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Mackie Messer (Mack the Knife)
I like a program on KPFA 88.1fm called Stone's Throw with Jennifer Stone http://www.kpfa.org/archive/id/72878 . Over the years the theme music for the show has haunted me. I knew it was a version of the old famous song, Mack the Knife from 1959 by Bobby Darin which reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 that year and earned him a Grammy Award for Record of the Year.
I've never been a fan of that Bobby Darin version of the song as it is the epitome of anti-rocknroll, big band swing. And, it topped the charts right when a lot of way more cool rock, jazz, r&b and blues was exploding onto the scene. Examples: Link Wray, Miles Davis, Ray Charles and John Lee Hooker. To me that song represented the unfairness of the corruption in the music business through the Payola System and the lame tastes of the American public at the time.
But, behind that hit version lies a wonderfully captivating, old German song that has more in common with tragic folk music than with uptempo, happy pop songs. But, it's more than that. It also has a Classical connection, which further alienates it from the average listening audience.
Mack the Knife started life in 1928 as a song in a German Opera called Die Dreigroschenoper, later translated into english as The Three Penny Opera. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mack_the_Knife
There is a sorrowful, wistful wondering in the original version that is so charming. It ponders in a philosophical way, why are these monsters in our midst slinking around, dressed to the nines, murdering people and getting away with it?
We have had a fascination with great evil dressed in finery: Al Capone, Bonnie and Clyde and Moammar Ghaddafi. The original version song puts the right spin on our said fascination, but the Darin version literally praises Mackie as a damn hero and sucks the life out of the song.
With a few exceptions, the more popular a song gets the more clear it is a worthless piece of shit that became popular mostly by the unrelenting playing on a thousand radio stations for pay by one of the Majors. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Record_label. And, that they and they alone are able to do such a thing.
An idependent song from an independent artist that becomes a minor hit usually does it all on the merits of the talent of the artist. The opposite would be that dumb-ass show on tv, I don't even remember it's name, it used to be called Ed McMahon's Star Search and brought us such wonders as Tiffany. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiffany_%28singer%29
They have poor dumb shmucks come out and make a fool of themselves to be ridiculed or swooned over and in the end they produce a "star" who goes out and makes the most god-awful pop music or becomes a hokey spokesperson for some crackpot enterprise.
Mackie Messer has been covered by a slew of German language singers over the years. It's been around for over 80 years now. It really comes to life hearing it in it's original language with a little help from subtitles. Sting did a really nice version that captures some of the darkness of the original and Nick Cave does a re-translation and injects that dark vibe of the original story.
I think so many singers have been so attracted to this song because as you get into it you find a lush wonderland of different ways to interpret it. More poppier, with major chords and uptempo swing or darker and folksy with minor chords and simpler instrumentation. Translated, re-translated and interpreted over and over again, it is Rolling Stone's #251 of the 500 Greatest Songs of all time. http://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/the-500-greatest-songs-of-all-ti.... The coolest versions stand out as the coolest-ever freakin' pop songs..
Lotte Lenya, wife of Kurt Weill, the song's author singing original version from way, way back:
Modern 60s version by German Pop singer Hildegard Knef:
Cool version by Nick Cave keeps more to the original in English:
Sting does an admirable job of it in German:
Here's a nice synopsis of the history of this grand old pop song: