Week Seventeen: Broken English

One of the things that attracted me to the idea of this project was that it would make me listen to music that it had just never occurred tome to try before. And this is one of those weeks. Aside from a rather croaky cover of Leonard Cohen’s Tower of Song that was included on a compilation CD that came with a copy of Uncut Magazine many years ago, I don’t think I’ve ever knowingly heard any Marianne Faithfull songs before. Her name is familiar enough to me, but if you had asked me what I knew about her I think I’d get about as far as “um, 1960s. Mick Jagger, Mars bars. Um, that’s it. Do I get my five points?”

But when I put Broken English on, I realised that I’d heard the title track before. That the refrain “say it in broken English” was eerily familiar. Wasn’t this a minor hit some time in the late 1980s? But no, Broken English dates from 1979, and on reflection, doesn’t this song sound a little different from the version lodged in a neglected corner of my memory? I did a little digging on the internet, and my best guess is that what I’m actually remembering is an entirely unnecessary cover by early 90s ‘rave’ band Sunscreem.

It’s one of the highlights of the record, perhaps the most confident stab at the new wave sound that she manages. Elsewhere, the musical style is very much 1980s ‘adult contemporary’, which I suppose makes the album a little ahead of its time. The production values remind me a little of Fleetwood Mac circa Tango in the Night and Faithfull’s voice even sounds a bit like a more ragged Stevie Nicks, especially on Witches’ Song. On the other hand, I have to say I preferred the classic Rumours-era sound, and for me, songs like Little Lies and Everywhere work in spite of, rather than because of, their electronic drum sound and heavy use of synthesizers.

On the subject of 80s adult-oriented rock, when the third track, Brain Drain, came on, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the opening bars of Canadian one-hit-wonder Alannah Myles’ Black Velvet Which is a song I literally hadn’t thought of in the best part of quarter of a century.

What’s the Hurry sounds very much like a Blondie track, but for all I kind of like her gravelly growl, Faithfull is no Debbie Harry (as an aside, the pleasant surprise about Blondie’s noughties comeback was that even at nearly seventy, Harry’s voice was in surprisingly fine fettle – see for example this reggae-tinged cover of Beirut’s Sunday Smile ) and perhaps unsurprisingly, her song-writing team have nothing on Blondie. It’s pleasant enough background music, but I can’t imagine making a conscious choice to listen to it again.

The spine of the album, the fourth and fifth tracks, provide what I think is an interesting thought experiment around the illusion of the confessional singer-songwriter. Because to my ears, Guilty sounded cliched and insincere, the sound of somebody trying to imagine what another person’s early mid-life crisis might sound like, while The Ballad of Lucy Jordan, while nominally a third-person story about the same, sounded genuinely personal – an account of middle aged disillusion. And yet the latter was a cover version of a song written by Shel Silverstein for  Dr Hook & The Medicine Show. The more I think about it, the more I come to doubt the alternative-rock notion that sincerity is an intrinsic good…

…Talking of which, there’s the cover of Working Class Hero. Now John Lennon may or may not have considered himself to be working class (he wasn’t, by any sensible definition of the term, although the man from the Socialist Workers’ Party who buttonholed me at Fresher’s Week over twenty years ago and insisted that anyone who had to work for a living was working class might beg to differ) but I think it’s reasonable to assume that the daughter of Eva von Sacher-Masoch, Baroness Erisso did not consider herself to be. And it doesn’t matter. Because it made me realise that I’d been distracted by Lennon’s sincerity schtick, that this is really a character study, not a piece of musical autobiography. Fiona at Mookbarks was right, I think, to draw a parallel with Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall. It feels like a piece of social commentary from a very specific place and time. Even ten or fifteen years later, when my drama teacher tried to enthuse the class about Roger McGough, who I think was writing about what it was like to grow up in a particular kind of working class milieu, it felt like it was describing a world that belonged to the  past (though how much of that is what I thought at the time, and how much is a kind of ret-conning on my part, I don’t know. )

Not for the first time with this project, I’ve found myself concluding that this record might have been an intriguing place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to stay too long. If I want to listen to husky-voiced women making records that may or may not be about their complicated private lives, I’ll go with Fleetwood Mac. If I want late 70s new wave, then there’s Blondie’s Parallel Lines. And if I just want to listen to someone playing with the unlikely border between punk and new-romantic music, there’s always the Go-Gos.

Highlights: Broken English, The Ballad of Lucy Jordan


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