Criminal Castrati by Kenneth Goldsmith
Every once in a while you come across a band that mops up the scraps and unfinished business of musics past and puts the pieces together to form something entirely new. It's disconcerting.
"I love a little hamster up my rectum
I love a little hamster up my ass
It always makes me laugh"
Every once in a while you come across a band that mops up the scraps
and unfinished business of musics past and puts the pieces together to
form something entirely new. It's disconcerting. There's always that
feeling that you've heard this music before but you can't put your
finger on it; the narrower your definitions get, the broader the turf
For example, it would be entirely too easy and
inaccurate to say that London's Tiger Lillies are a Pogues rip-off. On
first listen, the rootsy acoustic sound might fool you. So might the
punky aggression and the subject matter: Rum, sodomy, and the lash are
topics favored by the Tiger Lillies as well.
But on a closer
listen, the contrasts between the two bands become so clear that you
wonder how you could have ever compared the two in the first place.
Where can you place lead singer Martyn Jacques's shrill countertenor
voice? What about the pan-European influences ranging across German
cabaret, British music hall tunes, gypsy ballads, French chanson, Swiss
yodeling, Spanish flamenco and Viennese waltzes? And then there are the
American influences: grinding torch-songs, dirty blues and scum bucket
jazz. Suddenly, the world opens up and names such as Jacques Brel,
Spike Jones, Bessie Smith, Edith Piaf, Kurt Weill, Tom Waits, Georg
Kreisler, Max Miller, George Formby, Louis Armstrong, Noel Coward,
Sophie Tucker, Maria Callas, Federico Fellini and Johnny Rotten spring
And this huge musical landscape achieved by
economical means: a stand-up acoustic bass, an accordion and a drum
kit. That's all.
Singer / songwriter / composer Jacques
founded the trio in 1989. Jacques, aka the "Criminal Castrato," he
taught himself to sing while living in London's seedy Soho above a
clip-joint strip bar, where he'd spend his time getting to know the
workers and clientele. The Tiger Lillies are named after a famed
murdered Soho hooker named Lillie who dressed exclusively in animal
prints. Jacques, who supported himself by selling acid, would hang out
all day in the streets, then head upstairs to turn the day's antics
The resulting subject matter reads like something out of Diegroschenoper. The Tiger Lillies best record, Ad Nauseam,
is a dark suite of songs certainly worthy of Polly Peachum or Mackie
Messer; it would make Brecht proud. "Murder," an accordion-driven waltz
"Murder is easy
murder is fun
it's better than sex
because I always come
I like to go browsing on Saturday night
I like her to struggle and put up a fight"
From there it works itself up into a frenzy extolling the glories of
killing Vicars and disemboweling cats and dogs. As the song progresses,
the stand-up bass thumps harder, the bar room snare drum pounds away
and Jacques becomes more and more animated, screaming at the top of his
lungs until he peaks out in a metaphorical orgasm that ends in the
finale "I always cooooommme!"
Jacques' lungs are full of
thick London fog, and the band creates a musical atmosphere blackened
with sooty Weimar Republic bus fumes. It might've sounded nostalgic but
it's not; the subject matter is timelessness, documenting the eternal
parade of con men, beggars, cheaters, aldulters and drunks. It makes me
nostalgic for the old Times Square.
Jacques says he has
always lived on the dark side. He was born in Slough, a grim Southern
England industrial town which he hated so much that he later penned a
song, "Slough," that contains the lyrics "I'll sing you an song if you
drop a bomb on Slough." He went off to study philosophy a theology
college, but was thrown out after he placed a pig's head on the
college's chapel altar with a couple of Marlboros stuffed up its snout.
The church had to be reconsecrated by a local Bishop.
experience was repeated a year ago when the band was booked to play a
Good Friday gig at a church in Islington. The Tiger Lillies, with a
keen eye for publicity sent out a press release stating, "What better
day could there be to hear songs such as 'Banging in the Nails,'
'Jesus,' and 'Hell' and what more appropriate place for such a
performance. So grab your crown of thorns, polish your nails and head
down to Union Chapel for a night of bizarre and blasphemous balladry."
When this hit the papers, a public outcry ensued and the concert was
That sounds awfully punk, but actually punk had
nothing directly to do with the esthetic agenda of the Tiger Lillies.
