Julian Cope’s Album of the Month

Tom Lehrer

Tom Lehrer

AOTM #112, September 2009ce
Released 1959 on Decca
These songs were first released in the UK, in 1959, on Decca Records.

  1. Oedipus Rex (1.42)
  2. The Old Dope Peddler (1.29)
  3. I Wanna Go Back to Dixie (1.55)
  4. The Wild West is Where I Wanna Be (2.05)
  5. The Irish Ballad (3.03)
  6. She’s My Girl (1.51)
  7. My Home Town (2.41)
  8. The Masochism Tango (3.05)
  9. In Old Mexico (4.10)
  10. Be Prepared (1.34)
  11. I Hold Your Hand in Mine (1.30)
  12. When You are Old and Grey (1.54)
  13. Lobachevsky (3.13)
  14. We Will All Go Together When We Go (3.29)

Note: These songs were all written between 1945-52, so please accept their metaphor or give’em a wide wide berth. Ta muchly, JULIAN

‘Be It Ever So Decadent, There’s No Place Like Home’

Born poor in 1890, and raised the 13th child of older parents, my Grandma Cope’s cultural sensibilities remained so locked into the pre-WW1 mindset, that my father – regularly lullabying me to sleep with Victorian ballads – often incurred the wrath of my terribly modern mother: “Good God, Alan, sing him something from this century, can’t you?” But no, he really couldn’t. For it was late 1959 and we were lodgers at Grandma Cope’s house in Two Gates, worse still surrounded by ancient Cope elders, most of whom reckoned WW1 to have been merely the midpoint of their extremely long lives. Indeed, my Uncle Sam Knight, Grandma’s 82-year-old brother who still lived next door had fought in the Boer War of 1899-1902, and once – when I was old enough to talk – described to me his terror whilst viewing a Zeppelin raid over Birmingham in the winter of early 1916. Meanwhile, here in good ole ’59, my dad rocked me to sleep by candlelight upstairs at Grandma Cope’s by crooning the Boer War anthem ‘Goodbye Dolly Gray’, while downstairs my mother planned her appointment with the 20th century. By spring 1960, however, my parents and I had finally moved into a brand new house at 588 Main Road, Glascote Heath, four miles away, and all of Grandma Cope’s Victoriana was purged by my mother, swept away in a tidal wave of Now-ness! Unlike Grandma Cope’s, the house in Glascote Heath had an indoor toilet, a bathroom, electricity and plumbing upstairs, a car parking space and – supplied by a pushy ex-suitor of my mother’s – a heavy walnut radiogram with a single 8” speaker that played records at 33, 45 and 78rpm respectively. Cannily, the ex-suitor also provided my parents with their first LP – a 10” record called SONGS OF TOM LEHRER – to go with the radiogram and, thus, we were all introduced to the dulcet tones of this cheerful Harvard mathematician. I say ‘we’ because I was always included in social gatherings in Glascote Heath, wielded as a one-metre mascot and magical totem by my mother, who loved to show off my memory and voice by parading me in front of her friends singing note-perfect renditions of Tom Lehrer songs. That Lehrer’s lyrics were somewhat ‘off colour’ (to use the vernacular of the day) only added further grist to my mother’s Modernist mill, and she later claimed throughout my teenage and early adult years to anyone who would listen that I had known all of Lehrer’s best songs by heart by the time I was three-and-a-half years old. And, dammit, from the trouble Lehrer’s lyrics got me into throughout my childhood, I do believe she may have been right.

For Tom Lehrer was the ultimate Wolf-in-Sheep’s-Clothing, a bespectacled and Uber mild-mannered academic within whose tra-la-la catchy bastard songs were contained endless tales of incest (‘Oedipus Rex’), drug use (‘The Old Dope Peddler’, ‘Bright College Days’, ‘Be Prepared’), xenophobia (‘In Old Mexico’), violent institutionalized racism (‘I Wanna Go Back to Dixie’), violent homicide (‘The Irish Ballad’, ‘I Hold Your Hand in Mine, Dear’), violence to animals (‘In Old Mexico’ again, as well as ‘Poisoning Pigeons in the Park’), all these songs sitting quite happily alongside more acceptable targets of the day such as fear-of-Communist-spies and the atom bomb in ‘The Wild West is Where I Wanna Be’, and the end-of-the-world through the USA and USSR’s policy of Mutually Assured Destruction (‘We Will All Go Together When We Go’). Even a raunchy-sounding love song like ‘She’s My Girl’ in actuality celebrated the poor personal hygiene of the singer’s girlfriend. And thus, material that would have got a feistmeister such as Lenny Bruce sacked immediately was – in the hands of this congenial Harvard academic – easy enough to sneak past the unsuspecting authorities, as unnoticed as Sidney Vish warbling ‘You cunt, I’m not a queer’ at the beginning of ‘My Way’. I mean, no one but Tom Lehrer would – back in 1959 – have dared to introduce a song like so:

“This is a song about a young necrophiliac who achieves his childhood ambition by becoming coroner.”

