The Tiger Lillies have been singing about the dark underbelly of life for over two decades. As the trio prepare for their unique take on the Danish play next month at the Southbank Centre, frontman Martyn Jacques spoke to us about the years before the Tiger Lillies first came together in 1989.
When I first moved to London I squatted in a prefab in Finsbury Park. My fellow squatters were a drug dealer and a very strange drug addict. He was a 28-year-old virgin from the aristocracy who went around wastegrounds collecting poppies. He would put the flowers in a kettle and boil them. I think he’s probably dead by now.
After that, I spent seven years living above a brothel in Rupert Street in Soho. It wasn’t always a brothel. It changed. Sometimes it was just a clip joint but some of the girls would go out with the customers anyway so it was similar to being a brothel really. When it was a clip joint, customers would go in and buy a girl a cocktail. The girl would then strip off and the customer would be presented with a bill of around £100 which would be enforced by a large bouncer. The funny thing was that the cocktail would often be fruit juice as the the place was unlicensed and the owners didn’t want to break the law by selling alcohol. If the customer went to the police, the bouncer would have to wait outside the station until 4am or until the customer came out and then they would have words. Usually, that would be enough to put the customer off pressing charges.
As well as the clip joints, there would be the clippers. They were girls who worked in the street. They gave men a key in exchange for £50 or whatever, telling them that a girl would be waiting for them up on the third floor. The keys wouldn’t fit and by the time the clipped punter came downstairs, the girl would have moved on. One angry punter stabbed a clipper to death in Rupert Court. I would watch everything going on from my window like when the Salvation Army came up and played in front of the clip joints. They didn’t stop anyone going in; they were just trying to save people’s souls.
I always hoped I would be a successful musician and not just be a drug dealer for the rest of my life. I was always practicing and writing songs about that world and the lives of people around me. As well as dating some of the girls who worked there, I was friends with the guys who ran the clip joints. They were gangsters really and one of them was my landlord. We used to go out for dinner with them. It was a like a little family really.
I had a lovely time in Soho. I used to sit on the roof, smoke marijuana and listen to the nightingales sing every night in the summer. Around Soho, I would eat at places like Wong Kei. I regularly went to Maison Bertaux for my croissants and Derek Jarman would be there every morning. I knew the original Madame Bertaux when I first went there before she passed it onto a pair of sisters. I used to pop out of my flat and pop into a place called the Piano Bar next door to Madame Jojo’s. I went in there with my slippers and watch some very witty drag queens.
I also went to places like Camden’s Electric Ballroom and the Hope and Anchor in Islington. I saw punk band Cockney Rejects playing at the Hope. After some shouts of “West Ham” from the audience, the band jumped off the stage and started having a fight right there and then. I also went to the Music Machine (where Koko is now). Lemmy used to be in there, playing the fruit machines. He was very big on those.
Before the Tiger Lillies, I had another band. We didn’t get signed and we didn’t stay together very long. I really wanted to have a sound and it took me about eight years to find it. It was when I got my accordion that I actually decided to start the Tiger Lillies. I practiced my singing at evening college and studied voice production.
To make ends meet before the Tiger Lillies took off, I dealt some drugs. I had a market stall in Rupert Street for a while selling drug-related paraphenalia. It was soft drugs: marijuana and a bit of acid. Many of the girls downstairs were junkies but I never got into any of that. A couple of them died.
I didn’t wear make-up in the early days. I started wearing make-up in theatre shows and I thought “why not?” Now I feel really odd and naked without it, almost like having nothing on at all. Which of course happened to me at a show at the Southbank called Cinderella. I had this long Victorian dress on which had been pinned up and while dancing I could feel the pins starting to go. It started falling off and there I was standing in front of the entire audience wearing just my briefs. I was also nude on a photoshoot for the cover of Farm Yard Filth. The pictures were taken in a Mexican restaurant in Heidelburg on an airforce base. I was completely drunk on tequila and cider posing with a sheep.
Photo (cO Rene Heumer