It’s hard to remember or even imagine in today’s music climate but there used to be a time when records were garbage. Pure Garbage. Back in a time when the words “Deluxe 180g pressing in deluxe Stoughton Tip-On Jacket” meant somehow even less than they do now, not everything cost $32.95 and arrived endlessly late because someone, somewhere, was reissuing Toys In the Attic for the 18th time.
Instead, records were everywhere — in restaurants, at the convenience store, on the back of your food — EVERYWHERE. Even better, they came in all varieties of playability and strength from vinyl flexi discs to cardboard cut-outs, and they were made for anything you could possibly imagine.
It was a glorious age for collectors of pop refuse, when even Pac-Man was deigned important enough to be given a backstory, have that backstory turned into a recorded radio drama, and then pressed onto whatever General Mills product they needed to move that week.
Let’s look at some of the highlights of this beautiful time, shall we?
7-Eleven – “Dance the Slurp”
7-11 weren’t wimping out when they decided to give records away with Slurpee purchases in 1970 — the novelty hit “Dance the Slurp” came on a full-fledged 7″ record!
Maybe someone at the company realized that the quality level on what they had produced was high enough to warrant the extra cost, because “Dance the Slurp” may as well be the crown jewel in the novelty songs kingdom. The song hits it out of the park by being both legitimately catchy and completely ridiculous, the organ and bass-driven melody sounding like something a million garage bands would kill to have written and the proto-proto-lyrics consisting of one, and only one, word — “slurp!”
This song would already be the best of its kind even without the cherry-flavoured-syrup on top: a bottom-of-the-Slurpee straw acting as a de facto guitar and delivering the greatest solo of all time. Whoever first said “give it a slurp straw solo” hopefully soon thereafter retired and is enjoying his millions of dollars now.
Also of note, in 1999 “Dance the Slurp” was given the respect it so clearly deserved when DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist sampled it on their Brainfreeze album, proving some people recognize true genius when they see it.
(The B-side to this stomper is a fictional news report about what has happened to people who have started Slurping, and that’s pretty good in its own right too, especially because there seems to be about two voice actors doing the whole thing.)
Winchell’s Donut House – “Hear the Monsters”
For some reason Halloween seems to attract its fair share of novelty items from all angles, and strange promotional records are no exception. In the mid-70s, the Winchell’s Donut House chain apparently decided they were overdue to throw their own hat in the ring. They did so with a 7″ flexi disc.
This record is exceptionally strange for a number of reasons — ostensibly the tale of some children going trick or treating with a magic Jack-o-Lantern that appears on their deck and gives them a lot of condescending safety tips their parents should have long taught them, this record goes off the rails very quickly.
First of all, the Jack-o-Lantern and the narrator very clearly have the same voice. I’d go so far as to say he did them in the same take without leaving much room to breathe, even (which seems to be a very common theme of these records).
Second, the children are voiced by very, very, VERY young children, and they all seem to have been missing some baby teeth at the time of recording, making it difficult to understand them (which is pretty endearing truthfully).
Third, after the Jack-o-Lantern gets them home from his school assembly lecture masquerading as ‘fun’, he tells a ‘scary’ story about a skeleton, a ghost, and a bat getting locked in their closet for a year. Then, you arrive to let them out. When you let them out, instead of being grateful, they proceed to scare the shit out of you. I don’t know about you but that doesn’t seem very gracious behaviour to me. Shame on you, ghouls.
How, you may ask, does this record possibly promote Winchell’s Donut House? Well, “Mr. O’Lantern” tells the kids that once he ate a Winchell’s doughnut and it gave him the ability to talk. OK. Never mind why the pumpkin needed to eat food for sustenance — the real confusions here are a) how slap-dashed the promotional angle appears and disappears on this record, and b) that someone thought a semi-eerie voice saying “watch out for ghosts” was what a ghost would say to scare you.
Burger King/Alf cardboard records
Alf Pogs have nothing on Alf cardboard records. The brainchild of some coked-out ponytail at Burger King, every kids’ meal for a time in the mid-80s came with a costumed Alf doll that also came with a doll-relevant small cardboard record.
The four available were “Cooking With Alf”, “Melmac Girls”, “Melmac Rock”, and “Take me ALF To the Ballgame”, truly the worst pun this side of a Xanth novel.
