The Ballad Of Mackie Messer

Maybe if the barrel organ had worked that night, things would be very different. 

But, on the very night the new song was first performed, in 1928, this most mechanical of instruments broke down. In place of the thin, dark, eerie sound that should have emitted from the contraption of crank, pipes and bellows on the stage, the theatre orchestra stepped in to improvise from the pit. And in those days, in that licentious, decadent Weimar moment, ‘orchestra’ meant jazz band. 

What should have been murder ballad street-scene to introduce a dark and murderous character called Mackie Messer, was instead backed by the sound of modernism, the mania and rhythmic dazzle of jazz. Song and character met the world at the same moment, each accompanied not by the dread and danger of the Weimar underworld, but by the syncopated, hedonistic sound that would dominate the American century. It was a prophetic, or at least highly symbolic, accident. 

Mackie Messer, a song written by Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht for The Threepenny Opera in the late 1920s, was translated twice when it ‘crossed over’ to the US in the mid-1950s. First the language changed, as Brecht’s lyrics went from German to English for the show’s Broadway debut in 1955. Then, the following year, the music went through a transformation, as Louis Armstrong recorded his version of the song. Somewhere along the way the song became known as Mack The Knife, and the song’s backstory faded into the shadows. Pop singer Bobby Darin had a huge hit with it in 1959, selling millions of copies and winning a bunch of Grammies off the back of it, and so effortlessly and effectively did it swing that the new version soon became a standard. Every crooner sang their own version. Tony Bennett, of course. So too Sinatra, who called Darin’s version “definitive”, admiring the way it “changes key, chromatically, no fewer than five times, ratcheting up the tension”. 

Now, in our own Stars In Their Ironic Eyes era, every grinning oaf with a borrowed hat has done it. Michael Buble, obviously. Robbie Williams. Even fucking Westlife, who, I imagine, stood up from their stools one at a time in time to mark each of the key changes, though not so much ratcheting up the tension than draining all remaining traces of it until the song lay pale and lifeless on the floor. The corpse of Mack The Knife is now an X Factor staple; it’s brought out and propped up on stage with a wink, a shorthand for cool. All symbols, no meaning, sung by singers in love with the idea of what they’re doing but with no idea of their art. They circle around the song and its modern style without ever approaching its substance: a performance more roundabout than swing. 

Things reached the height of meaninglessness when Simon Cowell picked the Darin version as one his Desert Island Discs, describing it with artless hyperbole as “the best song ever made.” It sounds wrong, an error of syntax (songs are written, it’s records that are made), but the slip seems so fitting as to be Freudian. To Cowell, all hit songs must seem constructed, like they’re pre-fabricated, assembled from proven component parts. To our modern ears, Mack The Knife is not so much Rat Pack as Flat Pack.

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I suspect Cowell said ‘made’ rather than written because he had no idea who wrote the song. But, ironically, when you look at the journey Mackie Messer made to become Mack The Knife, its evolution from Brecht character study to light entertainment cliche, the way it shed elements only for them to be bolted back on again, or the way the song was changed by its transitions back and forth from country to country, from stage to screen and back again, from genre to genre, ‘made’ might actually be right. This wasn’t a one-way journey to sanitisation. Mack The Knife’s shadow existence was never quite fully left behind. It keeps popping up, briefly visible in daylight, just like the character in the song. That barrel organ may have broken down at the song’s debut performance, but its symbolic street-scene tones hung around for longer. Figuratively at least, that sound still seeps out now and again. 

The character of Mack The Knife began as Macheath, a gentleman thief in The Beggar’s Opera, a British ‘ballad opera’ of the 18th century. Brecht updated the story and its emphasis: The Threepenny Opera was a socialist critique of a capitalist world. The character of Mackie Messer (Messer is German for ‘knife’) was introduced at the start of the play by Die Moritat von Mackie Messer. A Moritat was a murder ballad, and this one made it clear Mackie was a criminal capable and indeed guilty of murder, along with arson, robbery and rape. 

As an early translation of the original first verse has it:

Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear,
And he shows them pearly white
Just a jack-knife has Macheath, dear
And he keeps it out of sight.

Then there’s the verse Brecht added to the first film version, made in 1931:

There are some who are in darkness
And the others are in light
And you see the ones in brightness
Those in darkness drop from sight.

