“Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay.” —Don Draper, Mad Men
In 1973 the British advertising firm of Allen, Brady, & Marsh was asked to devise a campaign for R. White’s Lemonade.
The men behind ABM were, to put it in Mad Men terms – more American, perhaps, but certainly ad-biz-apt – much more of the perpetually-amused Roger Sterling school than that of ever-tortured Don Draper: Peter Marsh was a onetime music-hall actor and television documentarian; Rod Allen was a former Signal Corps member with a literary bent – in the service he had a side business ghostwriting his bunkmates’ letters home in exchange for their performing his KP duty. Teamed with the straitlaced data-analysis expert Michael Brady – every ad agency needs its Pete Campbell too, no offense to Brady – the pair became a kind of comedy duo, their pitch sessions featuring Marsh in a white suit and a straw hat, warbling jingles as Allen played ramshackle piano in accompaniment. Allen, in particular, was a kind of musical genius, and I probably do him a disservice by prefacing that assertion with a softener: his great gift, bestowed by the gods, was for thirty-second songs that packed in as many repetitions of the product name as possible, and the ditties he penned are as memorable, in many cases as well-known, as any rock and roll song: Whitbread Big Head Trophy Bitter’s presentation as “the pint that thinks it’s a quart”; British Rail’s haunting paean to “The Age Of The Train”; the almost maddeningly catchy campaign for the Milk Board that declared milk has “gotta lotta bottle.” It’s doubtful Allen, Brady, & Marsh’s team had any sort of Draper-esque existential crisis over the R. White’s account – which is not to belittle the brilliance of what they came up with. The adverts were simplicity itself: this lemonade, they suggested, is so good it’s a guilty pleasure, something you consume in the shadows and sneak away from your wife to slurp down late at night, the way an alcoholic might nip from a stashed-away bottle when nobody’s looking. They inverted expectation, rendering the innocent jokingly illicit. They made you want to drink lemonade, because something already fun and sweet and fizzy had suddenly been shot through with a charge of naughtiness or even danger.
How was this idea presented? Well, for starters, Allen’s jingle was a masterpiece, taking catchiness and weaponizing it. Much of its appeal lay in its performance – more on that in a moment – but the song itself is a perfectly-crafted piece of pop: it establishes a premise, it explains the premise, it crashes into a beguiling little double-iteration chorus, it restates the premise beneath the second iteration, and then it’s over. I defy you to get any more immediately-graspable than that. The chorus itself is nothing more than the name of the product being shilled, crooned with the kind of rapturous joy you associate with a child emitting a yummy noise after scarfing down a sugar-filled snack; for good measure the brand name is also chanted, winningly, by backing vocalists throughout and repeated with merciless insistence into the fade. The piece is half a minute long, yet over the course of it the words “R. White’s” are repeated no fewer than seventeen times:
I’m a secret lemonade drinker! (R. White’s! R. White’s!)
I’ve been tryin’ to give it up, but it’s one of those nights! (R. White’s! R. White’s!)
R. White’s Lemona-a-ade!
I’m a secret lemonade drinker! (R. White’s! R. White’s!)
R. White’s Lemona-a-ade! (R. White’s! R. White’s! R. White’s! R. White’s! R. White’s! R. White’s! R. White’s! R. White’s! R. White’s!…)
It’s good, right? The second line seems particularly skillful, cheekily channeling the most saccharine parts of the language of addiction, then capping them with singsong voices whispering in your ear like mischievous devils maintaining that one little sip won’t hurt anyone – which, of course, in this case, it won’t. But the brilliance of the campaign went beyond Allen’s musical contribution, because the packaging of this jingle was dynamite. Here’s the commercial itself, likely devised by Marsh: we open in a typical suburban home, the wallpaper almost painfully bland, the lights low indicating it’s the middle of the night. A man, in his pajamas, slinks downstairs while his wife sleeps. Is something amiss in this marriage? Why the skullduggery? A tiny hint, unthreatening but still present, of something being amiss enters our minds, unsettling us and drawing us in. The man is definitely sneaking around, however comically: the “Secret Lemonade Drinker” moves like he’s in a cartoon, his every step an exaggerated tippy-toe, and when he almost trips over the dog he broadly shushes the pooch lest a startled bark wake the missus. He’s going to great lengths to move in stealth, so his goal must be a precious one: he enters the kitchen, creeping across the floor and reaching for the refrigerator; tentatively he opens the door; there in the light of its interior gleams the object of his quest! A bottle of R. White’s Lemonade, its soft yellowish-white color irresistible within the smooth and cold glass – he dances around in joy as he grabs it, singing to himself, pouring a shot and slugging it back rapturously just as we reach the song’s chorus: “R. White’s Lemona-a-ade! R. White’s Lemona-a-ade!” Then – the punch to complete the story and make the ad land – he shuts the door and finds, standing just behind it, his wife! Despite his efforts to hide his secret shame, she’s caught him in the act! But though she shakes her head a little, he’s not even embarrassed, nor