A very beautiful place

Published May 16, 2011

I’ve just finished watching the DVD box set of season 4 of Mad Men. Like many others, I rate this as one of the best TV series around at the moment. Due to protracted contractual negotiations (now resolved), it’s going to be a long hard wait for season 5, which won’t start airing in July of this year (as per the original plan), but will premiere sometime in 2012. But that’s not really what I was going to write about.

In episode 3 of season 4, a song entitled ‘Old Cape Cod’ is featured. At first I didn’t recognise neither the song nor the performer, but I thought it sounded quite nice. I was surprised to learn on the Internet that the performer was Patti Page, and even more surprised to learn that the song was actually featured on a compilation of hers that I own. It was a big hit in the United States in 1957, peaking at number three on the Billboard Pop chart.

In the show, the song is used to contrast middle-aged main character Don Draper’s antiquated taste in music (the episode takes place in December 1964), as opposed to the more current pop stuff represented by The Beach Boys. Indeed, when The Official History Of Rock’n’Roll™ is related, Patti Page is held up as the antithesis of everything that rock stood for (along with other 1950s icons such as Doris Day and Perry Como). The somewhat simplified version of the story goes that 1950s pop music was all about very safe, suburban-friendly, anodyne songs performed by Page and similar artists until Elvis Presley came along to shake things up and free us all.

I’ve always suspected that some very nice babies were thrown out with the bath water when artists like Patti Page were suddenly branded as forever uncool, which is why I bought my compilation of her stuff in the first place. I wanted to find out whether she was really as anodyne as they say, or if there were some forgotten nuggets to be discovered. In the case of the song that’s usually held up as the reason why rock’n’roll had to be invented, ‘(How Much Is) That Doggie In The Window?’, I have to admit that, yes, it is a truly awful record. The tune is nice and hummable enough, but the performance and production does sound strained, conjuring up the cliché of a 1950s household: pretending that everything is perfectly nice while in fact many members of such families were stifling screams of frustration. The question seems to be not so much “how much is that doggie in the window?”, but rather, “how the hell do I get out of here?” And those dog barks are so annoying as to make the song virtually unlistenable – how this could stay at number one for eight weeks is, to me, incomprehensible.

But that, of course, doesn’t mean that everything Patti Page did was unlistenable – quite the contrary. If you have a corner in your heart for songs that are unashamedly romantic, there is much to be enjoyed. Patti Page herself is not the problem, it’s some of the songs she recorded.

So how did I miss out on ‘Old Cape Cod’ the first time I gave my compilation CD a spin? Well, the disc does contain a fair amount of dross, and the song in question is the next to last track on the CD, by which time I was probably losing patience. And the very last track is a completely atrocious track entitled ‘Left Right Out Of Your Heart’, which probably obliterated any lingering memories of whatever went before it.

But thanks to Mad Men I’ve now rediscovered ‘Old Cape Cod’ and keep playing it over and over. The song is beautiful, the arrangement flawless, and Page’s intimate, multi-tracked vocals are simply irresistible. As Don Draper phrases it, ‘I think it sounds like she’s inviting us to a very beautiful place’.