Long is distance between Marianne Faithfull’s first hit “As Tears Go By” and her landmark 1979 record
Broken English: a stretch of 14 years and for the singer herself, a measure of existential dimensions. The girl who trilled that tender folk song in 1965 was, by the late ‘70s, squatting in London deep in the throes of a crippling heroin addiction. Her voice bore her trials—once crystal-crisp, it now cracked with world-weariness and fair rage. She’d radically shed her past as pop star and girlfriend to one Mick Jagger (who along with Keith Richards, wrote “As Tears Go By”), but however grim her conditions, she could argue she was treading her own path.

“The Baroness’ Daughter, Pop Star Angel, Rock Star Girlfriend… Images as indelible as these can only be changed by replacing them with more compelling ones,” she later wrote in her 1994 memoir, Faithfull. “By the mid-seventies, I had reluctantly come to the conclusion that if I was ever to obliterate my past I’d have to create my own Frankenstein, and then become the creature as well.”

Broken English session, 1979, photography by Dennis Morris.

Faithfull embarked on Broken English because, as she told Glenn O’Brien in 1980, she needed the money and to regain some portion of self-confidence. Her disenchantment filled the new wave, punk reggae-tinged record—from the bitter bite of “Why D’ya Do It?” to the caustic yet mournful scrawl of “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan”. Its jagged edges would cut right down to its cover, for which she was photographed by Dennis Morris in a doubly late-night session.

In a set consisting solely of an armchair, Faithfull remade herself in an image far removed from the lissome folk singer that wistfully gazed out of her early record sleeves. This time, her face obscured, her fingers wielding a cigarette, her bearing compelling in its grace, she stunned but also stung, a razor-sharp intensity roiling underneath her skin. The waif was over with; this creature was all of her own making.

Broken English session, 1979, photography by Dennis Morris.
Broken English session, photographed by Dennis Morris, 1979.

Dennis Morris’ memory of that photo session with the mercurial Faithfull, told to Snap Galleries in 2010, is worth revisiting in full:

“Marianne arrived at 8.30pm. Her first words were, ‘Do you know who I am?’ ‘Of course’, I replied. ‘This will make you’, she said, then, ‘I must have a drink, let’s go to a pub’. We left the studio and headed to a nearby pub. I asked her what she’d like to drink. Making sure everyone in the bar could hear her, she said, ‘I am not some cheap hooker, you know. It is going to cost you at least £200’. ‘No problem’, came my answer.

“After several drinks she declared, ‘I’m hungry, let’s eat’. We headed for an Italian restaurant, sat down and she proceeded to order everything on the menu. She only had a few nibbles. I asked for the bill. It seemed Marianne hadn’t been too keen on the food: she promptly overturned the table, stood up and shouted, ‘Don’t pay, the food was terrible’. The whole restaurant sat in stunned silence. I paid the bill and we left.

“On the way back to the studio we bought a bag full of wine and plenty of cigarettes. When we arrived, she headed straight for the changing room. I waited patiently for quite some time, then she appeared, glowing like a diamond that had just been unearthed.

“‘Let’s do this’, I said. ‘Do you want to fuck me?’ she asked. ‘No’, I said. ‘You’ll be the first’, came her reply.”