This is a sinister story of shadow worlds and how the rich world contrasts with the poor. Mackie is an anti-hero. There’s no doubt his crimes are presented as gruesome. Though the song’s themes and events are retained in the American versions of the 50s and 60s, the treatment of Mackie - a shark, constantly moving, rarely around for long, occasionally seen above ground but mostly sequestered, dangerously, in his underworld - seems a far cry from the finger-poppin’ flippancy of Darin and everyone who followed. 

As Mack The Knife carved out its place in the glittering world of jazz and pop, the underworld of Mackie Messer continued to exist, just out of sight, emerging from the shadows now again, sometimes furtively, sometimes with pride, the culture now and again feeling the breath of Brecht’s vision on its neck, even if it didn’t know it. This shadow world is hidden in plain sight. It’s right there in the song. As a roll call of Mackie’s victims is heard towards the end (“Jenny Diver, Sukey Tawdrey”) we hear the name, “Miss Lottie Lenya”. Lenya was Brecht’s widow. She’d come to New York to make her comeback in that first Broadway production of 1956, and was there in the studio as Louis Armstrong cut his version. His shout-out seems to acknowledge the song’s origins even as he’s in the act of concealing them. Very Mackie. 

Later, a Broadway revival in the 70s sought to recapture some of the spirit of the original book, renaming the show Moritat and reinstating verses that had been cut to protect the sensibility of American audiences in the 50s. The full extent of Mackie’s crimes were clear once again.

And the child bride, in her nighty
Whose assailant's still at large
Violated in her slumbers
Mackie how much did you charge?

This 70s revisionist version soon developed its own shadow tradition. Singers like Nick Cave, Marianne Faithfull and Mark Lanegan all chose to perform it. Singers who have lived at times on the outside, at the bottom, in the shadows. Singers who have done desperate things, taken risks with their lives let alone their art. Singers who understand tension and the switchblade glare of a spotlight you don’t want to land on you for too long. They specialise in narratives of the dark side of life and know there’s very little about it that’s glamorous. It makes sense they would want to peel back the layers of acceptability to find the darkness underneath. These are people you couldn’t picture dancing to Bobby Darin, but they’re exactly who you’d expect to reanimate Brecht’s poetic but savage vision. 

That vision wasn’t so much lost in the last 100 years so much as shrouded, held at arm’s length by pop versions that have lodged themselves in the consciousness of a larger audience, using radio and TV and the happy fugue state of nostalgia to take prominence. But that’s OK. An opera based on murder ballads wouldn’t shift tickets in Vegas, and only the most joyless purist would want to try. And besides, there’s something fascinating about the two worlds co-existing. Ever since the other day, when by chance I heard a 1929 recording of the original song, in German, sung by Brecht himself, I’ve been fascinated how two radically different cultural artefacts can be the same thing. They exist on separate planes, and the contrast makes each version more interesting. I can picture Mackie Messer creeping round the corner, avoiding the pools of the streetlights and the gaze of the crowd. I can also picture Mack The Knife, laughing and joking openly with his victims, a shiv tucked away somewhere. It’s a Jeckyll and Hyde of a song. Neither character knows the other exists. Each is impossible to imagine without its counterpart. 

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We need culture like this. Culture that travels. Culture that subverts. Culture that opens up portals for us, wherever and whenever we are. People change, contexts change, and culture should too. Hidden pasts intrigue us. We’re hooked on surprise, and anything that’s too easily defined is too fixed in our imagination. By definition, that’s no good for our imagination. And it stifles culture. Gustav Mahler, the Austrian-German composer who was of the generation before Brecht and helped bridge classical music’s own journey from the 19th century to the modernism of the 20th, said “tradition is tending the flame, not worshipping the ashes”. Messing with art or mutating it is part of what moves things forwards. A healthy irreverence is vital. The US translation of Mack The Knife was just that. It’s people like Simon Cowell, with their stifling reverence for what it became, who reduced the song to two-dimensions, fixed the idea of it too strongly. But this is also why the idea of the Brecht’s vision won’t fade. The lighter the day, the darker the shadow. Like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, or The Cramps’ take on rock and roll, we get a sense of artifice and depth, the power of something unsettling rumbling away below the surface. 

I’d not thought about any of this until I heard that Brecht version on the radio during a normal weekday morning. It was Radio 3, land of soft and stirring classical music - room to think and be as we start another day the same. But without warning here was this arcane sound, a familiar tune yet entirely different. A portal opened up. The sound of the barrel organ grabbed me, as did Brecht’s clipped but florid German, and even though there were none of Bobby Darin’s key changes to ratchet up the tension - or perhaps it was because of that - it sounded pretty sinister. 

It sounds like it’s from another world. In many ways, it is.