Gogol Bordello’s Coke Connection
Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

Gogol Bordello‘s new album Pura Vida Conspiracy came out this week. It doesn’t, however, include what may be the American gypsy-punk band’s most heard song, “Let’s Get Crazy,” the tune they recorded for Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of last year’s European Football Championships.

(Here’s how it appeared in an actual ad.)

“Let’s Get Crazy” belongs to a particular musical lineage that was a pretty big deal in the ’60s, and hasn’t turned up much lately: songs that significant pop bands have recorded specifically for Coke commercials. Coca-Cola associated itself with musicians from very early on — opera singer Lillian Nordica started appearing in Coke ads in 1904. But, until the mid-1960s, radio ads (for Coke and for everything else) were usually sung by big choruses rather than particular well-known singers.

So the spot that adman Bill Backer put together for Coke sometime around 1964 was a radical departure. The group singing “Things Go Better with Coca-Cola” in the clip below is the Limeliters, a folk act that worked more or less the same territory as the Kingston Trio. It doesn’t sound all that forward-thinking now — but, at the time, it was one of the first pre-recorded ads that sounded like the music being played around it on the radio.

By the middle of the ’60s, Backer and songwriter/arranger Billy Davis came up with the idea of having pop musicians sing songs of their own that wouldn’t sound like the Coke jingle … until they did. Backer and Davis tried to work with the singers’ usual collaborators whenever possible – Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenberg, for instance, wrote the song Lesley Gore sings below. We’re 22 seconds in before we hear Coke mentioned, and having cited “Things Go Better With Coke” (as a song she hears all the time!), Gore veers away from it again. It’s got verses, choruses, a spoken bit: it’s a Lesley Gore record, and a good one.

The “Things Go Better” campaign was also one of the first national advertising campaigns to prominently feature African-American stars. Billy Davis had sung with the Five Aims before they became the Four Tops; he’d co-written hits for Jackie Wilson with Motown’s Berry Gordy. So when the Coke campaign recorded Motown artists, they did it at Hitsville, with the Motown house band–check out the hard funk of this 1968 ad with Gladys Knight and the Pips.

The first time Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin recorded together wasn’t 1971′s “Spirit in the Dark”: it was this variation on “Things Go Better with Coca-Cola” in 1967. Are they hamming it up? Are they taking it really seriously? Does it matter?

The “Things Go Better” radio campaign did so well that it got picked up by Coke’s international affiliates — there were ads by stars from Great Britain, Japan, various South American countries and Australia. (The Bee Gees recorded the gorgeous “Another Cold and Windy Day,” below, featuring an amazingly earnest lead vocal by Robin Gibb.) Even so, Billy Davis supervised the recordings whenever he could. So sometimes overseas artists would come to New York to record Coke ads. (Ray Charles made a point of producing his own Coke ads, but in the photos of the recording session with Charles and Franklin, Davis is right there with them.)

Eventually, it was just expected that bands would know how to come up with a Coca-Cola spot. The acid-rock band Vanilla Fudge turned up for their recording session with a guest guitarist – Jeff Beck – and no material on hand. But Billy Davis was there, and in a couple of hours they came up with this:

If the Limeliters ad had been radical a few years earlier, that was effectively in outer space. But the kids caught on: the ads were popular enough that they actually got requests from radio listeners. In 1968, an article in “The Coca-Cola Bottler” magazine argued that bottlers needed “special techniques to communicate with those under twenty,” and quoted an ad executive: “Conventional commercials won’t work. We broke the mold, introducing commercials that are really not commercials, but an extension of the top forty sound, using the teens’ own favorites.”

“Really not commercials”? Sure they are. But that was a big moment: ad agencies realizing that ads that sounded like ads wouldn’t work any more. The category of “youth” had been created as a marketing niche, but it had gotten out of marketers’ control. And the only way to sell the youth of the world soft drinks was to give them something to listen to (like the magnificent Otis Redding song below, pretty obviously recorded with the Stax house band) that had the content of a commercial, but was also–in the words of the next slogan the same advertiser would use–the real thing.

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