Tom Lehrer

TrackAlbum
The ElementsMore Of Tom Lehrer
Poisoning Pigeons In The ParkMore Of Tom Lehrer
When You Are Old And GraySongs By Tom Lehrer
National Brotherhood WeekThat Was The Year That Was
LobachevskySongs By Tom Lehrer
The Vatican RagThat Was The Year That Was
My Home TownSongs By Tom Lehrer
SmutThat Was The Year That Was
I Got It From AgnesSongs & More Songs By Tom Lehrer
We Will All Go Together
When We Go
More Of Tom Lehrer

Tom Lehrer photo

 

 

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Tom Lehrer playlist

 

Contributor: Joel Dear

There’s not a huge amount of overlap between my father’s music taste and my own. Most of what I like he finds insufferably miserable, or else just plain irritating; during one long car journey, he memorably skipped almost every track on my Mull Historical Society CD because the lyrics were too repetitive. (I maintain that Loss is a fantastic album, whatever Dad thinks.)

Still, there are some artists whose works we both enjoy. He’s never expressed an interest in Queen or Pink Floyd or any of the other bands dads are supposed to like, but he did introduce me to the likes of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, both of whom I listen to frequently.

But these songwriters are not the first who spring to mind when I think of ‘Dad’s music’. His favourites are more frivolous – comedians, not poets. Think Allan Sherman. Think Flanders and Swann. And above all, think Tom Lehrer, whose songs are as much a part of my own identity as those of any rock band.

Thomas Andrew Lehrer is an American musician and mathematician. He was born in New York City in 1928, and without wishing to tempt fate, he is still alive today – aged 92 at time of writing.

Newcomers need not be put off, though. Unlike, say, Bob Dylan, Lehrer lost interest in his music career circa 1970, so it’s not like you’ll have to sift through decades’ worth of albums if you want to get a handle on the guy. In fact, pretty much every track he’s ever released can be heard on a three-CD box set called The Remains Of Tom Lehrer.

That title should give you an impression of Lehrer’s particular sense of humour. Really, his willingness to engage with life’s nasty bits was far ahead of its time; Songs By Tom Lehrer came out in 1953, the year of Patti Page’s (How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window, and its twelve tracks touched on such jolly topics as murder, racism, drug dealing, pimping, nuclear tests … I could go on.

The Irish Ballad, a particularly grisly cut from that debut LP, makes for a good study of Lehrer’s method: he would often take a familiar song form, in this case the traditional folk ballad, and twist it into something wicked and surprising. The lyrics of The Irish Ballad concern a woman who slaughters each member of her family in a range of colourful ways – here is one of its many verses:

One day when she had nothing to do
Rickety-tickety-tin
One day when she had nothing to do
She cut her baby brother in two
And served him up as an Irish stew
And invited the neighbours in

(Eventually, the young murderess is arrested and doesn’t deny what Lehrer calls “her little pranks” – to deny them would have required her to lie, “and lying, she knew, was a sin”.)

But hey, that’s no more violent than some genuine folk ballads, is it? More shocking is I Hold Your Hand in Mine, a favourite of my high school drama teacher and the song of which Lehrer once said: “You know, of all the songs I have ever sung, that is the one I’ve had the most requests not to.” Ostensibly a heartfelt love song, I Hold Your Hand in Mine quickly takes a turn for the macabre:

I hold your hand in mine, dear
I press it to my lips
I take a healthy bite from your dainty fingertips
My joy would be complete, dear
If you were only here
But still I keep your hand as a precious souvenir

As one New York Times reviewer observed: “Lehrer’s muse is not fettered by such inhibiting factors as taste.”

But when the man wasn’t being deliberately repulsive, he was a very sharp satirist – not to mention a superior wordsmith – who expertly skewered everything from the vice presidency to the way maths was being taught in schools. His 1965 live album That Was the Year That Was showcases the more political, Mitch-Benn-from-TheNowShow side of Tom Lehrer, but his deconstructive talents were not confined to that one record, as this trip through his ten best tracks will hopefully demonstrate.

First of all, though, let’s get the obvious one out of the way…

 

The ElementsMore Of Tom Lehrer

If you’re familiar with a single Tom Lehrer song, it’s probably this one. The Elements – in which Lehrer rearranges the periodic table to fit a Gilbert and Sullivan tune – has racked up millions of YouTube views and appeared in many popular TV shows, including NCIS, Gilmore Girls, Better Call Saul and (perhaps inevitably) The Big Bang Theory.

With its fast tempo and fiddly lyrics, this number is really just an excuse for Lehrer to show off, but I spend a lot of time on Sporcle and many of their trivia quizzes would be significantly more challenging were it not for The Elements so I suppose I owe it a debt of gratitude. (See also: Yakko from Animaniacs naming countries to the tune of the Mexican hat dance.)

