PIRATE JENNY'S was established in December 1994 as an outlet for music that didn't fit the categories of the existing London music scene. Our mainstay is material that relates to European songwriting traditions like German theatre songs and French chansons, but our bills cover badly-behaved music of many kinds along with a little performance poetry. Jenny likes wicked wordplay, big performances, Gallic passion, Brechtian alienation, irony, satire, accordions and celli, wild Balkan melodies and sleazy cafe tunes, gratuitous eclecticism, spiky sonorities, a splash of camp and a glimpse through the window at a world turned upside down.
With the support of one of London's most attractive and welcoming small venues, Stoke Newington's Vortex Jazz Bar, we've established ourselves as one of the capital's most unusual nights out with a series of provocative multicultural cabaret bills. A growing band of regulars testifies to the attractions of a great atmosphere, decent food and drink, top value ticket prices and - of course - high calibre performances from some of the most original and distinctive artists on the scene. See for yourself by checking out Jenny's Rollcall.
The English-speaking world like its music to come in a few neat categories, but there's lots of stuff out there that doesn't conform, and an army of troublesome musicians who insist on ignoring the barriers. Other countries aren't so hung up, particularly when it comes to the division of 'popular' and 'serious' music. The great dramatist Brecht and the conservatoire-trained compose Weill thought nothing of writing operas full of quirky pop songs and making a major contribution to the tradition of German satirical cabaret. The French would think it odd to place Poulenc on a higher plane than Piaf, and hailed songwriters like Brel and Brassens as poets who had strings of hit singles.
These ballads, cabaret and theatre songs have much in common but they make a mess of Anglo-Saxon pigeon holes: too grown up for pop, not clever enough for classical. Their closest relatives are the crafted Broadway tunes of songwriters like Porter, but post-Gershwin these had enough of an Afro-American feel to be appropriated by jazz. The European material remains a marketing nightmare, a group of styles without a name - "musical cabaret" is just a helpful label to group together stuff from quite disparate traditions. But think of the sour visions of Sondheim, or imagine the work of the pithier English-speaking singer-songwriters from the 'folk' scene, like Eric Bogle, Leon Rosselson or even Joni Mitchell, performed with a little theatrical pizzazz, and you're getting there.
Musical Cabaret songs are usually wordy songs, the tune supporting a lyric that has something to say for itself or tell a story. Performing these songs means getting inside the lyrics, acting them out, communicating them with passion or detachment as appropriate. Although many came from the social settings of smoke-filled cabarets, they are not background music but works that command the audience's attention - and reward it with emotion and intelligence. In an era when the lyrics of much popular music have long since lapsed into the functional and banal, such a stimulating engagement with a song is a rare treat indeed.
We've used 'musical cabaret' as a catch-all term for what is actually a number of distinct styles and traditions, some of which the organisers of Jenny's are only just starting to learn about. We've looked into a few of them in more detail below.
Chanson simply means 'song' in French but it's often used to distinguish a distinct style of song that is specific to the French-speaking world: sophisticated, poetic and often passionate but still part of a popular and vibrant tradition. These are the songs you'll find under the Variétés françaises section of a French record store; many of the names will go unrecognised by most English-speaking shoppers, yet many of the acts were or are huge stars in their fields.
From the first half of this century the most familiar names are the great entertainer Maurice Chevalier and most importantly the legendary Edith Piaf (1915-63). Piaf's music emerged from the world of the Guingettes, the proletarian dance halls of the Paris suburbs whose history dates back to the Revolution of 1789. By the 1930s this music had moved to the heart of the city and the clubs, cafés and theatres around Pigalle, where singers like Mistinguette and the black American exile Josephine Baker sang at the infamous Moulin Rouge. Piaf emerged as a major star in the immediate post-war period with famous songs like 'La Vie en Rose', 'Je Ne Regrette Rien' and 'L'Accordéoniste'; in conjunction with songwriters like Marguerite Monnot and Georges Mousraki she refined a style of defiant fatalism that is seen by many still as quintessentially French. A good contrast to this is the work of the rather more sardonic Charles Trenet.
