With a penchant for songs focusing on revolutionary figures and eras in modern history, Brooklyn cabaret/punk legends, The World/Inferno Friendship Society have done it again. Having recorded pieces ranging from famous and infamous luminaries such as Paul Robeson to Leni Riefenstahl and Weimar Republic-era Germany, this time, noted character actor of the ’30s and ’40s, Peter Lorre gets the concept album treatment. Blending punk, cabaret, and classical music with arcane and nearly forgotten cinematic lore, the group’s latest release, Addicted To Bad Ideas — Peter Lorre’s Twentieth Century clocks in at little over half an hour, and spans the colorful, yet tragic lifetime of the bug-eyed actor.
Led by vocalist, Jack Terricloth, whose tones precisely combine the clear, rich, and enchanting tones required of cabaret crooners with a slightly nasal punk whine, on this outing, World/Inferno is backed by a full orchestra. Not merely content to exist as a nine-piece band, the group’s unique sound shines against the classically-enhanced backdrop, resulting in stunning storytelling through song.
The disc’s opener, “Peter Lorre Overture” is a classical, waltz-style instrumental, punctuated by pizzicato and klezmer that nods to Peter Lorre’s Hungarian, Jewish, and Viennese roots. While incredibly beautiful, the overture retains a sinister undercurrent that gives way to playful merriment before circling back. Punk drumming blasts through the harmoniously blended strings and low oboe tones before the whole of the World/Inferno Friendship Society shouts Peter Lorre’s refrain.
A nod to many of Peter Lorre’s roles as a villain and lovable scoundrel, “With a Good Criminal Heart” sways dramatically back and forth between an anthemic, melodically staccato delivery on the chorus and a flourishing arrangement on the verse that borders on flamenco-punk with rhythmic clacking.
Lyrically, World/Inferno deftly intertwines both the on-screen personas Lorre was noted for, and the joys and sorrow of his personal life, particularly on the piano-centric, cabaret number, “M is For Morphine”. Much like another Hungarian horror icon, Bela Lugosi, Peter Lorre struggled with morphine addiction. The track plays off Lorre’s breakthrough role as Hans Beckert, a character loosely based on the real-life Child Murderer of Düsseldorf in Fritz Lang’s 1931 film, M, musing “I’m capable of anything / And so are you /… I can’t help the things I do / Or is that true?” Piano, guitar chords, and heavy percussion pound out the urgency of addiction. Emblematic of Lorre’s signature performance and the euphoric highs and depressing lows of addiction, the song flits back and forth between sad, stark, solitary piano chords and bright-fingered electric fretwork.
One of the standout pieces on the disc, not just for the encompassing feel of the times and well-compacted history lesson, but for pure energy and originality of composition, “Ich Erinnere Mich an Die Weimarer Republik” is the most cheerfully goose-stepping account ever of the Third Reich’s approaching trample across Europe. Translating to “I Remember the Weimar Republic”, the track is an upbeat, big-band flavored piece that cleverly references Sally Bowles, Triumph of the Will, capturing the atmosphere of pre-Nazi Europe. Horns jitterbug across the track with a jubilant chorus comprised of shouts as World/Inferno’s trio of saxophonists (Maura Corrigan, Peter Hess, and Ken Thompson, on alto, tenor, and baritone, respectively) share center stage with some hot piano from Raja Najib.
Shortly after the making of M, Peter Lorre left Europe while he could “… And Embarked On a Life of Poverty and Freedom” in the United States, a melancholy, pensive piece set against a backdrop of carnival or organ grinder-style music. Lorre’s inner-musings surface once again on “Everybody Comes to Rick’s”. Named for the original working title of Casablanca made at the height of WW II, the lyrics note that, “The world is falling apart / And I’m making a picture”, giving voice to the actor’s thoughts.
While not explicitly stated in song, some of the unfortunate points of Lorre’s life are covered in blanket-format on the title work, “Addicted to Bad Ideas”. Morphine addiction, founding and losing his own production company due to mismanaged funds, and dwindling screen opportunities, the latter years of Lorre’s life were something of a downward spiral. The title track beautifully showcases the mantra of an addict (“Because I can / ‘Cause no one can stop me / ‘Cause it makes up for things I’ve lost / Because I’m addicted to bad ideas / And all the beauty in this world”) and nobility in the frailty of the human condition.
More of an intermission than accessory to the disc’s concept, “Thumb Cinema” has less to do with Peter Lorre than it does the soul-sucking nature of celebrity, as well as consumer consequences. While more of a piece rooted in the 21st Century than Peter Lorre’s Twentieth Century would imply, delving deeper, “Thumb Cinema” bridges the gap between the life and times of Peter Lorre and our own, present-day obsession with all that glitters, serving up a sharp contrast. In the ’30s and ’40s, cinema goers were more grounded in reality. Coming off of a Great Depression in the United States, and Europeans suffering a similar fate (in addition to being in the thick of two devastating World Wars), there was less of a fascination with celebrities, much less ones with no real function other than posing prettily for the camera. Those who had real stories to tell, not merely surviving, but succeeding in trying times, rarely had an opportunity to share their tales with a widespread audience. Personal tragedy was private, not a tabloid-trotted badge of honor.
Applying it to the context of Peter Lorre’s life, “Heart Attack ’64” acknowledges the dying wish of an actor to have his own words and experiences remembered, rather than to be immortalized for his delivery of someone else’s words, emotively translating them from the typewritten page to the silver screen. The song has the actor dropping both the comedy and tragedy masks at the foot of his deathbed, so as to bare his soul and recount on the beauty of life itself, the women who graced it (Lorre stayed lifelong best-friends with each of his ex-wives), and all of its (sometimes morphine-induced) highs and lows: “Well, the displaced, we forget / But the girls and the dope and the wine / Oh, how they were so fine /… I never forgot my lines / I still hear them all the time / …Oh, the dope and the wine and the stage / It gave back to me what I gave / What a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful world”. Terricloth drops his voice at the end of the chorus, sounding almost possessed by the ghost of Peter Lorre with his oft-imitated voice, speaking through him from beyond the grave. Sung in conversational, confessional tones and referencing the year and falsely reported cause of Lorre’s death, “Heart Attack ’64” tells what many an actor, forgotten and remembered alike, would love the opportunity to tell, a retrospective of life more so than career.
Marked by astonishingly tight musicianship and thoroughly unique soundscapes, Addicted to Bad Ideas is as much about World/Inferno’s presentation as it is Peter Lorre, weaving a complex tale, set in complex times, about a man who was much more than what met the camera’s eye. Rather than one overshadowing the other, the band and the actor’s story compliment one another, bringing together the best of the music and cinema worlds, this century and the last.