Arts, Culture, Music, Television — May 7, 2012 7:53 am

Mad Men and the history of rock & roll.

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I watch Mad Men like the rest of America. Or I watch Mad Men with a percentage of people that still doesn’t come close to Two and Half Men. Either way, I watch it. I watch it for the same reasons that you probably do. I watch it because I think the suits and the men in them look dapper. I think the women look classic and beautiful. Watching for the detail that Matthew Weiner and the rest of the men and women on that show take care of. I love the seamless philosophical themes and motifs of humanity, death, personhood, character and integrity that take place inside of the show.

But, what I love most of all is the casual references to music. A few passing references to Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles take place almost because they have to. These references firmly ground the show in it’s historical time place. (The way they used Dusty Springfield in the season premiere was genius!) The show does this in other ways, they mention the death of JFK, mass-murders, but as a current culture we are not as familiar with minute historical details, I sure am not. Mad Men takes care to use these casual references to make sure the audience remembers that is 1968 and not 1969.

My favorite use of this device was in last Sunday’s episode when Sally is talking to her especially creepy friend, Glen. While Sally and Glen are talking about Sally’s Grandmother, he casually says, “Do you have the new Spoonful yet?” Glen is referring to The Lovin Spoonful. Sally responds with, “Not yet, they play it on the radio all the time.”

I love this. Why? Because I will never know what it is to hear The Lovin Spoonful for the first time with the weight of rock and roll behind it. What I mean is, what would it have been like to hear The Beatles with out knowing that Paul McCartney and John Lennon are considered to be the greatest songwriters of all time, that the Beatles changed the landscape of music. They broke up in 1970 after recording of Abbey Road, but we all know they were really broken up before that. What I mean is, what would it look like to hear something that had not been done before? Prior to a recording of an album you had gospel, jazz and blues and then you hear; Elvis Presley, Led Zepplin, Ray Charles, The Beach Boys, something that would later become defining moment?

Could you imagine hearing the opening to Led Zepplin’s Heartbreaker for the first time? Before hearing Bob Dylan maybe your parents were still not over the fact that he played an electric guitar. Now you had these long-haired dudes from Britain referencing The Lord Of The Rings (Which had only recently been published) and talking about Satanism.

What I’m saying is, when you hear Heartbreak Hotel for the first time did you know that it was the King of Rock or were you really that entranced by his hips?

I guess my real question is, “Did the listener know that what they were listening to was as important as people would later say it is?”

My immediate answer to that question is, “Well, I have seen plenty of commentators on T.V. and say that when they saw Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit video they know everything was different.” But did they really?

In last night’s episode of Mad Men, Don plays The Beatles Tomorrow Never Knows off of the album Revolver. I think this is another great example of of the writers of Mad Men carefully using music to signify a changing in the times. If you listen to Tomorrow Never Knows you realize that the song is trippy and kind of annoying. They are clearly influenced by the Eastern Religion that George was beginning to be involved in as well as the acid and marijuana. In the episode, Megan Don’s wife gives him the record so that he can stay in touch. For those of you who watch, this is a problem. For Don the advertising giant that he is, he doesn’t need to concern himself with what people are listening to, he tells them what they need to pay attention to. Revolver as an album is a great example of the turning of the cultural tide. Things were happening.

What last night’s episode helped me to understand is that what it is/was probably like to hear a hugely important album or piece of music for the first time was probably…confusion. People generally did not run outside and scream at the top of their lungs because they just heard the White Album for the first time. They probably had to listen to it a few times and let it “grow on them.” Weird right? I’m sure there were critics at the infant Rolling Stone magazine who heralded each and every album to the classic status they deserved, but the general public listened to them with the same face that my mom had the first time she listened to The Mars Volta.

However, this does not lessen my experience with these albums. I will no doubt continue to listen the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Led Zepplin, Al Green, The Temptations, all of it wondering what it would have been like to take those wax records out of their plastic for the first time, place it on the player and hear those chords for the first time. Having my worldview shifted just a bit because this was a wholly new experience.

So, the next logical question in my opinion is, “Does art reflect life? Or life reflect Art?” That is a question for another TPQ post, written by someone much more ambitious, but a worthy question indeed.

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