From the heady atmosphere of the Paris scene in the 1950s, where a politicised working class mixed with artists and intellectuals like Cocteau and Sartre and acclaimed poets like Jacques Prévert also turned their hands to songwriting, a group of chansonniers with a more abrasive and critical style emerged to dominate the 1960s. Ironically, the best known to English-speakers and arguably the most important of these was not even French: the Brussels-born Jacques Brel. His anti-war stance, militant atheism and savage satires on the bourgeoisie endeared him to the 1960s generation (though he was always careful not to be drawn on his politics) and his lyrical existentialist fatalism inspired a cult status that was consolidated with his dramatic suicide in 1976 while suffering from cancer. Brel is largely known in the English-speaking world through his espousal by artists like Scott Walker and David Bowie (see Rock Mutations), but the usual English versions of his best-known songs, like 'Ne Me Quitte Pas' (If You Go Away), 'Au Suivante' (Next), 'Le Moribond' (Seasons in the Sun) and 'Amsterdam' do them a disservice.
Other important artists in this group are Midi-born Georges Brassens, who brought a dry Southern troubadour flavour and a complex verbal wit to the chanson; the anarchist and lyrical balladeer Léo Ferrin; the jazz- and latin-influenced Claude Nougaro, from Toulouse; and of course the eclectic and always-controversial Serge Gainsbourg, who in his time covered a repertoire from 1920s ballads to disco. Other important names are the stunning performer Juliette Gréco, who worked with Brel's collaborators François Rauber and Gérard Jouannest; the witty show-songwriter and singer Charles Aznavour; and heartthrob superstar Claude François, who was the first to bring you 'My Way' in its original form as 'Comme d'Habitude'. It's illustrative of the skills required for the style that many of these were also competent actors: even songwriter and composer Michel Legrand ('Windmills of your Mind') appeared in films. And French stars best known as actors were also felt competent to interpret songs - check out the great Yves Montand singing 'Les Feuilles Mortes' (Autumn Leaves).
In recent years the chanson tradition has yielded somewhat to the global domination of Anglo-American music but still holds its corner. Bands like Les Négresses Vertes fuse the old accordion-driven styles of the Ginguettes with Eastern European and North African influences and amplified rock.
The popular image of the German cabarets of the 1920s and 1930s is the 'divine decadence' so memorably portrayed in the musical and film Cabaret, where the songs are not genuine ones of the period but effective pastiches by Fred Ebb and John Kander. And, as Philip Chevron has pointed out, this view does little justice to the most of the cabarettists themselves, whose "only concern with decadence was in its eradication". Germany in the Weimar period was a country on the brink of revolution, where a well-organised workers' movement fought fascists on the streets against a backdrop of unparalleled economic crisis, and in the big cities like Berlin, München and Hamburg political, social, sexual and artistic experimentation flourished. The majority of the cabarettists took sides with the Left, and used their position as performers not to celebrate decadence but to encourage a critical intellectual outlook and to rail against the complacency and decadence of the bourgeoisie as they sat back and let the Nazis do their dirty work. Prominent names here were Franz Wedekind, Walter Mehring, Klabund and Hamburg-based Joachim Ringelnatz, who performed their songs on theatres and streets to the simple accompaniment of the guitar or banjo, like the eponymous Baal in Bertolt Brecht's first play. This was also the background of the actor Marlene Dietrich, who after film stardom in the US drew on it for her later carreer as a cabaret performer.
