Oh, the Shark has Pretty Teeth, Dear
May 8, 2011 12:48 PM   Subscribe

Rosa Klebb of shoe stiletto fame in From Russia with Love was played by Lotte Lenya twice wife of Kurt Weill , composer of The Three Penny Opera, with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht.
This was the beginning of the quintessential Mack the Knife
Lenya was present at the Louis Armstong recording - here live where he gives her a shout out (2.36)
The song was covered by many : Ella Fitzgerald; Bobby Darin; Kevin Spacey as Bobby Darin; Frank Sinatra with Jimmy Buffet; Sting
Brecht rewrote the lyrics in 1930 to give them more edge
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
Nick Cave re wrote them again in 1994. (wiki)
posted by adamvasco (21 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
For me, the German version of the song is always associated with Ernie Kovacs.
posted by briank at 1:01 PM on May 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

The wiki mentions briefly the Donmar Warehouse production and translation. That translation is my favorite in English and is one of the most powerful opera/musical theater recordings I have had the pleasure of listening to. If you are at all a fan of Weill or Brecht, please pick up a copy.
posted by munchingzombie at 1:05 PM on May 8, 2011

>Nick Cave re wrote them again in 1994.

Nick Cave seems to have been using the Mannheim/Willett lyrics, from the 1970s.
posted by darth_tedious at 1:11 PM on May 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Quintessential, yes, but Kevin Spacey doing it is non-essential.
posted by blucevalo at 1:46 PM on May 8, 2011

Love Louis but never liked his version of this song. This is not a happy song. I don't think Louis was capable of singing anything without smiling, bless his heart. But it just doesn't work on this song. Mack was not a nice guy.
posted by charlesminus at 2:05 PM on May 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Funny, I was just obsessed with this song a few months ago. There are a lot of cool old recordings of it on youtube. Kurt Gerron, Blas-Orchester of Theo Mackeben, a really cool French version by Damia.
posted by interplanetjanet at 2:24 PM on May 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Donmar Warehouse version is on youtube as well. I like that one a lot too.
posted by interplanetjanet at 2:33 PM on May 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I love Ella Fitzgerald's version. She forgets the words and improvises the entire song and then wins a Grammy for it.
posted by cazoo at 4:18 PM on May 8, 2011 [4 favorites]

There was a local dinner theater production of excerpts from 3-Penny Opera (done in an EggCetera of all places - on Seattle's Capitol Hill). The production would move from German to English and back again - it was such a good production, that I kept taking friends to it. I have seen ThreePenny Opera about 10 times in various productions and even saw a production of Beggars Opera put on at the University of Washington. When I tell people about Pirate Jenny, they just freak - it has been covered many ways just like Mack the Knife.
Nina Simone, Amanda Palmer, and, in German, Hildegard Knef.

But who listens to that Vile music anyway
posted by GrimJack at 4:59 PM on May 8, 2011

Speaking of Threepenny Opera popular-music covers: Flying Lizards - Mandelay Song.

BEFORE YOU LISTEN, however: Keep this in mind... the Flying Lizards had been previously known for their two hit singles, covers of "Summertime Blues" and "Money" (the latter of which still gets played on the radio, even)... and Virgin, their label, had ordered an album to capitalize on the success of the singles.

This was the first track of the album.

So, imagine, knowing those singles, and putting the needle down on your new LP for the very first time.

posted by Rev. Syung Myung Me at 6:49 PM on May 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Nick Cave seems to have been using the Mannheim/Willett lyrics, from the 1970s.

Definitely. The most well-known translation was done by Marc Blitzstein in 1954 and is the bouncy, basically good-natured version most English speakers know from Bobby Darin, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald.

The 1976 Manheim version captures a lot more the sinister nature of the Brecht original. Brecht began the song thus:

Und der Haifisch, der hat Zähne,
Und die trägt er im Gesicht.
Und Macheath, der hat ein Messer,
Doch das Messer sieht man nicht.

Literally, this is:

And the shark, it has teeth,
And it wears them in [its] face.
And MacHeath, he has a knife,
But the knife, one does not see.

