I’ve just returned from a visit to my Brother in Law in Yorkshire, during which he lent me a couple of books – Words and Music to songs by two sets of people I’d almost forgotten about. One set, Flanders and Swann, was quintessentially 1960s English. Not British, English. And the other was Tom Lehrer, as 1960s American as you could get.
The thing which connected them together was they both wrote very witty and very clever songs which caught the feeling of their times to perfection. Flanders and Swann wrote songs about Britains’s Rail Cuts when a third of its network was summarily closed, songs about being English, and very much NOT being foreign. I’m not a particular expert on these things but they also wrote only song I know about the First and Second Law of Thermodynamics it ends with the definitely non dumbed-down throwaway closing line – “That’s Entropy, Man!”
Tom Lehrer was a Maths Lecturer who had a wicked sense of humour, and a lovely way with words, particularly in the way he got the most bizarre and delicious rhymes into his lyrics. In a similar vein to Flanders and Swann, he wrote a song which simply contained the names of all the (then known) chemical elements, arranged in typical Lehrer style into perfectly, not almost perfectly, scanning and rhyming couplets. More of his verse -
But, along the same clever lines, try this from Flanders and Swann – The Hippopotamus Song
They dived all at once,
With an ear-splitting splosh
Then rose to the surface again
A regular army
All singing this haunting refrain:
You can buy CDs and downloads of the brilliant songs they all wrote, and if they don’t get you laughing out loud, as well as thinking about the messages which sit behind the lyrics, there’s something wrong with you.
But then, having delved into these two books, another name came into mind – Jake Thackray. Here’s a rather lugubrious Yorkshireman who came up with a raft of songs which he either wrote or translated. He died in 2000, but his work is available in several recordings. Try his song about an amorous gorilla. It’s actually an extremely clever translation from a French original.
JAKE THACKRAY - BROTHER GORILLA. EXCELLENT
And if you liked that, you’ll like this. Jasper Carrott, a Birmingham comedian, singing about a Bantam Cock. The song was written by Jake Thackray. Just look at his eyes during the song – priceless.
JASPER CARROTT - BANTAM COCK
With the way things are at the moment, you could be forgiven for thinking that this sort of poetry/songwriting is a dead or dying art. But no, noodling around on the Internet a couple of nights ago, I came across an Australian guy, Tim Minchin, who has seemingly taken up the mantle, and is currently filling concert halls with his humour. Try this one for size– the line about the Bell Curve is exquisite.
TIM MINCHIN - IF I DIDN'T HAVE YOU
All this probably says as much about the unfortunate state of my sense of humour, as anything else. But if you like them, have a cyber-browse. You’ll end up spending a great couple of hours.