Tom Lehrer celebrated his 90th birthday today – he’s definitely old and grey.
Born in New York, Lehrer began studying classical piano aged seven. However, popular music caught his eye, and he began writing show tunes . A prodigy, he started at Harvard aged 15. There he began to write comic songs, including a spoof football fight song – “Fight Fiercely, Harvard” – which has been performed ever since.
By 1953 he had enough songs to release a 12 song album ‘Songs by Tom Lehrer’, which included classics like “The Old Dope Peddler” (“he gives the kids free samples, because he knows full well, that today’s young innocent faces will be tomorrow’s clientele”, a song telling boy scouts to “Be Prepared” (culminating – spoiler alert – in the invocation to always carry condoms) and other songs from the silly to the downright macabre.
Since US radio stations wouldn’t play songs about murder, racism, plagiarism and worse, the album was a ‘sleeper hit’ – spreading by word of mouth. Lehrer later recalled “lacking exposure in the media, my songs spread slowly. Like herpes, rather than ebola.”
Lehrer spent the next few years working as a researcher at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, and was drafted into the Army from 1955 to 1957. He continued to play nighclubs in Boston, Manhattan and San Francisco, His musical “career” then received a huge boost from…. Princess Margaret. The oration accompanying her honorary doctorate in music from the University of London mentioned her liking for Lehrer’s work.
(Lehrer ended up performed in front of the royal family, and afterwards Prince Philip shook his hand and said he’d always enjoyed listening to “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”. Lehrer asked if the Queen liked it too. “Oh, she thinks it’s horrid. She leaves the room if we put it on”.)
The BBC was less shy than American radio stations about playing his songs, and Lehrer became well known in the UK, having sold 370,000 records by the end of the 1950s.
And then, in 1960, taking the opportunity that his new-found fame allowed him, he visited the Australia of Robert Menzies….
On tour in Australia
Lehrer’s music was already on the Australian radar. The previous year a Labor MP had asked the Prime Minister if he knew any of Lehrer’s work, which had been withdrawn by the record company EMI from sale for fear of offence (and possibly banned).
Menzies denied knowledge – “Do I gather that these songs are romantic or what?”
During his tour Lehrer made mock efforts to set the record straight.
When he performed in Brisbane, the chief of police tried to prevent Lehrer singing Be Prepared (aside its condom advice it had also advised “don’t solicit for your sister, that’s not nice, unless you get a good percentage of her price”).
While audiences in Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney got the full benefit of Lehrer’s decidely cynical and bleak worldview (surely influenced by Yiddish sensibilities), Adelaide was not so lucky. Ruled with an iron fist by Thomas Playford, South Australia was not ready for Lehrer.
A young ALP MP called Don Dunstan asked questions of Playford about censorship, but to no avail. During his two nights of performing at Adelaide Town Hall, there were five songs which were off-limits. His audience knew those songs, and at one point he teasingly began to play one of them. Lehrer apparently quipped that South Australia had the “finest 18th century government in the world”.
Lehrer took it all in his stride, saying that having been “banned, censored, mentioned in several houses of parliament and threatened with arrest” was “the highlight of his life”.
The tour resulted in an album of live recordings “Tom Lehrer discovers Australia (and vice versa)” (the cover shows him in a staring contest with a kangaroo). Lehrer also debuted a song that couldn’t be banned- “The Masochism Tango” (“I ache for the touch of your lips dear, but much more for the touch of your whips dear…”)
After Australia Lehrer briefly taught political science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (and presumably got confused with Noam Chomsky, who is exactly the same age.)
He then produced a flurry of brilliant topical songs for a short-lived satirical TV show called ‘That was the week that was’. The album (That Was the Year that Was’ covers smut, the teaching of ‘new math’ and – infamously – a song about the German rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun (‘once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down, that’s not my department says Werhner von Braun’.)
And then – tired of touring, tired of singing the same songs, and with real life becoming ever less funny, Lehrer basically retired from performing. His last gig, in 1972, was a fundraiser for the doomed Presidential candidate George McGovern.
He then spent 40 years teaching math and American popular music at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
In 1999 the British historian Martin Gilbert named Lehrer as one of the 10 great figures of the previous 100 years. “Lehrer was able to express and to expose, in humorous verse and lilting music, some of the most powerful dangers of the second half of the century … Many of the causes of which Lehrer sang became, three decades later, part of the main creative impulse of mankind,”
Indeed, for a man who hasn’t really performed since 1972, Lehrer’s fan-base remains enormous (full disclosure: my one appearance on the UK ‘Mastermind’ hinged on my specialist round -the songs of Tom Lehrer.) In 2012, when the rapper 2 Chainz, a rapper, asked to sample “The Old Dope Peddler” in one of his tracks, Mr Lehrer was keen to help. “I grant you motherfuckers permission to do this,” he supposedly answered. “Please give my regards to Mr Chainz, or may I call him 2?”
So, to celebrate this man, have a trawl through his (remarkably small number of) songs.
I guarantee there will be something to delight, horrify and amuse, as you slide down the razor blade of life…