 

Poisoning Pigeons In The ParkMore Of Tom Lehrer

Don’t you hate it when the title spoils the twist? If one didn’t know what it was called, one might hear the first thirty seconds of Poisoning Pigeons In The Park and almost mistake it for a sincere ode to springtime.

But then the singer reveals that his favourite spring pastime is … well, poisoning pigeons, and you remember who you’re listening to. My favourite part of Poisoning Pigeons In The Park is this majestic chain of rhymes in the middle:

We’ve gained notoriety
And caused much anxiety
In the Audubon Society with our games
They call it impiety
And lack of propriety
And quite a variety of unpleasant names …

Pretty impressive, no? Yet even if he’d somehow worked in ‘sobriety’ and ‘dubiety’ just to exhaust RhymeZone’s entire list of -iety words, this string would still pale in comparison to …

 

When You Are Old And GraySongs By Tom Lehrer

Have you heard If I Didn’t Have You by Tim Minchin? It’s a song addressed to his wife – a song whose title leads you to make assumptions that the song then subverts. You assume that the message is going to be something like “if I didn’t have you, my life would not be worth living”; what he actually sings is “if I didn’t have you … someone else would do”.

When You Are Old And Gray runs on a similar joke. The song’s name and melody befit a schmaltzy love ballad in which a singer promises to continue cherishing his beloved even when her youthful good looks are but a distant memory.

But, obviously, that’s not what Lehrer delivers:

Since I still appreciate you
Let’s find love while we may
Because I know I’ll hate you
When you are old and gray

(Yes, it breaks my heart to spell ‘grey’ with an ‘a’, but these are the blows we must suffer when we write about American creators.)

When You Are Old And Gray is viciously unromantic, and that alone would probably be enough to sell it, but what really elevates this song is its jaw-dropping middle section, during which Tom Lehrer finds fifteen different rhymes for the word ‘debility’. And not one of them sounds forced!

But let’s not spend this whole write-up marvelling at Lehrer’s rhyming skills. Let’s get political!

 

National Brotherhood WeekThat Was The Year That Was

In which Lehrer – decades before the advent of social media – lampooned milquetoast displays of unity and all but predicted that, for instance, corporations with no interest whatsoever in improving LGBT lives would one day plaster their products in pride rainbows because, hey, “it’s very chic”.

It’s only for a week, so have no fear
Be grateful that it doesn’t last all year!

In the USA, Brotherhood Week was genuinely observed every February from 1936 until roughly the turn of the millennium – presumably the holiday was retired because all forms of racism, classism, xenophobia, sectarianism, anti-semitism, Islamophobia, and so on had at last been completely eradicated forever. Hurrah!

 

LobachevskySongs By Tom Lehrer

Named for Russian mathematician Nikolai Lobachevsky, this song is Lehrer’s celebration of plagiarism (“only be sure always to call it, please, ‘research’”). He even used to admit, before launching into live performances of Lobachevsky, that he had stol … uh, adapted the idea from Danny Kaye’s ‘Stanislavsky’ routine. So it’s kind of meta.

Lobachevsky is one of my brother’s favourite Tom Lehrer tracks. Like Lehrer, he studied mathematics at university; one can’t help but wonder if he owes his degree to this song’s sage advice.

 

The Vatican RagThat Was The Year That Was

This song was inspired by the Catholic Church’s decision in the 1960s to make worship more accessible by – for example – permitting priests to say mass in languages other than Latin, and making room for some contemporary music in the liturgy. Tom Lehrer’s response to these changes was, essentially, ‘why stop there?’.

And so we have The Vatican Rag, a potentially blasphemous but nonetheless hysterical song that acknowledges the Holy See’s attempt to “sell the product” and takes this to its logical conclusion: Roman Catholic pop.

Or Roman Catholic ragtime, at least. I don’t think rags were topping the charts in 1965 any more than they are in 2020, but the joke still lands thanks to the irresistible ludicrousness of lines like:

Two, four, six, eight
Time to transubstantiate!

 

My Home TownSongs By Tom Lehrer

Nostalgia blindness is the topic of this rather dark song from Lehrer’s first album. The narrator is certainly wearing a thick pair of rose-tinted glasses as he leads us on a guided tour of his old stomping ground and introduces us to a motley collection of characters from his childhood:

I remember Dan
The druggist on the corner, he
Was never mean or ornery
He was swell
He killed his mother-in-law and ground her up real well
And sprinkled just a bit
Over each banana split

Be sure to put this song on if you ever feel that yearning to return to the simpler, more innocent life you once knew – not so much because Lehrer’s words will resonate, but because they’ll slap your face and remind you that all those people whom you remember so fondly were probably murderers even back then.

