Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma

TV commercial makers know a good song when they hear one. It has come to Mister Boomer’s attention that recently there has been a virtual plethora of TV commercials that use songs from the boomer era. One of the latest to cross Mister B’s path is the song Brand New Key. Sung by Melanie in 1972, it now backs a Hewlett Packard commercial.

Melanie was one of those artists who had been around forever, playing with some of the greats of the time. In fact, she happened to be on the bill at Woodstock, yet comparably few people knew much about her until her first U.S. hit, Candles in the Rain, in 1971. A year later, Brand New Key was released. Some radio stations refused to play it because they perceived the lyrics to be a double entendre for sexual innuendo. It became a hit anyway, possibly — who knows? — because of it. (For Mister B, the song was pretty high on his dislike list, preferring her ironic Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma. Besides, he is still trying to figure out the lyrics to Louie Louie.)

Many of us gave a mighty boomer “right on” to artists like Bruce Springsteen for refusing to have his songs used in commercials. The whole 60s anti-establishment thing seemed the direct opposite of this type of commercialization. The words that often came to mind by boomers when referring to artists who allowed their songs to be licensed were, “sell out” and “sacrilegious.”

Now that decades have passed, it’s no longer a handful of songs that are being pressed into the service of commerce. Songs by Bobby Darin, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop (did Carnaval actually listen to the lyrics to that song?), The Shirelles, The Yardbirds, Johnny Nash, The Kinks, Herman’s Hermits, The Ronettes, The Turtles, The Fifth Dimension, The Isley Brothers, The Partridge Family, The Association, The Spencer Davis Group (that one really hurt Mister B!), Barry White, Led Zeppelin, Donovan, Al Green and The Beatles, to name a few, have made their way onto our TV screens to sell everything from cars to cruises, mops to allergy medicines, and everything in between.


Double whammy: The Easy Rider himself and Gimme Some Lovin. Oh, the horror!

In case you haven’t played your scratchy Spencer Davis Group 45 in a while, here’s a version in a rare, priceless video:

In some marketing-universe way, it probably makes sense. After all, the boomer generation is the largest demographic the marketing world has ever seen. Still, many of these commercials aren’t aimed at boomers. It appears they are aiming at the two generations after the boomers — today’s homemakers and parents. What can we make of that?

In days of yore, people would play the Victrola in their homes, when they could afford the contraptions, at designated times and special occasions. For our parents’ generation, they most often heard new songs on the radio and in clubs. Boomers kept the radio tradition, but with the advent of rock ‘n roll, bought records to play at home in astonishing numbers. Once boomers started families of their own, their music went along with them. Many a child now in their twenties or thirties grew up listening to the great music that we boomers put forth, and thus will recognize the tunes on TV.

Mister Boomer has a friend whose son discovered Jethro Tull and King Crimson in his teenage years. Another swears her daughter’s favorite bands are The Beatles and The Mamas and the Papas. Many a child of boomer parents loads sixties music onto their phones and iPods, not because they have to, but rather because they like them.

So what are we to make of boomer music used in TV commercials? In an era when a new song used in a commercial can often mark it as an upcoming hit, the use of oldies — OUR oldies — obviously isn’t going away any time soon. Maybe we should look on the bright side. With the songs only a quick download away, the music of our era is alive and kicking, and some of those musicians even get to benefit from the uptick in interest.

Mister B will try and lighten up, too. He is now reminded that he has to go online to buy a few songs that didn’t make it to his vinyl record collection.

What do you think of boomer songs used in TV commercials?

Musical Youth

Grade school music classes certainly varied from place to place for boomers. While some received a healthy dose of musical meanderings, sprinkled with a soup├žon of history, others had what amounted to a Mitch Miller songbook that could potentially set back music appreciation a generation. Mister Boomer’s musical education fell into the latter category.

Parochial schools were supposedly known for better math and science classes than their public counterparts. Mister B can testify to the math category, but not so much on the science side. When it came to music classes, though, it was a whole other story. Mister B can’t vouch for public school music classes, but they did seem to have some choices. For years, we’d have a music class once a week that consisted entirely of opening a book and singing a few songs. There was no band practice. There was no record player introducing us to the great music of the world. Perhaps that’s why Time Life felt they had a void to fill? For us, a book and a nun equaled music appreciation.

By fourth grade the students had pretty much had enough. Every week, Sister Ukulele — or Eugenics, it’s hard to remember since all the nuns had strange names — would lead our “music” lesson. “They don’t make nun names like that no more,” as Thom Sharp observed a decade later. Sister Uke would deposit the music books on the front desk of each row at the appointed time, triggering a domino effect as students took one and passed the rest down the row. Before we opened the books, she’d request that the class do a “warm-up.” It was always the same: Rounds, row by row, of Row, Row, Row Your Boat. Oh, the irony. She wouldn’t be satisfied until, like the plate juggler on The Ed Sullivan Show, she’d have all six rows in action, creating a cacophony of row-row-your-boatness.

Then came the main course. “Turn to page 43,” she’d say. We all knew what page that was. The Kookaburra song. Again. Still stuck in some gum tree and laughing at us, no less. The class response was less than enthusiastic as she took her position, front and center, her book cradled in one hand, the other conducting with as vigorous an arm swing as her habit would allow.

Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree
Merry, merry king of the bush is he
Laugh, kookaburra, laugh, kookaburra
Gay your life must be*

We weren’t laughing. We were barely mumbling. “Come on, now,” she would urge. No dice. We’d had enough of some Australian bird song. Sister Uke would have to be satisfied with a half-hearted attempt from her classroom of tweens.

One fine day as the dreaded music hour arrived, the good Sister had a surprise for us. Instead of passing out the books, she dropped a stack of mimeographed sheets at the front of each row. Receiving the paper, we could see she’d taken to heart the teachings of Vatican II: She was attempting to make her music class more relevant for contemporary times. On that mimeo-smelling sheet, in faded purple ink, were the typewritten lyrics to Jan & Dean’s, Little Old Lady from Pasadena. It’s hard to say whether the class was in complete shock, or we were collectively rolling our eyes. Not a sound was uttered.

“You ALL know this one, don’t you?” queried Sister Uke. No response. “OK, it goes like this…” at which point she sang the first stanza in her mezzo-soprano nun voice. She was greeted with open-jawed silence. Mister B couldn’t help but think the whole scene was, man, so not cool, to hear this old woman singing about a shiny red superstock Dodge. Yet she persisted. “OK, the boys will sing the verses and the girls will sing the ‘Go, Granny‘ lines,” she commanded. Putting her conducting arm in motion, she tried to kick it off, but no one was joining in. Before she could reach the first “Go, Granny,” we had taken that 4:4 beat, dug in our heels and choked it to a halt. Frustrated but not deterred, she drove on, conducting like Toscanini yielding a whip while herding cattle, now moving up and down the aisles to see who was really singing and who was just mouthing the words.

She tried one more class to inject some enthusiasm into us before scrapping the Great Jan and Dean Experiment. Somehow, she did get the message. The following week, we didn’t have to sing Little Old Lady from Pasadena, or Kookaburra. “Turn to page 47,” she said. Just like that we had a new song. Waltzing Matilda.

Today’s “Glee”-ful followers probably can’t relate to that experience as their classes are so involved with whatever the current phrase is for gettin’ jiggy with it. Football players and cheerleaders singing in a chorus? Only if there was a scowling nun hovering over them, if you ask Mister B.

What music class memory helped shape your boomer experience?

*Kookaburra copyright by Larrikin Music; reproduced solely for the purpose of historical content and comment.