Where Did All the Cheerful Music Go?

A couple of years ago my husband George and I visited the World of Coca Cola museum in nearby Atlanta.

We’d visited it in its first incarnation, in about 1992. But it had been recently moved and remodeled, so we thought we’d see what had changed in 20 years.

There is still a lot of Coke memorabilia

There’s  even a semi-high-brow gallery of serious modern Coca-Cola-themed art.

There’s a low-brow, cheesy but entertaining 3-D animated movie.

And photo ops with the equally cheesy Coke Polar Bear.

Although it didn’t excite me, evidently the most popular section of the museum is the “tasting room,” where you can sip samples of 60 or so versions of Coke from around the world—some of them pretty … interesting.

Back at the motel later I asked George what his favorite part of the museum was. I was surprised to find that his favorite was also my favorite—a screening in a small theater of decades of Coke TV commercials! The earliest ones were pretty straightforward … hard-sell encouragement to serve Coca-Cola at your next party. There were lots of creative humorous animated ones. But George and I both agreed that our favorites were the inspirational ones from the 1970s. I’d forgotten how effective Coke was at bringing a swelling of optimism and altruism to your heart and a tear to your eye.

The best of course was the most famous one from 1971, where young people representing various ethnic groups from all over the world were pulled together to make a choir on a mountaintop somewhere in Italy, singing about brotherhood and harmony… and Coke.

What I learned after I got back home and googled the ad was that they weren’t really singing at all. They were just lipsynching to a recording by a British folk group called the New Seekers.

“I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” became so wildly popular that the lyrics were adjusted just a bit and the song released as a single, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” It was first recorded in a slightly country and western style by a new group calling itself the Hillside Singers. A short time later the New Seekers released their own version of it. Here are the New Seekers on the Mike Douglas Show in 1973 doing “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.”

You might expect the ad was concocted in an advertising agency office, inspired by the totally cynical purpose of just using sentimental folk music to get people to buy Coke. It wasn’t quite that way.

In 1969, The Coca-Cola Company and its advertising agency, McCann-Erickson, ended their popular “Things Go Better With Coke” campaign, replacing it with a campaign that centered on the slogan “It’s the Real Thing.” Beginning with a hit song, the new campaign featured what proved to be one of the most popular ads ever created.

The song “I’d Like to Buy The World a Coke” had its origins on January 18, 1971, in a fog. Bill Backer, the creative director on the Coca-Cola account for McCann-Erickson, was traveling to London to join two other songwriters, Billy Davis and Roger Cook, to write and arrange several radio commercials for The Coca-Cola Company that would be recorded by the popular singing group the New Seekers. As the plane approached Great Britain, heavy fog at London’s Heathrow Airport forced it to land instead at Shannon Airport, Ireland. The irate passengers were obliged to share rooms at the one hotel available in Shannon or to sleep at the airport. Tensions and tempers ran high.

The next morning, as the passengers gathered in the airport coffee shop awaiting clearance to fly, Backer noticed that several who had been among the most irate were now laughing and sharing stories over bottles of Coke. As Backer himself recalled in his book The Care and Feeding of Ideas (New York: Times Books/Random House, 1993):

In that moment . . . [I] began to see a bottle of Coca-Cola as more than a drink. . . . [I] began to see the familiar words, “Let’s have a Coke,” as . . . actually a subtle way of saying, “Let’s keep each other company for a little while.” And [I] knew they were being said all over the world as [I] sat there in Ireland. So that was the basic idea: to see Coke not as it was originally designed to be—a liquid refresher—but as a tiny bit of commonality between all peoples, a universally liked formula that would help to keep them company for a few minutes.

Backer’s flight never did reach London. Heathrow Airport was still fogged in, so the passengers were redirected to Liverpool and bussed to London, arriving around midnight. At his hotel, Backer immediately met with Billy Davis and Roger Cook, finding that they had completed one song and were working on a second as they prepared to meet the New Seekers’ musical arranger the next day. Backer told them he thought they should work through the night on an idea he had had: “I could see and hear a song that treated the whole world as if it were a person—a person the singer would like to help and get to know. I’m not sure how the lyric should start, but I know the last line.” With that he pulled out the paper napkin on which he had scribbled the line, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company.”

The three members of the writing team that night each brought a different perspective to their task. Billy Davis, of McCann-Erickson, had toured as a member of the singing group the Four Tops and had written several songs for the powerful and popular Motown music production organization. Roger Cook, a native of Bristol, England, had teamed with Roger Greenaway to write several 1960s pop standards including “You’ve Got Your Troubles” and “Long Cool Woman (In a Black Dress).” Bill Backer was from Charleston, South Carolina, and had written the jingle “Things Go Better with Coke” as well as the jingle for “The Real Thing”campaign.

And that picture-perfect bunch of young people on the hillside in the final ad? That didn’t start out so picture perfect. The song was first envisioned as just a jingle for a radio ad, and it bombed. The tune itself just wasn’t enough to evoke the feelings Backer had originally intended.

Backer persuaded McCann to convince Coca-Cola executives that the ad was still viable but needed a visual dimension. His approach succeeded: the company eventually approved more than $250,000 for filming, at the time one of the largest budgets ever devoted to a television commercial. Backer then spent weeks canvassing the McCann creative staff for ideas, until Harvey Gabor, a young art director, proposed that the song be treated for television as a “First United Chorus of the World.” He envisioned a group of young people from all nations, in clothing representing their nationalities, singing the song on a green hillside. Gabor’s idea prevailed, and McCann prepared to shoot the commercial.

