Those Blasphemous Gypsies of Doom, the Tiger Lillies
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the weird make life interesting.
By Jim Knipfel
Adorned in bowler hats, vintage clothes and face paint while playing accordion, double bass, singing saw, nose flute, ukulele and what might be called ad hoc percussion, Martyn Jacques, Adrian Stout and, as of 2013, Mike Pickering have been called criminal castrati, post-punk pervs and the godfathers of alternative cabaret.
They’ve received awards for funny little songs that most might consider a deep and horrific affront to all that is right and good.
The Tiger Lillies were formed in London in 1989 as a three-piece that combined the raucous bawdiness of English music hall, the gutter-level black humor of Brecht and Weill, and punk’s nihilistic celebration of all things depraved with a bastardized form of Gypsy music. Over the past quarter century, through some three dozen albums and seemingly endless touring, they’ve established a sound and attitude that remains utterly unique, marked above all else by frontman Martyn Jacques’ soaring falsetto, which can range from the deeply mournful to a wicked sneer to a devilish cackle. They’ve played sleazy bars and Broadway and opera houses; they’ve collaborated with puppeteers and circus performers, the Kronos Quartet, photographer Nan Goldin and Edward Gorey. They’ve also received countless awards and a Grammy nomination for performing funny little songs most normal people might well consider a deep and horrific affront to all that is right and good in the world.
As the story goes, Jacques lived above a brothel on the seamier side of London while in his 20s, but it was only several years later that the self-taught singer and musician was able to turn all he had witnessed there into a cornucopia of songs about drug addicts, prostitutes, killers, the gleefully blasphemous, pimps, pederasts, suicides, the sexually malignant and every facet of profound human despair. After several albums that collected these varied and sundry portraits of maliciousness and misery — among them The Brothel to the Cemetery and Bad Blood and Blasphemy — the Tiger Lillies began moving toward cohesive thematic works. They recorded an entire album about bestiality, for instance, and another about less-than-jubilant circus folk. Then, in what felt like a natural evolutionary progression, their albums and live shows grew into full theatrical productions based on (or at least inspired by) existing literary works.
While Broadway is drowning in musical adaptations of unfathomably bad Hollywood movies, the Tiger Lillies had a huge international hit with Shockheaded Peter, based on the book of cautionary German nursery rhymes Struwwelpeter. This past spring saw them touring northern Europe with stage productions of their versions of both Hamlet and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. They’ve also taken on Woyzeck, Jack the Ripper, the Bible, The Little Match Girl, Punch and Judy, and, not too surprisingly, The Threepenny Opera. Their new album, Songs From the Gutter, is based on the life and times of French chanteuse Edith Piaf, which may seem a bit incongruous unless you know a little something about Edith Piaf.
Yet as varied as all those works may seem, the music itself has remained the same rough-hewn tango, and lyrically the Tiger Lillies have never strayed far from the mixed bag of disease, despair and bad ideas mentioned above. God bless them.
Oh, wait. Never mind.
- Jim Knipfel, Jim Knipfel is the author of 10 books and thousands upon thousands of articles about most anything you like. He’s also blind, which means his other senses have been honed to almost superhuman levels, save for those dulled flat by years of chain smoking, alcohol abuse, and punk rock. The Green Bay, Wisconsin, native lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife.Contact Jim Knipfel