Critic's Notebook: Of 'Mad Men' and a long-lost Beatles cartoon
In what must be the most talked-about licensing of a song in television history, "Mad Men" ended its Sunday episode with "Tomorrow Never Knows," the last track on the 1966 Beatles album "Revolver." Acquired for a reported $250,000, this track -- which Depression-child Don Draper, listening at home on the suggestion of his young wife, takes off halfway through -- capped an hour that played, like the song, with themes of death and transfiguration, being and nothingness. (The episode took its title, "Lady Lazarus," from a Sylvia Plath poem about suicide.)
A quarter of a million dollars is a lot of money to pay for a song, you might reasonably think -- the hour also had the ad men discussing cheaper alternatives to licensing a track from the Beatles -- but one can see why creator Matt Weiner, who also wrote the episode, found it necessary: Even as psychedelia, "Tomorrow Never Knows" resists nostalgia; no other track on "Revolver," or any contemporaneous recording, would have said so well that the world had changed or betokened the historical moment's combination of existential ecstasy and dread. With its insistent, jagged drum pattern, its dropped-in tape loops, pedaling bass and oceanic C major drone, it is a blast from the future; formally, it has more to do with millennial electronica than with the pop music of its time, or, indeed, anything else the Beatles would record.
This was not, however, the first time, the song was used in a TV show. Back when the Fab Four were not even halfway through their recording career, they licensed their images and catalog to an American cartoon series, "The Beatles." (The mind reels, a little.) It had already been airing for a year, Saturday mornings on ABC, when "Revolver" was released. With speaking voices performed by Paul Frees (the voice of Boris Badenov, Ludwig von Drake and Disney's Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean rides) and British actor Lance Percival, the animated moptops enjoy brief Hope & Crosby/Bowery Boys-type adventures, each thematically linked (by a hair) to a Beatles song, make fun of Ringo's nose and are chased by girls.
In "Tomorrow Never Knows," one of the last episodes to be produced, the lads are taking a shortcut to some unnamed destination when they chance upon a Stonehenge-like monument and follow clumsy Ringo down a well to the center of the Earth -- "the inner world," says George, the Spiritual Beatle -- where they encounter an ancient civilization, strange beasties and girls.
"It's talking foreign," John says of one.
"And it's scared," says Paul.
"Only one thing to do," says George.
And so they fill the Saturday morning air with an avant-garde song of ego death -- adapted from a psychedelic guide to "The Tibetan Book of the Dead," co-authored by Timothy Leary -- about surrendering to the void and playing the game Existence to the end of the beginning, and make bats fly and dragons dance and get the natives restless, in a mod-a-go-go way. Good fun for the small fry, eating cold cereal in their pajamas. (Insert Groucho joke here.)
Yet stranger still, perhaps, is the segment that follows in the clip above, a bouncing-ball style singalong to "She Said She Said," another acid-related song from "Revolver." That is a song that begins like this: "She said/I know what it's like to be dead."
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Photo: Jon Hamm as Don Draper, listening to the Beatles. Credit: AMC