Tom Lehrer: '60s Satirist Still Strikes A Chord Lehrer, whose topical songs include "Pollution" and "The Vatican Rag," is the subject of a new multimedia release called The Tom Lehrer Collection. David Bianculli reviews the two-disc set, which includes Lehrer's greatest hits and never-before-seen concert footage.
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Tom Lehrer: '60s Satirist Still Strikes A Chord

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Tom Lehrer: '60s Satirist Still Strikes A Chord

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Music Reviews

Tom Lehrer: '60s Satirist Still Strikes A Chord

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DAVE DAVIES, host:

Musical political satirist Tom Lehrer, whose topical songs in the 1960s included "Pollution" and "The Vatican Rag" is the subject of a new multimedia release from Shout Factory. It's a two-disc set. One's an audio CD including greatest hits and a few rare treats. The other is a DVD made up of very rare footage never before seen of Lehrer in concert.

TV critic David Bianculli, a lifetime Lehrer fan, has this review.

(Soundbite of song, "We Will All Go Together When We Go")

Mr. TOM LEHRER (Musician, Political Satirist): (Singing) Oh we will all burn together when we burn. There'll be no need to stand and wait your turn. When it's time for the fallout and Saint Peter calls us all out, we'll just drop our agendas and adjourn. You will all go directly to your respective Valhallas. Go directly, do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dolla's.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVID BIANCULLI: Even at the height of his fame in the mid-1960s, Tom Lehrer was a fairly elusive guy. He wrote songs for the American version of That Was the Week That Was, a sharp, topical TV variety show, but he didn't sing them himself, or appear on camera. He had hit albums - live recordings of his comedy songs - but didn't do the variety-show circuit on TV, or have any of his own primetime specials. And then, after a few brilliant years churning out songs about World War III, New Math and National Brotherhood Week, he seemed to vanish.

What he really did was return to academia, where he continued to teach mathematics and political science at such institutions as Harvard, MIT and the University of California until his retirement in 2001. And except for dabbling in writing a few songs over the decades, for the PBS Electric Company series and elsewhere, that's about it for Tom Lehrer as a shy but shining pop-culture figure.

Until, that is, this new release from Shout Factory, called The Tom Lehrer Collection, which adds both audio and video to the canon.

Before we get to the new stuff, it's worth pointing out just how fresh the old stuff still seems. Accompanying himself on piano, Lehrer tackles subjects that at the time were hot off the presses. And he does it with rhymes that are so twisted and clever, they bring to mind Stephen Sondheim. If you think that's a stretch, think again. One of the video treats in this collection, from 1998, captures Tom Lehrer's first public performance in 25 years, and it's a performance introduced by Stephen Sondheim. Turns out the two of them not only respect each other's rhyming schemes but went to summer camp together as kids.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of these old concert recordings is listening to how the audience often explodes with joy - sometimes in reaction to a rhyme, sometimes to the music, and sometimes because of the sheer audacity of the subject matter. Lehrer hit all three out of the park with 1965's "The Vatican Rag." It's his irreverent example of how the Catholic Church could spread its message in a more secular age by adopting more popular musical forms.

(Soundbite of song, "The Vatican Rag)

Mr. LEHRER: (Singing) First you get down on your knees, fiddle with your rosaries. Bow your head with great respect, and genuflect, genuflect, genuflect.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEHRER: (Singing) Do whatever steps you want, if you have cleared them with the pontiff. Everybody say his own Kyrie eleison. Doin' the Vatican Rag.

BIANCULLI: The biggest video treasure in The Tom Lehrer Collection, after showing up unauthorized in pieces on YouTube, is a complete Tom Lehrer concert from 1967, when he performed his act on Norwegian TV. The tiny audience here is so quiet, it's almost like a studio recording. But Lehrer is in great form. And on one song, about an infamous German rocket scientist who defected to the U.S., Lehrer even got the Oslo crowd to laugh a little.

(Soundbite of song, "Wernher von Braun")

Mr. LEHRER: (Singing) Gather round while I sing you of Wernher von Braun. A man whose allegiance is ruled by expedience. Call him a Nazi, he won't even frown. Nazi Schmazi, says Wernher von Braun. Don't say that he's hypocritical. Say rather that he's apolitical. Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEHRER: (Singing) That's not my department, says Wernher von Braun. Some have harsh words for this man of renown, but some think our attitude should be one of gratitude. Like the widows and cripples in old London town who owe their large pensions to Wernher von Braun. You too may be a big hero, once you've learned to count backwards to zero. In German oder English I know how to count down, und I'm learning Chinese, says Wernher von Braun.

(Soundbite of applause)

BIANCULLI: In the liner notes, Lehrer explains why an American TV special wasn't used for this new DVD release. The answer is simply, he says, that I was never invited to do one. So Tom Lehrer fans - and I'm certainly one of them -should be grateful for any chance to see him in action. For us, it's almost as much fun as poisoning pigeons in the park.

(Soundbite of song, Poisoning Pigeons in the Park)

Mr. LEHRER: (Singing) All the world seems in tune on a spring afternoon when we're poisoning pigeons in the park. Every Sunday you'll see my sweetheart and me as we poison the pigeons in the park. When they see us coming, the birdies all try and hide. But they still go for peanuts when coated with cyanide. The sun's shining bright, everything seems all right when we're poisoning pigeons in the park.

DAVIES: David Bianculli writes for tvworthwatching.com and teaches TV and film at Rowan University. He reviewed The Tom Lehrer Collection from Shout Factory.

You can watch Tom Lehrer perform on our website, freshair.npr.org.

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