Few artists have reinvented themselves as often— and as successfully— as Marianne Faithfull. From a career that began when she was just 16 years old and continues at age 74, her discography in-between features an expansive, often experimental, set of songs that continues to delight fans and critics alike.
In 1964, Faithfull began singing in coffee houses with little success, introducing herself as a folk singer. It was only when she started hitting the London scene as a teenager that she was introduced at a party to The Rolling Stones’ manager Andrew Loog Oldham. According to Faithfull, Oldham asked her to make a record because he “thought she had a face that could sell.”
After the release of her 1964 ballad, ‘As Tears Go By,’ in the short span of only six months, the Hampstead-born queen of the swinging London scene transitioned from shy teenage girl to a full-blown pop star. She ended up in The Rolling Stones’ close circle and even dated frontman Mick Jagger for almost five years. During this era, she established a signature sound that featured flowery lyricism and her gruff yet velvety tone.
After taking a break from music following a self-destructive period of drug addiction, Faithfull bounced back into the scene throughout the late ‘70s but found commercial success again with her 1979 release Broken English. It proved to showcase an entirely new woman, bolder and edgier than ever before.
Throughout the decades, Faithfull has explored a plethora of genres ranging from ’80s synth-pop to her most recent venture into the spoken word sphere. She’s been through every phase imaginable and has experienced enough to make anyone want to give it up—but that’s never been her. In 2021, Faithfull is still releasing new work, proving her boundary-pushing mentality is still alive and well. Here’s a look at six definitive songs that represent her impressive discography.
Six definitive songs of Marianne Faithfull:
‘As Tears Go By’ (1964)
The debut single from 18-year-old Faithfull was written and composed by Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Andrew Loog Oldham and released in June of 1964. From there, it charted at number nine in the UK Singles Chart, entered The Billboard Hot 100, and launched Faithfull’s career as a major singer in the mainstream scene.
An interesting choice as a debut record, the sullen and innocent bluesy ballad somehow managed to capture the essence of Faithfull and set the tone for her style to come.
‘Something Better’ (1968)
With lyrics like “he walks along singing his fairy song, picking up magic that grows at his feet.” It’s safe to say this is a tune that best exhibits Marianne Faithfull’s use of flowery lyricism.
The song is most notably remembered for her breathtaking solo performance of the song on ‘The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus,’ a 1968 television special which was meant to be aired by the BBC but was withheld by The Stones for reasons still uncertain. But regardless, the song paints a vivid picture without any visuals and proves to be one of her most powerful tunes.
‘Sister Morphine’ (1969)
Transitioning from her teenage years into womanhood, Faithfull’s subject matter began to mature with her. The 1969 release of ‘Sister Morphine’ pushed pop music boundaries and was subsequently withdrawn by Decca due to the title’s blatant drug reference.
Written by Jagger, Richards, and Faithfull, (although credit for the song was the subject of a prolonged legal battle, which ultimately resolved in Faithfull being listed as co-author), she later said about the song’s then-controversial content and title, “I just liked the name, and loved Lou Reed’s work, ‘Sister Ray and ‘Heroin.’ I liked the idea poetically. I thought it was like Baudelaire, but the song doesn’t glamorize anything. It was a really interesting vision.”
‘The Ballad of Lucy Jordan’ (1979)
Faithfull’s rendition of American poet and songwriter Shel Silverstein’s “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” is perhaps the most honest tune from her 1979 comeback album, Broken English.
Synth-heavy and upbeat, Smash Hits described it perfectly in that “it sounds like Dolly Parton produced by Brian Eno. Only better.” By exploring heavier themes such as disillusionment and fantasy vs reality in her vulnerable tone, the song became one of her highest-charting releases to date.
‘Incarceration of a Flower Child’ (1999)
Reminiscent of her ‘60s ballads, the 1999 release, ’Incarceration of a Flower Child’ takes the signature flowery Faithfull and gives her a rawness never before seen.
Although written by Roger Waters in 1968, the song couldn’t have been better suited for anyone but Faithfull, who sings with as much heart as if the words were all hers. After all, who’s better to scream lines such as “It’s gonna get cold in the 1970s,” than someone who was in the centre of the action? In a 1987 interview with Rory O’Connor of Vogue, Faithfull said, “Forty is the age to sing it, not seventeen.” And when looking back on the similarities between the lyrics and her wild journey through the ‘60s, it’s no wonder why Faithfull wanted to cover it.
‘She Walks in Beauty’ with Warren Ellis (2021)
In the latest release from Faithfull, her tone is raspier than ever but still manages to have that soft flare reminiscent of her earlier tunes, which is only amplified by the symphonic accompaniment. ‘She Walks in Beauty’ is the first release from a forthcoming spoken word album, which will include her reciting pieces from 19th-century British Romantic poets and will be accompanied by musical arrangements from Warren Ellis, Brian Eno, Nick Cave, and Vincent Segal.