Tuesday, February 05, 2013

One Of The Most Famous Songs in History is Marxist Propaganda That Involves Raping A Minor: The Story of "Mack The Knife"

"Oh, the shark bites
With his teeth, dear
And he shows them
pearly white..."

Yeah, you know it, "Mack The Knife", #3 on Billboard's Top 100 Songs ever. You've heard it a million times, from Bobby Darin's #1 hit version in 1959, to countless crooners ever since. But who first recorded it?

Feel free to smack the next smug twerp who tells you "Google is your friend." No, it's not, not always, and I couldn't find the answer to that question. I knew it was written by the great German composer/playwright/anti-capitalist team of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht back in 1927 for the musical "Threepenny Opera," but that's well known. Heck, that Weimer-era Berlin cabaret style is probably more popular now then it was in the 1920s.  Tom Waits, Amanda Palmer, The Tiger Lillies, and numerous other alt/dark-cabaret performers owe much of their careers to it, and countless jazz, pop, and theater singers have been performing these songs for decades. (That's an original German 1929 poster to the right.)

So you'd think the question of who made the first recording of "Mack The Knife" would be a pretty basic one. But it gets confusing early on.  For one thing, the song wasn't even originally entitled "Mack The Knife." Nope, it was called "Moritat," a term from German folklore meaning a bad-man ballad, similar to Old Western songs about bandits and outlaws. It then became popularly known as "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer (The Ballad of Mack the Knife)." In the Fifties, it finally became known as "Mack The Knife" when it was discovered by the American jazz and theater world.

So who did it first? I went to the source, and asked the Kurt Weill Foundation, but even spokesperson Dave Stein isn't certain. He wrote me:

"I'm not absolutely sure, but it seems pretty clear that the first recording of the "Moritat" was made in December 1928 by Harald Paulsen, who played Macheath in the original production of the Threepenny Opera. Brecht himself also recorded the song early on, but my sources say that was made a few months later, in May 1929. It's odd that the standard Brecht biographies and chronologies we have here seem to make no mention of this recording, which you would expect to be a little more noteworthy. Paulsen's recording is available on a recently reissued Capriccio 2-CD set

"Die Dreigroschenoper: Historische Originalaufnahmen" (C 5061, reissued 2011, originally released on CD in 1990).

I should point out that the "Moritat" was not the biggest hit from the show in Weimar Germany; it did not become the hit song from Threepenny until much later, when Louis Armstrong's 1955 recording paved the way for so many successors."

Needless to say, Paulsen's and Brecht's versions sound little like the ones you know. With their German lyrics, oom-pah sound, and different vocal phrasing, they almost sound like different songs altogether from the later finger-snappin' remakes. They do sound great, tho - I'd take Brechts' version over many of the later, more famous recordings.

And then there's the matter of the lyrics. The famous versions from the '50s and afterwords usually use Marc Blitzstein's somewhat sanitized translation. The eye-opening original lyrics feature such lines as "And the minor-aged widow/ Whose name everyone knows/ Woke up and was violated/ Mack, what was your price?" Yikes, that's getting a bit rape-y, isn't it? Macheath wasn't just some loveable Rat-Pack type rogue, but a genuinely Bad Dude. In the eyes of Brecht and Weill, Mack was a symbol of unrestrained capitalism. This context disappeared, of course, after the off-Broadway 1954 revival of "Threepenny" became such a huge success using Blitzstein's translation. My mom even attended a performance! And I have a copy of the hit cast album, featuring a young pre-sitcom star Bea Aurthur, then still known as "Beatrice." (Hey trivia fans! A pre-Law and Order Jerry Orbach would eventually play Mack in the same production.) Darin did his version based on the Blitzstein revival, and here we are.

