Concept Album Corner - 'Two Penny Opera' by The Tiger Lillies
The history of music, I find, is often a fascinating one. The progression of music and all of its many forms and genres throughout the decades and even centuries is filled with influence for the present and the future, both of which in turn can shine entirely new lights and perceptions on the music of their predecessors. For fans of musical theatre, the history of such is equally fascinating in all its Broadway and Off-Broadway glory. One of the most famous early pieces of musical theatre came to us from Germany by a duo known as Kurt Weill, musician, and Bertolt Brecht, playwright. To any fan of this pairing, Weil and Brecht seemed to compliment each other perfectly, making some of their most memorable pieces in collaborating, including The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany, Happy End, and most famously, The Threepenny Opera. Weil’s music and Brecht’s theatrical innovations in The Threepenny Opera have since gone on to inspire many people in theatre and especially in music. The songs have not only been performed a great deal by stages across the globe, but have also been covered by singer/songwriters and bands everywhere, with the most popular pieces being ‘Pirate Jenny’ and ‘Mack the Knife’. For Brecht, it was one of the earliest example of the ‘musical comedy’ genre that could still ask many deep, philosophical (albeit cynical) questions, which especially showed up in Weil’s music.
Sadly though, as time has passed, many adaptations of The Threepenny Opera have romanticized and probably for the worst. Many productions of The Threepenny Opera all have place a certain level of emphasis on different aspects of the piece in general, but recently, it has been much more glorified and glamorized from its original seedy, nihilistic origins, effectively missing the point. To give you all an idea of what the point was, The Threepenny Opera’s Story followed Mack The Knife, an amoral criminal king, who marries the daughter of a beggar king, who in turn plots to throw Mack in jail. What follows are a series of philosophical songs about lust, war, death, easy-living, and secrets of survival in a very nasty world. Recent adaptations have stuck to the basic structure, but vastly change major aspects of the play beyond and below the creators’ intent. Mack the Knife was never meant to be the most charming crook ever, the cast was not meant to be sympathetic, and Mack’s romance skills were rather fragile and faltering. And yet many directors and actors and producers go along with these ideas anyway, excellently failing at the original intent of the play (with few exceptions).
Then along come The Tiger Lillies. A British trio formed in 1989 by accordionist, Tiny Tim impersonator, and social philosopher Martyn Jacques, The Tiger Lillies are considered by many to be fore-fathers in the Punk Cabaret genre of music today. The instrumentation mimics that of early macabre Brechtian cabaret during pre-war Berlin, but the lyrics and style is closer to the savage, controversial, and often biting edge of Punk. The fusion of these two brings out a remarkably dark and hilarious array of songs about bestiality, prostitution, murder, blasphemy, and any other taboo you might think of. Two of the best ways to describe them is if Terry Gilliam formed a band or if Marilyn Manson and Tiny Tim had a child. With a description like that, they’d sound perfect to tackle their first Rock Opera based upon the magnum opus of Brecht and Weil. And to make it a pence cheaper and much more offensive, they entitled it The Two Penny Opera. Though not as musically complex or dramatic as Weil’s music, The Tiger Lillies probably stick more closely to the original source material than any other adaptation ever could.
1.) Moon Over Soho – Each song throughout Two Penny Opera parallels the songs of The Threepenny Opera, obviously, following not only the plot but even the same philosophical musings, though in a more simplified manner. ‘Moon Over Soho’ not only mimics the introduction to the setting and the main character, Mackie, but sounds all too similar to the most popular work of The Threepenny Opera, ‘The Ballad of Mack the Knife’. However, instead of that familiar bouncy, sideshow tune to skip and tap-dance to, we are given a gloomy, eerie accordion piece accompanied by musical saw. Again, this works in setting the tone perfectly, painting a seedy, nasty, crime-ridden world for Victorian era London, with corpses, mangy dogs, and thievery of rich men left in gutters, illuminated only by the rotten, decaying light of the moon.
2.) Why (Mackie’s Childhood Song) – Though not part of the original song line-up, it is perfectly fitting here, perhaps as a piece of satire. The song details Mack’s childhood, dealing with an abusive, wicked father and a submissive mother, until he finally murdered him and was ironically sent away to prison for it. Though not funny on its own, save for the lyrics that can get a chuckle out of you if you’re dark enough, one can see this as being very satirical. In giving Mack a sympathetic backstory, Martyn Jacques is mocking other renditions of The Threepenny Opera who tried far too hard to make an murderer and a rapist sympathetic. At the end of the piece, Mackie only goes further down into the path of villainy, vowing to have his revenge on his father by doing what the very next song is about…
3.) P*** on Your Grave – For whatever reason, this song was recorded live, noticeable by the constant laughter and cheering of the audience members. Your mileage may vary on whether this is annoying or at least tolerable. The song itself, however, is one of the funniest tracks on the album by the sheer audacity it embraces. As one might guess, it details the violent lifestyle that Mackie led after being released from jail, but goes a step further by doing so after killing off famous Biblical figures, including St. Peter, John the Baptist, God himself, and even Satan himself. If you’re looking for a good laugh and aren’t afraid to laugh at the woe of religious figures, this is a perfect song to acquire.
