Friday, April 08, 2005

Forget for a while your drab, wretched lives

Tom Lehrer - Poisoning Pigeons In The Park

Tom Lehrer - The Masochism Tango

Songs from another age, yet the wit and satire (not to mention the jokes) are timeless. The story of Tom Lehrer is a good one - a Harvard mathematics graduate who began writing songs in the early 50s to amuse his friends, he soon found a huge market for his self-released debut LP "Songs by Tom Lehrer" and sold 370,000(!) copies on his own label. This prematurely punk-rock approach was born partly of a naive entrepreneurial spirit, partly out of necessity, since record labels and radio stations shied away from his often (in fact, usually) controversial and risque subject-matters: Lehrer wrote songs about drug dealers (The Old Dope Peddler), the murder and mutilation of a lover (I Hold Your Hand In Mine), nuclear holocaust (We Will All Go Together When We Go), senior citizen sex (When You Are Old And Grey) and the nefarious vices of boy-scouts (Be Prepared). Mostly pretty shocking for the 50s - in a decade when Elvis' hip-swinging was deemed obscene, it goes to show that there were other forms of rock 'n' roll rebellion going on.

The songs here are "Poisoning Pigeons In The Park", which details Mr Lehrer's favourite springtime pursuit, and "The Masochism Tango" - both speak for themselves, really, and are among his best-known songs. In case you've heard them already, these are live versions from his album "An Evening (Wasted) With Tom Lehrer" which are perhaps new to you. You won't find any revolutionary musical leaps, transcendent virtuosity, or anything associated with rock or pop music from the last 40 years (although you can hear his influence in songwriters as diverse as Randy Newman and Eminem). What you will find are perfectly-crafted songs in a classic tradition and something approaching comic genius. Lehrer has been described as "a demented Cole Porter", so that should give you some idea of what to expect. As a satirist he has few equals - most of his songs satirise particular genres of song at the same time as their obvious subjects, and although Lehrer himself jokes that satire became redundant in 1973 (on the occasion of the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to Henry Kissinger), many are still relevant and even seem spookily prescient today.

So what became of him? His musical career was fairly brief and he retired almost completely from entertainment in 1960 (apart from a short come-back in 1965), falling back on his other career as a lecturer in mathematics at Harvard. When asked why he stopped writing, recording and performing, he has suggested that he simply ran out of ideas, was quite happy with what he'd achieved and ultimately felt no desire to record any more songs. He's still alive today, having finally retired from lecturing. He still occasionally writes songs for friends and special occasions and plays old American show-tunes for his own amusement, but has no plans whatsoever to release anything again.

Buy - Tom Lehrer - Songs & More Songs By Tom Lehrer
Buy - Tom Lehrer - An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer
Visit - The Onion - Interview with Tom Lehrer

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