“Maybe I’ve lost too many brain cells from too many Slurpee-induced brain freezes.”
That’s my brother Phil. I’ve asked him and my other siblings if they can recall how “Dance the Slurp,” a 1966 promotional single released by the 7-Eleven chain of convenience stores, ended up in our house in Wheaton, Maryland. “If I’m the one who first acquired it, I don’t remember how or when,” he admits. None of my other brothers or my sister can remember, either, but the journey wouldn’t have been very far. There was a 7-Eleven less than half a mile from our house on Amherst Avenue, and, over many years, we ducked in to escape the sticky summer heat, and to load up on cherry or lemon-lime and cola Slurpees, wads of gum, fistfuls of comics and magazines. The 7-Eleven was a regular stop on my solitary Saturday afternoon allowance walks, yet I too don’t know how it ended up in the house. For many years it was on high rotation on the Bonomo family turntable.
Born in Chicago in 1924, Tom Merriman graduated from Indiana University in Bloomington, and then studied music at Julliard. In the early 1950s, he moved to Dallas, Texas, the “Jingle Capital of the World,” where he quickly earned a reputation as one of the most original, reliable, and productive jingle, radio advertisement, and station ID writers in the South. Merriman created jingles like you and I breathe air. In his long career he wrote and produced music for luminaries (including Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington), won a Cannes Film Festival Award, toiled profitably as an independent producer at various production houses, founded and helmed the Commercial Recording Corporation, led the Liberty Network Band, and for many years was the Music Director at the elite Hockaday School—but he will chiefly be remembered as the Jingle King. Radio DJ Ron Chapman worked with Merriman at KVIL, a Dallas–Fort Worth FM station where Merriman was an early co-owner, and recalls that Merriman could compose arrangements “like Lincoln did the Gettysburg Address, on the back of an envelope.” He added, “My first recollection of being with Tom was on a session for a jingle I had written for KVIL in its Glory Days. The song was called “Thank You for Making Us What We Are” and I wanted the finale to sound like the last chorus of Hello Dolly, where the waiters come down the stairs carrying trays of champagne. Tom nailed it and even added a chorus of tap dancers, for a radio jingle!”
Such attention to arrangement and production details became Merriman’s signature on the hundreds of compositions—not only jingles and commercials, but corporate musical events and theme-park-ride music—he produced over an impressive fifty-year career. “I learned music on my own,” Merriman remarked in 2003. “I learned the technical side of transposition and all the things you have to know as a music writer. But it seems that there is something that has to be within you, native to your own abilities.” At Indiana University, Merriman studied composition and counterpoint, “all the things you do as a serious composer,” and at Julliard “a lot of legitimate techniques,” but, he added, “with serious music or pop, there are many common tenets that apply, natural basic laws and the things that are part of your experience.” At an industry tribute held in Dallas, Jon Wolfert, president of radio jingle facilities JAM Creative Productions and PAMS Productions, Inc., lauded Merriman: “To use a horrible ’60s term, we were the ‘jingle freaks’ and we were enamored, mesmerized by the work that was coming out of Dallas from all the different studios, but in no small part, the work you were doing,” adding, “and that’s the reason why I’m still making these jingles, because I was attracted to it by listening to all this great stuff during all those years.” That evening, Merriman was presented with a custom jukebox stocked with hundreds of his jingles and commercial spots, and was praised in video tributes from Patti Page and Pat Boone. “He wrote hundreds of spots, for Coca-Cola, Lone Star Beer, many of the jingles and themes for Marriott’s Great America,” Tracy E. Carman, Executive Director of the Media Preservation Foundation, who was also at the tribute, told me. Consumed by the millions, lodged into the collective pop subconscious of America, these jingles remained anonymous to all but industry insiders. “The list goes on and on, showing that he was very prolific in his abilities to adapt to the current music styles of the day,” Carman said, adding that Merriman was scoring music “pretty much up until the time he died.” (Merriman passed away in 2009.)
In 1965, the Dallas-based Southland Corporation, which owned a growing chain of 7-Eleven convenience stores, struck a licensing deal with the ICEE Company to sell the popular Icee drink, under the condition that it be renamed and its sales confined to 7-Elevens. Thus was born the Slurpee, an immediate, sugary hit named for the indelible sound made by inhaling, straw-wielding enthusiasts. Hopeful to branch out nationally, and eager for a clever and memorable promotional angle, Southland looked to Merriman Productions. (The company is now named TM Studios). In the previous decade, Merriman had written and voiced the wildly popular “Otto the Orkin Man” commercial spot; now, 7-Eleven charged him with composing a catchy song extolling the virtues of the frozen sweet drink, to be issued as a 45 single and given away with Slurpee purchases.