The records are all story songs that take real advantage of just being able to say nonsense words and claim they are part of Alf’s alien culture (examples: “scuttminder”, “wartlap”, “grisbaine”, “wallowack”) to make lazy rhymes, including a song about bouillabaseball, which was a weirdly well-documented (in Alf lore anyway) version of baseball played on Alf’s home planet that managed to receive its own complete line of Topps baseball cards (two series even!).
These records, unlike the ones cut from a cereal box, came pre-cut into circles and with instructions to weigh them down with pennies like you were ever going to finish one playthrough let alone listen to it all the time. On top of a theme, every song has a shtick — “Melmac Girls” is a Beach Boys-esque take on picking up women, “Melmac Rock” a chronicle of young Alf’s birth and rise to the top, “Cooking With Alf”… is, uh, cooking with alf. They sound like you’re hearing them from very far away, no matter how close to the speakers you may be. There is no reason to track these down. You’re doing just fine.
Having said that, I used to own a full set until I came to my senses and unloaded them onto the nearest sucker I could find.
McDonald’s Menu Song
The be-all, end-all novelty flexi? Just maybe.
The McDonald’s Menu Song was a giveaway contest distributed in newspapers and on flyers. Unusually, this record came both as flexi discs and as coated cardboard records, combining both great dumb formats of novelty giveaways.
The record would open with an employee singing a song that listed every single menu item McDonald’s sold at the time, and then a chorus of voices would sing it back. The shtick was that on 7,999,999 of the records issued the chorus could NOT complete the song, and so the listener was a loser — on one single record they managed to get it right and that person took home a $1 million prize!
To add to the insanity, the other records didn’t even all cut out in the same place; various copies would have the chorus get closer and closer to finishing the song before screwing it up, which means McDonald’s had to press dozens of different iterations of this record across both formats. They even pressed an alternate Canadian version which featured Canada’s different menu AND a Quebec version in French! They were not cutting corners on this one.
In a wonderful little happy story the winner of the McDonald’s menu record giveaway was a woman named Charlene Price and she used the money to buy the convenience store where she worked. I don’t know why, but that just strikes me as an incredibly sweet thing to do with your McBlood Money.
TOPPS Baseball Talk cards
In the dwindling days of vinyl’s first reign Topps issued a series of baseball card records. They were called Baseball Talk records and they were just, literally, baseball cards with a tiny flexi disc glued onto the back.
The records featured no holes so they could not be played on a traditional turntable — instead, a special Baseball Talk player needed to be purchased. The player resembles a portable hand radio if it was more expensive, only played baseball cards, and broke if you looked at it wrong. If you got the cards to work you were greeted with commentators interviewing players on topics that skewed towards humorous personal anecdotes as well as a set discussing Baseball’s Greatest Games. There was also a series of profiles of former greats of the game, most notable for the long list of former players who declined to be included.
Pretty predictably, these cards and players didn’t work well at all. The audio quality may be the most grating this side of a Reservoir Dogs Talking Keychain and the players would stop reading the cards almost immediately. The cards themselves reportedly stopped working the minute they were bent, folded or really handled in any way, not something you want out of a product intended for children.
According to the Baseball Talk’s Wikipedia page, retailers were flooded with complaints and returns and the line very quickly found its way into discount bins, scuttling talks of similar lines for the NFL and NBA. You’ll no doubt be unsurprised to hear that nowadays people are paying top dollar for these.
With the return of vinyl records, can trashy gimmicks such as the ones above be far behind? Probably not. And let’s be realistic: hopefully not! Getting a box of sugary cereal and cutting a circle of music out of the back seems like something every child should experience. Can you imagine buying a doughnut in 2016 and being handed a piece of plastic with a song narrated by a whimsical holiday item? It would be magical.
The record industry has already taken the dumb novelty vinyl idea and turned it into expensive collectors’ items like The National’s 6-LP 1-song box set or The Magnetic Fields 6×10″ edition of 69 Love Songs, so why not do the same but on the cheap, and to promote a muffler dealership?
I’m calling it now: 2016 is the year weird promotional records return. And none of them will be as good as “Dance the Slurp.”