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The missing link between Cole Porter and Loudon Wainwright
on 1 April 2016
My parents bought the long-players containing these songs in the fifties, when I was a boy. They were hysterically funny then, and they're no less hilarious today.
Tom Lehrer (who - at the time of this review - will be 88 next week!) was an agnostic Jewish mathematics professor, who became remarkably popular and fairly well-known in the fifties and sixties, partly due to his appearances on TV's That Was the Week That Was (US version) and The Frost Report. But songs this wildly inventive and stomach-achingly funny would have found an audience anyway.
His influences are obvious: Gilbert & Sullivan (well, Gilbert, at any rate), Cole Porter and the brilliant musical theatre composers of the early twentieth century, and no doubt such off-the-wall ditties as those sung by Groucho Marx and the like. In his turn he was an influence on the great contemporary singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III (who has had the good grace to admit as much). And I expect Randy Newman, Warren Zevon, and one or two others had heard and absorbed these songs.
None of them is longer than three minutes in length, most between one and two minutes. Lehrer lampoons - often with surprisingly pungent irreverence - as many sacred cows of US culture and society as he can, such as the Alma Mater song (Fight Fiercely, Harvard), the upright scouting motto (Be Prepared - with its subtly bawdy last lines), the peon to the Deep South (I Wanna Go Back to Dixie), the nostalgic number (My Home Town - this delirious example populated by a set of highly dubious characters), the love song (the nicely grisly I Hold Your Hand in Mine), the Xmas song (A Christmas Carol, which skewers in under two minutes all I dislike about the 'festive season'), a mad Latin number called The Masochism Tango, which is exactly as you'd expect, the cheery fatalism of We Will All Go Together When We Go, a scintillating Gilbert & Sullivanesque rundown of The Elements, and the hearteningly sadistic Poisoning Pigeons in the Park...and many more, including the only song he wrote which approaches anything tender or lyrical, The Old Dope Peddler, though that's more due to the tune than the inevitably dubious lyrics.
Then there's the sheer glorious filth - always implicit - of I Got It From Agnes.
From the start (as early as 1952) Lehrer made mocking fun of his musical achievements, implicitly encouraging his listeners to do the same, and I'm glad to say the booklet that comes with this compilation of most of his songs - we don't get the ones he wrote for TWTWTW, so no Vatican Rag, arguably his greatest and most irreverent song - reprints the original mock-dismissive liner notes and comments that were such an integral part of the old LP issues.
In later years, Lehrer bemoaned (none too seriously, one imagines) the fact that he never became as lauded as Dylan or other 'protest' songwriters, but he was being atypically disingenuous: Dylan, Ochs, Paxton, Simon and the rest were doing something different, with other musical and lyrical aims, and besides, the one thing Lehrer never managed, or presumably wished, to do was to move the listener. He makes you laugh fit to bust, but you'd be unlikely to listen to him for any other reason than to laugh your head off.
I've lived with these timelessly scabrous songs all my life, since a far too young age, and I can't imagine a world without them. If you're discovering them for the first time, and you have a broad sense of humour, then I really do envy (and pity) you.
Unlike anybody else - I'm glad to say!