Is Tom Lehrer “the most brilliant song satirist ever recorded”? That’s the claim made by Barry Hansen in the hardcover booklet that accompanies “The Remains of Tom Lehrer,” a three-CD set that arrived in stores this week.
Hansen, better known as Dr. Demento, the radio personality whose program has showcased Lehrer’s music for decades, makes a strong case for his position. But one thing there’s no arguing is that Lehrer has had the most unusual career of any song satirist ever recorded.
**** Tom Lehrer, “The Remains of Tom Lehrer,” Warner Archives/Rhino. Lehrer started sliding down the razor blade of life (as he put it in one of his cringe-inducing lyrics) in 1928. He grew up in New York loving Broadway musicals, Gilbert & Sullivan, radio comedy and Danny Kaye, and he started writing his comic songs as a Harvard undergraduate in the mid-'40s. He gradually accumulated a small stockpile, and in 1953 he adopted a strategy that would become standard procedure for punk and alternative rock bands decades later: He rented a Boston studio and recorded 12 songs, then had them pressed on a 10-inch LP. He sold “Songs by Tom Lehrer” himself, at shops around Harvard and by mail order.
Lehrer’s music found its first fans in the university circuit, and filtered into the wide world of hip as he spread the word through nightclub engagements (including one at Ciro’s on the Sunset Strip in 1957). Still intending to become a math teacher, he recorded his second album, “An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer,” in concert in 1959, then cut the same set of songs and released a studio version, “More of Tom Lehrer,” in 1960. The same year he also put out “Tom Lehrer Revisited,” a live album featuring the songs from his first collection. Without any record company support, his popularity continued to grow, and he performed regularly while teaching at MIT, Harvard and Wellesley. He stopped writing for a few years, then resurfaced in 1964 contributing songs to NBC’s satirical TV series “That Was the Week That Was.”
Another live recording, based on that material, marked his first affiliation with a major label, Reprise, which released the album, “That Was the Year That Was,” and saw it reach No. 18 on the Billboard chart. The label also reissued the early albums, though they had Lehrer rerecord the first one to upgrade the sound quality (the version on “Remains” is the original).
With apparent success finally his, Lehrer walked away from it all. No more songs (until a few popped up in the ‘70s and ‘80s), no more records, no more shows (his last concert was in 1967). Instead, he devoted himself to teaching.
“I stopped having funny ideas, that’s all,” Lehrer said this week. “It wasn’t like I turned off the faucet deliberately and denied the American public access to this, or that I had writer’s block or anything.
“When I had a funny idea for a song, I wrote it, and when I didn’t, I didn’t, and I stopped having them. What caused that I have no idea. Times have changed? Senility replaced adolescence? I don’t know.”
Unlike his contemporary Stan Freberg and today’s Weird Al Yankovic, who make parodies of popular tunes, Lehrer specialized in original comedic songs. Some were about current events and social trends, some offered timelessly twisted humor (“Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” has proved one of his most durable songs), some were pure nonsense (his tongue-twisting recitation of all the chemical elements, to a Gilbert & Sullivan tune).
He didn’t parody specific songs, but Lehrer got much of his comic punch from spoofing entire popular music genres--nostalgic odes to Dixie, the Wild West and Old Mexico, the college fight song, the Irish ballad, schmaltzy love songs.
Lehrer was smart and playful rather than angry and scathing, but there was a subversive edge to his work, a sense of delight in unbuttoning the button-down generation. His twisted takes on such beloved institutions as the Boy Scouts, academia and mainstream society in general made him an icon of irreverence for a growing audience.
“Remains” affirms that, like Freberg’s work, Lehrer’s music transcends topicality through its inherent musical and lyrical virtues--including his famously outrageous rhymes. In his revival hymn “We Will All Go Together When We Go,” an invitation to sit back and enjoy the nuclear Armageddon, he offers the comforting thought that “when the air becomes uranious/We will all go simultaneous.”
In gathering literally everything Lehrer recorded, “Remains” includes two, and in a few cases three, versions of some songs--the studio take and a concert recording. That might be a bit redundant for more casual listeners, who can get an essential taste of Lehrer on Rhino’s “Songs and More Songs by Tom Lehrer,” or from the still-available original albums.
The devotees will value “Remains” for its completeness. It includes his songs from the kids’ TV show “The Electric Company,” and some rarities--a set of four early songs cut with an orchestra in 1960, and some new recordings of a couple of his latest compositions (from 1973 and 1990). Maybe best of all, the booklet features a full set of lyrics.
“Yeah, I love it, I’m just all thrilled,” said Lehrer, who has taught at UC Santa Cruz since the early ‘70s. “I’ve been just looking at it all weekend. . . . Who thought in 1953 when I went into the studio that 47 years later this thing would be out? It shows you never can tell.”
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).