1959 was quite a dismal year in popular music. Sure it had its high points like any year, but its lows feel particularly low, not helped by those handful of novelty songs that somehow charted very highly that year. Songs like “Three Stars”, “The Deck of Cards”, “Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb” and two singles from Alvin & the Chipmunks seem to only be accessories to the overall drab, uninteresting that also included the likes of “Baby Talk”, “A Boy Without a Girl”, “Seven Little Girls (Sitting in the Backseat)”, “Bobby Sox to Stockings”, “Hawaiian Wedding Song”, and “Venus”. The fact that out of all songs “The Battle of New Orleans” was deemed the biggest single of the year should give a good idea of where the state of popular music stood at the time.
But as I mentioned, I couldn’t be all that bad! I’d even argue that Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife” was an even bigger hit than “New Orleans”, having stayed at the number-one spot for three whole weeks longer and even winning Record of the Year the following season. But a bit about the song itself. It was originally a German song composed by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht for the play The Threepenny Opera way back in 1928. The English lyrics as we know them today were introduced when the Threepenny Opera debuted for American audiences in 1933. So this song had been pretty well-known by the general public before established pop singer Bobby Darin took his own stab at it (er, no pun intended). For Darin himself, this was a risky attempt at diverting from his usual traditional teen pop fare into something in the slightly classier realm of jazz-swing.
Although, “classy” here might not be the best word for it. Even though the sound is significantly more sophisticated than the busy pop-rock production of “Splish Splash” and “Dream Lover”, the lyrics quickly reveal a darker edge: “You know, when that shark bites with his teeth, babe / Scarlet billows start to spread / Fancy gloves wears old MacHeath, babe / So there’s never, never a trace of red”. Indeed, the song was originally titled “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer”, the German word “moritat” translating loosely to “murder ballad”. So yes, it is a song about a fictional serial killer, originally named MacHeath in the original play. This may seem a little risqué for its time, but 1959 also saw Lloyd Price’s “Stagger Lee” reach number one, a song with a final verse that graphically describes a merciless, fatal shooting. I guess with a popular music scene that is as conservative and listless as this year’s was, it’s only natural that listeners would gravitate toward some good old-fashioned violence to spice up their everyday lives.
Now you, reader, have probably heard this song a hundred times over, and may already been well-aware of its rich history that I have detailed briefly in the past couple paragraphs. When I say that it was one of the biggest pop hits of 1959, I should really say that it’s actually one of the biggest pop hits of all-time. While this is all true and while I’m probably not breaking any new ground with this review at all, I’m still glad I stumbled upon this song because I just find it so damn interesting. The song was already pretty upbeat from the start and Louis Armstrong’s previous jazz rendition further highlights these trends, but Bobby Darin’s recording is just so humorously sadistic. The little quirks he gives to each line make the whole thing so enjoyable to listen and sing along to. My persona favorite of these verses: “Now on on the sidewalk, uh-huh, uh-huh / Oooh, Sunday morning, uh-huh / Lies a body just oozin’ life – eek!”. Darin would attempt to recreate this style of dark humor to the tune of a swelling orchestra the following year with his jazz rendition of “My Darling Clementine”, wherein he pokes fun at the title character’s weight as she drowns to her death. Needless to say, that one doesn’t work quite as well.
I should mention that one of the most peculiar parts of the song for me has always been the verse where he names off several names of Mackie’s victims, including “Miss Lotte Lenya”. Lotte Lenya was an established actress who had been a star of The Threepenny Opera since its beginnings; Louis Armstrong threw her name in his rendition as a joke, but it was somehow kept in by Darin. These days, that reference goes over so many listeners’ heads, but it was definitely pretty-well known at the time. It’s as if someone recorded a cover of a number from Hamilton and added in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s name as a substitute for whatever reason.
Despite my praises, I really don’t love this song as much as others and much prefer Darin’s recording of “Beyond the Sea” which was released right after “Mack”. Still, just as in “Beyond the Sea”, the orchestral backing throughout this single is absolutely tops. I love how different the quiet, restrained start feels from the wild, explosive end, though the moves it takes to get from point A to Z feel totally natural. The best part is definitely the end, during Darin’s final “Mackie’s back in town” crescendo, with the swelling orchestra also reaching its retrospective climactic flurry, and then with his cap-off “Look out, old Mackie’s back!” releasing the final explosion of horns and drums that could hardly contain their energy. It’s an excellent moment, but everything else leading up to it is pretty cool as well. Overall, it’s easy to see how this has become a cover and inspired countless other covers over the years. It’s a vibrant little piece of culture, and quickly elevated Darin far above mediocre peers like Frankie Avalon, Paul Anka, and Bobby Vee. For a year like 1959, this is quite an unparalleled feat.