 

SmutThat Was The Year That Was

Smut is a protest song – written in 2/4 time, so you can march to it if you like – whose only demand is “obscene movies, murals, postcards, neckties, samplers, stained glass windows, tattoos, anything! More, more, I’m still not satisfied!”

As you’ve already seen, Tom Lehrer was never reluctant to crack wise about thorny and controversial issues, but Smut is his only song to explicitly advocate for a particular cause, namely freedom of the press. As he explains in his introduction on That Was The Year That Was:

The civil liberties types who are fighting this issue have to fight it owing to the nature of the laws, as a matter of freedom of speech and stifling of free expression and so on. But we know what’s really involved: dirty books are fun! That’s all there is to it. But you can’t get up in a court and say that, I suppose.

One might argue that this is all just an excuse for Lehrer to spend two and a half minutes waxing lyrical about his taste in erotica (“stories of tortures used by debauchers – lurid, licentious and vile – make me smile”), but Smut has its moments of insight, too.

I’ve often seen people defend the risqué by pointing out that, actually, the work in question is perfectly innocent, and the person trying to censor it just has a dirty mind. Dee Snyder from Twisted Sister – when Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center accused his band of promoting sadomasochism, bondage and rape in their song Under The Blade – famously retorted that “the only sadomasochism, bondage, and rape in this song is in the mind of Ms Gore”.

But I prefer how Tom Lehrer puts it:

All books can be indecent books
Though recent books are bolder
For filth (I’m glad to say)
Is in the mind of the beholder
When correctly viewed
Everything is lewd!

Bear that bit of wisdom in mind as we move on to …

 

I Got It From AgnesSongs & More Songs By Tom Lehrer

A charming little song about a group of friends who like to share.

Eh? What’s that? Sexually transmitted diseases? Incest? Bestiality?! Good heavens, where are you getting all that from? You’re worse than Tipper Gore, you are.

 

We Will All Go Together When We GoMore Of Tom Lehrer

The purpose of black comedy, I think, shouldn’t just be to push the boundaries of taste and challenge societal taboos, but to soothe; to help us to feel better about the really scary things like death, war, famine, pestilence, et cetera. Life Of Brian’s final scene is funny and outrageous, but don’t you also find that song kind of comforting?

We Will All Go Together When We Go, then, is Tom Lehrer’s Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life: something positive for you to cling to when you’re being nailed to a cross or, in this case, incinerated by a nuclear bomb. Yes, modern-day weapons technology gives certain world leaders the power to snuff out millions of human lives virtually at will, but there is a silver lining:

For if the bomb that drops on you
Gets your friends and neighbours too
There’ll be nobody left behind to grieve!

Honestly, I don’t know how people who weren’t raised on this sort of comedy stay sane in times like these. So thanks for that, Dad; perhaps playing The Remains Of Tom Lehrer to your ten- and five-year-old sons was good parenting after all.

 

Tom Lehrer on “The Frost Report” (1966) explaining decimal currency!

 

Tom Lehrer fansite

Tom Lehrer Fan Club (Facebook)

Tom Lehrer page at the Demented Music Database

Tom Lehrer lyrics

The Remains Of Tom Lehrer 3CD set

Tom Lehrer biography (AllMusic)

Joel Dear lives in Cardiff. He makes music of his own under the name Shiny Tiger – you can listen to his songs on SoundCloud.

TopperPost #895

4 Comments

  1. Dave Stephens
    Aug 14, 2020

    The night you died I cut it off, I really don’t know why. For now each time I kiss it I get bloodstains on my tie.
    Immortal words, forever engraved on my brain.
    Have spotted an omission though, one with as good a closing (and building) sequence of lines as I’ve seen:
    If you’re looking for adventure of a
    New and different kind
    And you come across a Girl Scout who is
    Similarly inclined
    Don’t be nervous, don’t be flustered, don’t be scared
    Be prepared!

    No one ever matched Tom Lehrer. I will savour this Topper Joel, many, many thanks for bringing back memories.

    • Phil Greenwood
      Aug 14, 2020

      Dr Roberts introduced me to the song of the Elements in about 1958. I became hooked on Tom and chemistry as a result. I think he changed my life. The power of one man’s genius?
      Keep up the good work young man!

  2. Andrew Shields
    Aug 15, 2020

    Great Toppermost on a brilliantly witty songwriter. Might have to have ‘Who’s Next?’ in my top ten though, both as a great song in its own right and for its influence on Randy Newman’s classic song, ‘Political Science’.

  3. Steve Paine
    Aug 17, 2020

    Thanks for this post, Joel. I remember my Uncle Don grabbing me one night as he and my aunt enjoyed a social evening with my parents: “Come here, Stevie! You gotta hear this!” I think it was the first common musical ground (others came later) I found with my parents’ generation. I may just stay up late tonight listening to Tom.

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