Brecht himself contributed to the development of the cabaret by bringing its musical styles and attitude into the mainstream theatre. Originally from Augsburg in Bavaria, Brecht found in Berlin the ideal collaborator in the conservatoire-trained composer Kurt Weill. In their three major works together, Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) (1928), Mahogonny (1927) and Happy End (1929), Weill accomplished a brilliant fusion between the cabaret song and the romantic Lied, writing songs intended for actors rather than classical singers and incorporating the strident timbres of jazz and yielding such classics as 'Die Moritat vom Mackie Messer' (The Ballad of Mack the Knife), 'Alabama Song', 'Surabaya-Johnny' and of course 'Die Seeräuberjenny' (Pirate Jenny).
This extraordinary collaboration didn't last the turbulent thirties. When Hitler came to power both ended up in the USA, where Weill stayed on, along with his wife, singer and actor Lotte Lenya, who created the role of Pirate Jenny and is known as the key interpreter of the theatre songs. There is an unmerciful view that Weill's American work saw him capitulating to Broadway schmaltz in the company of lyricists like Alan J Lerner and Ogden Nash, but he never quite lost the provocative touch of his Berlin days (see Eric Presland's piece in the Weill links below). Brecht, meanwhile, became one of the most outstanding dramatists of all time, and continued to use music in his drama. His next major collaborator, Hanns Eisler, was, like Weill, a pupil of Schoenberg's and another outstanding composer whose political views led him to experiment with popular song. The Brecht/Eisler songs are unfairly neglected, possibly because Eisler, along with Brecht, established himself in the German Democratic Republic after the war and became the bureaucratic state's chief composer. In his later years Brecht worked with another East Berlin-based composer, Paul Dessau, who amongst other things wrote a fine score and setting to Mutter Courage (Mother Courage) which is rarely performed on account of its difficulty.
Apart from Lenya, outstanding interpreters of the Brechtian repertoire have been leading Berliner Ensemble member Ernst Busch; Agnes Bernelle, daughter of 1920s Berlin impressario Rudolf Bernauer, who also keeps alive the earlier cabaret songs that inspired Brecht and Weill; and in recent years in English, the German-born, British-based Dagmar Krause and the Australian Robyn Archer. Ute Lemper is also known for her versions of some of the Weill songs but her performances are rather too slick and smooth for some.
The closest relatives to French and German song styles in the English-speaking world are found among the repertoire of the theatre and variety rather than the concert stage. In Britain the Music Hall tradition, with its roots back in 18th Century popular theatre, continued well into this century and the singers and songwriters that sprung from it carried on writing and performing humourous novelty songs, often full of sexual innuendo, into the 1950s.
In the United States the Broadway musicals of the 1930s yielded many of the wittier popular songs. The most impressive talent to emerge from this milieu was unarguably Cole Porter, who unusually combined the talents of composer and lyricist to produce refreshingly unsentimental work that at its darkest and most arch, as in 'Love for Sale' or 'Miss Otis Regrets' could easily match the intellectual weight of the French variety. Along with contemporaries like the Gershwins and Harold Arlen, Porter was adopted in the 1940s and 50s by the jazz scene, where his sharp lyrics fell foul of the jazz prejudice against vocalists and the music became largely instrumentalised. Performances of Porter tunes by jazz vocalists, such as the renowned Songbook recordings by Ella Fitzgerald, amply demonstrate the contrast between the European concern to bring out the meaning of the words in some dramatic way and the American way of often treating the words as incidental to the musical content of the piece. Fitzgerald was a superb performer, but she rarely acted the part of the song's narrator in the manner of a Piaf or a Brel.
The modern inheritor of Porter's crown is Stephen Sondheim, who continues to innovate musically and who in the bleak visions of works like Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods has expressed some of the darkest thoughts ever dealt with in popular song. In Britain, the show songs of Noel Coward had a certain dry wit and sophistication. And the 1950s and 1960s gave us Anthony Newley: his theatrical revues were a successor to the Music Hall, and the songs that emerged from them displayed a quirky, slightly camp Englishness, providing a key influence for rock artists like Ray Davies and David Bowie.