Because London had been the song’s starting point, the ad’s creators decided that the “green hill” of its setting should be the storied cliffs of Dover on England’s southern coast. By March, 1971, a McCann production crew including Billy Davis, Harvey Gabor, and agency producer Phil Messina traveled with photographer/director Haskell Wexler to England to begin work. The chorus, they decided, would consist of several thousand British school children and would feature sixty-five principals who would be seen at close range. The children were cast and rehearsed “lip synching”­—moving  their lips silently as though they were singing—to the New Seekers rendition of the song. Filming was set to begin on April 8, but three days of continuous rain, with more forecast, forced postponements. The McCann staff decided to move the shoot to Rome, which promised a more favorable climate.

They eventually cut back the grandiose numbers involved from several thousand to 500 in the chorus and only 40 lead singers.

In Italy, the producers had to cast a new group of children by searching schools and youth hostels. One English singer, the “head girl,” was brought to Italy to reprise her role. Production was to begin at 7:30 on the appointed morning with close-up shots of the sixty-five new principal singers in the flattering morning light. Unfortunately, it rained that morning for the first time in weeks. When the rain cleared in the afternoon, the leads were filmed singing the song while the “extra” children waited. Finally, late in the day, some twelve hundred children were spaced out on the top of the hill for the climactic shot from a helicopter. With light fading after only a few takes, the children broke ranks and began running down the hill to get more Coke from the truck carrying the props.

When the film was developed there were some unpleasant surprises. The zoom lens used for the close shots was faulty: every frame was out of focus. Additionally, the light levels on the helicopter shots were too low. The lead female singer then informed the crew that she had just been married and was going on her honeymoon and would be unavailable for any additional filming. McCann had now used its entire budget waiting for the rain to end in England and generating unusable footage in Rome.

To keep the ad alive, the McCann production crew went back to the drawing board. They cut the number of children in the youth chorus from twelve hundred to five hundred and began the search for a new female lead. They filled the ranks of the chorus by contacting the foreign embassies in Rome and drawing from their residents. As principals, they selected some forty young people between the ages of fifteen and nineteen. And when they spotted Linda Neary, a British governess living in Rome, walking down the street pushing a baby carriage, they decided she looked perfect for the part of the female lead. Two days before shooting was scheduled to begin, Neary agreed to take the part and the cast was set.

You can read the rest of the story at the Coca-Cola Television Advertising Homepage.

As George and I talked about why this particular TV ad, and several others that Coca-Cola created back in its heyday of the 70s, touched us, we began to wonder what happened to the spirit of optimistic yearning of those times. Yes, the world was in a mess back then, just as it is now. The Viet Nam war was going strong, the economy was miserable, there were racial tensions everywhere. But around the fringes of it, particularly in the music world of groups like the New Seekers, there was this poignant glimmer of hope that burned brightly.

As in every generation, the pop music world was dominated at the time by songs about sex, love—and unrequited love.  But mixed in with it all was the likes of I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing. Or John Denver’s upbeat anthems like Thank God I’m a Country Boy and Calypso–about the efforts of Jacque Cousteau. It was cheerful music, optimistic music, music about brotherhood and caring and getting along. There were sing-alongs and hootenannies, people holding hands and yearning for both vocal and relational harmony.

Something happened by the 1980s and on to today. Popular music took a grittier turn.

I guess there’s still some cheery or uplifting secular music, but it seems to mostly be in animated movies, such as “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” from Toy Story (and the adorable flamenco version in Toy Story 3, with Jesse and Buzz dancing to “Hay un amigo en mi“) or “Circle of Life” from Lion King.

But then again, the nature of popular music isn’t the same now as it was in the 1970s and before, when almost everyone got their regular musical diet from the radio, and specifically from the “Top 40 Hits.” My 21st century grandchildren, for instance, never listen to pop radio. They listen to their MP3 players. And they don’t select music to put on those MP3 players from what passes for pop music on the radio. They download it from the Net, from a wide variety of sources.

Katie, age 21, is partial to the background music of video games, precisely because it is so cheerful. Who would have thought you could find, for instance, all of the bouncy, tuneful Calypso-style background music from all of the versions of the Sims video game on Youtube!

Jonathan, age 24, is partial to background music—much of it sounding like “Smooth Jazz”!—from Japanese Anime movies such as those by Hayao Miyasaki.

After pondering the question of what happened to inspirational and cheerful and optimistic music, I’ve decided I was wrong. People who crave it and people who produce it aren’t gone. They just mostly hang out in Cyberspace now!

He DID Teach the World To Sing

A few hundred people on a mountain top lip-synching? Impressive for 1971. But 40 years later here is someone who much more literally did teach the world to sing—in perfect harmony–out in Cyberspace!  Listen to Eric Whitaker’s inspirational story on Ted Talks and listen to the result.

Eric Whitaker’s 2000 Voice “Virtual Choir”

Now if we can just find ways to propagate this kind of cheerfulness and the optimism and harmony back to Terra Firma, and beyond the field of music as well, I think we’re on to something.

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