WTF? WWF? Unbeknown to me until very recently, Lehrer’s debut LP had first been released as a private pressing way back in 1953, but his legend had slowly, very very slowly grown to such a size that Decca Records, in 1959, released British versions of his first two LPs. So, when my parents finally fled Grandma Cope’s for their own home, that raunchy gift from the ex-suitor was blasted as often and as loudly as they could, in celebration of finally having their own space. According to my mother, everybody who visited them was at first so embarrassed by Lehrer’s lyrics that they insisted on listening with the lights turned off like giggling schoolkids. That’s quite possible, I suppose, though my own later memories are of my father singing every song as though it were no more offensive than selections from Joan Littlewood’s 1963 WW1 spoof ‘Oh, What A Lovely War’. He was one of nature’s innocents, my father; bursting into Lehrer’s ‘The Masochism Tango’ at the drop of a hat and sod the consequences:

“I ache for the touch of your lips, dear,
But much more for the touch of your whips, dear,
You can raise welts like nobody else,
As we dance to the masochism tango.”

On car journeys, my father actually led the family in Lehrer sing-a-longs, goggling my mother in a constant series of glassy-eyed epiphanies, even harmonising (for fuck’s sake) on his favourite bit of ‘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.”

And as liberal Go Ahead postwar, post-British Empire free thinkers (and quite poor, to boot), both of my parents relished Tom Lehrer’s love of putting his great USA down, relished it as only pass-the-guilt children of the previous World Enslavement Regime could. So you can imagine with what gusto they uttered ‘I Wanna Go Back to Dixie’, Tommy’s impassioned paean to Confederate racism down in “The land of the bo-weevil where the laws are medieval”:

“I wanna talk with Southern gentlemen,
And put my white sheet on again,
I ain’t seen one good lynching in years.”

In these post-everything 21st century times, it’s utterly impossible to conjure up the kind of antipathy generally displayed to Tom Lehrer’s songs back in the day. But the establishment was right to have feared his influence on the next generations, for Tom Lehrer was most certainly for me the marijuana that led to heavier drugs like L. Bruce. But Lehrer ducked and dived, bluffing and swerving by interspersing his heavy comments with simplistic, sick songs like ‘Poisoning Pigeons in the Park’, work which was merely gauche, albeit highly enjoyable. Gradually, over time, my parents utterly forgot how shocking such words were to those hearing them for the first time, and they’d long forgotten that other people took offence to raunchy songs such as Lehrer’s ‘Oedipus’, and fretted over incest-alluding rhymes like:

“On one thing you can depend is,
He sure knew who a boy’s best friend is.”

“So be sweet and kind to mother,
Now and then have a chat,
Buy her candy and some flowers or a brand new hat,
But maybe you had better let it go at that.”

For my parents, Lehrer’s evil had all become subsumed into an all-purpose Popular Entertainment stew along with the aforemenched ‘Oh, oh, oh, what a lovely war’. And so, when Lehrer’s Australian tour was cancelled halfway through because of their media’s outraged responses to his lyrics, my parents blamed it all on the slightness of Australian culture. When my primary school music teacher hit me over the head for singing Lehrer’s version of ‘No Place Like Home’ (‘Be it ever so decadent, there’s no place like home’), my mother simply phoned the school and raged at them until they apologised unconvincingly. But even I eventually awoke from my parents-induced Tom Lehrer stupor one day aged eleven, whilst listening alone to the singer’s concert recording AN EVENING WASTED WITH TOM LEHRER. I’d heard the record umpteen times before, spent whole weekends with it throughout my childhood, loved it to death I did. But this time alarm bells screeched as one word of that aforementioned spoken introduction made sense at last; holy shit, let’s take another look at that:

“The next song is about a young necrophiliac who achieves his childhood ambition by becoming coroner.”

Now, I heard it! I knew at last what that sentence meant, but I could barely believe it could be true. So I summoned the mighty Oxford Dictionary and discovered to my horror that my parents – not me, note – yes, my own parents listened to songs about having sex with the dead! I was so disgusted in my pre-sexually aware state that I immediately sneaked all of my parents’ Tom Lehrer records out of the house and FUCKED THEM UP! I mean, I fucked them up royally.1 But I was distraught, brothers’n’sisters. No wonder I’d received a clout from the music teacher; my folks were mentally ill and they needed help. It was that ex-suitor of my mother; what an effing bee… Between 1969 and 1974, of course, there was a five-year period during which I discovered and played only the Rock2, almost all childhood fetishes were cast to one side. Indeed, next time I encountered Tom Lehrer was deep into my teenage years, when I earned Brownie points with my refusenik History teacher for singing ‘Poisoning Pigeons in the Park’ word perfectly. It was the sixth form and teenage girls were less hung up about stuff and my teacher’s endorsement of Lehrer suddenly made my friends pay attention to him. In truth, his words and his infuriatingly catchy melodies have never left me for very long. Even nowadays, if someone rips me off, I still leap around the room waving the offending object, quoting Lehrer’s song ‘Lobachevsky’:

‘Plagiarise, let no-one else’s work evade your eyes,
So plagiarise, plagiarise!’

So give this Album of the Month a chance; it’s old and archaic and a real curiosity, I knows it. But he’s one of the real Ancestors and deserves to be honoured within the portals of Head Heritage’s venerable temple. Ladies’n’gennlemen, brothers’n’sisters … hey Motherfuckers … I present you T O M   L E H R E R !!!!!

  1. I still have those trashed records, though only as totems as they’re unplayable now. Long after punk happened, I came to claim them, and bought my parents new copies.
  2. Speaking of the rock, Tom’s opening lyric of ‘She’s My Girl’ is worthy of RAW POWER-era Iggy Stooge (“Sharks gotta swim and bats gotta fly, I gotta love one woman till I die)”)

British Discography

SONGS OF TOM LEHRER (Recorded1954, Released Decca 1959)
‘Poisoning Pigeons in the Park’ b/w ‘The Masochism Tango’ (Decca 7” single 1961)