Merriman and his co-writer, Jim Long, went to work. “Not being a musician, the way I worked with Tom was to find tracks from records that we would use as a reference track to the basic style and the groove of the project,” Long told me. “To the best of my recollection, the references I pulled for this project were from an album called Bachelors in Space.” Alas, research reveals that no such record exists. Half a century later, Long admits to being stumped. (“Just spent a few minutes on Google looking for the ref track,” he wrote me after our initial conversation. “There’s too much stuff in the ‘bachelors in space–lounge genre,’ and finding it 35 years or so later would be finding a needle in haystack.”) In any event, Merriman and Long had their ears tuned to the radio. “Tom could write in any style if you gave him the reference,” Long says. The writing duo chose a Dance of the Week template, hoping to ride the (by then diminishing) wave of popular dances, such as the stroll, the pony, the twist, the mashed potato, the monkey, the dog, the Frug, the hully gully, the watusi, the swim, and the rest. Merriman and Long swiftly banged out an instrumental arrangement and set about finding the words to match: these lyrics had to be simple, easy to remember and sing along with, and, most importantly, brand-specific. Merriman and Long soon realized that they only needed a single word.
“Dance the Slurp” was likely cut in or around May of 1966, in downtown Dallas, at Sellers Company, a recording studio located at 2102 Jackson Street, now a parking lot paving over a fascinating history. In 1935, James Earl “Pop” Sellers established a studio at his electronics store, at first producing high-quality recordings via an old phonograph. Over the years, he updated his equipment to state-of-the-art quality, recording countless obscure Dallas-area performers and singers who’d performed at the Big D Jamboree, the popular barn dance and radio program, but also early country and rockand-roll musicians, including Gene Summers, Gene Vincent, Light Crust Doughboys, Trini López, the Stamps Quartet gospel group, and Hank Thompson, who recorded his first session at Sellers. Sadly, no documentation exists of the “Dance the Slurp” session, or sessions. No log of takes, or of the personnel involved. Long can’t recall the recording session down the years, let alone if he was in attendance. Over at TM Studios, Greg Clancy, the General Manager and Vice President / Creative, assures me that any recording notes for “Dance the Slurp” are long gone, citing the tumult of multiple mergers and the moves from building to building over the years.
Hopeful for more information, I logged in to an online radio history forum. In response to my post, a helpful member responded, “Try looking up George Gimarc. If anyone knows about that or has a copy he would.” He knows, and he does. In fact, Gimarc, a Dallas-area disc jockey, record and radio program producer, author, and music historian, sells a few copies of “Dance the Slurp” annually, mostly to buyers in northern Europe—Sweden, Norway, Denmark—willing to pay up to seventy-five dollars for the single. As Gimarc and I spoke on the phone, he posted and monitored his eBay record listings, scanned arcane online research, and moved among the more than 60,000 records in his office. Providentially, he’d just been up to some Southland sleuthing himself. “I’ve been poking through the remnants of the Sellers Company archives, trying to buy all of it,” he told me. “That’s a hundred boxes of paper, and thousands and thousands of reels of tape. I’ve already purchased a small taste of it, and in it I found a lot of stuff from the Southland Company. I bought a lot of stuff that went all the way back to the mid-fifties through the mid-seventies. Commercials, jingles, what have you.” Sensing my excitement, he added, carefully, “I haven’t found the ‘Slurp’ master tape yet, but I’m sure it’s in there. Everything else is in there.”
For nearly an hour, Gimarc and I held our copies of “Dance the Slurp” under bright light and squinted through magnifying glasses at the runout, the band of vinyl between the end of the song and the label, excavating among the mysterious acronyms and seemingly random letters and symbols emblazoned there, clues to the song’s production history. (A record’s matrix stamped in the runout groove can indicate, in addition to the song’s unique filing number, supplementary information, such as take number, record pressing plant codes or logos, initials or signature of the disc-cutting engineer, cutting or copyright dates, and so on.)
