exquisitely foul mouthed rants to grace recorded music. It’s their loss!
Rob listened: I used to give so little time to a lot of the records I reviewed back in the 90s. Although Marianne Faithful is revered by many of the artists I hold most dear, I took against her after a couple of listens to ’20th Century Blues’, her 1997 record of songs from the Weimar Republic and beyond. Something to do with the voice (which has to be completely unfair – I would have lapped this stuff up from Tom Waits), the persona (I recall hearing her saying some stuff I found faintly objectionable, pious little shit that I was and still am) and the songs (a tough sell to a non-committed listener). Everything I’ve heard from her since has come through that stupid prism. Never having heard her in her first flush I had nothing to contrast this reinvention of her career to, so off she went into the bin, literally in the case of ’20th Century Blues’.
‘Broken English’ was a revelation. It’s everything Tom describes, but I also got a vibe from the relatively recently rediscovered ‘Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument’ a record made in the 1980s by an artist who placed his traditional instrument on top of the instruments he could find around him, in this case a drum machine and a Yamaha DX7 synthesiser, and from these disparate ingredients made something truly idiosyncratic and strangely, counter-intuitively, timeless.
Anyway, I liked this a lot and I’m actually glad it died before the last track, which sounds like it might have created an impression capable of overshadowing the rest of the work.