Category Archives: Mad Men
Well, the most memorable song from tonight’s series finale episode of Mad Men was the famous “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” from the associated Coca-Cola television ad. Are we meant to believe that Don’s time meditating in California inspired him to create that iconic commercial? Or is it just a timely expression of the inner peace he is finding for himself after running around trying to give it to everyone else? It was a great ad, but are Matthew Weiner and company holding it up a little too high? It was a surreal ending to a great television series that certainly had its fair share of the fantastic and imagined for a show mostly rooted in detailed realism.
Instead of chasing my tail over that one, I decided to share another iconic soft rock concoction of the ’70s, The Carpenters’ lovely dollop of ear candy “Close to You.” Richard and Karen Carpenter were not the first act to record what would become one of their biggest hits. The Burt Bacharach/Hal David composition was initially put on vinyl by longtime television actor Richard Chamberlain in 1963. Bacharach’s favorite songbird Dionne Warwick also included the song on her 1964 album “Make Way for Dionne Warwick” and Bacharach even recorded it himself. When it was suggested to the brother and sister team, Richard was not a big fan, but it wound up being the duo’s first of twelve top 10 hits in the space of five years. I figured this would be an appropriate song to feature based on the patently romantic and sudden union of longtime co-workers Stan and Peggy. Fans have been ‘shipping these two for a few years now, and for once Weiner unapologetically gave the people what they want, handing us a scene that seems like it’s out of a Meg Ryan movie. I don’t necessarily think of that as a bad thing. Firstly, the scene worked. I was actively cheering this turn of events. And secondly, well, Mad Men has earned the right to just a little bit of schmaltz. Peggy sure deserves a happy ending.
Now somebody get those crazy kids an ice cold Coca-Cola…
Matthew Weiner’s musical choices this final half season of Mad Men appear to admit that his characters are out of place in the 1970s. How else do you explain the fact that so many of the featured tunes were not actually released in that decade? Even the seeming leap into the beautiful mysterious future represented at last week’s close by David Bowie’s epic ballad “Space Oddity” is undercut a little when you know that the song was released in July of ’69. This week’s episode opens with Merle Haggard’s playful take on the culture wars of the time “Okie From Muskogee,” which certainly was appropriate considering the location of Don’s part of the story this week, but like many others featured on Mad Men this season, it was released in 1969. That’s nothing compared to the episode’s closing song, the gentle Buddy Holly oldie “Everyday,” which predates even the beginning of the series, perhaps symbolizing a life re-set to Don. All of this is perfectly good for the purposes of Weiner and company, but contrasts with the fact that two of their primary actors grew very ’70s mustaches in the few months that separated the first and second halves of the show’s last season.
This penultimate episode took place in October of 1970, so I went to my trusty book of Billboard top40 hits and found that Neil Diamond’s bright western-tinged boogie “Cracklin’ Rosie” was big that month, hitting #1 the week of the 10th. Now there’s a song of the ’70s! A cursory listen to the lyrics has made many think it is about a man’s affection for a prostitute, calling her “a store-bought woman,” but the truth is just a little less seedy. As it turns out, “Cracklin’ Rosie” is Diamond’s second most famous song about wine, with the idea for the song coming to him in a story about a Canadian tribe with more men than women, resulting in the leftover men singing to their wine. Another line from the song, “hitchin’ on a midnight train,” sure might appeal to Don in his current situation as he plays out his own version of On The Road. After all, when he was a boy on a farm hoboes did visit his family, modeling the possibility of an unencumbered life to him (and leaving behind a sign to others that his Father was not to be trusted). His own dream about finally being caught in his big lie by the police, and the demonstration that the supposed freedom of his car could turn into dependence leads Don to ditch the Caddy and grab a seat waiting for a bus. This is a character who hasn’t really had a home for most of his life. Is his self-imposed hobo lifestyle the romantic notion he maybe takes it for or will it mark one too many attempts to run from himself?
Brian Hyland’s “Sealed with a Kiss” was a telling choice for inclusion in tonight’s episode of Mad Men. The top 10 hit from 1962 does a great job of marking Don as the throwback he is, riding along with his square haircut in his shiny Cadillac. Despite its forward-sounding drum part, “Sealed with a Kiss” sounds very much like the early 60s ballad it is. After an initial recording by The Four Voices released in 1960, Hyland covered the song, making it the second of his three top 10 hits, his first being the ridiculous novelty tune “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.” Like most people his age, Don is most comfortable with music from his own personal peak and I guess 1962 is as decent a year as any to identify that way. Interestingly, “Sealed with a Kiss” had already hit the top40 a second time in 1968 as recorded by Gary Lewis and the Playboys and would do so again two years after this scene in a comeback by Bobby Vinton. In fact, I first was under the impression that it was Vinton’s version that was playing. But that would have meant that Matthew Weiner and company had made a mistake, unless Don was picking up a radio station from two years in the future or had been driving for longer than they were letting on. After all, this is the same scene in which Don was having a conversation with the late Bert Cooper.
Don really seems to want nothing to do with the way the folks at McCann-Erickson to business. All of the wooing and flattery that went into getting him there in the first place went out the door when a line delivered to him earlier in the episode is revealed as nothing more than that: a line the folks at the big firm that swallowed SC&P are using to motivate everyone. Don is nothing special in the new state of things, and if they don’t really need him, well, there is someplace he’d rather be. Could it be that Don Draper is just a foolish romantic? “Sealed with a Kiss” sure fits that profile.
