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For all that I enjoyed the unremitting flow of vitriol that yesterday’s events produced, today I was in the mood for something…well, not quite so divisive.

When I say ‘events’, I do of course mean ‘event’. Never was the BBC’s BREAKING NEWS banner more inappropriate; by the time they had that scrolling across the bottom of the screen, the news had broken as irrevocably as a politician’s promise (that’s what passes for biting satire around here, by the way). I was hoping that the same wag who produced the masterstroke of “died after a strike” might have given us “yup, she’s still dead. Nothing to see here – move on.”

Anyway, luckily enough, what should happen along this morning but Tom Lehrer’s 85th birthday.

He’s been in my head recently anyway, what with my struggling to produce comic lyrics for a song – so far the best rhyme I’ve come up with is ‘Thatcher’ and ‘focaccia’, although I’m still not sure how I can shoehorn it in to a song that is almost completely unrelated to our late Leaderene (don’t panic, Stuart. I’ll have something for you soon).

When I struggle for creative ideas I go to the work of my heroes to see if I can rip them off they will inspire me, and it is in that category that Mr. Lehrer firmly sits. As well as superb comedy songs, he also produced one of my favourite pieces of political commentary: “Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.”

Although his songs are very funny, the humour masks what at times is a coruscating anger about the current affairs of the day – and like so much great humour, it’s durable, saying as much about the world today as it did then. He was never convinced, however, that this kind of political satire has any effect: “It’s not even preaching to the converted; it’s titillating the converted…I’m fond of quoting Peter Cook, who talked about the satirical Berlin kabaretts of the 1930s, which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the Second World War.”

Lehrer’s early retirement from performing stemmed largely from his boredom with the longueurs of touring and of repeating the same material. And even though we might miss his perceptive voice in these times of eminently mockable politicians, Lehrer himself isn’t so sure he would add much to the canon, saying in a 2003 interview: “I’m not tempted to write a song about George W. Bush. I couldn’t figure out what sort of song I would write. That’s the problem: I don’t want to satirise George Bush and his puppeteers, I want to vaporize them.”

If you’re not familiar with his oeuvre, there are a few samples below. If you already know him (as anyone who was brung up proper jolly well should – I was more shocked to discover today that there were people who haven’t heard of him than I was by those who hadn’t heard of Maggie) then I hope you’ll enjoy revisiting his work as much as I have. There is also a link to an excellent radio documentary about him that was broadcast on Saturday.

I could blather on all night, but I’ll leave the last word to him: “If, after hearing my songs, just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend, or perhaps to strike a loved one, it will all have been worth the while.”

Happy Birthday Tom.

You probably know this one:

You should know this one. I’ve been trying to memorise it for years.

Apparently his first idea for this one was the Presbyterian Rag. Glad he changed it.

“Aunt Hortense” / “social importance”. Genius.


“He loved his mother like no other; his daughter was his sister / and his son was his brother”

This one is probably the most sophisticated musical satire he wrote:

I will never hear the name Tom Lehrer again without thinking of cartoon unicorns:

This one is another example of the weird and wonderful things people do on the internet.

Click this sentence for the documentary I mentioned.
That’s probably enough. But finally, if you’re tempted to try and reproduce the master’s work, click here.

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  1. Ach – Tom Lehrer! Introduced to me by my parents in my formative years. Great stuff and thanks for iplayer link.

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