Otherwise narrative song in the English-speaking world survived in folk song and street ballads (John Gay's The Beggars Opera, one of the most popular of the 18th century theatre pieces based around popular songs and known as ballad operas, was the inspiration for Brecht and Weill's Die Dreigroschenoper). In the postwar period this tradition was re-invented by (largely middle-class) artists with a self-consciously left wing perspective: in the US people like Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax and their hero, the genuinely proletarian Woody Guthrie, who in turn was inspired by rural blues artists; in Britain, the 'folk revivalists' such as Ewan MacColl, who worked in theatre and radio drama and wrote many of his best-known works, like 'Dirty Old Town' and 'I'm a Freeborn Man', for shows. The revivalists did much fine work, but they also bestowed upon the music a contrived, folksy image far removed from the ironic glamour, passion and sexiness of the European cabaret.
In North America in the 1960s, the folk revival spawned the singer-songwriter genre: for their intelligence, social perceptions and musical inventiveness, songwriters from this period like the late Phil Ochs, Dory Previn (now sadly neglected) and the Canadians Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen stand heads above the genre's biggest star, Bob Dylan. An Australian, Eric Bogle, is also worth mentioning, and in Britain, the most interesting and committed singer-songwriters on the folk circuit are currently Leon Rosselson (sometimes called the British Georges Brassens) and Dick Gaughan from Scotland. In recent years Billy Bragg has managed to provoke commercial interest in the style, but is still dogged artisitically by the 'workerism' of the original revivialists.
The countries of Latin America are best known musically for their ferocious styles of dance music bred from a fusion of Southern European melody and harmony and West African rhythms: notably Son/Salsa from Cuba and Samba from Brazil. As with most dance music the lyrics here tend towards the perfunctory but a more verbal tradition continues too. The classic salsa piece retains the traditional ten-line lyrical verse in uneven metre, a form that can be traced back to the plaintive singer-poets of Southern Spain and thence to North African song! Rural Cuba had its guitar-accompanied canción, a style known to the poet and revolutionary Jose Marti of 'Guantanamera' fame; in the 1950s Candida Batista was entertaining audiences in La Habaña with showy cabaret renditions of sacred works from the Santaria religion. Modern New York-based salsa exponents like Celia Cruz can turn out a good ballad too - witness Cruz's tribute to avaiator Amelia Earhart, 'Amelia' - and the late La Lupe is a cult figure not to be missed by anyone who treasures a theatrical song experience. Panamanian singer-songwriter and politician Ruben Blades communicates pithy social comment in salsa form, exemplified by his famous tale of barrio tragedy, 'Pedro Navaja'.
Portugese-speaking Brazil has a flourishing songwriting tradition alongside its renowned carnival music, a tradition revitalised in the 1950s by the invention of the Bossa Nova by a group of musicians and poets influenced both by Samba and the 'Cool Jazz' of the US West Coast, spearheaded by João Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim of 'Garota di Ipanema' (Girl from Ipanema) fame. No doubt the legacy of the involvement of poets accounts for the self-conscious delight in language exhibited in Brazilian song, which still enjoys a healthy club following and is often used as a vehicle for political comment.
Further South, Argentina has the Tango, originally just an instrumental dance form until Carlos Gardel invented the tango balada in 1917. Tango once enjoyed global popularity, influencing composers like Weill, and a tango subculture now flourishes in the unlikely surroundings of Finland. In Chile, famed radical songwriter Victor Jara, whose works include 'Te me recuierdos, Amanda' (I remember you, Amanda), was one of the best-known victims of the US-backed Pinochet coup.
