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Song of the day – 108: Tom Lehrer

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The following article is reprinted from Alistair’s most wonderful (and still missed) website, Tangents – the place I looked to for inspiration when I was helping set up Careless Talk Costs Lives.

I am reprinting it to celebrate that I finally have a record-player set up in Brisbane. And of course the first LP I play is by Tom Lehrer, the man who was so central to my nascent understanding of the outside world. I have a feeling I revamped this article for someone or other, but… here you go.

Song first, then article. (The song was the only one I ever properly mastered on the piano.)

Tom Lehrer was the man who first taught me that Americans could be both smart and satirical. He was also indirectly responsible for one of the most shameful episodes of my otherwise undistinguished British public school life.

The trouble began with the conductor of our House unison song. He was two years younger than me, and shouldn’t have been chosen. I had the seniority, and my two elder brothers had both conducted Tom Lehrer songs in the House singing competition before me. I wasn’t deemed suitable. Perhaps stories of me DJ-ing upper class parties with a mixture of early Lennon and Yoko Ono solo albums mixed in with hardcore punk from the likes of Crass and the Ruts had reached the ears of authority. Maybe it was my habit of whistling and tapping the table while playing chess against opposing school’s players. Or could it have been the fact I was a scholarship student, and thus had to wear “hand me downs” from my two elder brothers, earning myself the sobriquet “tramp”? (Rich kids have such a keenly developed sense of humour.) Whatever. I wasn’t to represent North House. That was final.

It was a shame. Lehrer was somewhat of a tradition in our family. It had started with my parents – my father, particularly, possessed a somewhat subversive bent which manifested itself in his choice of records. Spike Jones, the Goons and Tom Lehrer. People who poked gentle – and not so gentle – fun at authority, and modern-life absurdities. Of these, the two 10-inch records from reluctant performer and math teacher Tom Lehrer appealed the most to me. The sleeve-notes to both 1953’s Songs By Tom Lehrer and 1959’s More Of Tom Lehrer made direct fun of the artist… something unheard of back then. (Indeed, it’s something still unheard-of among most of his anal, self-satisfied, supremely dull, fellow countrymen.) The back covers gleefully quoted bad reviews. Real? Who knows? It was impossible to take anything associated with Tom Lehrer at face value.

On the first 10-inch, Lehrer made gentle yet biting fun of many traditions, both new and old, such as football songs (‘Fight Fiercely, Harvard’, later adapted as that college’s official song). He mocked love songs (the shocking ‘I Hold Your Hand In Mine’; ‘When You Are Old And Grey’, to which the Beatles’ ‘When You’re 64’ could only ever hope to be a limp-wristed antidote). He scorned sentimental hometown songs (‘My Home Town’ with its almost daring mention of lynching; ‘The Old Dope Peddler’, the first time I’d ever heard drugs mentioned).

The second album was even finer and more adult – mentioning Oedipus’ familiar difficulties (‘Oedipus Rex’), the genocide of little chirping creatures (‘Poisoning Pigeons In The Park’), S&M (the shocking ‘The Masochism Tango’) and The Bomb (the nightmarish ‘We Will All Go Together When We Go’).

The main reason I liked Lehrer best, though, was because my eldest brother possessed a songbook for piano of his tunes – and they were easy to play! You can’t beat that.

Of the man himself, my family knew little. No photos, no accolades, just 12 (and later 11) songs that struck right to the heart of the American dream – or what we knew of it from my parents’ collection of Mad books, also bought during the 50s. We knew he was a Harvard graduate and had financed the release of his first two mini-albums himself, selling the initial 350 pressing to friends and family. We were even aware that a couple of live albums had appeared, 1960’s Tom Lehrer Revisited and 1959’s An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer. My parents, however, doubtless heedless of the pointlessness of paying good money for a couple of albums which merely duplicated the originals, only with “coughs, snores, sneezes, impacts” added, hadn’t bought them.

Sorry, some Lehrer humour there.

So, anyway… let’s go back to the night of the House music competition. This young upstart had been chosen over me to conduct ‘The Hunting Song’ (Lehrer’s caustic look at the hunting crowd, from the first album). Me, with the loudest singing voice in the whole school, me who’d sung in Handel at the age of 13! I would have my revenge. Before we went on in front of a few hundred parents that evening, I hatched my plot. The first verse went: “I always will remember/’Twas a year ago November/I went out to hunt some deer/On a morning bright and clear/I went out and shot the maximum the game laws would allow/Two game wardens, seven hunters and a cow.”

To the end of this, the whole bass line (led by me) would add the reprise “and a cow”

Result: instant pandemonium. The conductor dropped his baton, and the choir dissolved in disarray. Someone shouted my name.

Three days later, my name was read out in front of the whole school as due for Drill – an archaic form of punishment it was unheard-of for Sixth formers to receive. The headmaster demanded to see me afterwards: he informed me curtly that I was a disgrace to my school (my yellow waistcoat wasn’t approved of either) and would never amount to anything in life. Also, that I didn’t need to go run round the playing field a couple of times, as that would only serve to bring the school into further disrepute. Sigh.

Lehrer has since gone on to sell over two million copies of his albums. He’s also made the Billboard charts on a surprising number of occasions. Part of this was due to his brief association with the brilliant satirical TV program That Was The Week That Was in 1964; part of it was due to luck, doubtless. It certainly couldn’t have been caused by media overkill. Lehrer mostly retired from performing after 1961. (Rumour has it that he was so disgusted at the nomination of a Kennedy as a political candidate, he declared that there was no point in writing satirical songs in such a climate of idiocy.) Since then, he has returned to the public eye only when prompted by the occasional children’s program and mathematical conundrum. He does, however, still enjoy teaching undergraduate math courses.

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