Made in NYC: Frank Zappa, Madison Avenue Ad Man

AMC’s Mad Men is one of TV’s most critically acclaimed series. It’s a stylish recreation of the martini stoked Madison Avenue advertising world of the 1960s, arguably its most creative era. However, there’s one bizarre chapter I would’ve loved to see this show cover that occurred in 1967.  That was when some bold ad agency creatives recruited Frank Zappa to use his unique sonic talents to sell cough drops and electric razors.

Frank Zappa Adman

This little known chapter of Zappa’s creative life transpired while he was residing in New York to play an extended run at the Garrick Theater with his Mothers of Invention. 

Zappa’s most notable venture in advertising came with an animated commercial for Luden’s Cough Drops, one that actually captured a CLIO, the Academy Award of the ad business.  The frenetic soundtrack Zappa conjured bears similarity to some of the sped-up, chopped-up vocals, instrumentation and effects that would be featured on We’re Only In It for the Money and Lumpy Gravy, albums he recorded during his New York stay.

Ed Seeman was the award-winning artist who hired Zappa for the project. Here’s how he recalls it in a post on his website.

“In 1967, I hired Frank Zappa for $2,000 to do the soundtrack for this TV commercial that I was animating and producing. It won a CLIO Award for “Best Use of Sound” and was the beginning of a two-year relationship that had me filming 14-hours of footage to be used for a film he called ‘Uncle Meat’.”

The second Zappa advert from this era is even more mysterious. It’s a never-aired one for Remington Electric Razors.  It also contains one of the seemingly most oddball collaborations among musicians of the era, with Zappa utilizing the vocal talents of soon-to-be country rock superstar Linda Ronstadt.

This is another item all together, weird as a jingle ever was. It’s remarkable multi-part suite in 60 seconds, a mini-operetta with some cool stop-time sections, a stomping pulse, airy whole tone passages and, once again, sped up instrumentation and vocals. Frank Zappa recalled the ad in an 1980s interview as follow:

“After the CLIO, I got this request from Remington, who were looking for some kind of ‘new sound’ for their commercials. So Linda Ronstadt happened to be managed by Herb Cohen, who was our manager at the time, and they supplied me with this advertising copy, and they wanted music for it.  So Ian Underwood and I put the track together and Linda did the vocal on top of it, and we made a demo.  They paid $1,000 for the demo, and that was the last I heard of them.  They didn’t like what we did.” 

One person who reportedly did was The Simpsons’ creator and die-hard Zappa/Beefheart freak, Matt Groening. 

When Danny Elfman was hired by Groening to write the theme for The Simpsons, he gave him an ‘inspiration’ tape.  It contained The Jetsons theme, Nina Rota’s soundtrack for the Fellini film, “Juliet Of The Spirits,” some easy-listening music for Esquivel, a teach-your-parrot-to-talk record and Zappa’s Remington Electric Shaver jingle, which he got on a bootleg.  One listen to both will demonstrate how this never-heard bit of Zappa got into the DNA of one of TV’s most memorable theme songs.

However, this wasn’t Zappa’s first experience in the world of commercial advertising.  Before finding fame, he worked as an illustrator for a greeting card company.  Some examples of his art, for the cards and more, can be found here and in the forthcoming Alex Winter documentary

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