Tuesday, April 09, 2013


Everyone seems thrilled that there's a new season of "Mad Men," a trendy "retro" show about the advertising world several generations ago. Oooh, what will happen to Don Draper this season! Who doesn't give a damn about Jon Hamm? Maybe a few of you who stop here now and then to check out obscure artists like..."The Flagpole Singers," who put out a concept album about the ad world, nearly 50 years ago!

Yeah, there's always been a fascination with the big bucks, highly creative, ultra-cynical world of advertising, probably since the late 50's when TV ad revenue paved Madison Avenue gold. The TV ad boom was unprecedented, and ad agencies were where bright college grads wanted to be. Even now, most having a choice of writing for TV or writing TV ads, will choose the latter. Ad agencies changed the way people thought and how they bought and what they bought. And they still do, as so many people buy insurance or invest in a product just because of an animated gekko or a quacking duck. They sure buy terrible brands of beer only because of ad campaign propaganda.

The black vinyl mirror exposed all this. In the late 50's band leader Lester Lanin put out an entire album of "dance" versions of TV and radio jingles (radio holding on via teen-pop music on the transistor radio). Louis Nye offered a spoken word album about the advertising game. Julius Monk's reviews consistently lampooned Madison Avenue (including a memorable sketch on hawking cigarettes, written by a pre-Jose Jimenez Bill Dana). There was Stan Freberg of course, while Homer & Jethro and Spike Jones both came up with lampoons based on the toothpaste catch-phrase "Look Ma, No Cavities." And…coming in a bit too late (although TV's Darren Stephens of "Bewitched" was an ad man and many shows based on his attempts to come up with new campaigns for his creepy clients), The Flagpole Singers offered a concept album about Mad Men and their products, recorded in February of 1964.

The idea was to skewer Madison Avenue via folk songs (since Allan Sherman's "My Son the Folk Singer" had done so well). Mad magazine-type comedy writers Norman Blagman and Sam Bobrick auditioned to find three singers (which did include folkie veteran Martin Ambrose), and knocked out songs about the grey-flannel suit guys with their button-down shirts. Nevermind that Bob Peck (a Tom Lehrer-wanna be) had already put out a comedy album with "Grey Flannel" in the title, and Newhart had a lock on being the "button-down mind."

The Flagpole SIngers sang about Mad Men taking tranquilizers, and how easy it is to make people pay attention to a bra ad…and really, if you like those two songs, go help out some struggling record seller and add the entire album to your collection. I just didn't want to be an even worse drone than an ad agency employee and have to digitize the rest and tweak the sound and upload it all (especially since I don' have Bromo Seltzer, Brioschi, or Bufferin around here…just to name three products drilled into my head by commercials to the point where I'd never buy them, just for spite.) You see some vintage bra and tranquilizer ads on this page…and seductive and eye-catching they are, insidiously enough. Much more than the songs about bra selling and taking tranquilizers you'll find below.

The cover of the album seems to reference both print and TV advertising…an ad campaign that always featured people carrying around their "nest egg" for savings, a model who wore an eye patch and hawked a band of shirt, and the guy in the business suit who seemed to fly, attache case and all, down into his favorite rental car as soon as he arrived at the airport.

Oh, those were the days…when Madison Avenue realized its power, gave six-figure salaries to its top brain-benders, and could have an entire nation happily singing along to "Eat too much, drink too much, take…" or "When the prices go up, up, up…" It was also a time when record companies didn't flinch about tossing novelty albums into the stores, even by unknowns. After all, eager buyers could browse the racks…and were desperate for audio entertainment because their favorite TV shows were…full of commercials. For the Flagpole Singers, local New York radio personailty Gene Klavan (without his partner Finch) offered album notes which included….

"It is obvious that these guys are trying to destroy the advertising industry. Here are twelve delightfully conceived, remarkably arranged, beautifully executed kicks…."

Two Songs Together in One Mp3 File: Best Brassiere Ads and Tranquilizers


RM Ambrose said...

Just ran across your post and wanted to thank you for mentioning Martin Ambrose, my dad. Before he died in '99 he had some of his recordings digitally remastered, including some from the Flagpole Singers. I've posted them on the web here: Father Grumble.

"30 Second Message" is one of my favorites. He had a lot of fun making this album, and telling us kids about it years later.

RM Ambrose said...

BTW- Dad's singing bass in "Tranquilizers". :)