It is astonishing to consider the fact that 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the recording career of Marianne Faithfull.
Five decades on from that fateful 1964 party in London where she was spotted, at the age of 17, by The Rolling Stones’ manager Andrew Loog Oldham – finding herself only three months later a Top 10 pop star with her evocative reading of Jagger/Richards’ As Tears Go By – she has lived a wholly eventful life and produced a wide and varied catalogue of albums.
To mark her incredible half century as an artist, this autumn, Marianne will return to the stage for a world tour while, in October, she will be the subject of a luxury photo book Marianne Faithfull: A Life On Record edited by herself and Francois Ravard, published by Rizzoli, featuring iconic images of the singer by major photographers including Helmut Newton, David Bailey, Ellen Von Unwerth, Bruce Weber, Cecil Beaton and Robert Mapplethorpe.
At the centre of this flurry of activity is Marianne’s stunning new album, Give My Love To London. Produced by Rob Ellis and Dimitri Tikovoi and mixed by Flood, it features an impressive roll call of studio collaborators including Adrian Utley (Portishead), Brian Eno, Ed Harcourt and Warren Ellis & Jim Sclavunos (The Bad Seeds). Songwriting contributors and co-conspirators – with Marianne penning the majority of the lyrics – include Nick Cave, Roger Waters, Steve Earle, Tom McRae and Anna Calvi.
A characteristically far-reaching and eclectic offering, Give My Love To London – from the ambivalent lyric of the title track, with its depictions of the capital city dramatically lit by both the moon and riot fire – is an album of emotional extremes. In both the Roger Waters-penned Sparrows Will Sing and Mother Wolf (written by Marianne with Patrick Leonard), Marianne rails against humankind and the state of the world in the early 21st Century, the latter song having been inspired by ‘Women Who Run With Wolves’ and a re-reading of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.
“It’s the idea of Mother Wolf with the cub in her mouth,” says Marianne. “The wolf council where you just see their eyes, like a thousand stars. I am angry about what’s happened to the world. I get more and more furious all the time.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, other tracks on Give My Love To London are more introspective, with the cinematic orchestral pop of Falling Back (co-written with Anna Calvi) finding Marianne examining the joyful powers of love. The same subject is viewed from a different angle in the delicate folk stylings of the gently melancholic Love More Or Less, written in collaboration with Tom McRae.
Elsewhere, Marianne co-wrote the moving, otherworldly Deep Water with her old friend and collaborator Nick Cave and lends her hypnotically expressive vocal delivery to his beautiful, spectral ballad Late Victorian Holocaust, written specifically for her, a lyrical song about kids on smack who are “star babies in the dark…with moonfire in our hearts” in Golborne Road, West London. “Late Victorian Holocaust is just extraordinary,” Marianne said. “It’s really one of the greatest songs ever written”
Give My Love To London is all the more extraordinary given that it was written in the aftermath of an accident Marianne suffered in summer 2013 in Los Angeles, breaking her sacrum bone in four places. As a result, she found herself laid up for six months recovering in Paris, with little else to do but write songs, giving her the longest period of pre-production she has enjoyed for any of her albums. “It was awful breaking my back,” she says. “However, I had longer to write material than I’ve ever had in my life.”
As Marianne Faithfull’s 20th studio album, Give My Love To London is the latest instalment in an outstanding musical career. A beautiful and articulate individual in the permissive London scene of the 1960s, she was the product of her unusual background as the convent school-educated daughter of an English MI6 spy father and dancer mother from the Austro-Hungarian von Sacher-Masoch family.
Beginning with the wistful folk and baroque pop of her mid-1960s work, Marianne ventured into darker territory in 1969 with Sister Morphine, a classic collaboration with Jagger/Richards which (as the b-side of her Something Better single) caused something of a controversy. Misinterpreted as a pro-drug song – when in reality it imagined a man in hospital dying after a car crash – the record was pulled from record shop shelves after two days.
The incident was emblematic of the way the newspapers unfairly vilified Marianne after the infamous bust at Keith Richards’ Redlands home in 1967. Hounded and cornered by the media, she admits now that she took solace in heroin, mistaking William Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch as something of a guide for life. “I took it absolutely for real,” Marianne laughs. “Later William said to me, ‘Marianne…that was fiction. It was not meant to be taken as a textbook of life and certainly not by you.’ I said, ‘Oh…’”
After a painful 1970s in which Marianne’s career was derailed by her personal difficulties, the singer made a spectacular return with her post-punk masterpiece, Broken English in 1979. Veering from the heartbreaking The Ballad Of Lucy Jordan to the enraged neo-reggae outbursts of Why D’Ya Do It, it was an album which found Marianne painting herself entirely in her own light and seizing absolute control of her creativity. Broken English was also the first Marianne Faithfull album to showcase her changed voice, which was variously described as “whisky-soaked” and “nicotine-stained”.
“That was sort of true,” she says today. “I can’t deny it. But I think it’s much more interesting. When I was very young and I had a soprano voice, before I was discovered, I was going to go to music school possibly and be an opera singer. My music teachers all said that I was going to be a contralto. So in spite of whisky, cigarettes and all the rest of it, what happened really was that I became a contralto.”
In the wake of Broken English there followed a series of albums with standouts almost too numerous to list: the torch songs of experience that made up Strange Weather (1987), the dreamlike sonic scapes of the Angelo Badalamenti-produced A Secret Life (1995), the dramatic, masterful tribute to Kurt Weill in The Seven Deadly Sins (1998). Post the millennium, Marianne has worked with a new generation of artists to achieve her creative vision, including Beck, Jarvis Cocker and Billy Corgan on 2002’s Kissin Time, Damon Albarn, Nick Cave and PJ Harvey on 2005’s Before The Poison, and Antony Hegarty and Rufus Wainwright on Easy Come Easy Go in 2008. Her last album, 2011’s Horses And High Heels was a stirring set of songs overseen by her friend and longstanding collaborator, US producer Hal Willner.
Remarkably, at the same time, down the years Marianne Faithfull has enjoyed a parallel career as an actress, stretching from her 1967 debut in Chekhov’s Three Sisters and her acclaimed and haunting portrayal of Ophelia in Hamlet, through films including The Girl On The Motorcycle, Lucifer Rising, Marie Antoinette and Irina Palm. In addition, she has produced two candid, riveting autobiographies, Faithfull and Memories, Dreams and Reflections.
Which brings us back to Give My Love To London. While featuring a stellar supporting cast, it is Marianne’s voice which proves the main attraction. These are songs sung from the heart and soul and from the perspective of someone who has seen and done it all. Over a fifty-year career, she has proved utterly fearless in her music and everything else besides. Five decades on, Marianne Faithfull remains a unique and compelling musical figure: adventurous in her life, adventurous in her art.