Any mention of the Beatles in popular media also comes replete with tales of conflict, blocked licensing rights, and frustration for those in pursuit of a few seconds of material. Master recordings of the group are considered an impossible goal, and on Sunday’s “Mad Men” episode entitled “Lady Lazarus,” the group’s inaccessibility even stood as a point of frustration for the characters. However, near the episode’s end, as Don Draper (Jon Hamm) struck up “Tomorrow Never Knows” — the original, not a cover — while listening to Revolver, the moment carried with it a long history for creator/show-runner Matthew Weiner in the creation of those thirty seconds.
Considering most shows would kill off its entire cast to license the rights to the Beatles’ library, it just goes to show the cultural residency, as well as the depth of Weiner’s piggy bank, that “Mad Men” currently occupies. According to those briefed on the deal, Lionsgate, the studio behind “Mad Men,” paid close to $250,000 for the licensing and publishing rights, a few dollars up from the $100,000 another major song might draw.
It also marks the rare occurrence of the original recording being played, eschewing any “Across the Universe”-style cover theatrics in the process, and the commitment shows. “It was always my feeling that the show lacked a certain authenticity because we never could have an actual master recording of the Beatles performing,” Matthew Weiner said in a New York Times article on the show’s relationship to the group. “Not just someone singing their song or a version of their song, but them, doing a song in the show. It always felt to me like a flaw. Because they are the band, probably, of the 20th century.”
Obviously, as seen with another project featuring Beatles covers, 2003’s disappointing “I Am Sam,” the achievement only seems worth it if the end product is satisfying, and Weiner seems completely aware of that dynamic. In fact, it even troubled him when dealing with Apple Corps, who owns the Beatles’ library rights, and simultaneously writing the episode. “It was hard,” Weiner said, “because I had to, writing-wise, commit to the story that I thought was worthy of this incredible opportunity.” After being rejected for a few years in the past by Apple Corps, he also had to break his seal of secrecy with the company to win them over, sharing script pages and storylines to make the situation completely transparent.
In the end it worked though, because the moment marked “Lady Lazarus” as a bold comment on both the characters’ relationship with youth culture, as well as an observation on music’s relationship to film or TV in general. Season one’s use of “Waters of Babylon,” and season three’s “Where is Love” from “Oliver” both were impeccably used ending cues, and this latest was another sign that “Mad Men” can operate on a musical basis like few others can, or ever will.