need he be – because, after all, it’s just lemonade. Indeed, as he pours her a glass, speaking the product name one more time for good measure, she lets slip a sweet and patient boys-will-be-boys grin, forgiving him the transgression, returning him to an unfallen state within the miniature paradise of their home. That tension hinted at in the commercial’s initial premise – some joking hint of marital disharmony inherent in the idea of having to drink this stuff in secret contravention of a spouse’s disapproval – has been defused, because the wife doesn’t mind after all, and the viewer leaves the commercial enjoying that frisson of rule-breaking, as embodied by the repeat of the first “verse” at the end that invites you to keep repeating it in your head ad infinitum – “I’m a secret lemonade drinker…” – while still taking comfort in the fact that the story concludes with a return to a happy familial status quo. All is right, in the Secret Lemonade Drinker’s world and in ours, as we step away to grab a glass for ourselves before the program starts up again, humming Allen’s ditty all the while. We should never forget that all of advertising, indeed much of life and almost all of entertainment, is about this reassuring reset. It’s fun to pretend things aren’t okay, but in the end, to return to Mad Men and Don Draper’s wise encapsulation of what advertising is: ultimately the commercial reassures you that “whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay…”
Surely the R. White’s people flipped when this was presented to them – presumably by Marsh, in his straw hat, broadly pantomiming the sneak and the euphoria and the funny sting of the ending, with Allen in his thick sideburns chuckling and gleefully tickling the ivories alongside. The spot became something of a British advertising legend, airing for decades as popular British adverts do: comb through YouTube for a while and you can find versions from different eras sporting different wives, even parodies where the closing refrigerator door reveals a surprise cameo in the form of a ridiculous celebrity-of-the-moment or, this being Britain we’re talking about, a burly man comically clad in a woman’s nightgown. The campaign won an advertising award in 1974; “Secret Lemonade Drinker” was, in a 2015 poll, named Britain’s eleventh-most-fondly-recalled television commercial ever. The original “Drinker” and his wife, actors Julian Chagrin and Harriet Philpin, were even brought out of retirement to recreate the original spot, Chagrin reaching for the freezer this time rather than the fridge, for a 2012 campaign for frozen lemonade popsicles built around the rather vulgar tagline “I’m a secret lemonade licker.” The original clip was, all this is to say, well remembered and even beloved, to the point where Elvis Costello, in his memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, may be understating things when he notes that
For some reason, this little tune went on to be one of about a dozen ad jingles that almost anyone of a certain age in England can recall.
Immortality, sometimes, comes in strange forms. I couldn’t tell you if British people not of that certain age know the jingle nowadays, but then I’m also in the dark as to why Brits insist on carbonating their lemonade. I’m a Yank; I like my liquids flat; I wouldn’t even be expending the energy to discuss this tiny piece of music, remarkable as it is, if it didn’t boast a rather significant Costello connection – its original recording represents the very first time his voice was broadcast to the world. The session in which the playback for “Secret Lemonade Drinker” was taped was Elvis Costello’s recording debut.
Which brings us back to the performance. Here, alas, the historical record is a little scant: session musicians were hired, most of their names sadly lost though I’d love to be illuminated, and with an unknown producer helming things a rather groovy rendition of the jingle was laid down. The band was a four-piece – guitarist, bassist, pianist, drummer – fronted by a veteran vocalist with a long history in session work: Ross MacManus had crooned jingles for Cinzano vermouth; he’d warbled for Woolworth’s at holidaytime. He’d also, not for nothing, been a familiar voice in 1960s radio as the frontman for the Joe Loss Orchestra. The singer’s eighteen-year-old son Declan was an aspiring performer with a promising if not exactly popular two-piece folk outfit and a going-nowhere solo career playing singer-songwriter nights at venues like Bunjies Coffee House, and he was recruited, almost certainly at Ross’s request, to provide the backing vocals. There’s not much to be said about the players other than that they nailed the commercial’s mood, offering muted underpinnings for the vocal until the swell of the chorus at the opening of the fridge found them rocking out noisily – the guitarist in particular gets in a surprisingly spry bit of soloing given the time constraints. Ross and Declan, meanwhile, comported themselves admirably, and if the low Americanized growl and hiccupping delivery of the lead – “I’ve been trynna give it up, buh-but it’s one of those nights…” – seems a strange contrast with the decidedly north-of-England chirrup in the backups, Costello assures us that was all part of the plan:
For some reason, the producer asked my Dad to deliver the song in a mock Elvis Presley voice, while for the background part, they wanted “R. Whites” punched out so that it sounded like the “All right” on a Swinging Blue Jeans record. I suppose the advertising people thought the kids would dig it.
