PERFORMERS: TOM LEHRER

by PETER TATCHELL (reprinted from LAUGH MAGAZINE #3, 1992)

The 1950s was a notable decade for comedy. On radio, it all but died. On television, it flourished. And on record it was finally taken seriously. Musically it progressed from the Spike Jones craziness of the 78rpm era to the classical lampoonings of Victor Borge and Gerard Hoffnung. It also brought forth Flanders and Swann, Anna Russell and a twenty-five year old Harvard mathematics professor named Tom Lehrer whose hobby of creating wickedly vicious ditties launched him on the road to fame, notoriety and a considerable amount of controversy.

Lehrer, in his own words, liked to “take the various types of songs that we all know and love and, as it were, to kick them when they’re down”. Inspired by the wit of his heroes Cole Porter and Noel Coward, he concocted musical raspberries to vent his spleen against the trite mediocrities that were passing for popular music. These he performed for friends and associates at various campus functions at Harvard University. While there he also wrote and performed several numbers in a student production The Physical Revue and recordings survive of the venture.

In 1953 he released a dozen of his compositions on a 10″ LP Songs by Tom Lehrer on his own label (copies of which could be ordered from his home address). His targets ranged from deer hunters, boy scouts and dope peddlers to the actual music styles themselves. Cute, schmaltzy love songs and multi-chorused folk ballads suffered the full brunt of his cynicism, as did college football crowd rousers and hundred-year-old Viennese waltzes.

In an age of movie stars like Marlon Brando and James Dean, Lehrer was the musical equivalent of an angry young man. Although in his case he wasn’t preaching a message to the post-war generation … he was simply calling a spade a spade when everyone else insisted on calling it a shovel.

The disc proved enormously popular not only with the college community but with record buyers across the country, and after a two-year stint of compulsory military service he put together a follow-up batch of vocals under the title More Of Tom Lehrer. This time he espoused the delights of poisoning pigeons in the park and grabbing a partner for the masochism tango. Mother love and the fear of a nuclear holocaust also proved worthy subjects for his attention, as did the hundred or so elements that made up the periodic table. 

By 1959 his scholastic pursuits were put on hold while he performed a series of one-man concerts, first on college campuses in his native New England, then in Canada, Great Britain, Australia and northern Europe. The tours were not without incident” however, with a couple of Australian state governments insisting certain of his numbers were unsuitable for public performance. Lehrer himself readily admitted his works were aimed at “those discriminating few in each community to whom quality is no object” but was less than impressed when some tinpot politician wanted to edit his program.

His shows in the major capital cities provoked no interference and the audience response to the songs singled out elsewhere (particularly Be Prepared) was enthusiastic, to say the least. While downunder, Tom was asked to headline a one hour B.P. Super Show on the Nine television network and a 12″ LP titled Tom Lehrer Discovers Australia (recorded during performances in Sydney and Melbourne) proved a popular souvenir of his stay.

An earlier recording of the same selection of songs (performed at Cambridge Massachusetts in November 1959) was released in Britain as Tom Lehrer Revisited but Lehrer chose to issue highlights from both releases when he pressed the American version of the disc.

Another Cambridge Massachusetts performance (of March 1959) yielded a further LP An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer and thus, by the early 1960s, the discerning record collector could buy albums covering all twenty-three Lehrer compositions either as studio renditions (on 10″ discs) or in concert (on 12″).

There was also a 45rpm single of two Lehrer vocals with orchestral accompaniment (Poisoning Pigeons In The Park and Masochism Tango) released on the Capricorn label. Lehrer actually recorded four songs at the session but the other two (including The Hunting Song) were not issued at the time.

Following this splurge of crass commercialism, Lehrer tired of touring and returned to academic life at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute Of Technology. In 1964 the scheduling of N.B.C.’s version of the popular British satire series That Was The Week That Was inspired him to once again channel his wit through a keyboard, and he contributed a number of compositions to the show (where they were performed by cast members). After the show’s cancellation, Lehrer decided to preserve his artistry for posterity (and perform the songs as they were intended to be sung ) by appearing at the hungry i in San Francisco. The resulting LP That Was The Year That Was showed no lessening of his talents, with such topics as pollution, pornography and the Roman Catholic church coming under his gaze. The disc appeared on the Warner Bros. Reprise label following a contractual agreement with Lehrer which also decreed that they would reissue his earlier An Evening Wasted… release as well as a newly-recorded edition of his 1953 Songs By Tom Lehrer.