4.) My Daughter – The songs that are portrayed in this piece seem to be a combination of Peachum’s Morning Chorale, in which the beggar king awakens the beggars for work, and the Instead-Of Song, detailing the beggar king’s concern for his daughter’s relationship with Mackie. The song is much quieter than the rest of the album at large, or at the very least, much more restrained and eloquent, even with the sound of a raspy coughing fit in the background from one of the beggars.
5.) Mary – Again, I’m not certain where this fits in with the rest of the story (maybe a parallel to ‘Pirate Jenny’?), though it is funny as hell, perhaps going further in mocking religion. Obviously the song regard the Virgin Mary, but much like Polly Peachum, the beggar king’s daughter, she is portrayed as a prostitute in the backroom of a church, ‘tending to the holy needs’ of holy men of the church. Perhaps the funniest song on the whole album, topped off with a bass line mimicking a church bell melody.
6.) Wedding Song – The relationship between Mack and Polly has come to their inevitable marriage, but not one of Holy Matrimony. Though both hold a great deal of notoriety in the world of poverty, they are still poor. Rather, it is a devilish marriage, between pimp and prostitute. The song drones in the same two chords throughout the whole of the song, with Jacques’ voice growing harsher and harsher until he ends with on a pompous long high note that sounds as though he’d undergone castration right then and there.
7.) Police – The song being mirrored here is The Army Song, which was one of the most raucous tunes in the whole of the original Threepenny piece, criticizing the monstrosities of war and the military (like many songs do), sung by Mackie and his friend Tiger Brown, chief of police, both helping the other out when needed in sticky situations. The tone of ‘Police’, however, is a bit more fitting to something like the original ‘Mack the Knife’: jaunty, lively, catchy, simple, and happy-sounding overall, even when dealing with racial murder and rape. Mack points out the similarities between he and Tiger, both raised in the gutter, received with respect now, veterans of the army, etc. In the end, they help each other out due to a dichotomous relationship. We are the P’lice(We are the P’lice)/We are the Thieves(We are the Thieves)/And each the other does need.
8.) B*stard – When I use the word ‘parallel’ in the case of many of these songs, that is to say that, while they detail the same themes and events used in The Threepenny Opera, the tone can very much be different, as you might have noticed by now. The Barbara Song from the original musical was a ballad by Polly, mourning about the actions of her sexual desires and her sexual frustration from the past leading to her marriage to Mack, unsure of what convinced her to marry a foul man rather than stay with a nice one. ‘B*stard’ loses most of the mourning and doubt for a weary, down-trodden accordion, bass and banjo ballad.
9.) Money – The song echoed here would probably be Mack’s ‘Ballad of Easy Living’, which is actually portrayed very similarly in this song here. The song, being one of the philosophy pieces of 3PO, delved into Mack’s personal beliefs on quiet, easy living supported by money and luxury. Rather than living with the constant pain and agony of effort to reach a greater goal, Mack argues that greater goals are altogether meaningless if it causes you pain. Rather, one should live their life at ease and be spontaneous with the little joys in life. Here, it is perhaps a bit simplified: Mack (or possibly the beggar king) chats with Polly about the importance of money and marrying for money, not love, which certainly seems to be the case for Mack as we find out later on. The track is immediately catchy and bouncy, much like that of its predecessor. Perhaps that is the best way to sing a song about money.
10.) Depends On Baby – I would argue that this would be the ‘worst’ song on the whole of the album. I would like to clarify, though, that when I say ‘worst on the album’, generally speaking, it doesn’t describe whether or not that certain song is good or bad. I would say that this is an exception of a definite bad song. By this point, the falsetto voice will definitely strain on your nerves if you can’t stomach it for too long, and if that won’t do the trick, then the accordion just might do the job better. Lyrically, the piece is rather repetitive and far too simplistic. Throughout, the lyrics have been simple but to the point, like a good bar-song or, more fittingly, a quick cabaret number, though not to this degree of repetitiveness. The song being emulated here is ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’, wherein Polly’s parents attempt to sway their daughter into ruining Mack.
11.) Fish-heads – Being an early ‘Opera’, 3PO often divided the play into sections that, to those unfamiliar to the world of theater, were called ‘acts’, and at the end of each act, a song would be played, which in 3PO’s case, would leave way for a philosophical musing about the miserable life of beggars, which is precisely what this song does, their meals consisting of nothing but rotten fish heads. But still, most beggars would be willing to scavenge for a disgusting, old fish cranium like seagulls rather than starve. When you’re poor and need to live, the luxury of pickiness isn’t an option. Whereas the vocals and accordion of the previous song could certainly grate on one’s nerves, this song makes up for it with beautifully crafted imagery in the lyrics, familiar yet arguably more complex accordion chord shifts, and great vocal parts on the chorus.
