Mack the Knife – The Many Lives of a Murder Ballad.

Mack the Knife lived in an alternative timeline where potatoes were people.

If you know the song, “Mack the Knife,” you probably know the Bobby Darin version more than any other version. You might even think that’s the only version, or that maybe Darin’s is the original version. If you believe this, you’re dead wrong. “Mack the Knife” is a standard that has been done by everyone from The Psychedelic Furs to Louise Armstrong.

Fun fact: The character of Jack “Mack the Knife” MacHeath is a fictional descendant of none other than Jack the Ripper! Another fun fact: The original song, sung in German, was a murder ballad composed for “Die Dreigroschenoper”  (in English, “The Three Penny Opera”). The song was originally entitled “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer.” While I won’t bore you with the German version of the song, however, I did find an interesting English version of the song done by The National Theater.

Pretty chilling, huh? Even before the song starts – you just want to squirm with the lack of morality – and the utter terror of the song. And this gruesome song became a jazz standard. What the actual hell?

Louis Armstrong starts the craze.

In 1955, Louis Armstrong released his version of Mack the Knife. This was not the first English language version, as “Three Penny Opera” played off Broadway for six years prior. Still, Armstrong’s version was the first version to chart, and really the first version of “Mack the Knife” the non theater going Americans heard.

When listening to the audio of Armstrong’s “Mack the Knife,” you get a bit of a happy vibe. This feeling comes from two areas of Armstrong’s composition. The first, area – Armstrong’s trumpet at the beginning and the end of the song. Honestly, the trumpet makes the song sound like a party song. The second area comes from Armstrong’s vocals. Armstrong sounds like he’s overtly happy while singing “Mack the Knife.”

However….Armstrong knew the song was a lot more serious than the audio suggests. Firstly, Louis Armstrong did not just do the song just because it would be fun. When George Avakian approached him on recording “Mack the Knife,” Armstrong reminisced of his youth in New Orleans. His exact reaction:

“I knew cats like this in New Orleans. Every one of them, they’d stick a knife into you without blinking an eye. Mack the Knife, let’s go!”

Louis Armstrong

Secondly, the video (posted below) of Armstrong performing Mack the Knife tells a lot. Armstrong might exaggerate his facial expressions,  but these expressions shows a man who knows the magnitude of a serial killer. Armstrong does not take this song lightly, but rather sees it as a warning to his audience. Don’t mess with MackHeath, or you’ll end up dead!

Bobby Darin makes Mack the Knife Popular.

Bobby Darin’s 1959 version of “Mack the Knife” certainly claims the crown as the most well known version. Darin saw a production of Three Penny Opera, and really wanted to do the song himself. Darin started doing it for his nightclub act with a generally favorable response. However, when Darin went to record it, he had to remember his teen idol image. After all, Darin was the guy who did “Splish Splash.”

So….Darin jazzed up the song a bit. Darin’s tempo makes one snap their fingers almost in an almost compulsory manner. It’s quite catchy! Teens loved to dance to the beat, and they never paid attention to the lyrics. Oh – but the adults listening – they heard the lyrics, and  liked that this song was one of depth – not just another teenage love song. Darin made the song a crossover hit, appeasing his base as well as expanding his audience.

There’s more, as  Darin’s version has a creepy secret. The tempo I mentioned earlier? Like I said, you can’t help but to snap your fingers to the song. And yet you snap your fingers at about the same time as a knife wielding serial murderer, killing another one of his victims…. 

Ella Fitzgerald knifes Mack the Knife.

On a whim, Ella Fitzgerald added “Mack the Knife” to her February 13, 1960, at the DeutschlandhalleBerlin.  Halfway through the performance, she forgets the lyrics….oops. No matter – she improvised. There’s scatting. There’s spontaneous lyrics like “But it was a swinging tune and it’s a hit tune / So we tried to do Mack the Knife.” Fitzgerald even adds a section about previous versions – while making fun of the fact that she butchered the song:

Oh Bobby Darin and Louis Armstrong
They made a record, oh but they did
And now Ella, Ella, and her fellas
We’re making a wreck, what a wreck of Mack the Knife”

She won a freaking Grammy for this! Granted – I’m not saying she was unworthy – in fact I am quite impressed with her spontaneous lyrics. Still – she butchered a song, and the world didn’t care.

Then again – maybe that’s the take away – that nobody seems to care. Mack the Knife goes around killing just for fun. People go about their daily lives as though nothing is wrong until they trip over that dead body “oozing life.” The cops don’t even seem to care too much! This guy MacHeath leaves his kills for everyone to find. That’s a sign of someone who knows they’re not going to get caught. That’s also a sign that the law doesn’t really care.

