Tom Lehrer’s The Remains of Tom Lehrer

cover, The Remains of Tom LehrerI have been waiting for this CD box for many years, in fact ever since I bought a CD player in 1987. It took 13 years but it was worth the wait. For those of you who are not aquainted with Tom Lehrer’s work, he is a professor of mathematics at MIT who also happens to sing, play the piano and write satirical songs. Lehrer made his first recording, a 10 inch LP, in 1953 on his own label. He followed it up with another one in 1959 and made his final LP in 1965. Time wise it was a long career, but his output is more scarce than that of the richest super-mega-music-stars of today.

According to the brilliant little book that accompanies this box, Songs by Tom Lehrer (1953) took about an hour to record. Lehrer came into the studio, sat down by the piano and did 12 songs almost in one go. True, the record is only 22 minutes long, but still it was something no-one would copy today.

Some performers build up the quality of their work throughout their career. Lehrer was spot on and brilliant from the beginning. The record is loaded with classics. You get a couple of marching songs. “Be Prepared” is dedicated to all boy scouts, filled with good advice such as “Don’t solicit for your sister, that’s not nice/unless you get a good percentage of her price.” “Fight Fiercely Harvard” is a send-up of all over-proud celebration songs. “The Hunting Song” tells you about the hunter who comes back with “two game wardens, seven hunters and a cow.”

My favourite is “I Hold Your Hand in Mine,” which starts out as a lovely, romantic ballad but soon turns into a horror movie. There is also the Irish ballad pastiche about the girl who kills off all her family and admits it all to the police because she’s been taught it’s a sin to lie. And then there’s “My Hometown” a celebration of a town where everyone has something to hide. And then there is… Well I can’t mention them all.

More of Tom Lehrer (1959) gives you 11 more songs in the same vein. It starts off with a spring song, “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park.” “A Christmas Carol” is of course not something you would sing yourself at Christmas. In the middle, Lehrer quotes a few real traditionals like “Hark the Herald Tribune sings/Advertising wondrous things” and “God rest you merry merchants/May you make the Yuletide pay.”

Next he runs through the complete chemical periodic table in a little more than a minute. And then there’s a ditty about “Oedipus Rex,” various rather unorthodox versions of “Clementine,” and his submission for creating an anthem for the US army, “It Makes A Fellow Proud To Be A Soldier,” filled with maniacs who became soldiers. The record ends with “The Masochism Tango” (“I ache for the touch of your lips dear/But much more for the touch of your whips, dear”) and one of the best anti-nuclear songs ever written, “We Will All Go Together When We Go.”

More of Tom Lehrer was available to the public in two versions. You could buy it in its studio recorded form or as a live album titled An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer. They were released at the same time and were equal successes. I prefer the live version because then you get Lehrer’s glorious introductions. This man is funny.

The success of the live version prompted him to re-record his first album in 1960, this time titled Tom Lehrer Revisited. The beginning is nothing less than hilarious. Tom Lehrer introduces himself and gives a short biography of himself in which he attributes to himself almost every advance on human life you can think of.

That Was The Year That Was is available only in its live version. It is a very political record, all the songs written as comments to things that happened in the mid-sixties. In my mind it is Lehrer’s best work. It starts with “National Brotherhood Week” where Lehrer sings about how everyone hates each other. As he says in the introduction, “I know there are people who do not love their neighbour and I hate people like that.”

Lehrer next kills off the idea of a Multi-Lateral Force. “MLF will scare Brezhnev/I hope he is half as scared as I.” He returns to the subject in “Send the Marines” in which he describes the US foreign policy in the ’60s: whenever there is trouble, send in the marines.

The anti-war theme is also touched upon in “Who’s Next,” another anti-nuclear song, and “So Long Mom,” a song written for World War III. In the first he sings about how the nuclear bomb is spread to different countries. You have to know a little about politics in the 60s to truly appreciate it as it touches on the old conflict between Israel and Egypt and the situation in Alabama. Years later he exchanged one of the verses for “Japan will have its own device/Transistorized at half the price.”

In “Werner von Braun,” a song about the man who helped to create the V2 rockets that was used against London during WWII and then turned up to help with the US moon launch project. Lehrer sings with a German accent “Once [a bomb] goes up, who cares where it comes down?/It’s not my department, says Werner von Braun.”

In “George Murphy,” he does not know how much he is foreseeing the future when he sings about how Hollywood mixes show biz with politics “from Helen Gahagan to Ronald Reagan.” “Smut” is a marching song for Lehrer’s cause, obscenity: “Let’s face it, dirty books are fun.”

But there is lots more. In “New Maths,” he subtracts 173 from 342, first in the normal way, then using base eight, “just like base 10 basically if you miss two fingers.” “Pollution” warns foreigners from drinking the water and breathing the air while visiting America. And then there’s “The Vatican Rag,” which got him into trouble with the Catholics. And I still have not mentioned…

Well, this box is a jewel. You get both the studio and the live versions of the first two albums, the third LP and eight bonus tracks never seen on LP. With it you get a 80-page book with a full biography, Lehrer’s answers to some common questions, all the lyrics and notes on the recordings.

The great mystery is why this man stopped performing in 1967, only writing a few children’s songs and a few additional verses to some of the old songs for the musical “Tomfoolery” based on his songs. But we have still got the recordings. Here you get 46 songs, most of them in two versions, almost everything he ever wrote.

[Editor’s Note: Lehrer stopped performing because he found that he did better as a mathematician than as a musician. Every so often, mathematicians are lucky enough to see him perform at conferences] [Editor-in-Chief’s Note: the Music Editor is a mathematician.]

So just sit back and enjoy it. It will give you hours of pleasure and lots of laughs. If you are looking for something amusing, this is it. Do not be scared off by the fact that most of the recordings are more than 30 years old. These songs have not aged; the recording quality needed for a piano and a voice has not developed that much. So do not miss it. It is a must in anyone’s record collection. Barry Hansen starts off his biography of Lehrer with: “Tom Lehrer is the most brilliant song satirist ever recorded.” I agree totally; the evidence is in this box.

(Warner Archives, 2000)

Lars Nilsson

Lars Nilsson is in his 60s, is an OAP and lives in Mellerud in the west of Sweden. He has a lifelong obesession with music and has playing the guitar since his early teens, and has picked up a number of other instruments over the years. At the moment he plays with three different groups, specialized in British folk, acoustic pop and rock, and, Swedish fiddle music. Lars has also written a number of books, most of them for school use, but also a youth novel, a couple of books about London and a book about educational leadership. He joined the Green Man Review team in 1998.

More Posts