All of which got me thinking...I bet many of you remember the 1985 album "Lost In The Stars - the Music of Kurt Weill."  With it's fresh re-workings of numerous Weill classics and it's all-star cast, it was pretty popular in the college/public radio scene of the '80s. I liked Slapp Happy/Henry Cow singer Dagmar Krause's track so much, I then bought her "Supply & Demand" German cabaret covers record. Producer Hal Wilner, on this and other albums he organized, actually made the dreaded 'tribute album' seem like a great idea.

"Lost In The Stars - the Music of Kurt Weill" 

I added the two previously-described earliest known versions of "Moritat" to the file.

Get the artwork/liner notes to "Lost in The Stars" HERE.

1. Mahagonny Songspiel (Intro) - Steve Weisberg
2. 'The Ballad Of Mac The Knife' - Sting/Dominc Muldowney
3. 'The Cannon Song' - Stan Ridgway, The Fowler Brothers [Bruce Fowler of Captain Beefheart's late-period Magic Band?]
4. 'Ballad Of The Soldier's Wife' - Marianne Faithfull
5. Johnny Johnson Medley - Van Dyke Parks
6. The Great Hall - Henry Threadgill
7. 'Alabama Song' - Ralph Schuckett, Richard Butler (of the Psychedelic Furs)
8. 'Youkali Tango' - The Armadillo String Quartet
9. 'The Little Lieutenant Of The Loving God' - John Zorn
10. Johnny's Speech - Van Dyke Parks
11. 'September Song' - Lou Reed
12. 'Lost In The Stars' - Carla Bley
13. 'What Keeps Mankind Alive?' - Tom Waits
14. Klops Lied (Meatball Song) - Elliot Sharp
15. 'Surabaya Johnny' - Dagmar Krause
16. Oh Heavenly Salvation': Hurriccane Introduction - Mark Bingham & Aaron Neville
17. Oh Heavenly Salvation: Oh Heavenly Salvation - Mark Bingham & Aaron Neville
18. 'Call From The Grave/Ballad In Which Macheath Begs All Men For Forgiveness - Todd Rundgren
19. 'Speak Low' - Charlie Haden
20. 'In No Man's Land' - Van Dyke Parks

Oh, so how's Sting's version of "Moritat"? It's really good, except for the Sting part.

And if you like Tom Waits' take on "What Keeps Mankind Alive?," dig William Burroughs' version:


Anonymous said...

Swiss Industrial band The Young Gods did a rockin' version of it on an album entitled Play Kurt Weill.
I think I've got a Brazilian Samba version of it somewhere, too.
I've always loved that song. The '58 version used to be used regularly on The Ernie Kovacs Show, in a bizarre recurring montage segment. In fact, I think it's one of the first songs I ever downloaded off of Napster back in the day.

Mr Fab said...

Oh yeah, I dimly recall the Young Gods - they did a whole Weill album? Wow, must seek that one out.

What version did Kovacs use? Dick Hyman did a really cool organ instro version in the late '50s.

Anonymous said...

If the ID3 tags and my half-assed research is correct, it's Wolfgang Neuss, from the Sender Freies Berlin Orchestra version, from '58.

oschene said...

Is Paulsen's version the one that was used on the Ernie Kovacs' show?

Unknown said...

The last three tracks are missing.

Mr Fab said...

That was odd. Should be ok now. thanks reddy.

Hitsviller said...

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Cheers! Gonna visit this blog again :)

Unknown said...


Anonymous said...

Thanks--I was looking to find out who played MacHeath in the original production in Berlin. I knew about Beatrice Arthur and Jerry Orbach (though I had the idea he'd originated the role in that milestone production--thanks for setting me straight). I loved the double album from the Public Theatre production, starring--sigh!--Raul Julia, and also with Ellen Greene, and I forget who all else. That had a translation more in line with the original, and the lyrics can get pretty down, dirty, and gross. But best, for me, is listening to the Brecht-Weill songs in the original languages (bits of English thrown in here and there). Also loved the songs Weill did later, with Ira Gershwin, Maxwell Anderson, Langston Hughes, Oscar Hammerstein II and...who else?