Later versions of Ella’s “Mack the Knife” show her “fudging” the lyrics and adding even more lyrics. The crowd loves it – they cheer for it. “Mack the Knife” gets butchered, maybe forever, by Lady Ella, but who cares? We like to trip over this corpse of a song.

The Psychedelic Furs rock Mack the Knife.

Between 1960 and 1980, while every crooner in Vegas did “Mack the Knife,” really there weren’t too many significant versions of the song. To be blunt – they all sounded the same. Some modeled Fitzgerald’s botched lyrics, some followed the earlier versions. In 1980, English rock band The Psychedelic Furs gave us a version we never dreamed could exist.

While Bobby Darin’s pop version of “Mack the Knife” certainly came close to rock and roll – a proper modern rock version of the song had never been done. Firstly, The rock of 1959 sounds nothing like the rock of 1979. Secondly, however, the song was a jazz standard – not a rock standard.

To make a long story short – The Psychedelic Furs brought new life to “Mack the Knife.” The almost violent tones of electric guitars circa 1980 lend themselves to the murder ballad in an amazing way. The “jam band” nature of this version puts the listener in a state of meditation. Oh – but this is not a peaceful meditation. The listener meditates about the terror and chaos a serial murderer brings with him. The Psychedelic Furs version of the song steers away from the entertainment road the song had been on for decades. Instead, this version of the song gives us a modern interpretation of the original Three Penny Opera version of the song – this version of “Mack the Knife” returns the song to it’s roots.

Sinatra does it My way…

I have yet to wrap my head around Sinatra’s version of “Mack the Knife” (arranged by Quincy Jones). Originally done in 1984, the song might have been his last big hit. Sinatra uses Fitzgerald’s scatting, as well as her verse about previous versions of the song. Sinatra uses the toe tapping, finger snapping (knife wielding) tempo of Darin’s version. Sinatra even adds a verse or two about his own version of the song.

Ultimately, Sinatra’s version is a crowd pleaser. He used the song to close his shows during the latter part of his career, and even introduces his band with the song. Sinatra only seems vaguely familiar with the brutal subject manner, but then again – by this time the song was deeply entrenched in the standards of jazz (and crooner) musicians all around the world. I guess it makes sense that Sinatra wanted to do a “My Way” version of the song. Everyone else was doing it so why not him?

I will say that I really enjoy Sinatra’s version of the song. I also feel this might be one of the deepest songs Sinatra ever recorded. Perhaps he wanted to do something a little less, for lack of a better word, shallow. Still – it seems so wrong that Sinatra’s ending “You better lock your door and call the law, because MacHeath – he’s back in town,” gets followed by clapping, a standing ovation and thousands of cheering fans.

McDonald’s murders Mack with advertising.

In 1986 – some brilliant, (and perhaps soulless) advertiser, decided that Mack the Knife would make a great advertising jingle. This – yeah, this just makes me want to vomit. I will say that when this ad campaign came out – I really dug it. I even said “Mom, can I make it Mac tonight?” from time to time. Yeah – what can you expect from a 12 year old?

Let’s be honest – taking a cautionary tale about a serial murderer and transforming it into a jingle for fast food? Not the most moral of decisions. Still – maybe that’s the point. If you watched the video posted at the beginning of this article – you might remember the narrator saying  
“there will be no moralizing tonight.” Jack MacHeath was not a good, moral individual, so perhaps asking is it moral to totally bastardize this song is irrelevant. 

I could also say that McDonald’s is just as amoral as MacHeath. Possibly I could mention that they pay their employees less than a living wage. I could say something about their ongoing deforestation of the rain forests. There’s also the fact that McDonald’s contributes to the childhood obesity epidemic. Hmm – sounds like McDonald’s has become just as much of a monster as MacHeath – so this commercial only makes sense. Then again, if I say these things – I might get sued. So don’t click on any of those links. I said nothing. By the way “Mac Tonight” has become a racist meme. Make of that what you will.

Who butchered Mack the Knife best?

If this were one of my “Original vs Cover” articles, I would compare these versions to the original, and say which one works the best. However – comparing the different versions to the original German version, or even the English translation, seems futile. Instead, I will hold the stance that all of these versions hold merit of their own (save for the McDonald’s commercial of course). Still – every single version I’ve explored – and probably every version I haven’t – has butchered the song to death. That’s a good thing.

Think about it this way – Jack “Mack the Knife” MacHeath is an unrepentant notorious killer. By butchering the song “Mack the Knife,” these artists metaphorically give MacHeath a taste of his own medicine. By chopping up the song into monosyllabic words, and even forgetting or rewriting these words, these musicians chop up MacHeath into little bits. When these artists take these chopped up bits, singing them “my way,” messing up the tempo, or adding loud, abrasive horns, guitars, and what not – these artists essentially disrespect the corpse of “Mack the Knife.” 

Karma’s a bitch, ain’t it jack?

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