It seems Ross contributed to the backing vocals as well – “my Dad and I could easily approximate a suitably nasal Mersey sound,” Costello tells us, so “we cut the parts in a couple of takes.” The session was interrupted briefly by an appearance from the guitarist Joe Brown, who was recording in the next studio and whose impression upon Costello, on this occasion anyway, seems to have been limited to the fact that his wife was quite the looker. There was enough time left over, once the recording was complete, to bring in cameras and shoot an impromptu alternate version of the commercial, “in which the Secret Lemonade Drinker lives out his fantasy by performing onstage in a nightclub.” Though unbroadcast at the time this plotless if amusing second clip has surfaced recently and allows us our first glimpse of what the young Declan MacManus looked like when playing – or, anyway, when he was pretending to play. As Costello recalls:
This little session was not only my recording debut but also my motion picture debut. The admen took a look around the studio and decided to cast this second version of the commercial from the musicians on the session. The drummer and hippie guitar player certainly looked the part, but the pianist and bass player were older, more conservatively dressed, and didn’t really fit the bill. Given our then more fashionable hairstyles, my Dad and I were recruited to mime the keyboard and bass parts, and we spent the day taking and retaking the thirty-second clip, lip-synching the “R. Whites / All right” background part with as much animation as we could manage by take forty-six. And the rest, as they say, is history…
I can’t help seeing a sweet, tacit note here of us-vs.-them comparative professionalism: the MacManuses knocked everything out in “a couple of takes” while their counterparts on the video end needed a full forty-six to get the job done. The distinction may also be more self-deprecating, focused on two different kinds of performance: for people like Ross and Declan whose trade is music, the musical craft is second nature while the show-business aspect can prove much more time-consuming and patience-testing. Regardless, what seems more important to note is this: the very first day that “Elvis Costello” spent in a recording studio found him acting out the role of a rock musician when that’s not what he was; it saw him working in tandem with his father to emulate harmonic stylings developed around Liverpool a decade earlier; it stood hard at the intersection of musicianship and salesmanship. Four years after “Secret Lemonade Drinker” was recorded, Declan MacManus would again be given a role to play in order to break, aggressively, into the world of rock music; he would spend his entire career conscious of following in footsteps given his family’s history as career musicians; he would, through to today and for coming up on half a century now, struggle with and never quite master the delicate balance in the music business between artistry and commercialism. This last point speaks pointedly to the situation in 2017. Much to the frustration of his fans, Costello hasn’t released an album in several years, in no small part because his last few attempts – the marvelous flop National Ransom; the spectacular but virtually-unheard experiment Wise Up Ghost – have suggested to him that there’s just no way to pursue creatively satisfying avenues in a commercially remunerative fashion. He stands at a crossroads, unsure how to proceed. Perhaps it’s not surprising he chose to follow a nearby “detour” sign, sending him in a completely unexpected direction – but that’s a subject for another post.
It’s interesting to consider how Costello recalls his first introduction to recording. He seems aware, in a wry sort of way, of the importance both of “Secret Lemonade Drinker” to his career and of his career to “Secret Lemonade Drinker”:
It wasn’t exactly the big time, but there was still a thrill to hearing your voice come back off the tape, even if you were singing something farcical… Needless to say, once my “secret identity” was revealed in the late ’70s, someone had the brilliant idea of reviving the clip and this process has been repeated about every five to ten years ever since.
Surely, for a professional musician, that thrill never goes away though it’s probably particularly sweet the first time; surely Costello is exaggerating the degree to which the “process” of people periodically connecting him to the campaign has kept the beloved promos alive on TV. No doubt the free publicity R. White’s received when some music journo wrote up the Costello connection circa 1977 was a prompt for someone to think it might be worth sending the commercial out for another round of airings, but the ad seems to have been popular on its own merits. A bit more poignant, and telling, is the way Costello remembers his dad’s connection to the song:
When my father died in 2011, all the other achievements of his career were laid aside as tabloids sensitively noted his passing under the headline “Secret Lemonade Drinker Dies.”
Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink was written in the wake of Ross’s death, and the grief is fresh on its pages; this seems like a spot where the bitterness of having a loved one taken away hasn’t yet subsided. Ross MacManus was far from the first or the last to be remembered in his obituary for something trivial compared to his many and marvelous successes, and perhaps Costello as he wrote these words was wondering how he himself might be eulogized one day – indeed, while Unfaithful Music is itself an uneasy mix of the creative and the sales-oriented, pingponging from colorful tales of Costello’s apprenticeship to stories of barely-remembered collaborations, coughing up secrets here and there but for the most part sidestepping the salacious stuff so often used to move rock memoirs, large stretches of it read like Costello is determined to make a case for himself as more than just the New Waver who recorded “Alison” and “Accidents Will Happen.” The book underlines his having written a ballet, his hosting of a TV show, his working with Ralph Stanley and Allen Toussaint and Burt Bacharach and Paul McCartney, even his fleeting moment on a White House stage, as immortalized in a photograph snapped over the shoulder of Barack Obama himself. Even as it’s aware of the ways in which high art and low bump up against each other in the modern world – the anecdote of Joe Brown interrupting the R. White’s session, for instance, is inexplicable as anything other than a simple acknowledgement that the music business is full of odd comings-and-goings – it’s curiously dismissive of the cheap except as a kind of adornment to the great. “Secret Lemonade Drinker” was a footnote in his father’s career that somehow became the title of the book; in his own it was the starting gun for a series of wildly varied and fascinating endeavors that, in some quiet way, he seems worried might not be remembered the way they deserve. It’s probable that endless re-airings of the commercial have brought Costello considerable joy over the years, in the form of memories of his father prompted, now and then, by unexpected moments where Ross’s voice has come floating out of the television. The commercial also, clearly, has entered a place in Costello’s mind where he views it with a certain detachment and ambivalence, amusement mixed with amazement, that characterizes a lot of the tone of the retrospection of Unfaithful Music and its accompanying “Detour” live shows. One wonders what he thought when, after the book’s publication, the second version of the commercial popped up on YouTube. It’s hard to imagine it wasn’t a blessing for a son, missing his father, to have an opportunity to watch long-lost film of them together, decades ago, dressed in funny clothes and goofing around, two performers sharing a stage for the first time.
I’d like to note, before we move on from this curiosity in the parade of songs connected to Elvis Costello, is a lingering irony: that the advertising techniques Allen, Brady, & Marsh so skillfully utilized to sell us lemonade were later employed by Stiff Records in jamming Elvis Costello down our throats. Those savvy salesmen helming the label, Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson, packaged their artist Declan MacManus by taking pop music, fun and sweet and fizzy with its hooky melodies and slickly-packaged singles decked out in bright colors, and shooting it through with a charge of naughtiness and danger in the form of a guy who sneered at audiences and refused to talk to reporters and had an affronting stage-name intended as an extended-middle-finger to traditional rock fans. They inverted expectation, dressing their guy up like Buddy Holly then letting him sing songs about voyeurism, sexual dysfunction, and wanting to kill his ex – not to mention the dangers of creeping fascism, the imminence of the apocalypse, and a heavenly host strangely interested in acquiring some new footwear. The innocent was rendered illicit; the melodic was turned on its head and made confrontational. The funny thing is, though all this was meant as a joke, it seems to have been taken seriously by music writers, which in conjunction with his inarguably impressive musical output created a strange cult around Costello from the get-go. The cliché – whether or not there’s truth in it is worth pondering, though it’s a bit outside the scope of this essay – goes that rock journalists saw in this character things they recognized: he was a scrawny twerp, more blessed with smarts than social graces, who never got the girl and fumed over it obsessively. This description of the star also fit the critics writing about him, and according to this view of what happened, in propounding one of their own these critics essentially bought into the Draperian sales pitch Riviera and Robinson had put on offer. They decided that if Elvis Costello was like them, then they were okay. Whatever they were doing, was okay.