The Manheim translation, with the talk of "teeth like razors" is much closer to the darker mood than Bobby Darin crooning about the shark's excellent dental hygiene.

The mood is even more starkly shown in the final verse (starting around 2:10) in the Cave version:

Und das grosse Feuer in Soho
Sieben Kinder und ein Greis-
In der Menge Mackie Messer, den
Man nicht fragt und der nichts weiss.

This is literally:

And the big fire in Soho,
Seven children and an old man
In the crowd, Mack the Knife,
Of whom no one asks anything and who knows nothing.

The final line in Manheim about "But he's not asked and doesn't know," captures the feel perfectly. MacHeath always has plausible deniability. It is important to remember that the character who sings "Mack the Knife" in the play is -- rightfully -- terrified of MacHeath and is at pains to keep any hint of wrongdoing from being associated with Mack.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:10 PM on May 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Kurt sings Speak Low
posted by hortense at 7:36 PM on May 8, 2011

Let us never forget the travesty that was Mac Tonight.
posted by mkultra at 7:47 PM on May 8, 2011

mkultra, why, oh why did you have to dredge up that horrid memory?
posted by azpenguin at 8:02 PM on May 8, 2011

I was fortunate enough to see that Donmar Warehouse production. It was unfuckingbelievable, a revelation even to this lifelong fan of Weill.
posted by desuetude at 8:11 PM on May 8, 2011

Thanks for the info that Lotte Lenya was Rosa Klebb.

I love me some Threepenny Opera, and I love me some cover songs. Here's German band SLUT doing Mack the Knife and my personal favorite Pirate Jenny.

As I understand it they were the band for a stage version of it, but were only allowed to release a few of the songs on a CD which you can get from German Amazon.
I'm a big fan of their punky/indy/rock version of it. I feel they finally nailed the real spirit of Pirate Jenny if you'll concede that Nina's Black Freighter is it's own song all together. For reference:

Lotte's Jenny (pensive)
Hildegard Knef (jazzy angry german)
Nina's Black Freighter (Nina)
Amanda Palmer (very faithful to the original)
posted by doctoryes at 9:32 PM on May 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Or now that I've gone away, come back, and read the whole thread.. what GrimJack said plus something about a SLUT.
posted by doctoryes at 1:13 AM on May 9, 2011

I was thrilled by Maddy Prior's rousing version of The Black Freighter, even before I realized that it was a Brecht/Weill cover.

Also note regarding Weill: lots of swell covers in:
Lost in The Stars
September Songs
posted by ovvl at 7:46 AM on May 9, 2011

It's lyrically ironic that this song is as visible as it is, even sung by Clay Aiken on American Idol, and yet few are acknowledging the hidden blade of its grisly subject matter, let alone the anti-cutthroat-capitalist subtext.

There is a whole chapter dedicated to this song in the book, Stardust Melodies, describing the song's transformation from avant garde marxist theater song to pop hit. It was taken to by jazz musicians years after Weill's death because of its familiar I-II-V-I structure and had become such a popular American standard by the time Ella forgot the lyrics in Berlin that it's still unclear whether she was aware of the song's origins in that city.

While the song has an interesting history and a catchy (though repetitive) melody, I think it's a shame that this will be the song Kurt Weill will be remembered for. Some of his most beautiful melodies were written after he moved to America and are just waiting to be re-discovered.
posted by marco_nj at 8:19 AM on May 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Just heard a great version by Jimmy Dale Gilmore at the end of the French film "A Prophet"...
posted by softjeans at 1:00 PM on May 9, 2011

Inspired by this post, I listened to Ella Fitzgerald's "live in berlin" today. I've had the album for over a decade and just today (TODAY) I realized that she's doing a freakin' Louis Armstrong impression. Or maybe just connected it consciously...Regardless she's makin' a wreck, what a glorious mashup wreck of Mack the Knife.
p.s. I am slow.
Thanks for this post and all the pirate jenny covers, they're all super weil.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 6:37 PM on May 9, 2011

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