Thomas Andrew Lehrer (born April 9, 1928) is a retired American musician, singer-songwriter, satirist, and mathematician, having lectured on mathematics and musical theater. He is best known for the pithy and humorous songs that he recorded in the 1950s and 1960s.
His songs often parodied popular musical forms, though he usually created original melodies when doing so.
A notable exception is “The Elements”, in which he set the names of the chemical elements to the tune of the “Major-General’s Song” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance.
Lehrer’s early musical work typically dealt with non-topical subject matter and was noted for its black humor in songs such as “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”.
In the 1960s, he produced a number of songs that dealt with social and political issues of the day, particularly when he wrote for the U.S. version of the television show That Was the Week That Was.
Tom Lehrer’s work always had a biting, satirical edge to it, but never was this more obvious than on this album, a collection of songs regarding events of the year 1965. Very little was sacred from Lehrer’s sharp wit, from racism to the Catholic Church, and, while much of his subject matter has become outdated, his shrewd comic talents are beyond question. 1965 was obviously a good year for political satire: the threat of nuclear war was present and very real, the Catholic Church launched Vatican 2 in an effort to “modernize” the church, free speech was under threat, and the tide was beginning to turn against institutionalized racism (despite Malcolm X being assassinated that year). Lehrer’s musicianship is good, but not brilliant, and his singing style is not exceptional, but the content of his songs is what makes him such a great comedian. Lyrically, he was superb. Where his contemporaries Flanders and Swann relied on clever wordplay, Lehrer’s caustic wit was his strength.
The nuclear threat was the major theme here, an example being the tale of nuclear proliferation, “Who’s Next?,” which, when mentioning Israel’s need for nuclear weapons, states “The Lord’s our shepherd, says the Psalm/But just in case — we’re going to get a bomb.” “So Long Mom (A Song for World War 3)” came about because, as Lehrer says in his introduction, “if any songs are going to come out of World War 3, we’d better start writing them now.” “Wernher von Braun” questions the United State’s dubious moral decision to grant the Nazi scientist von Braun asylum if he worked for the U.S. Space Program, while “Send the Marines” highlights unwritten U.S. foreign policy, specifically on invading another country: “They’ve got to be protected/All their rights respected/Until somebody we like can be elected.”Other themes explored are those of racism (“National Brotherhood Week”), freedom of speech (“Smut”), the growing number of protest songs (“Folk Song Army”) ,and new teaching methods (“New Math”). More controversially, the Catholic Church’s attempt at modernization is mercilessly lampooned in the “Vatican Rag.”
This is one of Tom Lehrer’s finest works, and it is a pleasure to hear him actually sing these songs himself. While very much a product of the ’60s, much of Lehrer’s comedy is still relevant. This album gives a fascinating insight into the politics of the 1960s United States and also shows one of the finest comedic talents of that decade at his absolute best. (by Jonathan Lewis)
Recorded live at the Hungry Nightclub in San Francisco, CA, over five nights in July, 1965
Tom Lehrer (vocals, piano)
01. National Brotherhood Week 2.35
02. MLF Lullaby 2.25
03. George Murphy 2.08
04. The Folk Song Army 2.12
05. Smut 3.15
06. Send The Marines 1.46
07. Pollution 2.16
08. So Long, Mom (A Song For World War III) 2.23
09. Whatever Became Of Hubert? 2.13
10. New Math 4.28
11. Alma 5.27
12. Who’s Next? 2.00
13. Wernher von Braun 1.47
14. The Vatican Rag 2.14
All songs written by Tom Lehrer