By the time he was in his late teens, Jacques had already written off
rock 'n roll as boring and predictable. The bassist, Adrian Stout, told
me that Martyn "has no interest in contemporary music. He hates
guitars, hates American culture and isolates himself by listening to
music from the 1920s and older." The band's Web site claims that they
want to have nothing to do with contemporary trends in music, "fashion
and commercial thinking that characterized years of conservative
government." Stout's own brushes with pop music don't come much closer
than a stint walking Garry Glitter's bass player's dogs and turning
down an opportunity to play in Bob Dylan's back-up band at Wembly Arena
because he had to do a Tiger Lillies gig instead.
the band's a frenetic three-ring circus. Jacques, dressed in Victorian
garb with long pigtails and a bowler's hat, screams loudly, flails like
a madman and plays accordion with his eyes closed the whole time. He
claims that he "sings from his feet" meaning that he puts his entire
body into it and pushes the sound from the ground up. Stout dresses in
kilts and leider hosen and the drummer, Adrian Huge (aka
Patrick McHuge), whom David Byrne once dubbed "James Joyce on drums,"
punctuates his drumming with an array of noise-making squeeze toys.
The band got its start playing in pubs around London to a drunken
patronage. They were viewed as complete weirdoes by the football
supporters, misfits and alcoholics that happened to be there in the
early days. Stout would get through those evenings simply by shouting
louder than the barflies. In time, however, the supporters got used to
and actually grew to like the band. Word began to spread; a cult
following developed and began attracting members of the London hip art
scene. Before long, the Lillies were getting booked all over Europe and
today actually manage to make a living from what looks like a constant
touring schedule. (It took me weeks to get a hold of them.)
The Tiger Lillies have always been a homespun hands-on type of
operation. They have self-released eight CDs and have a repertoire of
over 120 songs with new ones being written every day. They have no
distribution for their discs; Huge hawks them at shows like a cigarette
girl shouting "CDs, come, come!" Stout tells me, "We've sold 6000 CDs
and we've met every person we've ever sold a CD to." For the time being
their discs are available here only through their Web site.
Which is worth a visit in and of itself. All the latest scandals are
posted, as well as bizarre tour stories such as the band's acquisition
of an instrument called a "Fuck-Off Horn," taken from a factory which
was used to call workers in the morning. The Lillies use it to
punctuate songs like "Hamsters," cited at the beginning of this
article. "Hamsters" is from last year's concept album, Farmyard Filth,
which has got to be the world's most extensive collection of songs
dealing with bestiality and zoophilia in recorded history. As the
website promises "flies, sheep, hamsters, german shepards, giraffes,
pig and calves, a veritable Noah's ark of beasts are paraded before the
listener. Other subjects include amputees, pensioners and transsexuals.
You have been warned." It's terrific stuff. My favorite is a
ska-influenced paean to a giraffe called "Vagina" which laments the
growth of a favored baby giraffe into an adult. It begins "My vagina in
the sky / once in love we lied / we were young / and the same height /
our love was paradise." But later "She's grown to such a height / her
love is out of sight." The Web site has animations of the band members
with their pants down around their ankles holding plastic sheep to
their crotches. There are a number of sound samples as well.
The Tiger Lillies latest project is a collaboration with a theater company in a production of Dr. Henirich Hoffman's Struwwelpeter (ShockHeaded Peter).
In 1844, so the story goes, Hoffman couldn't find any books to fire the
imagination of his kids so he decided to write his own. Struwwelpeter
contains such vindictive characters as the Scissors Man, who chops off
children's thumbs if they suck them, and another who burns kids to
death if they play with matches. It's right up the Tiger Lillie's
alley. The stage set is done up as a big animation and looks like
something out of a Tim Burton film featuring life-sized puppets and
toys. The band performs live onstage every night, popping up through
trap doors on the set and singing grotesque numbers. It's currently
running at the Hammersmith Lyric in London and a soundtrack CD should
be available soon.
One of Struwwelpeter's directors,
Phelim McDermott, says of the Lillies "They are freaks in the freak
band. In fact, we've made a freak of theater." The other director,
Julian Crouch, says "The Tiger Lillies are a theater band in the Kurt
Weill tradition. They are outcasts, and perhaps because of that, this
performance will work for people who don't normally like theater."
"The Tiger Lillies make music for people who don't really fit," Jacques
agrees. Then he says to me, "You must not really fit also, eh? After
all, you're writing about us."