Step back nine decades to a time when nightlife was alluringly illicit. Forget oversized tee shirts and spandex leggings – dinner jackets and luxurious gowns beaded to within an inch of their thread count were the only club wear of choice. Long evenings were spent soaking up dazzling chorus girls and blue comics or, across the Atlantic, trying to find the savviest speakeasy bulging with liquor while dodging the police. Welcome to the golden era of cabaret.
Cabaret was a global affair. In America the Prohibition era of the '20s birthed the 'nightclub' and its seedy entertainment, which was said to bolster the clubs' legitimacy in the eyes of the law. But according to Susan Waggoner's 'Nightclub Nights', by the 1930s, "Nightlife's salvation was the concept of pairing cheap grub with a splashy revue," resulting in an excess of entertainment to suit each themed big-name club, from the Copacabana to the Latin Quarter. Over in France, they were early starters; their cabaret scene grew from the variety shows at famous music halls like the Moulin Rouge in the late 19th century.
But it was the post-World War One climate of Weimar Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s where the performance and nightlife scenes were the most free and expressive. Berlin was the epicentre of bawdy after dark performance. In his 2007 book 'Berlin in the 20s', Rainer Metzger reflects, "These were the years of undisguised androgyny; of redefining the roles of men and women; and of constantly changing sexual preferences…paraded in a desire to shock and entice."
Censorship had ended with the demise of the Kaiser and Germany experienced a new and intoxicating liberalism, allowing artists of all kinds and all sexualities to exercise a scathing brand of satire. Cultural commentator at the time, Christopher Isherwood, dubbed it a "sexual underworld" until the Nazis clamped down on the scene when they came to power in the late 1930s. In his review of Mel Gordon's collection of Weimar smut, 'Voluptuous Panic', Stephen Lemons recalls, "A snapshot of Berlin between the world wars includes nudist magazines devoted entirely to children; glittering cabaret shows parading acres of sweaty, perfumed female flesh; and an endless supply of cafes, bars and private clubs catering to gay men, transvestites, lesbians and sadomasochists." Think Marlene Dietrich, art deco architecture, cloque hats and Fritz Lang's Metropolis and the scene starts to take shape.
It is this sexual liberation and sharp, satirical tongue (not child pornography, mind) that has captured the imagination of today's hip cabaret slingers in London. Fast forward a century and Weimar Germanys' cabaret is experiencing a renaissance, taking its cues from this dark period via the dazzle and jazz of New York in down town Vauxhall, London's gay epicentre.
Dusty Limits, aka 36-year-old Brisbane-born Mark McInnes, runs his night Kunst (formerly Kabarett) here at subversive performance art's spiritual home, the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. It is, he claims, a bohemian hang out where anything can happen – but it wasn't always that way. "I moved to London because I thought there'd be an amazing cabaret scene, but there was next to nothing," says Limits, "There was the sequinned dinner jackets type of cabaret, but nothing to shock the bourgeoisie."
Ten years down the line and its popularity has exploded. "In the Myspace world we live in people are genuinely shocked by something that can talk to them," he muses. "There's a huge demand for live gigging now and this has spilled over into other night time entertainment. Plus it's about dressing up, getting your Marcel wave on and and feeling like part of the show. You can be part of the whole package even if you've got an office day job."
New York, he assures, is even more drained of the alternative. "Cabaret never died in the US but it is just songs from the shows with off-Broadway performers – what I call 'sequinned jacket' cabaret. There are no politics in it all. It's awful; it's such a betrayal of everything that cabaret was, which was potentially a genre that people could be subversive in. You know that something was good if the Nazis tried to stop it," Limits laments. "The critics hated my show at the famous Don't Tell Mamas in the Big Apple. They said it was dirty. For them, cabaret was about people moving him with moving renditions of moving Steven Sondheim songs, not challenging their values and pastiching their behaviour."
That's why, he believes, the Weimar-era cabaret renaissance has found its spiritual home in London. Like Berlin was at the time, "London is the creative and artistic centre of the world. The culture coming out of here is extraordinary. You can go out on any night of the week and see something incredible. I did a crazy one-man performance of a wedding in February, which wouldn't have worked in many places, but people were queuing for half an hour to get in!"
Conversely, he believes that London's sticky politics are a driving force behind the cabaret revival. Limits draws comparisons with Weimar-era Berlin's political climate. He says, "Under the Kaiser, censorship was 100 per cent and entertainment was purely to go on about how great Germany and the Kaiser was. If you wrote a song that seemed to make fun of the Kaiser you got thrown in prison. After WW1, the law became incredibly relaxed and suddenly you could smoke a cigar out of your pussy onstage and sing songs that were scabrously satirical.
"Today, we're incredibly blessed in that we live in a very liberal and wealthy culture but as soon as the cash cow runs out everyone's politics will be out the window. Politics now is genuinely terrifying. This government is becoming increasingly intolerant and it's only a matter of time before if becomes incredibly controlled. If there is an art form that allows people to swim against the current, it's cabaret – audiences want to see truthful performers with no biased agendas."
Predictably, controversial performance artist Empress Stah springs to mind. "Empress Stah fucking herself on stage is a very political act and if one person in the audience that nights feels a bit differently about the world afterwards, down the line that might make them question something else. It's a tenuous link, I know, if you can just go out there and shake people up a little bit, it can have a positive knock on effect."
With songs in his repertoire like 'I Hope (Your Children Die of Cancer)', which, he insists, has nothing to do with children dying but is a pisstake of Hugh Grant, and 'Beaucoup de Lifting', it's clear that Limits himself is well on his way to rubbing London up the wrong way too – and we're all the better for it. Bring on the verboten!
Dusty Limits hosts Kunst at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, London, on September 26.
Where is the Weimar now? Dusty Limits runs down his favourite performers.
Bourgeois & Mauricewww.myspace.com/bourgeoisandmaurice Heavily painted pianist/vocalist duo who look like the product of Lily Allen and Boy George and do dark, theatrical and acerbic cabaret inspired by art school, Hoxton trendonistas and new rave.
The Germaniaxxwww.germaniaxx.com Anglo-German comedy duo who sing traditional German cabaret anthems and style their performance on musical theatre and slapstick routines in Blackforest hats.
Amanda Palmerwww.myspace.com/whokilledamandapalmer One half of Boston band The Dresden Dolls, Palmers's spooky vocals and Dietrich looks are sehr Weimar and her solo career drives her down the cabaret track even further.
Diamanda Galàswww.diamandagalas.com To Dusty she is one of the world's most important and subversive singers. She's technically extraordinary, a brilliant pianist and almost too impossible to listen to as she's so emotionally intense.