Witty, condescending, intellectual, elitist, satirical, educator, stuffy, wordsmith: Depending on whom you ask, all these apply to Tom Lehrer to greater and lesser degrees, but everyone has to admit the last title holds true. A couple hints come through on Shout! Factory’s compilation, The Tom Lehrer Collection, a two-disc affair with a CD and a DVD of video rarities. The first comes by way of Lehrer’s own confession to being enamored by the dexterity of the songs of Sylvia Fine, interpreted by verbal acrobat Danny Kaye. Lehrer cops to any and all similarities in his pieces “Lobachevsky” and the now classic tongue-twist-torture of “The Elements.”
The other tip-off is found on the DVD where, at a tribute to theater impresario Cameron Mackintosh, Lehrer is introduced to the stage by a man who attended summer camp with him in their youth. It wouldn’t mean much if that man wasn’t Stephen Sondheim, generally considered to be the greatest living American songwriter and contributor to the stage, but there it is (A side note – what kind of fresh hell would it have been to be camp counselor to Lehrer and Sondheim, both of whom, I suspect, were already verbally running rings around the paste-eaters?)
So the man has pedigree, but the majority of this material arrives prior to most of the 1960’s social upheavals. Are his songs still funny, you might ask. Fortunately, most of them are. Aside from the audacity of “The Elements” and it’s co-opting of a famous Gilbert and Sullivan composition, “Lobachevsky” is still a gem and owes most of the charm to Lehrer’s double-talk Russian delivery. The dirty secret behind “I Got It From Agnes” remains cloaked in a said-not said elegance, the classic tale of twisted extra-curricular activity “Poisoning Pigeons In The Park” actually has more bite now that the musical form it takes is antithetical to such nastiness, thereby heightening said nastiness and “Wernher von Braun,” still a smart send-up, also has fangs to bare. The crux of the track, that who cares if von Braun is a Nazi – he’s our Nazi now, may not impact younger listeners but certainly gets older ones thinking.
By the way, this isn’t for younger listeners anyway, not even Lehrer’s bits from the ’70s educational program, The Electric Company. There’s nothing here that will corrupt impressionable tykes, but even back when he recorded these pieces, Tom Lehrer wasn’t about to assume a modern trend to get his points across. You went to the material on his terms and if you came away unimpressed, oh well. I came across this stuff in the mid-’80s via the Dr. Demento Show and was struck by how Lehrer, while sounding utterly full of himself, often skewered pomposity as often as he exhibited it. It just took a more careful ear to make that distinction; something that, maybe, wasn’t going to come easy if these tracks were sandwiched between the song parodies and novelty tracks more often found on the radio show. I was always intrigued about how someone could make a song sound high-brow, theatrical and posh and at the same time be thoroughly subversive, sometimes downright sick in the head.
While never reaching the breadth of the Rhino Records collection released a few years ago, The Tom Lehrer Collection hits all the proper points, rings the nostalgia bell with confidence and gives you that DVD disc to boot. The clips from The Electric Company alone are enough to make a TV-raised human wistful (while PBS’ latest version of the show might just make you angry.) Can you resist the magical spell of “Silent E”? If not, this set is all you could need at a price point that won’t send you off to “The Masochism Tango.”
The Tom Lehrer Collection is available from Amazon.