As we each scoured the record, Gimarc provided some background. “Starting around 1959, there were several products aimed at children, especially in Dallas, that were a record-merchandise pairing,” he explained. “There was a coloring book called Muley—The One-Eared Mule, which came with a free one-sided record of the song. Mr. Peppermint, a popular children’s TV show, put out a coloring book that came with a little seven-inch record of songs, tucked inside the book.” Well-known performers cut promotional tie-in records as well, including Trini López, for Fresca (“Presented by your local Coca-Cola Bottler”), and Bobby Darrin, who, in the early 1960s, inked a deal with Scripto Pens to issue a free record with purchase of a Wordmaster ball pen (and an ink refill, of course). “Putting a sound recording with a product was a thing in advertising culture to reach teenagers,” Gimarc continued. “Since around 1961 or so, Coca-Cola had been doing commercials with rock and pop stars, like Roy Orbison, the Drifters. Over in England, The Moody Blues did one. And you’re in the era after the twist—well, to be fair, ever since the bop, in 1956—when there was a new dance coming along all the time for the teenagers. So tying what they thought was contemporary rock-and-roll music to a product was definitely in the wind.”
Sometimes that wind kicked up a storm of concern. Scotty McKay, a rockabilly musician from Dallas, cut “Let’s Do It,” a 45 on the SS label that was issued with the purchase of a long pole (or the other way around). “A guy and girl were supposed to face each other and put this pole at basically belt-buckle level, and then dance while supporting the pole,” Gimarc laughs. “So you couldn’t get any closer. So the Lord could limbo between you, I’m supposing. I’m sure this was invented by some Southern Baptist who was appalled by the twist.” (The record label provides a helpful illustration of a decorously dancing, pole-separated teen couple.) Production and distribution of “Let’s Do It”—the irony of that title slays me—were arranged by PAMS, or Production, Advertising, Merchandising Service, the major jingle company in Dallas. “I wouldn’t be surprised if PAMS had some hand in the Southland 7-Eleven stuff, because it kind of has that sound,” Gimarc remarked. At one point in his career, Tom Merriman worked at PAMS.
The trail had warmed a bit, yet the information in the matrix runout of “Dance the Slurp” was proving unhelpful, the string of letters and numbers failing to ring a bell for Gimarc. He is confident that the song was recorded at Sellers. In the archives he was able to track down the master recordings for other Slurpee “new flavor” jingles, as well as the masters for the B-side of “Dance the Slurp”—a mock interview conducted by Bob Stanford (a Southland advertising executive who’d coined the name Slurpee) with men and woman who experienced “strange things” while slurping—and definitively date those recordings to May 12, 1966. It’s a safe bet that the A-side was recorded around that time. Gimarc and I were able to determine the acronym “SJW” on the runout, which may refer to Wakefield Manufacturing, a Phoenix, Arizona, record plant, owned by Sidney J. Wakefield (“SJW”), where “Dance the Slurp” may have been pressed. Beyond these scant clues, we were stumped.
• • •
Gimarc might yet stumble upon the “Dance the Slurp” recording masters in the vast Sellers archives. (He’s promised to keep me posted.) For so many years I’d hoped to be able to put names and faces to the session musicians who played on “Dance the Slurp,” and perhaps track down other recordings on which the musicians had played. Chop-rich, they were likely hired to bang out a tune in the morning, another in the afternoon, producing agreeable playing and singing that were ideal for the beguiling hooks of radio jingles and station IDs.
Their names are lost to history; still, I want to know: who played the spare and surprisingly funky drums, blared the bright, variety show–style horns, stabbed at the hokey, teena-go-go compact organ, sang the word “slurp” in its many cheery iterations? And who are the musicians, tethered to headphones, who created the most fun and identifiable sounds on the record—the slurps themselves that sent my brothers and I into hysterics? “Tom and I both would work the lyrics out, and in this case the in-house ad agency had provided the basic theme,” Long remembers, “but one of the things we added when we did the rough audition was the sound of the straw slurp.” Slurp sounds used as percussion instruments—and in syncopation, no less!—was irresistible to me, as a fan of Slurpees and 1960s AM rock and roll and of-the-era go-go dancing. But Long dashed my childish conviction that the slurps were produced with authentic Slurpees, cups wielded in the studio by session musicians with as much aplomb and style as Jerome Green wielded his maracas. Rather, the slurp sounds were created via studio effect, though having known this at the time wouldn’t have stopped me from trying to recreate them, as I did, Slurpee in hand, in my suburban basement.
