Recently, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a programme to celebrate the 85th birthday of the now slightly forgotten American writer and performer of comic and satirical songs, Tom Lehrer. I caught only the first part, but, happily, You Tube contains plenty of evidence of the wit and acerbity of Lehrer’s songs.
I was already familiar with “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”, but a new acquaintance was “The Vatican Rag”, perhaps a reminder of the John F.Kennedy era when Catholicism was in the forefront of cultural life (although I know that Lehrer originally planned it as the Presbyterian Rag).
“Who’s Next” reminds you of Lehrer’s influence on the great Randy Newman, specifically Newman’s “Political Science” which the latter regularly used to introduce as “a song about American foreign policy”, while “National Brotherhood Week” recalls Newman’s “Rednecks”.
Lehrer’s piano-driven style certainly sounds to have been an influence on our own Victoria Wood in both songwriting and performance, even though her persona is much more amiable.
In my youth, 10CC – Lol Creme, Kevin Godley, Graham Gouldman and Eric Stewart – were famous for the verbosity of their song lyrics. For example, “Oh Effendi” covers Middle Eastern oil politics, “The Dean and I” draws on US 1950s high school iconography, while “Life is a Minestrone” is simply a collection of puns from food and geography.
However, listening again, I am reminded that their songs’ impact comes as much from musical invention, pulling sounds from earlier pop eras into their lush state-of-the-1970s-art multi-tracked arrangements, juxtaposing falsetto vocals and sweet harmonies with chunky guitar riffs, often constructing mock-operatic epics. You can hear now the lyrics lack the polish and precision which Lehrer applied : Creme, Godley, Gouldman and Stewart seemed to be aware they were comfortably clearing a bar which few of their pop and rock contemporaries ever set very high.