Decades after they were conceived, the songs of artists such as Kurt Weill, Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel endure as features of popular culture. They are still part of the repertoire of performers in many idioms, from cabaret to jazz and pop, and therein lies the problem.
Removed from the context in which these songs were written, it is easy for modern audiences to miss the darkness and, at times, bitter irony which underscores so much of this material.
The cult British musical trio The Tiger Lillies face no such dilemma. ''We always try to carry the spirit of the source material,'' says the group's founder and frontman, Martyn Jacques.
''There will always be artists who perform sanitised versions of these songs and who idealise the times in which the songs were written, but if you listen closely to the lyrics of, say, Weill's Threepenny Opera or many of Brel's songs, you realise that they are uncompromising in their intent. In many ways, The Tiger Lillies are carrying forward this tradition of hard-core social commentary.''
However, the group's frame of reference extends far beyond pre-war Berlin and Paris. There are glimpses of seedy nightclubs, anarchic opera, gypsy music, vaudeville, music hall and a bizarre punk underworld. All of these and more will be revealed when The Tiger Lillies perform for one night at The Street Theatre on March 18.
For audiences with longer memories, The Tiger Lillies inhabit an imaginary world similar to that of the Australian group Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen, originally from Canberra. With a persona that is often black, at times twisted, and heavily ironic, The Tiger Lillies would seem to be a group perfectly in tune with the uncertainty of modern times.
The trio was formed by Jacques in 1989. After dropping out of a theology and philosophy course in his early 20s, he hankered after a career as a musician.
''Searching for a distinctive style, I took up the accordion and then hit upon the idea of singing chanson cabaret songs in a falsetto voice. It was a register I'd always been comfortable in.''
At the time, he was listening to a favourite recording of The Threepenny Opera. Its style and subject matter resonated with him, and, reaching adulthood in the discord of Margaret Thatcher's Britain of the late 1970s and early 1980s, he had many other influences to draw upon, including punk and gypsy music.
The group's name was inspired by a painting on the wall of Jacques' flat at the time. He advertised for a drummer and bass player to complement himself on vocals, accordion, piano and guitar. Twenty-five years later, he remains the only original member of the trio. Current bass player Adrian Stout joined the group in 1995 and drummer Mike Pickering in 2012.
The Tiger Lillies continue to tour widely and have been in Australia this month for performances at the Adelaide Festival of their show, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, based on Samuel Taylor Coleridge's epic poem.
The group has released more than 30 albums and their 2002 cult musical, Shockheaded Peter, was nominated for five Olivier Awards, winning best entertainment and best supporting performance.
Quietly spoken and unassuming, Jacques is quite unlike his on-stage persona. There, in his scruffy waistcoat and bowler hat, he has been described as looking like ''a Victorian pickpocket'' and, in his white-faced makeup with eyes circled in black, he has also been likened to ''a satanic panda''.
Visually, the group's settings are heavily influenced by a Victorian, early 20th-century aesthetic. ''We lean heavily on Dickensian themes, on the Berlin cabaret style of Weimar Germany, as well as on circus and freak shows,'' Jacques says.
Their Shockheaded Peter, based on Heinrich Hoffmann's 19th-century book of cautionary tales for children, was strongly influenced by Hoffmann's original dark illustrations. A more recent show, Lulu: A Murder Ballad, which embraces the group's recurrent theme of the dark, seamy of life, has a similar aesthetic.
Inevitably, some of their material has caused offence. A recent song, Banging in the Nails has raised the hackles of some Christian groups, but Jacques is quick to point out that the satire is not The Tiger Lillies' creation, but was derived from Stanley Kubrick's 1972 A Clockwork Orange.
Yet, given their provocative subject matter and staging over the years, it is perhaps surprising that The Tiger Lillies have not created more controversy.
''In many ways, we inhabit a cult world,'' Jacques says. ''We have fans all over the world, but we've kept away from the mainstream. The type of people who are going to get offended by our material probably won't come to our shows.''
♦ Tiger Lillies at Street Two, 15 Childers Street, City West, March 18 at 8pm. Tickets: $45, $42; groups of four or more $42 each. Bookings: 6247 1223 or thestreet.org.au