One thing is certain: “Dance the Slurp” was concocted with a singular objective, to move units. “7-Eleven were trying to hype themselves in creating, basically, the 1966 version of a viral video, something they hope becomes a massive hit,” Gimarc says. “But look who’s writing it and putting it together, a bunch of forty-year-olds, which, in 1966 was doom.” “Dance the Slurp” begins with a Peter Gunn-on-a-sugar-rush bass riff laid atop a danceable drumbeat. The musicians pause at the second bar, and the sound of two noisy, reverb-laden slurps fills the space. Following a brief drum fill, the groove resumes, only to pause again at the fourth bar, the space now filled by a man and woman singing “Slurp! Slurp!” doubled by an exuberant horn line. The following four bars repeat the musical themes, as bass, drums, and then horns and slurps fill out the sound and set the groove in motion. After the first verse, an additional bar is added (another thirsty slurp) and then sixteen bars follow as an organ and the horns answer each other in half-bar phrases, merrily joined by the singing Slurpers. A four-bar bridge follows, leading to an extended fifteen-bar passage where—spotlight on!—the slushy slurps thrown down on top of the drum beat in a syncopated, dance-floor whirl. The strutting horns and vocalists reenter for eight more bars, and then a sugar-crash sluuuuurp crescendo, and then the fade. It’s over in two minutes and ten seconds. The song’s as ridiculous as it sounds in translation, and as equally, and as ridiculously, fun and catchy.
The folks at Southland and 7-Eleven included an insert with the record, illustrated with a cheerful go-go-ing couple. The “How to do The Slurp” instructions explained, “Just follow the beat of the music naturally,” before helpfully adding, “Do The Frug and The Jerk.” The copywriters pedantically explain the steps:
When the chorus sings “Slurp-Slurp!” the boy and girl look over each other’s shoulder, first one side then the other, right in time with the “Slurp-Slurp” words . . . When the chorus sings the drawn-out “Sluuuurp,” the boy and girl reach wide with one foot and then slide the other up to it, once again in time with the “Sluuuurp” word. A little after the middle of the music, actual slurping sounds come out loud and clear . . . the boy and girl now rock their bodies backand-forth about as fast as they can!
By the middle of the 1960s, mini-skirted girls and their dance partners were getting a little weary of grooving. Unluckily, “Dance the Slurp” was recorded and released at the tail end of a highly commercial era: Shindig! aired its final episode on January 8, 1966, and Hullaballoo closed things down three months later. The Top 40 chart in May of 1966 was, at best, inhospitable to teen dance numbers: the Rolling Stones’s “Paint It, Black,” Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” Cher’s “Bang Bang,” Simon & Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound,” the Byrds’s “Eight Miles High,” and other iconic singles were vividly exploring interior states and sensual pleasures, pushing against and dissolving limits and boundaries in a way that made the twist sound and look like your parents’ dance. Indeed, I imagine that most kids who spun “Dance the Slurp” heard adults’ overeager if well-intentioned vocals exhorting them to slurp. This unhappy discovery, vying with a major sugar letdown, was a bad trip indeed.
By the time my brothers and I were listening to “Dance the Slurp,” over a decade had passed since Joey Dee and the Starliters tutored kids on the “Peppermint Twist”; years since Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon sang about his history teacher, Ms. Abigail Beecher, who dug red surfboards and doing the monkey; and more years since Chris Montez whipped up “Some Kind of Fun” dancing the stomp, the wobble, and the watusi (“Locomotion, here we come!”). My siblings and I were aware, in the longhaired Watergate and Patty Hearst era, that protest songs and FM radio and mind-altering drugs had long booted The Jerk out the back door, but we didn’t care, we just danced with adolescent joy, rocking our bodies back-and-forth about as fast as we could while laughing until irony caught up and lifted the needle.
• • •
A jingle is a song’s little brother, the one who’s forced to tag along at the game or the party and who ends up being a lot of fun to hang around with. He can do goofy imitations, make funny noises, and comes up with little sayings that people repeat the next morning. The girls think he’s cute. At the next party, someone asks if the little bro’s coming again. He’s a riot.
A few centuries ago, the word “jingle” referred simply to noise—pleasant enough noise, to be sure, small tinkling bells, a loosely linked chain, stray pieces of metal. Another usage developed earlier in history, and has run parallel: repetition of those sounds, or similar sounds, such as we hear in poetic language, and in any arrangement that results in a pleasing sound without having to make a whole lot of sense. In a word, catchy. This jingle is the basis for the irresistible nursery rhymes that live in us for a lifetime, of a memorable doorbell chime or vanity car horn, of your local auto parts radio commercial’s earworm, and NSYNC (and hundreds of other band’s Top 10 smash hits). By the 1930s, our contemporary usage of jingle was at hand, as advertising began to dominate middle class consumerism, and small, likeable musical passages were employed to get us to buy things, or to want to buy things, and to feel left out if we didn’t. You can’t help but hear the word “jingle” and think of the coins in your pocket or bag, clinking pleasingly, glinting in the jangly fluorescent light of the convenience store or supermarket after you’ve retrieved them. In Australian slang, “jingle” does indeed refer to pocket change.