Okay, so Matt Weiner and company topped off tonight’s episode with some Dean Martin song, but I’m going with something much more quintessentially 1970s. After all, our celebration of the decade is winding to a close (but I’ll continue these posts until Mad Men delivers it swan song), and Dino’s last top40 hit was way back in 1967. In contrast, Michael Jackson and company were just hitting their stride in 1970. “ABC” was just the second of what would be 20 hit singles for the brothers act over the course of the decade, a run of success that included three other #1 hits and six more that were top 10. And I’m not even mentioning the five top 10 hits Michael had on his own before the 80s landed. Despite all of that success, you’ll find an awful lot of people naming “ABC” as their favorite of his whole career (I’d go with “I Want You Back,” which sat at #1 on New Year’s Eve). These early recordings feature the infectiously powerful and joyful sound that made the Jacksons appealing as the stars of their very own Saturday morning cartoon show on ABC, debuting in September of 1971.
The show consistently featured the boys following through on marketing ploys dreamed up by a cartoon version of the real life Motown legend Berry Gordy. None of the Jacksons provided their own speaking voice, and neither did Gordy, who was voiced by the great Paul Frees, known as the Ghost Host from Disney’s Haunted Mansion and as Boris Badenov from the Bullwinkle cartoons. The animated version of the Jacksons lasted until 1976, when a live action show moved them to Wednesday evenings.
This week, Mad Men wrapped up its newest episode by blessing us with Roberta Flack’s recording of the Ewan MacColl song “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” a tune with a twistier path to #1 than most. MacColl wrote it way back in 1957, putting its origin prior to even the first season of Mad Men. He gave it to Peggy Seeger to sing, who he was having an affair with at the time, and the couple would eventually marry. It was recorded several times throughout the 1960s, including this version on Roberta Flack’s debut album “First Take,” which was performed slower than previous attempts. Although “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” was first released on her 1969 album (making it technically appropriate for Mad Men’s 1970 setting), it did not get released as a single until 1972 after it was featured in Clint Eastwood’s own debut as a director, Play Misty For Me. With the exposure from the film, Flack’s version became a smash hit, grabbing the #1 spot on the Billboard top40 in April of 1972 and staying there for six weeks.
The song resonates with the themes of this week’s episode, touching on the long-term and short-term first encounters between characters and the power of physical beauty. Glen is back tonight, and it turns out that the little boy who asked Betty Draper for a lock of her hair way back when is still looking to trade up to his first love. The creepy little kid who Betty banned from the Draper household and fired a well-loved caretaker over is now a handsome 18-year-old man ready to do his duty in Vietnam. Betty is now flattered by the adulation she remembers and can hardly pull herself away from him. Later when he makes an actual pass at her she “does the right thing,” but she isn’t kidding anyone. She did subtly encourage his advances and was delighted to find that a decade later her own looks still held a little cache. Don has a similar experience, failing to discourage another friend of Sally’s over a lunch before a class trip. He sees his willingness to play along as chivalrous in that he didn’t embarrass the girl, but Sally identifies it clearly for what it is: a largess that Don and Betty are given because of their physical beauty, one which neither of them is handling as well as they should. The look on his face after a similar accusation from an ousted underling at the office lets us know that Don himself suspects the very same thing. Maybe he’s not really that special after all. Maybe he’s the football player in a suit that Jim Cutler identified him as just last year.
With no standout song on tonight’s episode of Mad Men, I have decided to cover the song that sat at #1 on the Billboard singles chart on this date in 1970, the year that the award-winning drama finds itself in. These are the final episodes of Mad Men, and “Let it Be” was the last single released by the Beatles before Paul McCartney announced that he was leaving the group. It debuted at #6, which was a record at the time and held down the #1 spot for two weeks in mid April. McCartney’s first solo album was released during that 2 week span, but failed to compete significantly with the continued Beatles releases. John Lennon denied any hand in creating the song and suggested that McCartney’s motivation for writing it was that “he wanted to write a ‘Bridge over Troubled Waters'”, but that seems unlikely and sounds like sour grapes when you consider that “Let it Be” was recorded a full year before “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” was released and the fact that McCartney’s songs were the ones from the “Let it Be” album which were being selected as singles. The song would go on to garner the Beatles both a Grammy and an Oscar.
Peggy Lee was already a legendary singer with a long and memorable career that had spanned close to thirty years when this unique recording gave her the final top40 hit in her discography. Classic standards like “Blues in the Night,” “We’ll Meet Again,” “Why Don’t You do Right?” “Bali Ha’i,” and “Fever” were among her 35 different singles to chart at the time. Her record label resisted releasing the song as a single at first, but Lee persisted, knowing that it was the right recording for her at the time. She turned out to be right, and “Is That All There Is?” climbed all the way to #11 on the Billboard singles chart, then won her the Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal.
The first episode of Mad Men’s final half season used the 1969 hit (it peaked in October, so I guess it was still getting airplay in 1970) to bookend the action, setting us up for what appears will be a reckoning for Don Draper and the rest of the cast. We can only trust that when the final episode concludes less than two months from now, we are not left with this refrain in our minds.