12.) Darling – Strangely one of the shortest songs on the piece, detailing Mackie’s infidelity to Polly with his old flame/prostitute, Jenny. I say ‘strangely one of the shortest’ because the song this matches is arguably one of the most famous, tragic love ballads put to musical theatre, ‘The Tango Ballad’, telling the story of a hard-working wench and her pimp, going from their abusive relationship, their need for money to live by, and the eventual destruction of their relationship. And yet here, it is one of the rare restrained, soft songs on the album, only going from Mackie’s view, happily remembering the days when he and Jenny were an item and how he’d beat her when she complained to him.
13.) Hang Tomorrow – Spontaneously, we cut to Mackie in prison, possibly imitating ‘Call From the Grave’, wherein Mack realized the situation he was in, about to die for his crimes, betrayed by Tiger Brown and his friends, finally begging for salvation from his hanging. But once more, the tone is almost completely different from the frantic, regretful cry of ‘Call From the Grave’. Instead, Mack is completely accepting of his fate, having been in jail many times before, seeing his old friends, and ready to kick the bucket. We could’ve made a break for it/Said no to being bad/So if I hang tomorrow/In some ways I’ll be glad.
14.) Your Suicides – Once more, we are treated to a live recording of this song, as though it were a comedic bar-tune. And yes, it is a rather comical song, mocking failed suicide attempts that leave people worse off rather than helping them end their miserable lives. Trying to hang yourself only to destroy your breathing abilities, burning yourself only to walk out as a crispy, ashen body, and self-mutilation leading only to the loss of a limb. And the worst of it all, still living through it, living with the clear, public shame that you tried to kill yourself and failed. And still, Martyn makes us laugh at it all. My assumption is that these are Mackie’s suicide attempts in prison, or perhaps one of the philosophical musings by the beggar king entitled ‘Song of the Insufficiency of Human Suffering’.
15.) B*tch – At long last, we discover how Mack was sent to prison now. Due to a long and complex bargaining deal with the beggar king and Tiger Brown, it began with the jealous rage set forth by Polly after witnessing Mack and his former ‘client’ canoodling with each other, mimicking ‘The Jealousy Duet’. The time signature is a rather unusual one here, but still manages to get the lyrics all in there. Again, the accordion piece is exceptionally well-done here.
16.) Wise – The cousin to one of the biggest pieces in 3PO, ‘What Keeps A Man Alive?’, the crux of the musical’s philosophy, about how the poor and down-trodden must make their way through life to survive: detaching themselves emotionally, stealing and hurting their fellow man, and living by the sad reality rather than living in hope. While not as epic nor as big as the original, ‘Wise’ certainly portrays the philosophy of criminals in a serene and unique-sounding way.
17.) Twenty Five Minutes – While not the length of the actual song, Mackie counts down his time and waits for his turn to swing from the gallows, at first defiant and careless of the whole ordeal, but suddenly calling out for help when his head goes through the noose. The original piece, ‘Ballad in Which Macheath Begs the Forgiveness of All Men’, was somber and melancholy like a funeral mass, as Mack finally accepts his fate, but begs for one thing of the audience: allow the dead to rest, as they’ve little room in the world but in our hearts and in our memories. Just as it seems like he’ll be sent to the grave, a Deus Ex Machina comes in the form of a messenger who comes with a pardon from the Queen herself, who not only promises Mack a release from prison, but also a lifetime of wealth, true marriage to Polly, and a place in the Queen’s kingdom as a knight, as a great big parody of happy endings. Here, however, Mack is simply hanged.
18.) Finale – The opera ends with the epic, loud, pompous grandness meant for an orchestra, yet still played off well with the scant number of instruments used by The Tiger Lillies. Mack, be he dead or risen from the grave, brings forth his own forgiveness to all of the thieves and beggars of the world. His forgiveness being revenge. A reward that they may all die a nasty, gruesome death in their lives, that their families be burned, that the plague eats away at them, and that they may be slain and slashed brutally by street criminals. This, to Mack, is a good reward because all of life is merely a game where we all die. He simply gives his friends the reward of making their deaths grander than life.
19.) Divine – The final song of Two Penny Opera is a complete original, with the story of the original 3PO having ended. Gone is the accordion in favor of a ukulele, where Mack, presumably in some sort of afterlife, muses on the little joys in life. The world may be a dreary and dire place, full of pestilence and hatred, but the little things that help us through, be they good or be they bad, make it worth living. They make it worth living, because sometimes, those little things can make the world seem better, if only for a short time.
Martyn Jacques certainly took a lot of liberties with the source material. The Tiger Lillies were never made to match the sophistication and drama of Weil’s music. It deviates from the story in many ways, especially at the ending. And yet, it fits all the better. For a Threepenny Opera, meant to be so cheap that even a beggar could come to it, The Tiger Lillies more than deliver in cheapness and ugliness with an opera that is only a cent shorter. The ending, while unpleasant, still has that lovely ‘Divine’ song to make sure it isn’t a complete downer, anyway. Even if it were a complete downer, the album seems like it was made for such a thing. The Tiger Lillies have quite possibly made the most faithful adaptation to Weil and Brecht’s Threepenny Opera while still being the furthest away from it.
It is controversial, it is raunchy, and it is grim. If you enjoy all of that, then by all means, give it a listen. I know I certainly will a few more times. Just make sure that you enjoy accordion music or cabaret music in general.