An Evening (Wasted) with Tom Lehrer
The best time
Boomers: the generation that did it all. From Monty Python to Spike Lee, from Prince to Wolf Hall, they blew it up and smashed the pieces back into all the right places. They also compiled a reigning cultural canon - some of it their own, some of it older - in which Generation X has been marinating for decades. It’s time to find out which bits were brilliant, and which bits were bullshit all along.
Boomer Bullshit: An Evening (Wasted) with Tom Lehrer (1959)
Recorded in early 1959 at Harvard, An Evening (Wasted) is a collection of comic songs by mathematician-pianist Tom Lehrer. It was his second album; he recorded his first, Songs by Tom Lehrer, in 1953 and flogged it around the Harvard campus for cash while his reputation built - as he said - ‘slowly, like herpes rather than Ebola’.
Lehrer - who was born in 1928 and is still alive today, although I don’t mean that as regretfully as it sounds - has the kind of biography that makes you want to give up. A maths prodigy who enrolled at Harvard at the age of 15, he was also a talented pianist and began writing and performing comic songs while he was an undergraduate. His musical career took him from student revues to the US version of That Was The Week That Was and the BBC’s Frost Report, while his simultaneous mathmo career took him from teaching posts at Harvard and MIT to the atomic research facility at Los Alamos and the National Security Agency (where he claims to have invented the Jello shot). He ‘retired’ from music in the early 1970s, leaving a remarkably compact body of work: 20 years, 37 songs, 109 live shows. His final public performance was at a rally for the doomed Democrat presidential candidate George McGovern, who was pulverised by Nixon in the 1972 election.
When I was a student in the early 1990s, finding out whether someone knew or didn’t know about Tom Lehrer was one way to appraise your new-found friends, like knowing or not knowing about Gallon Drunk (I didn’t) or Withnail & I (I did). I made at least one instant friend by singing ‘The Vatican Rag’ on my way out of a seminar about the Reformation:
Two, four, six, eight
Time to transubstantiate!
In Lehrer’s case what we were really finding out was what kinds of parents each of us had. If your parents had been sophisticated young graduates in their time; if they were broadly left-leaning; if they spent their twenties nursing a cigarette and a black coffee in a damp bedsit while watching TW3; if they followed American politics and knew who Wernher von Braun was, well, the chances were they had introduced you to Tom Lehrer at some point. And I know this makes him sound ghastly, a smug class signifier like having a Habitat chicken brick and not watching ITV, but that it’s not Lehrer’s fault. Anyway, teenagers have to have heuristics for finding like-minded souls, and Lehrer had more conversational potential than asking whether someone’s mum read The Guardian.
Watching my parents piss themselves laughing at Lehrer is one of the standout memories of my childhood. His songs are all the good things: genuinely funny, grown-up and intensely catchy (‘a tune… that people can hummmmm’, as Lehrer says in one of the spoken-word passages on An Evening Wasted that will be imprinted on my brain until I die). He was also very educational, if your parents could stop laughing long enough to explain the joke. I honestly know the story of Oedipus because of this album.
From the Bible to the popular song
There's one theme that we find right along
Of all ideals they hail as good
The most sublime is motherhood
There was a man though, who it seems
Once carried this ideal to extremes…
Yes, he loved his mother like no other
His daughter was his sister and his son was his brother
One thing on which you can depend is
He sure knew who a boy's best friend is
About ten years ago I realised my dad was doing it all over again. He took my sons on holiday to Wales for a week and when they came back my kids knew all the words to ‘Poisoning Pigeons in the Park’. It turned out that my dad kept a tape of An Evening Wasted in the car, and it was the only form of entertainment that brought equal pleasure to all three of them: a 70 year old, a 10 year old and an 8 year old. I like to think that some time in the 2070s a pint-sized descendant of mine will ask ‘Bampy, what’s the Audobon Society?’ from the back seat of a flying car.
The science fiction writer Isaac Asimov was a fan of Lehrer’s before it was cool. He happened across Lehrer singing ‘I Got It from Agnes’ - a jaunty song about venereal disease - in a Boston nightclub in the early 1950s, and was delighted by two realisations: firstly that ‘it’ was an STI - it’s never spelled out in the song - and secondly that Lehrer was describing a mindblowing variety of (then) largely illegal sexual combinations:
Pierre gave it to Sheila
Who must have brought it there
He got it from Francois and Jacques
One thing you could say about Lehrer - there are hundreds of things you could say about Lehrer but these pieces are short, so I have to make some choices - is that he’s an example of a particular tradition in American songwriting: erudite, witty, delighted by words, and with a comfortable appreciation of the comic potential inherent in sex. (This kind of worldliness was in extremely short supply in the UK in the 1980s.) In other words he belongs in the tradition of Cole Porter, another songwriter tickled by the possibilities of ‘it’:
Birds do it
Bees do it
Even educated fleas do it
Let’s do it
Let’s… fall in love
Comic songs can, most of the time, be pretty exhausting. Few jokes are good enough to withstand the kind of repetition that comes with singalong, and few comics are fluent enough to make a joke ring true while also hitting a rhythm and a metre. And then you have the problem of the actual music. The UK in the ‘80s was awash with ‘comic’ songs that nobody ever, ever wants to hear again: Cliff Richard and the Young Ones singing ‘Living Doll’, Black Lace with ‘Agadoo’, Not the Nine O’Clock News with ‘Nice Video, Shame About the Song’ and the everliving shitehouse of ‘The Chicken Song’ by Spitting Image. (I have a feeling it was my brother’s insistence on playing the last of these that sent my parents screaming to their record collection in search of Lehrer.)
There is, in short, something of the April Fool about most comic songs: it’s comedy for children and for people who know, in theory, that humour is a thing, but don’t have the faintest idea how laughter actually works. But every now and then you get someone who has both the comic and the musical chops to truly pull it off. Victoria Wood’s ‘The Ballad of Barry and Freda’ is a standout example (another song about ‘it’), as are Monty Python’s ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’, ‘Springtime for Hitler’ from The Producers and ‘Turn It Off’ from The Book of Mormon. (I’m sure you’ll have your own selection.)
Even in this company, Lehrer was unusual in at least two ways: that he wrote so many songs that have held up so well (this piece hasn’t even touched on ‘National Brotherhood Week’, for example) and that they are still funny despite being so specific to the politics and culture of young, lefty adults in 1960s America. Perhaps that is a part of their appeal: 1960s America was, to put it mildly, a fairly important political and cultural context, and Lehrer’s pinpoint sarcasm still bites decades later.
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Bullshit or brilliant?
I mean, come on.
It’s tempting, in any piece about Lehrer, to simply fill it with his lyrics. (Reproducing lyrics usually attracts swingeing copyright fees, but at the end of 2022 Lehrer renounced all copyright on his songs.) Writing about music is like dancing about architecture, and in Lehrer’s case nothing I write could come close anyway. So perhaps it’s best to end this piece with the words of another proper writer. Reflecting on the night he stumbled across Lehrer performing in Boston, Asimov said: ‘I haven't gone to nightclubs often, but of all the times I have gone, it was on this occasion that I had by far the best time’. Whether it’s a long-lost ‘60s student hangout, your parents’ living room, your granddad’s car or your undergraduate hovel, listening to Lehrer and having by far the best time just seem to go hand in hand.
For some of those more witless comedy songs: