We kick off the next thirty #1s in the October of ’59 – four chart-toppers away from the 1960s! And this… This is a real palate cleanser after the cheesy numbers, the Cliffs and the Jerry Kellers, that immediately preceded it. This is something different.
Mack the Knife, by Bobby Darin (his 2nd of two #1s)
2 weeks, from 16th – 30th October 1959
It begins with the softest of intros – a tickle of drum, a pluck of bass. Oh the shark, babe, Has such teeth, dear, And it shows them, Pearly white… Bobby Darin is holding back, almost sneaking the lyrics out when we’re not looking. Just a jack-knife, Has ol’ MacHeath, babe, And he keeps it, Out of sight…
The best thing about this song – and there are many great things about this song – is that the lyrics slowly unfold. You are not quite sure what it is that you are listening to, what on earth this record is about, on first listen. The title doesn’t give anything away for a start. Then the first verse alludes to ‘scarlet billows’ and ‘traces of red’. All very mysterious…
Just to make sure, then, that we’re all on the same page – this is a song, a number one selling hit no less, about a hitman. A man, MacHeath, who does murders and stuff. A proper wrong ‘un. The following verses – and this record is nothing but verses, each one ramping up the tempo both in terms of the sound and the sinister lyrics – make it clearer.
Now on the sidewalk, Sunny morning, Uh-huh, Lies a body, Just a-oozin’ life… And: There’s a tugboat, Down by the river don’t ya know, Where a cement bag’s, Just droopin’ down… We’ve got stabbings, and guys swimmin’ with the fishes. A chap that disappears not long after ‘drawin’ out all his hard-earned cash.’ And then there’s the ladies: Jenny Diver, Miss Lotte Lenya and ol’ Lucy Brown. Whether they’re MacHeath’s lovers, or his victims, is left ambiguous.
And ambiguous is a good word with which to describe this latest #1. Superficially, it’s a perky swing number with a quiet start and a loud finish. In recent years, thanks to Robbie Williams and ‘Big Band Week’ on X-Factor, ‘Mack the Knife’ has been somewhat bland-ified. Yet if you sit down and actually listen to the lyrics… They’re dark, man. How great is it, after ‘Here Comes Summer’s saccharine mulch about ‘drive-in movies’ and ‘Joe’s Café’, and Craig Douglas’s paean to puppy love, to have a chart-topper that’s about a vicious murderer. I wonder how it got past the censors of the day? If the opacity of the lyrics, or the old-fashioned big-band swing, helped Darin get away with it.
It’s a brilliant number one; but also a bizarre one. A song that begs the age-old question: How did this end up on top of the charts? If the success of Darin’s earlier #1 ‘Dream Lover’ led to this, then that’s yet another feather in the earlier song’s cap. Both songs showcase how good a singer Bobby Darin was – one a traditional pop song, the other a brassy swing number. I mean it as a compliment when I say it sounds as if it were recorded live.
‘Mack the Knife’ had a circuitous route to the top of the UK charts. It was written, in German, in 1928, for a musical called ‘Die Dreigroschenoper’. Catchy title. The show was then translated into English and performed as ‘The Threepenny Opera’ in 1933, then resurrected in 1954, and ‘Mack the Knife’ cherry-picked from it for a single by Louis Armstrong in ’56, before Bobby Darin recorded this definitive version two years later.
It ends with a bang, and probably the song’s most famous line: Look out ol’ Macky is back! Which not only draws this swingin’ little record to an end; but also the chart-topping career of Bobby Darin. Which is a shame, as he really was great. I’ve been digging into his back-catalogue since writing the post on ‘Dream Lover’, and would recommend that you give the frothy ‘Splish-Splash’, the cheeky ‘Multiplication’, and the karaoke-classic ‘Beyond the Sea’ a listen. In fact, just delve in and check it all out. That he topped the charts with two such different, but equally brilliant, records -when a lot of his contemporaries were treading the same path again and again – speaks volumes.