That said, a postscript has to be appended to all this – because there’s an essential difference between being a critic and being a consumer. The consumer watches the “Secret Lemonade Drinker” commercial and, with the song stuck in his head, blithely heads to the fridge for a cold glass; the critic is welcome to enjoy the artistry, but he should also question what Marsh and Allen, and later what Riviera and Robinson and indeed MacManus himself, were selling. And critics – I confess I’ve been guilty of this myself a time or two – have tended to accept the Costello line without question. This was all well and good, at least initially: Nick Kent, for instance, in writing his famous “revenge and guilt” piece, was I suspect reveling in the theater of the thing; I’m also sure that a few of the early critics were aware, fuzzily at any rate, that this was all too good to be true, that the idea of a ninety-eight-pound weakling rock star was a construct, but they were enjoying the ride too much to call out the artifice and figured moreover that celebrating great songwriting, however presented, was a worthy thing. But as time has passed some of us have made the mistake of failing to read the record – or the records – properly, letting our view of the person be clouded by our conception of the character. Which brings me to one last story about “Secret Lemonade Drinker,” which Graeme Thomson unearthed for his biography Complicated Shadows: The Life And Music Of Elvis Costello. I’m not going to criticize Thomson’s book – it’s a fine resource, filled with insights you won’t find anywhere else – but I do think Thomson succumbs, in places, to the temptation of reading MacManus’s youth through the lens of the Costello character, searching for hints of the person he would eventually pretend to be in the actions of the young man he was. A case in point comes in an account of the latter days of Rusty, Declan MacManus’s folk two-piece with Allan Mayes:
One night, as Rusty were setting up to play in the Yankee Clipper club in Liverpool, Declan mentioned to Allan that Ross had got them a job accompanying him in the studio to record a song for a lemonade commercial. “I remember almost doing a lap of honor around that club, thinking, ‘Oh, studio!’” says Mayes. “As far as I was concerned, it was the most glorious moment of my life.” As the months went by, Allan kept pestering his partner about the advert, until one day Declan simply turned around and said: “I did it last weekend.” “I’ve never been so dejected in my life and I have never forgotten it,” Mayes recalls… [Declan] would have made only a little pocket money from the recording session, but it was another invaluable experience, and one he clearly had little inclination to share.
As that last sentence makes clear, the selfish Elvis Costello we well know – the jerk and the creep and the mean-spirited lout –was on full display in this little incident, right? I remember reading this passage the first time, and cringing a little before deciding that talented people are assholes sometimes, and this is the sort of behavior you need to get ahead – if I love Elvis Costello, I figured, then I must on some level love this kind of cold and calculating selfishness. Heck, it matched my impression of the guy: the very first time I ever saw the man live was in the fall of 1996; he was a week away from firing his bass player for the second time, and he was perceptibly peeved by the company he was keeping and dissatisfied with everything from the sound in the auditorium to the responsiveness of the crowd. He was, or certainly came off as, a jerk and a creep and a lout. That he was this back in 1973, likewise, matched a certain easy-to-digest impression I had of him, and seemed satisfyingly right. But wait a minute – doesn’t it seem impossible that a teenager had any pull in terms of who did and didn’t get to participate in the “Secret Lemonade Drinker” session? It seems far likelier that this was a case of Declan shooting his mouth off to his pal when he first heard about the opportunity – and then, when later on it turned out Ross hadn’t meant for Declan’s band, but for Declan alone, to participate he didn’t quite have the heart to tell Mayes about it until afterwards. Was Mayes disappointed? Absolutely, and rightly so. Was MacManus’s behavior a little uncool? Sure, but he was eighteen years old. Is Thomson right to read this as a sign of things to come, and was I right to read him and then to ascribe Costello-esque behavior to the young man who at that point was not yet Elvis Costello? Almost certainly not.
And yet the perception of who Costello is has been a little too well established, and what Thomson did is simply an unintended consequence of its establishment. He was doing one version of the biographer’s job, showing us that the Elvis we know is the Elvis he always was. Heaven knows I was willing, on first read, to feel a frisson of pleasure at the recognition: “Ah,” I thought. “Of course he acted like that when he was young. Because that’s exactly who he turned out to be!” Thomson was trying, as advertisers do, and as a musician does, to impart his own kind of happiness. He wanted to free me from a sense of not understanding, to scream to me reassurance, to tell me that what I’m doing, in thinking I’ve grasped this exceedingly complicated man, is okay. I am okay. But sometimes it isn’t, and sometimes I’m not. The only thing to do in those cases is to try to read a little closer in future, to remember that things are rarely simple, and that just as Ross MacManus wasn’t just a jingle he recorded on one afternoon forty years before his death, Elvis Costello is more than a pissy attitude that comes out – often to the betterment of the performance, incidentally – during interviews he’s disinclined to do or in the midst of shows where the music isn’t sounding the way he wants it to sound. An artist is always more than the person he presents himself as. If you love the work, though, you keep reading it, and listening to it, and relishing it. You try to give it up, but then it’s one of those nights.
Recorded: unknown studio, 1973. Unknown: guitar, bass, drums. Ross MacManus: lead vocal. DPM and RM: backing vocals. Derek Warne: piano. Producer: unknown.
Top to bottom: various shots from Mad Men, simply because they’re so gorgeously composed and lit and framed.