“She walks in beauty, like the night/Of cloudless climes and starry skies
And all that’s best of dark and bright/Meet in her aspect and her eyes…”
— Lord Byron, 1814
It’s a few days shy of 2022 and after 75 revolutions around the sun, Marianne Faithfull continues to create, inspire, and serve as a goddess-like muse to several generations. She was the epitome of the swinging ‘60s, a ‘70s junky shipwreck, a resurrected phoenix in the ‘80s, and an icon to this day.
Born on 29 December 1946 in Hampstead, the myths and legends of Marianne Evelyn Gabriel Faithfull have long been laid down and repeated many times before. But let’s start with the innocent, Catholic-schooled ingénue of well-bred Austro-Hungarian nobility turned brilliantly imperious teenage chanteuse.
A late-1964 hit with the Rolling Stones-penned As Tears Go By was followed by an introduction to drugs in swinging London town and a volatile romance with Jagger. She co-wrote the Stones’ Sister Morphine, and Wild Horses is said to be about her, as was Shanks & Bigfoot’s Sweet Like Chocolate.
Seduced by the bad boys and decadence of the big city, the Venus in Furs of Redlands experienced one of the most spectacular fall from graces, literally crashing onto the streets of Soho. The return from the wilderness of pain and abuse and the eventual sanctification in the almighty church of rock n’ roll. And somehow through it all, she’s still with us releasing captivating music when we need it most.
In her nearly 60-year recording and performance career, the Faithfull resume is far longer and expansive than most realise. She has appeared in acclaimed films with Alain Delon, was Tony Richardson’s Ophelia in the 1969 production of Hamlet, gave three legendary and hysterical performances on Absolutely Fabulous… and has recorded over 18 albums, where, despite numerous setbacks and health issues, continues to push herself to create and give to her fans.
Aside from the many songs she has written over the years, Marianne has been known as a master interpreter bringing new life to the works of others throughout her career from her first single to her latest album, a collection of English Romantic poems set to music by Shelley, Byron, Keats, and the like. “When I sing it. I become it,” she once said — and not much has been farther from the truth. Unlike certain rock chameleons — she was born ten days before her shapeshifting duet partner on an hilariously ragged cover of I Got You Babe*, David Bowie — Faithfull is able to bend characters to her will instead of letting them embody her. Those characters become Marianne Faithfull and add further fuel to the fires of her legend.
Since her career began in 1964, Marianne has worked with a wide range of artists from Nick Cave, Warren Ellis, PJ Harvey, Anna Calvi, Jarvis Cocker, Lou Reed, Roger Waters, Robert Wilson, Angelo Badalamenti, Will Oldham, Emmylou Harris, Joe Jackson, Metallica, and Beck just to name a few.
But, of course, it was her first collaboration with Mick, Keef, and Andrew Oldham that will serve as both albatross and guidepost throughout her life and career.
As Tears Go By (1964)
Supposedly the first song that Jagger and Richards wrote together after manager Oldham locked them in a kitchen after discovering Marianne at a party. Oldham knew 17-year-old Marianne “had a face that could sell records” and he was going to be the one to capitalise on that. For one’s first foray into songwriting, this was no disposable pop tune. The lyrics tap into the melancholy reflection of the Romantics and the music perfectly rises and falls along with the nostalgic sighs of the singer.
Proving her masterful skills as an interpreter right from the start, Faithfull wowed the world with the way she was able to convey the feelings of loss of childhood and the sadness that comes with maturity with her soft cooing melodic voice reaching No. 9 in the UK charts alone. There was clearly much more to this girl behind her angelic features. She may have become the epitome of 1960s fashion and cool, but Marianne has carried a particular darkness with her whole career. When she sings something, we know it is true. This MF hits right in the gut and it all started here.
Marianne would return to As Tears Go By in 1987 for her retour de force album Strange Weather, and again in 2018 on Negative Capability, growing further and further into the song adding the depth and wisdom that could only have come from the many lives she’s led.**
Come And Stay With Me (1964)
The Little Bird had a string of baroque pop classics before she would reconnect with the Rolling Stones. Like the Jackie DeShannon penned Come And Stay With Me, which was her second 45 and still her highest charting release (which was incidentally the first record a young Stephen Morrissey purchased).
It’s a lovely lilting enchantment delivered in a prim yet soft quivering coo. Although her early recordings are slightly reminiscent of some of the French pop at the time, Marianne adds her own sweetest infusion of melancholy and English romanticism that would be her standard to this day.
