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Stuck in a loony bin, there isn't terribly much space for mirth. One night, when my father had come to visit, we found ourselves poring over xkcd comics. My father had a recommendation - "if you like this ethic of humour, have you ever heard of Tom Lehrer?". I'd heard one of his songs before, remembered his name in the credits of a documentary about Dmitry Mendeleev - he'd managed to fit the elements to the tune of the Pirates from Penzance Major-General's Song, and, in a parody of a Bostonian accent, to rhyme "Harvard" with "discovered"! I knew sadly little else about him.
Today, an Amazon delivery arrived for me; my father had ordered me a copy of An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer! After a difficult morning, I retired to my room and my headphones and sat back to waste time well. Many giggles later, here is my review.
Tom Lehrer is a former Harvard lecturer and mathematician, finding time somehow to run a nice sideline in satirical and comedic songs in the 1950s and 60s. Today, he teaches mathematics and music theatre - what a combination - at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His sense of humour, from this record, ranges from nerdy to risqué, through macabre and plain zany.
=Track by Track=
_Track 1. Poisoning Pigeons in the Park_
# When they see us coming the birdies all try and hide
But they still go for peanuts when coated with cyanide #
This is one of the album's blacker tracks - it's said that a pianist once fell over in shock after being told the title of the song - and an excellent start to what I soon realised would be a very, very funny album. It starts as a cornily rollicking, jaunty celebration of springtime, before slipping into sadistic glee as the chorus opens. The funniest thing about the track is without a doubt its contrived rhymes, which put any B-listed rapper to shame: "try and hide"/"cyanide", "quickening"/"strychnine", the latter of which extracted such a snort from your humble reviewer that the nurse on checks asked me what was wrong.
_Track 2. Bright College Days_
# Turn on the spigot
Pour the beer and swig it
And gaudeamus igit-itur #
Lehrer goes for a more topical song here, parodying Ivy League nostalgia anthems. The theme of hysterical contrived rhymes continues, eliciting much the same response from me as it did before. Preppie get-togethers have the mickey forcibly extracted from them.
_Track 3. A Christmas Carol_
# Hark the Herald Tribune sings
Advertising wondrous things #
This is certainly the most topical song on the disc, veering into the realms of boldly ideological satire. I personally have nothing to say against consumerism, but Lehrer's wit shines, as ever, and I found myself giggling along to his deriding of matching pen and pencil sets, Dickens, and many more.
_Track 4. The Elements_
# These are the only ones of which the news has come to Harvard
And there may be many others but they haven't been discovered #
Ed. note: or synthesised.
The Elements is certainly Lehrer's best-known song - a run-down of the elements, as known in 1959, to the tune of the Major-General's Song from Pirates of Penzance. I'd heard it before in a documentary. The elements appear in the order that fits best with the rhythm, not in anything approaching chemical order - I could imagine IUPAC officials having heart attacks to the beat of this song. Needless to say, I love it. The closing lines are delivered in an exaggerated Brahmin drawl, carrying on the album's mickey-taking of all things Ivy League.
_Track 5. Oedipus Rex_
# You may have heard about his odd complex
His name appears in Freud's index #
Oedipus Rex tells the story of the titular character in Greek mythology, whose name is given to the Oedipus complex. I think that's quite enough detail on that front. This is another riot of a track, perhaps reaching its ludic apogee with the final, spoken line (...to which I can all too well relate): "I see the outpatients are out in force tonight!".
_Track 6. In Old Mexico_
# Then the picadors of course each one on his horse
I shouted olé every time one was gored #
A comic rampage through a stereotypical vision of ol' Mexico, this track opens with a monologue - funnier, in my opinion, than the song itself - on the subject of the gall bladder, "invented by Dr. Samuel Gall". The song itself might mean more to American audiences; it takes quick dips into US topical references, such as to the AFLCIO (a sort of American TUC). While the song itself is one of the weaker on the album in terms of belly-laughs verse^1, it has very tough competition, so I wouldn't do it justice to call it a weak point.
_Track 7. Clementine_
# When she said I could have her
Her sister's cadaver
Must surely have turned in its crypt #
Oh My Darling Clementine is an American folk ballad, written in the 19th century. There was once a Spectator poetry competition challenging readers to rewrite a short topical text in the style of various famous poets; this song is the musical equivalent. First, the song is rendered in the style of Cole Porter, then in the style of a Mozart aria, complete with naughty mock Italian; then that of the 1950s Beatnik cool school, and finally - perhaps most apoplectically humorous of all - in the style of Gilbert & Sullivan, for whom Lehrer seems to have an affection.
_Track 8. It Makes a Fellow Proud to Be a Soldier_
# Our old mess sergeant's taste buds had been shot off in the war
But his savory collations add to our esprit de corps #
Another topical song, but to a lesser extent, this one takes seemingly international stereotypes about the characters found in the armed forces and puts them to a mock-rousing melody, inducing all the usual Lehrer-induced snorts.
_Track 9. She's My Girl_
# So though for breakfast she makes coffee that tastes like shampoo
I come home for dinner and get peanut butter stew #
Lehrer's take on that old cliché of unconditional love, and a swing on the 1950s trope of love songs from a girl's perspective, unconditionally loving a man, this song gives an amusing account of the highs and, er, lows of a relationship with a slovenly woman. It's almost feminist in its attack on the unconditionally-loving-slobby-violent-men songs, and it's almost rib-breaking in its contrived rhymes, rollicking tempo, and mocking tone.
_Track 10. The Masochism Tango_
# I ache for the touch of your lips dear
But much more for the touch of your whips dear #
Possibly my favourite track, The Masochism Tango is a ludicrous treatise on the love of a painful lover, set to a bouncy tango melody. In its lyrical tone, it slips into the frankly brutal, then pops out on the other side, all in the name of making the listener guffaw. And guffaw I did: "my heart is in my hand - ugh!". The discordantly jolly tones of the refrain - "as we dance to the Masochism Tango" - are probably the best thing about this track.
_Track 11. We Will All Go Together When We Go_
# We will all go together when we go
All suffused with an incandescent glow #
In the final track, a musing on the inevitability of death, Lehrer reverts to the early tracks' trend of convoluted rhymes. Here, they're as funny as ever, with Lehrer's unique mangling of syllables and syntax reaching impressive new heights. Like in The Masochism Tango, it's the discord between the jolly and morbid lines of the song, and between the subject matter and the gleeful tone, that really make this track shine, giggle, and snort its way to the end of the CD.
Despite the occasional dip into specifically 1950s US references, An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer wasted my afternoon very, very well. I laughed; I snorted; I chortled. I hope that you will do the same. It's available very cheaply on Amazon, for around £1.50 plus postage. I'd recommend this album to anybody with a little cultural knowledge and a sense of humour.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Poisoning Pigeons In The Park
2 Bright College Days
3 A Christmas Carol
4 The Elements
5 Oedipus Rex
6 In Old Mexico
8 It Makes A Fellow Proud To Be A Soldier
9 She's My Girl
10 The Masochism Tango
11 We Will All Go Together When We Go