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Date: 10/04/08

Birthday Greetings To A Master

Damn it all - I'm a day late with this. Things tend to pass you by when you're lying in bed waiting for The Snot Fairy to pack her bags and leave.

April 9 marked the eightieth birthday of a remarkable man.

Photo of Tom Lehrer

Tom Lehrer remains, nearly forty years after he stopped performing and writing, the greatest satirical songwriter of all time. Coming out of Harvard in the post-war era, his songs - written initially to entertain his fellow mathematics students - spread across the US via his self-recorded LPs in the early fifties. This was the era of the Eisenhower boom, when America was on its way to becoming the most bloated, self-satisfied and conformist society the planet had ever seen.

That this Ivy League graduate set out to lacerate that society's many sacred cows (most particularly the one called 'good taste') was never going to earn him much airplay on American radio. There were enough of the cognoscenti, however, to make sure that Lehrer's dextrous parodies and sharp and technically-adroit lyrics remained in the public ear. His success was more pronounced in the UK and Australia, although this didn't stop the determinedly ignorant and self-righteous from excoriating the man and his works, or of simply damning him with faint praise.

His work became more political in the sixties, largely because of a commission to write a song a week for the US version of That Was The Week That Was. Here he sent up charity TV fundraisers (National Brotherhood Week), the strange case of a Nazi technocrat being at the head of the US' attempts to win the Space Race (Wernher von Braun), and - most memorably - the 'modernising' wing of the the Roman Catholic Church (The Vatican Rag). I think this last song was the first one of his I ever heard (I'd have been about thirteen, I think), and I was immediately beguiled by the lyrical genius of the middle eight:

"Get in line in that processional
Step into that small confessional
Where the guy whose got religion'll
Tell you if your sin's original.
If it is, try playing it safer,
Drink the wine and chew the wafer.
Two, four, six, eight: time to trans-substantiate!"

This, in fact, marked Lehrer's last main burst of writing. Never happy with performing, he also stopped writing, citing the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger as a sign that satire was no longer necessary. Apart from a few short songs for a children's television series and a couple of one-offs, that was it.

Thankfully, true talent will leave its mark, and Lehrer's songs still amuse, entertain and shock (if you're of a certain cast of mind) to this day. He has also inspired musical parodists such as 'Weird Al' Yankovic and Roy Zimmerman (his true heir, in my opinion).

So, a belated happy birthday, Mr. Lehrer. May you have many more years of not writing ahead of you.


Footnote: Just in case you are so benighted as to never to have seen or heard the great man, see the following YouTube items:

To show that US foreign policy has always been consistent down the years, Send The Marines:

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The aforementioned Vatican Rag (complete with rare fluff!):

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And finally, from an edition of Parkinson in 1980, when Lehrer was in London promoting Cameron Mackintosh's tribute to him, Tomfoolery, the man sings a song which he never dared record when he originally wrote it, fearing that - even by his standards - it was a bit naughty; I Got It From Agnes (That's Robin Ray - who was in the cast of Tomfoolery - you catch a brief glimpse of at about 0:54):

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