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Apr 04

BOBBY DARIN – “Mack The Knife”

Popular15 comments • 2,207 views

#91, 16th October 1959

From dream lovers to an unpleasant wake-up call: Darin snaps his fingers and Kurt Weill ushers the spooning teenagers offstage pronto – one lovestuck girl remains and so Bobby sings her this nasty little song. Everything about “Mack The Knife” is grown-up – the reeling return of swing and wit to the top of the charts; the bloody lyrics; the predatory glee; and Darin’s conversational tone, more patter than singing. “That cement is just – it’s there for the weight, dear” – a horrified thrill transmits from Darin’s fictional audience to his real audience and all the way to the present day. And then the horns slam in for the final verse and you’re part of Darin’s world, of Mack’s world; you’re complicit.

Darin was the first heart-throb to find the exit door: if you want to move on, get nasty. If you do it convincingly, you’ll take the best of your fans with you. If not, you’re an embarrassment. Bobby Darin convinced: “Mack The Knife” was his key and pop stars are still trying to fit it to that lock – step forward Robbie Williams and Gareth Gates. You only need look at Gates to know his version won’t work, and as for Robbie, his swing recordings are expressions of respect, the very thing he built his second chance by torching. Mack would make short work of them both, and do it with a smile.

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Comments

  1. 1
    Doctor Mod on 15 Nov 2006 #

    Well, now–just how many songs about mass murderers become number one hits? I really wonder if many of Bobby’s fans really noticed back in 1959. I was only eight then, but I can remember the song was EVERYWHERE.

    In retrospect, it strikes me as just too, too manneristic (not to be confused with mannerly). Darin had a lot of talent, but here he tries the Sinatra wiseguy stuff and pushes it a bit too much. Anyone who wants to know what the song sounds like with all the false bravado–and understand it as it was meant to be understood–should check out Marianne Faithfull’s version on her Twentieth-Century Blues CD. The translated lyrics are much closer to the German original–brutally so. Or, better yet, listen to the original Lotte Lenya recording of the Weill/Brecht .

  2. 2
    rosie on 3 May 2008 #

    How many songs by headbanging German marxists get to number one? But this one is pretty much indestructible. Bobby Darin playing at being Sinatra is fun and I can understand why one so talented might want to break out of the straitjacket.

    I’m very fond of Ute Lempe’s vampish interpretation. But the most chillingly evocative version for me came from an itinerant theatrical troupe doing a life of Brecht at the terrible Open University Summer School in York in 1982 – the week in which the Great Open University Murder (of Dr Elizabeth Howe by a student called Robin Pask) took place.

    See my short story Shark, which was inspired by this event.

  3. 3
    wichita lineman on 21 Aug 2008 #

    This had already been a hit three times (as Theme from the Threepenny Opera) by the time Bobby swung into action. Louis Armstrong’s version is closest to BD’s, with it’s astonishing opening line “Dig, man! There goes Mack the Knife!” I wonder if Louis was prone to such celeb-killer spotting outbursts: “Hey look everyone! It’s that Fonz-like Peter Sutcliffe!”, or “Who’s the cat that won’t cop out when there’s danger all about? Harold Shipman!”

    Anyway, the very similar spring ’56 versions by the Dick Hyman Trio (no.9) and Billy Vaughn (no.12) are something quite different. Both retain the Weimar atmosphere lost by Bobby D via their unlikely combination of harpsichord, brush drums, and whistling (echoes of Harry Lime, here); there’s just enough minor chordery thrown in to add a delicate menace. Either single is highly recommended.

  4. 4
    mike on 21 Aug 2008 #

    Also highly recommended is the Rubén Blades homage to “Mack The Knife”: “Pedro Navaja”. One of the most celebrated salsa recordings of all time, and justifiably so. (I had it on my most recent Muxtape, until the RIAA shut the service down….)

  5. 5
    Mark G on 22 Aug 2008 #

    If you want a brutal version, seek out Billy Mackenzie’s version, as performed on Frank Chickens’ “Karaoke” TV show…

  6. 6
    DJ Punctum on 22 Aug 2008 #

    Sadly not on YouTube but I do remember that particular nugget from the golden age of Channel 4…

  7. 7
    Jonathan Bogart on 14 Sep 2008 #

    Just wanted to make the note that Macheath isn’t really a mass murderer, not in the context of the original play, and not at least as I understood the term. He’s closer to Tony Soprano than to Dexter Morgan (Dexter is known across the Atlantic, right?) — a criminal gang lord, pimp, and racketeer. Yes, he’s a killer, but he kills his enemies and those who get in his way, not indiscriminately.

    The Americanized hit version(s) of “Mack The Knife” have more to do with the stories of Damon Runyon, where criminals and lowlifes are made figures of fun, a sort of cultural memory of the widespread lawlessness of the Prohibition era, than with actual criminality or murder.

  8. 8
    DJ Punctum on 15 Sep 2008 #

    Did Mack the Knife also help old ladies across the road and was he nice to his mother as well as only killing his own?

  9. 9
    Mark G on 15 Sep 2008 #

    No, that was his brother, Jack the Knife.

  10. 10
    rosie on 15 Sep 2008 #

    He did lots of work for charity and kept the streets clean.

  11. 11
    DJ Punctum on 15 Sep 2008 #

    Every time he threw one of his own through the window of Gunther’s Bierkerller he always paid for a replacement window and it was fitted first thing in the morning. He had lovely manners, a real gentleman with a heart of pure gold.

  12. 12
    thefatgit on 20 Mar 2010 #

    I agree with Doctor Mod, the Lotte Lenya version is chillingly superior. However, this is fun and dare I say slightly more swingin’ than Sinatra. Seems odd, though that after “Dream Lover”, he chooses to walk away from making teen-scream gusset soakers which undoubtedly would have afforded him more chart-topping hits, to explore more adult themes. I’m absolutely in love with “Beyond The Sea” though. Voices like Darin’s only come around once in a while.

  13. 13
    crag on 13 Apr 2011 #

    DESERT ISLAND DISCS WATCH:

    John Bird, Editor of The Big Issue (1998)

    Simon Cowell,Broadcaster, Music Entrepreneur, TV producer (2006)

    Alan Sillitoe, Novelist (2009).

  14. 14
    mapman132 on 2 Feb 2014 #

    Brilliant record that was #1 for a whopping nine weeks on the then-year-old Hot 100, a record that would be equaled twice but not broken for 18 years. Either this or Del Shannon’s “Runaway” is probably my favorite pre-Beatles hit.

  15. 15
    hectorthebat on 22 Feb 2014 #

    Critic watch: This song appeared on the following “best-of” lists:

    1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010)
    Dave Marsh & Kevin Stein (USA) – The 40 Best of the Top 40 Singles by Year (1981) 40
    Pause & Play (USA) – Songs Inducted into a Time Capsule, One Track at Each Week
    RIAA and NEA (USA) – 365 Songs of the Century (2001) 15
    Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (USA)- The Songs That Shaped Rock (Additions 2011)
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (2004) 251
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (Updated 2010) 255
    The Recording Academy Grammy Hall of Fame Albums and Songs (USA)
    Mojo (UK) – The 100 Greatest Songs of All Time (2000) 31
    Q (UK) – The 1001 Best Songs Ever (2003) 815
    The Guardian (UK) – 1000 Songs Everyone Must Hear (2009)
    Toby Creswell (Australia) – 1001 Songs (2005)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)
    Grammy Awards (USA) – Record of the Year

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