Certain rock artists have found cabaret styles an appealing ingredient to incorporate into their music, perhaps encouraged by the opportunities for theatricality and spectacle that became available as rock music outgrew its dance-based R&B; roots. Ray Davies and the Kinks used extended witty narrative and a high, ironic tone in songs like 'Lola' and 'Dedicated Follower of Fashion', infusing the rock song with a very English quirkiness that had something in common with the ballad tradition. The most important sixties rock artist to actually cover European material, however, was undoubtedly Scott Walker, whose velvet tones made a marked contrast to the songwriter himself in his numerous covers of Jacques Brel tunes, most of them in inadequate translations. Walker's brush with Brel influenced his own songwriting, as is clearly evident with his later work. His recordings were undoubtedly the source of the interest in Brel shown by David Bowie, who in his early career was being groomed as the new Tony Newley, and by the 1970s was one of the founders of the highly theatrical 'glam rock', a style much influenced by cabaret models in its presentation if not in the intellectual level of most of its content. One of the best, though certainly not one of the most successful, of the 'glam' artists was also the most arty and ironic: Glaswegian Alex Harvey, whose cover of 'Au Suivante' (Next) is one of the highpoints of Brel in English.
Bowie also extended himself to Brecht, playing the eponymous hero in a TV production of Baal and recording 'Alabama Song', a number familiar to the rock world from the first album of another '60s band that blended blues with arch theatricality, The Doors. Otherwise the Brechtian influence clung to the margins of the scene, expressing itself through the genre-busting interests of heavily 'progressive' British bands like Henry Cow and Slapp Happy, who may have been led to Eisler at least through the work of the Maoist classical composer Cornelius Cardew: from this milieu came Dagmar Krause, now a leading interpreter of Brecht. The cabaret influence was also felt in the punk scene too, notably by the totally unique anarcha-feminist band Poison Girls. In the US Weill and Eisler are a clear influence on the maverick Tom Waits, whose recording of 'Wovon lebt der Mensch?' (What keeps Mankind alive?) from Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) is perfect. In recent years one 'rock star' who has drawn successfully on cabaret styles is Marc Almond, who has sympathetically covered Brel (including a whole album, Jacques) and Aznavour and rather less successfully Brecht and Weill, and incorporated elements of the feeling into his own material.
A few years back, the most likely place to hear poetry was in the back rooms of certain genteel pubs, where nice ladies might be found reading their latest epic tribute to their cat from an A4 sheet. The change began in Britain when comic poets like John Cooper Clarke and the 'dub' poets Linton Kwesi Johnson and Benjamin Zephaniah began setting their stuff to music and performing it on concert stages. Then came the 'ranting' poets like Attila the Stockbroker and Seething Wells, creating a breach which, together with the reinvigoration of stand-up comedy, has given poetry a new space on the arts and entertainment scene. These days more lyrical and serious poetry has slipped through along with the comic stuff, but what all the poets on the performance circuit share is an awareness of the need to perform, often bringing a dramatic edge and a musical sensibility to poetry which is most often recited by heart rather than read, and returning to it something of the oral tradition from whence it came.
The scene is not without its godparents, however. In the 1960s there was the sardonic wit of the Liverpool poets Roger McGough, Brian Patten and Adrian Henri; there was also the jazz/poetry movement, which saw poets reciting with jazz band accompaniment. Artists from this period still working are Adrian Mitchell, a clear though not always conscious influence on many of today's poets, New-York-born Fran Landesman, who currently has a new musical collaboration on the go, and Michael Horowitz, organiser of the Poetry Olympics and valiant supporter of several generations of young poets.
In London today, the home of the new performance poetry is undoubtedly Apples and Snakes, responsible for organising regular events at the Battersea Arts Centre and the annual London Poetry Festival. Many of the best are associated with A&S;, including the outstanding Patience Agbabi, who mixes observations on race and sexuality with an astonishing lyricism and rhythmic sense, and organiser and poet Steve Tasane - both of them have books published by Gecko Press. Other important clubs are Farrago, which organises 'slams' on the American model at Chats Palace in Homerton, and Big Word, a regular Thursday night club run by 'flow poet' Jem Rolls at the Tut and Shive in Islington. In the US and Canada performance poetry now has a much bigger and more vibrant scene.