A celebration of unfortunate events

British cabaret band the Tiger Lillies likes to paint it black, but with a smile. Liza Power reports on their 20th anniversary tour.

THE Story of Cruel Frederick is a song about a "horrid, wicked boy" who, among other things, delights in tearing wings off flies, throwing kittens down stairs and breaking chairs. One day, however, he takes a step too far by whipping a dog and when the hound bites back, little Fred ends up sadly (or perhaps deliciously) sick in bed and then dead. The song appears on Shockheaded Peter, the soundtrack to the Olivier-award-winning stage production by London-based "Brechtian punk cabaret" trio, The Tiger Lillies. Based on the 1850s book Struwwelpeter, a collection of macabre fables by Heinrich Hoffmann, the album's other titles include Fidgety Phil ? about a lad impaled by cutlery after tugging at the tablecloth come dinnertime, and Bully Boys ? about boys, giants, and, yes, unsavoury ends.

In the grander scheme of the Tiger Lillies' expansive repertoire, which explores prostitution, drug addiction, rape, matricide and bestiality, the refrains of Shockheaded Peter make for comparatively easy listening. This may or may not be pleasing news for fans heading to the Arts Centre next week for the Tiger Lillies' 20th anniversary show. Drawing principally on material from Peter and another of the band's Grammy-nominated albums, The Gorey End, the hymns to death and deviancy are still there, they're just a gentler shade of black. In fact, rather than incensing his audience, founder Martyn Jacques is hoping they'll leave smiling.

This is quite a turnaround for a performer who has spent much of his career delightedly counting how many horrified attendees fled shows three songs in.

"Oh, it's true, I did go through a really confrontational stage a few years ago," admits Jacques. "I had this song called I Killed my Mother and it contained this catalogue of really unpleasant things I did to my mother. I'd always perform it after I'd done an absurd comic song so there'd be all these people laughing and then they'd carry on laughing until they realised what I was singing about."

Indeed, Jacques ? with band mates Adrian Huge and Adrian Stout ? has raised the ire of many over the years, including the Reverend Fred Nile, who called for the band's 2006 Sydney Festival performance to be banned for its blasphemous content. Unsurprisingly, Fred's spruiking did the Lillies little harm and the band has toured Australia frequently since their first appearance at the Adelaide Festival 11 years ago.

Themed around "unfortunate occurrences that usually result in the death of small children and freaks", Jacques says the band's 20th anniversary show seemed an ideal opportunity to revisit the back catalogue. "I suppose if you're not familiar with the Tiger Lillies you might sit there and listen and think, 'oh, he's singing another song about a small child dying and then in between, you know, a song about a person with three pairs of arms'," he says.

Somewhat implausibly, Jacques insists that he never began songwriting with the intention of airing life's more perverse elements, rather "it just sort of evolved as we went along". As it is, sinister dalliances serve a purpose.

"I suppose you get these groups of people, the church and the rest, who argue this type of thing should be censored. But the other side of the argument is that if you explore these dark themes in art, film and music, then it's actually quite healthy."

Just ask the German psychiatrist who, after a attending a show in Hamburg, commended Jacques on his ability "to get absolutely everything in". Every brand of deviance, that is. "I've always been fascinated by human minds and the deviant nature of some individuals, well, most of us really. What happens just below the surface."

Jacques says he's constantly intrigued by people who laugh along regardless, even to choruses about incest. "There's something Freudian about it. I mean, how far can you go before people stop laughing?"

The band maintains a busy touring schedule, in mainland Europe, America and Russia, finding a different audience wherever they travel. Their appeal has its downside. Although the band has 20-odd albums to its name, the group's sound is difficult to categorise. "I was in a second-hand record shop in London, the Music and Goods Exchange, the other day and I found one of our CDs in the 'easy-listening section'. I've seen them in indie, classical, theatre, world and jazz, but that was a first," says Jacques.

Who knows, the new slot might fit. "It's all pretend; it's quite silly. [The music] has this serious, dark side but we do want people to have fun. It's amazing. You sing all of these songs about bestiality, rape and murder and yet everyone's so happy after a show. I really seem to cheer people up."

The Tiger Lillies play at the Arts Centre Playhouse on July 29 and 30.

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