In 1966, David Frost (who had met Lehrer during the That Was The Week That Was venture) invited him to take part in his forthcoming television series The Frost Report on BBC television. And most weeks, during its thirteen-episode run, Tom Lehrer could be seen singing his classic 1950s compositions. (The songs were actually all pre-recorded at a single session prior to the show’s debut).

A year later he toured Scandinavia and starred in a half hour concert special on Norwegian television (which was released on dvd over forty years later). The tour virtually marked the end of Tom Lehrer’s performing career and once again he returned to teaching (with only a couple of brief exceptions).

In 1972 he contributed several educational songs to the American television series The Electric Company, and one of these (Silent E) was included on a subsequent LP release from the show. This, and a second song (L-‘), also turn up as bonus tracks on the compact disc version of Tom Lehrer Revisited.

In 1980, London’s West End saw the staging of an appreciation to Lehrer called Tom Foolery which featured over two dozen of his songs performed by a four person cast who also quoted many of his famous dialogue segments throughout the production. Lehrer himself agreed to help out with publicising the show, and appeared on BBC Television’s Parkinson talk show soon after the premiere. As a special treat, he performed one of his compositions written back in the fifties but never recorded … I Got It from Agnes (at the time considered too controversial, even for him). The song is sung by Robin Ray on the original cast album of the show.

And that was it. Despite regular enticements to resume performing he remains firm in his retirement, insisting he’s covered all the topics he considers worthy of his barbs and has adopted a ‘been there … done that’ approach. He continued to divide his time between Boston (where he lived) and Santa Cruz, California (where he would teach six months every year).

Discography

Songs By Tom Lehrer
l0″LP Lehrer TL 101, British Decca LF(T) 1311
(also released as a two-record EP set Lehrer TLEP-I)
The Old Dope Peddler
Be Prepared
The Wild West
I Wanna Go Back To Dixie
Fight Fiercely, Harvard
Lobachevsky
The Irish Ballad
The Hunting Song
My Home Town
When You Are Old And Grey
I Hold Your Hand In Mine
The Wiener Schnitzel Waltz

More Of Tom Lehrer
10″LP Lehrer TL 102, British Decca LF(T) 1323
Poisoning Pigeons In The Park
Bright College Days
A Christmas Carol
The Elements
Oedipus Rex
In Old Mexico
Clementine
It Makes A Fellow Proud To Be A Soldier
She’s My Girl
The Masochism Tango
We Will All Go Together When We Go

The Masochism Tango/Poisoning Pigeons In The Park
Capricorn C-451, British Decca 45F-11243
orchestral versions, recorded in 1960

Tom Lehrer Discovers Australia
Australian Decca LKA 7505
concert versions of the Songs By Tom Lehrer selection, recorded in Melbourne and Sydney on March 21 and May 4 1960

Tom Lehrer Revisited
British Decca LK 4375, Reprise compact disc 9 26203-2
Concert versions of the Songs By Tom Lehrer selection, recorded in Cambridge, Massachusetts in November 1959
(the compact disc release also includes two vocals recorded for the 1972 television series The Electric Company:
Silent E
L-Y
)

Tom Lehrer Revisited
Lehrer TL 1O1
a mixture of the above two concert recordings, resulting in the same selection of songs

An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer
Lehrer TL 202, British Decca LK 4332 & SKL 4097, Reprise RS 6199, Reprise compact disc 6199-2
concert versions of the More of Tom Lehrer selection, recorded in Cambridge, Massachusetts in March 1959. 

That Was The Year That Was
Reprise RS 6179, Reprise compact disc 6179-2
recorded in concert at the hungry i, San Francisco in July 1965
National Brotherhood Week
MLF Lullaby
George Murphy
The Folk Song Army
Smut
Send The Marines
Pollution
So Long, Mom (A Song For World War 111)
Whatever Became Of Hubert?
New Math
Alma
Who’s Next?
Wernher Von Braun
The Vatican Rag
 

Pollution/Who’s Next?
Reprise 0862

Songs By Tom Lehrer
Reprise R(S) 6216
newly recorded versions of the 1953 Songs By Tom Lehrer studio vocals

Reprise also released two promotional singles:

That Was The Year That Was
PRO-218
Pollution
National Brotherhood Week
New Math
The Folk Song Army

