The Number Ones is a new column where I’ll review every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
When Lloyd Price’s version of “Stagger Lee” hit #1 earlier in 1959, it must’ve been something of a shock: A genuine murder ballad, performed with a getting-away-with-it sense of glee and enthusiasm, topping the charts in an era when scrubbed teen idols were taking over. But “Stagger Lee” had nothing on “Mack The Knife.” “Mack The Knife” was originally a German song, from Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, and the lyrics in the original German are even more gruesome than they were in the version that Bobby Darin hit with. Still, the stuff Darin was singing was, by just about any standard, pretty fucking hardcore: “Now on the sidewalk, ooh, Sunday morning / Lies a body just oozing life.”
Bobby Darin, born in East Harlem and raised in the Bronx, had started his career as one of those scrubbed teen idols after serving a stint as a Brill Building songwriter. But as soon as he won any measure of career control, he went into jazz-crooner mode, which made him an anachronism in his era. But the man knew what he was doing, and he sold those jazz-pop songs with so much skill and personality that he wound up a huge star anyway.
“Mack The Knife” is a song about Jack Macheath, a murderer, and it had been on the pop-culture radar for years before Darin sang it; Louis Armstrong had a hit with it in 1956. But Darin attacks the song with such a sense of showbiz menace that he essentially redefines the song and makes it his own. “Stagger Lee” felt transgressive because Lloyd Price wasn’t really judging any of the characters in the song; he just seemed excited to be telling the story. With “Mack The Knife,” Darin goes beyond that. He essentially becomes the story; I hear the song as Mack telling us about his own murderous exploits and doing it in the third person, like a real egotistical psycho.
The instrumentation, with its swinging piano and its grand horn-stabs, is self-consciously old-school, and Darin throws ad-libs all over it; I love the “eek!” after “oozing life.” Everyone involved seems to be having a great time with it, and that comes through when you’re listening. Its darkness is infectious. It’s not just that Darin comes across as a nasty motherfucker. It’s that he turns us into nasty motherfuckers, too.
BONUS BEATS: God, there’s so much I could put here. There was a Muppet Show sketch built around the song. Nick Cave sang a version of it. Swiss industrial group the Young Gods did their own cover. Timbaland & Magoo interpolated “Mack The Knife” on the hook of their track “Clock Strikes.” This song left a footprint.
But the most notable example of that footprint, at least to me was Mac Tonight, the ad campaign that McDonald’s introduced in 1986. It starred a terrifying character, a piano-playing lounge singer with a crescent moon for a head and sunglasses permanently affixed to the eyes that absolutely should not exist. The actor playing this Lovecraftian nightmare was Doug Jones, who would go on to have a great career playing rubber-suit monsters. (He’s the sexy fish-monster in The Shape Of Water.) Here’s one of those ads: