Friday, September 24, 2010

Top Five songs from Mad Men

The cast of Mad Men

You are more likely to have heard of Mad Men than watched it. The critically-lauded, multi award-winning show only gets about 250,000 viewers every week on BBC Four - but I can't recommend it highly enough.

Set in Manhattan's burgeoning advertising industry of the 1950s and 60s, the US drama series effortlessly invokes a bygone era of stiff drinks, elastic morals and freakishly pointy bras. The two main characters are Don and Betty Draper - a ridiculously handsome suburban couple with enough dark secrets to blot out the sun.

Thousands of column inches have been dedicated to the show's wit, panache and chic retro stylings - but precious little has been said about the programme's effortlessly evocative music.

Christina Hendricks as Mad Men's Joan HollowayThe show's music supervisor is Alex Patsavas, formerly of The OC and Gossip Girl, a woman seemingly blessed with the world's most impeccable taste in music. From Mad Men's opening credits (a spiralling string arrangement over clattering percussion) to the bespoke soundtrack that accomapnies each week's credit reel, every soundbite is chosen with scientific precision.

Although the programme is set during an era of huge social upheaval for America (the civil rights movement, Vietnam, the teenage revolution), the music generally looks back to the more strait-laced songs of Johnny Mathis and Ella Fitzgerald... although that's beginning to change as the series drags us further into the 60s.

Each season has a flawless compilation CD, which generally unearths a handful of previously-unreleased classics. They're well worth the investment if you're a keen musical archivist.

To get you started, I've put together an entirely subjective list of my five favourite musical moments from the first four series. I'd love to hear your suggestions in the comments box, too.

Baby you can drive my car

1) Ernie Ford - Sixteen Tons.

This plays over the closing credits in the season three episode "Seven Twenty Three", where Don Draper finally agrees to sign a "no exceptions" employment contract with ad agency Sterling Cooper. The lyrics are, appropriately enough, about a debt-bonded coal miner who begs St Peter not to call him to heaven because "I owe my soul to the company store". Originally recorded by Merle Travis in 1946, this cover was a US number one in 1955.

Ernie Ford - 16 Tons

2) Brenda Lee - Break It To Me Gently

January Jones as Mad Men's Betty DraperThere is uncomfortable, even visceral, tension in the air as the Drapers drive home in Don's brand new Coupe de Ville. Betty is confronting the possibility that Don has been unfaithful, after a well-lubricated cocktail party guest hints the ad-man bedded his wife. Repeatedly.

The stomach-churning betrayal, and a few too many glasses of champagne, combine to make the starch-stiffened housewife wretch into her lap. Cue the music: A wrenching, forlorn country ballad by a woman bracing herself for the "it's not you, it's me" speech.

Brenda Lee - Break It To Me Gently

3) Nashville Teens - Tobacco Road.

One of the rare Mad Men episodes that ends on a comedic up-beat is season four opener Public Relations. At the beginning of the show, Don gives a surly and taciturn interview to trade publication Advertising Age, resulting in a prickly profile that threatens the agency's reputation.

He stubbornly refuses to acknowledge his failure, but over the course of the next 45 minutes it dawns on him that he's a product worth selling, too. The uptempo music reflects his newfound confidence, while the Merseybeat groove of the Nashville Teens remind us that series four is taking place in 1964, right the middle of the British invasion spearheaded by The Beatles' infamous Ed Sullivan performance.

Nashville Teens - Tobacco Road

4) Rosemary Clonney - Botch-a-me

John Slattery as Mad Men's Roger SterlingAnother playful show closer, sung by the Queen of the Mambo herself, underscores a disastrous meeting between the advertising gurus and President Nixon's election campaign team. After the elevators fail, silver fox / functioning alcoholic Roger Sterling (pictured) has to run up 23 flights of stairs to make the appointment.

On arrival, he greets the presidential team and promptly vomits all over the floor. "He must have had a bad oyster," observes a Nixon man, before the advertising excutives regroup and Don sambas into the boardroom (well, he puts on an enigmatic smile, which is as close as Don Draper ever gets to a samba).

Rosemary Clooney - Botch-a-me

5) Patti Page - Old Cape Cod

Jon Hamm as Mad Men's Donald DraperDon's ex-wife-but-not-really, Anna Draper, takes him out to a bar with her niece Stephanie, who puts this song on a jukebox in an attempt to get the old fogies up for a dance. Anna declines, leaving Don to waltz with a radicalised, weed-smoking university student (presumably under a flashing neon sign reading: "look at how society changed in the 60s").

Stephanie admits choosing the song because it's dated. Don proves he's a fuddy-duddy by defending its wistfully romantic lyrics. There's a clever subtext for musically clued-in viewers, however, who know the song as the hook from Groove Armada's At The River. As the old advertising maxim goes, fashions never die, they just get repackaged.

Patti Page - Old Cape Cod

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