Songs By Tom Lehrer
PRO-241
Song titles unknown 

The Electric Company
Warner Bros. BS 2636, Children’s Television Workshop CTW 22052
Includes a Lehrer vocal of Silent E, plus cast version of Fight Fiercely, Harvard 

That Was “That Was The Week That Was”
Radiola MR-1123
a montage of soundtrack excerpts from the NBC television series, featuring five Lehrer compositions sung by cast members:
So Long, Mom
Who’s Next?
Pollution
The Old Dope Peddler
We Will All Go Together When We Go

Tom Foolery
That’s Entertainment Records TER 1137
original cast album of the 1980 London West End production, which features eighteen Lehrer compositions sung by cast members:
Be Prepared
Poisoning Pigeons In The Park
I Wanna Go Back To Dixie
The Elements
Silent E
When You Are Old And Grey
She’s My Girl
Werner Von Braun
Who’s Next?
I Got It From Agnes
National Brotherhood Week
So Long, Mom
Irish Ballad
I Hold Your Hand In Mine
The Masochism Tango
The Old Dope Peddler
The Vatican Rag
We Will All Go Together When We Go

Reissues

Tom Lehrer in Concert
Decca/Eclipse CD 844 241-2
Poisoning Pigeons in the Park
Bright College Days
A Christmas Carol
The Elements
Oedipus Rex
In Old Mexico
Clementine
Makes a Fellow Proud to be a Soldier
She’s My Girl
Masochism Tango
We Will All Go Together When We Go
I Wanna Go Back to Dixie
The Wild West is Where I Want to Be
The Old Dope Peddler
Fight Fiercely, Harvard
Lobachevsky
The Irish Ballad
The Hunting Song
My Home Town
When You Are Old and Grey
The Wiener Schnitzel Waltz
I Hold Your Hand in Mine
Be Prepared

The Remains of Tom Lehrer
Rhino/Warner Archives 3CD set R2 79831 (2000)
Includes the LPs Songs by Tom Lehrer, More of Tom Lehrer, Tom Lehrer Revisited, An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer, That Was The Year That Was
+
* I Got it from Agnes (1997)
* That’s Mathematics (1993)
+
the Richard Hayman sessions (1960):
Poisoning Pigeons in the Park
The Masochism Tango
The Hunting Song
We Will All Go Together When We Go

+
the Joe Raposo sessions (for The Electric Company, 1971/2):
L-Y
Silent E
* O-U (The Hound Song)
* S-N (Snore, Sniff and Sneeze)

+
the Rob Fisher sessions (1999):
* N Apostrophe T
* Selling Out
* (I’m Spending) Hanukkah in Santa Monica

   (* previously unissued) 

The Tom Lehrer Collection
Shout CD + DVD 826663-11824 (2010)
Fight Fiercely, Harvard
Lobachevsky
The Irish Ballad
When You Are Old and Gray
Be Prepared
The Elements
We Will All Go Together When We Go
National Brotherhood Week
Pollution
So Long, Mom (A Song For World War III)
New Math
Who’s Next?
Smut
Werner Von Braun
The Vatican Rag
I Got It From Agnes
That’s Mathematics
L-Y
Silent E
O-U (The Hound Song)
S-N (Snore, Sniff, And Sneeze)
N Apostrophe T
Selling Out
(I’m Spending) Hanukkah in Santa Monica
Poisoning Pigeons in the Park (1960 orchestral version)
The Masochism Tango (1960 orchestral version) 
   + Oslo TV special DVD (itemised below)

DVD

The Tom Lehrer Collection
Shout CD + DVD 826663-11824 (2010)
from the 1967 Oslo TV special
National Brotherhood Week
When You Are Old and Gray
MLF Lullaby
Poisoning Pigeons in the Park
So Long Mom (A Song For World War III)
Pollution
The Masochism Tango
Send the Marines
Who’s Next?
Wernher Von Braun
The Vatican Rag
We Will All Go Together When We Go
+  
from Parkinson, 1980
I Got It From Agnes
+
from Hey, Mr. Producer! The World of Cameron Mackintosh (1998, introduced by Stephen Sondheim)
Poisoning Pigeons in the Park
+
animated clips from “The Electric Company
L-Y
Silent E
O-U (The Hound Song)
S-N (Snore, Sniff and Sneeze)
+
from special Berkeley performance, 1997
The Derivative Song
That’s Mathematics
   +
CD listed above

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