Mad as Hellers:
The Real Hollywood Advertising Firm Heller-Ferguson
Discussed:Mad Men on AMC and Singers…Talkers…Players…Swingers…& Doers by The Hellers (ABC Command, 1968)
You know those annoying folks who are seemingly always late to the cultural phenomenon party? Don’t you hate ’em? Well, when it comes to AMC’s pretty little program, Mad Men, that too-late-for-the-will-call-window was (and is) yours truly. Up until now, I had resisted the show’s pull; passively, figuring that—at best—the show was a fetishized stroke-catalogue for clothes-hounds and set-designers, or—much worse—a slightly higher-brow version of ABC’s The Sixties (that is, a grown-up Wonder Years with martinis and mohair). However, like with most things I fight against and end up enjoying, it took my girlfriend’s stamp of approval to finally get me to tune in. And yes, as she usually is, she was right.
Now, like any production that strives for an immersive experience, there are flaws, and facile touches that are a tad too cute, and anachronisms. Don’t believe me? If you polled the vinyl-collector world about the Mad Men party scene in which a copy of a 45 bearing a 1990s Eric’s Records reissue label was being played, the response would make you think the show’s writers had toyed with the image of Mohammed.
However, I’m really only here to talk about Mad Men tertiarily. I am far less concerned with tailored shark skin and mid-century design wet dreams than I am with Mad Men’s actual connotations and connections with what I’m truly interested in: the music of the ’60s and ’70s.
Jon Hamm as Don Draper posed this question in the Mad Men season just-so-recently ended: “When did music become so important?” While Don is the kind of character who might need to hold a focus group to quantify what the little girls effortlessly understand, this question and its answer was the bread and butter for one of Don Draper’s real-world advertising antecedents (and, while I can’t prove it, I believe one of his character’s most likely inspirations).
Hugh Heller, of the Hollywood advertising firm Heller-Ferguson, was one of the most gifted, insightful, and forward-thinking advertisers of the 1950s and ’60s. A self-made cat from Anamoose, North Dakota, who, like a thousand hicks before him, made the great trek westward to confront his dreams. He began by leading teenage dance orchestras, rising to become the program director of San Fran’s mighty KSFO AM. It was here, rubbing shoulders with the singers, talkers, players, swingers and doers, that Heller received the advertising equivalent of wahy.
Heller, unlike Draper, understood the power of the musical pitch: the jingle—the combined, hypnopaedic, lock-groove, soft-assault that would at first casually nestle in a consumer’s ear and later refuse all dislodgement from their basal ganglia. From there, the implanted mantra would be repeated as a form of catechism and continuing amounts of money would be deposited into the brand’s collection plate in a show of consumptive fealty. A one-man wrecking crew, Heller could sell the equivalent of radiation to the inhabitants of Bikini Atoll. He was that good.
So good, that for Heller and Heller-Ferguson, it was not enough to see their jingles and slogans shine fleetingly at the top of the disposable income totem poles; rather, they desired for themselves and their skills a more permanent show-case.
So what did they do? DUN-DUN-DUH-DUH: They put their firm’s ample talents and their leader’s abundant vision down on long-playing wax!
The Heller-Ferguson firm, represented on record as simply The Hellers, released three records in various aggregations: all very groovy and worthy of investigation. However, it is the presence of the great god-man of analog whooshes and fart-noises that compels me to proclaim the easiest Hellers record to acquire as also their finest moment.
Released on Enoch Light’s Command label in 1968 and with Dr. Robert Moog moog-ing it up, The Hellers’ Singers…Talkers…Players…Swingers…& Doersalbum is a must-listen for those among you appreciative of trippy late-’60s pop-psych, or simply those out there who yearn for a Criterion Collection of outtakes from Roger Sterling’s LSD trip (or for music-heads desperate for fertile pastures to cop samples).
Turning once again to my own personal pedagogical guru, Patrick Lundborg, who, Heller-like, can sell me just about anything as well as expound on the records issued by the Heller-Ferguson firm in a much more concise and convincing manner than I ever could.
Patrick on the LP: “Extraordinary exercise in zany 1960s cool of the kind that is almost forgotten today, projecting images of hip guys driving sports cars, reading Marshall McLuhan and sipping dry martinis—preferably all at the same time! The whole thing is very modern in its mindset, and a lot of work obviously went into it. The talent on display has an invigorating effect that may cause you to see ad people in a new light and, in any event, is a reminder of just how cool the pre-hippie ’60s were.”
Enjoy, then, The Hellers and, if your Shatner’s Bassoon be tickled, seek ye out their earlier effort, Creative Freakout, as narrator Johnny Spots takes you on a happening tour of the Wild West, complete with hop heads, beatniks, and protest rallies. It’s all we have until the next season anyway, and by the way…
…the medium was medium-rare.