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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

becomes.

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

to mind.

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

into songs.

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

starts off:

"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.

The

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

canceled.

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.

Onstage,

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."

Surface mail at: The Tiger Lillies, P.O. Box 10578, London,UK SW1P 4ZD

 

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