Sister Morphine (1969)
After her full immersion into the London scene and the infamous bust at Redlands, Marianne’s career and life spun out of her control and for the next 15 years or so would be overshadowed by her new bad girl image as the angel fallen from grace… the stoned-out ice goddess drowning in a sea of ennui. No better song from this period of her career best exemplifies this than Sister Morphine. Despite being a three-way co-write between Faithfull, Jagger, & Richards, it was inexplicably buried on a B-side and quickly hidden away.
The tragic song about a dying car crash victim in a hospital awaiting their next pain killer is still misunderstood to this day and inaccurately viewed as an ode to drugs and decadence. Of course, no one questioned it when Mick and Keith recorded their own version of the song a couple of years later (ultimately, hers is the superior take). The brand upon Faithfull was so strong and controversial that no matter what she did, she could no longer escape herself. But with that jazzy Watts beat, Ry Cooder on slide guitar, and Richmond’s finest, Jagger himself on acoustic and production, the fact remains Sister Morphine is a stone-cold classic. A great taste of the end of the reverie of the sixties.
Dreaming My Dreams (1976)
Despite a brief glimmer here and there, Marianne would spend the seventies falling further down the spiral of destitution, homelessness and drug abuse.
Around 1976, she was able to put together an album of country and western songs and had an unexpected hit in her beloved Ireland with Allen Reynolds’ Dreaming My Dreams, even becoming a bit of an unofficial national anthem for the country at the time (it would be later covered almost adequately by the Cranberries). The ballad of sorrow and loss is perfectly Faithfull. She sings the song with such honesty and wistfulness it’s hard not to shed a tear.
Broken English (1979)
1979 was the year that the Faithfull one came raging back and into her own. Her voice now lower, gravely, and pummelled from her years of addiction, heartache, and severe laryngitis, Marianne was able to conjure up an entire cast of demons to make the greatest and most personal album of career. She knew this was her last chance and treated the writing and recording as such. Timely and urgent, defiant and furious, the delightfully embittered Broken English was her seventh studio album, and the one record that all her work before and after would be judged against.
Co-written with the likes of guitarist Barry Reynolds (who’d soon become producer cohort for another Island artist, Miss Grace Jones) the album’s title track was recorded as Margaret Thatcher entered Downing Street. But while it deals with politics and war, on the surface the track also serves as a metaphor for a broken Britain and the Marianne Faithfull the world had come to know. Truthful, gritty, and raw, Broken English may have had its sonic kicks from new wave, but it was as punk as an album could be. “Punk made Broken English possible,” the singer later said. However, it can be argued that Faithfull made punk possible as the living example of the shadow of the sixties… the darkness behind the dream.
The Ballad Of Lucy Jordan (1979)
Penned by American poet Shel Silverstein and originally performed by Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show, “Lucy” was the biggest hit off of Broken English and would become a staple in Marianne’s live performances due to the unsurprising fact that she was once again able to sincerely embody the character of the song and, as she later conceded, “made Lucy real”.
The song about the disillusionment and mental deterioration of a suburban housewife was memorably described by David Hepworth in the then newly launched Smash Hits magazine: “The Debbie Harry of the sixties returns to vinyl with an honestly outstanding offering, a version of an old Doctor Hook number related over a swimming synthesiser. If you can handle this, it sounds like Dolly Parton produced by Brian Eno. Only better.”
Why’d Ya Do It? (1979)
The controversial closer of the Broken English album is also its highlight. Dealing with issues of sexual jealousy, infidelity, and abandonment over a quasi-reggae beat, Why’d Ya Do It? is both sacred and profane. Longer than many an extended version in its full un-flaccid glory and featuring a litany of colourful words, the song may be the most truly honest and human expression of a lover’s pain put to music.
The words were given to Marianne after she was able to convince poet Heathcote Williams that his first preference Tina Turner would never agree to sing it. With memorable lines like “Why’d you spit on my snatch?” and “She had cobwebs up her fanny and I believe in giving to the poor“ it certainly would have been interesting to hear what Tina would have done with the song, but there’s little doubt nothing compares to the power, anger, venom, and vitriol that only Faithfull could comfortably deliver.
Strange Weather (1987)
It took until the mid-1980s after several more near-death experiences for Marianne to quit heroin and rediscover her calling and passion. Still too raw from recovery and wounded by the toll of addiction to express herself lyrically as she had on her past couple of albums, she threw herself into arranging a set of old-new classics entitled Strange Weather, working with the great Hal Wilner, who’d previously featured Marianne on a song for his Kurt Weill tribute album Lost In The Stars.
A quasi musical extension from that collaboration, the result is a study of subdued noir musicality and distingué melancholia, with MF once again fully embodying the characters and their stories, making it hard to believe that she didn’t write any of the songs or that they weren’t necessarily written for her alone. The title track, about the mundanity of mankind across the globe, was originally penned by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan and transfers perfectly to Marianne’s similarly whiskey and cigarette-varnished voice. Like a tremulous Bette Davis, she sounds broken and resigned to the fact that the world is only getting flatter and the sky is falling down as we drift further and further from each other with only a vague customary concern for the weather uniting us. Strange days indeed.
Vagabond Ways (1999)
After Strange Weather, Marianne shifted into what has become her latter period: creating beautiful, dark and dramatic albums each stronger than the next, including several tributes to Noël Coward, Weimar Berlin, Brecht and Weill, and several brilliant returns to the stage and screen to boot. With each album Faithfull reassesses herself, her legend, and her approach. The growls and anger of Broken English have subsided (though she can certainly call them back on a whim) in favour of more experimental and artful rock, electronics, lush orchestral arrangements, jazz, and English blues as only Marianne Faithfull could.
From her fin de siècle album of the same name, Vagabond Ways is a song she wrote herself about a fictional character based on mandatory sterilisations once given in Switzerland to various criminals, including those with “vagabond ways”. Of course, in her typical fashion, the song could be read as an autobiography for herself and still stands as an anthem to those who have been inspired by her spirit all of these years. For all the choices and ups and downs in her life, Marianne has stood by them all her life and like her character in this story, has done so sans regret
She Walks In Beauty (2021)
Never to rest on her laurels, 2021 saw Marianne collaborating with Bad Seed Warren Ellis before and during the first COVID lockdown before she was nearly felled by the virus. Filled with her patented gravel and gravitas, the album she always wanted to make — which might sadly be her last due to the lasting effects of her battle with the aforementioned coronavirus — may also be her most haunting beautiful. A collection of English Romantic poetry set to music, Faithfull recites each word with a passion and truth that could only be possible having lived the life she has had. Ellis’s swirling sound collages lift up and give new dimensions to Marianne’s recitations. Also featuring Nick Cave on piano and Brian Eno on synths and textures, Lord Byron’s She Walks In Beauty screams instant classic.
Faithfull proves once and for all that she is exactly where she belongs, and her music and voice will echo for aeons. There’s little coincidence that the words of the title track fit not only the Faithfull legend and the real woman so perfectly. Now an artist of considerable standing, she has proven her best curator and the world is still blessed by her presence and influence. As flawless and perfect as the LP is, one can only hope that this is not the last heard from Marianne Faithfull. Although her humanity, struggles, and accomplishments are what make her such an inspiration, it’s her indomitability and invulnerability that have made her a legend and an icon.
“A muse? That’s a shit thing to be.“
Marianne may not like the label, but she has been an ongoing inspiration to countless men and women in the arts and a magnificent force all her own for almost 60 years. Whether it be her thrilling life story as the consummate rock n’ roll survivor, her regal beauty, her disarming wit, the fact that she’s played both God and the Devil, or the legendary recordings she has made — at 75 years of age, Marianne Faithfull has earned her crown as the Gypsy Faerie Queen and will continue to awe and inspire until the end of time.
Antoine Poncelet is a singer/songwriter and the front man of the post-punk group The Antoine Poncelet Band. You can find more from him at facebook.com/antoineponceletmusic, antoineponcelet.bandcamp.com, instagram.com/antoine poncelet, and youtube.com/antoineponcelet
Random Jukebox: Why D’ya Do It? is here
*That strange and unforgettably wonky duet with David Bowie on the Midnight Special in 1973? It’s coming up, which is what The Dame had trouble doing at the time, according to Marianne’s own account in her 1994 memoir Faithfull: An Autobiography. Not quite a rocket to Mars then.
“I’ve known that ever since Lady Gaga came along—I did it much better and long before you! Working with David Bowie was very interesting, but I couldn’t surrender to it. I should have let him produce a record for me, but I’m very perverse in some ways. He’s brilliant, but the entourage were rather daunting. It’s amazing how large the Marquee looks in this clip. It was a tiny place, but the US tv crew filming this special in ’73 have made it seem much more expansive. I remember the band looming over the audience. And the costumes. I remember the costumes. But very little else, so it was great to see the space-rock Sonny & Cher again, and to hear the lovely guitar obbligato from Mick Ronson.”
— MF talking to the Guardian, 2013
**The poignant 1987 re-recording of As Tears Go By for 1987’s Strange Weather album is particularly notable for ushering in the new older, wiser, and sober phase of Marianne’s life. Thank gawd for that.