In a sense, a jingle is the purest kind of music: notes arranged as a hook devoid of expression beyond itself. It gets in you as a featureless, transparent passage that might’ve been hummed a thousand years ago if not in the car on the way to work today. Paired with simple, easy-to-remember words, a jingle works because it works. Crass, a jingle’s frowned upon as purely commercial in intent, shallow in impulse; really, the pious songwriter is envious, wishing he could wield a hook as devastatingly memorable and enduring as the recognizable commercial jingles of the last seventy-odd years. I apologize in advance for the earworms, but think of the enduring Buy Mennen . . . . My Balogna has a first name . . . . Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there . . . . I’d like to teach the world to sing . . . . Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh, what a relief it is . . . . I don’t want to grow up, I’m a Toys “R” Us kid . . . . Not to mention countless regional examples.
At Creative Ready, an online radio and production site, Jamie Aplin cites the work of Alan Baddeley and Graham Hitch, who in 1974 “discovered what is now referred to as the phonological loop. This process consists of the phonological store (your ‘inner ear’) remembering sounds in chronological order and then the articulatory rehearsal system (your ‘inner voice’) repeating those sounds in order to retain them.” He adds, “This incredible brain function is vital to children when developing speech and vocabulary as well as adults when learning new languages.” At the jingle auditory level, the process is involuntary, and deeply pleasurable. If we judge a jingle because its primary function is to move units absent any complex artistic expression, do we betray our goofy smiles when we hear it, and sing along with it with our kids? Where’s the line—and is it a precise one?—between music as commodity and music as art? That old story.
• • •
On a gray, chilly day in March of 2006, Thomas Middleditch and Fernando Sosa, two Second City improv student-comics, stood on a sidewalk near a McDonald’s in Chicago’s Wrigleyville neighborhood and filmed a lo-fi, rudimentary rap about Chicken McNuggets, sending up a current commercial. “McDonalds was just starting its, like, urban campaign,” Middleditch explained to Sean Evans on Evans’s First We Feast YouTube series. “It’s all, like, Hey, two guys playin’ basketball, ‘Let’s go to McDonalds, like, whatever.’ And I just thought it was so transparently pandering. It rubbed me the wrong way.” Sosa beatboxed a hip-hop rhythm as Middleditch nerdily rapped over it in an obvious satire of white teens’ co-opting of African-American street style—and the rap was so funny, catchy, and smartly scorning that tens of thousands of YouTube viewers watched, commented on, and, most importantly, shared the video in its first year or so. Executives at McDonald’s noticed, bought the rights to the video (netting Middleditch and Sosa a nice chunk of change), and repurposed the rap into a consciously DIY ad extolling the virtues of McNuggets, squeezing out most of the duo’s irony. What began as a jeering satire of corporate pandering became a viral video and a million-dollar boon—from goof-off parody to slick promotion. It wouldn’t have happened if the jingle, however mockingly, wasn’t first an earworm.
“I love the backstory of songs that have these odd, unintended second lives,” Gimarc told me. “There was a song by Susan Shirley called ‘True Love and Apple Pie.’ It came out in 1971. It’s sung in English, and became a big hit in Denmark, Holland, and France. And then that song was purchased by an ad agency in America and had new lyrics put to it, and got turned into ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.’ And Coca-Cola probably used it for a decade. How’d you like to own the publishing on that?”
• • •
A couple of decades ago, my brothers Phil and Paul visited me in Illinois, a stop on their cross-country drive. While we were catching up, I pulled out my scratchy copy of “Dance the Slurp,” which I’d spirited from the family house when I’d moved to Ohio for graduate school. None of us had listened to the record in years; fifteen seconds in, we were collapsing in laughter, melting in nostalgia. Around the same time, in northern California, disc jockeys and music producers DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist were also listening.
“The first thing I think any child hears is commercial jingles and cartoon music and songs on Sesame Street. But I’m not going to pretend like that was a great, enormous influence because, at that time, you’re soaking up anything and everything that’s around you.” That’s Josh Davis, aka DJ Shadow speaking to writer Eliot Wilder. Davis grew up outside San Francisco, and while a student at University of California, Davis, in the early 1990s, began experimenting with making four-track mixes of obscure soul, funk, and R&B records, which he eventually distributed, building his reputation, first locally, and then internationally, as a genius turntabalist. His debut album, Endtroducing…, is a highly regarded, innovative masterpiece of trip hop. “And that is one thing I’ve always thought about, that music is just pervasive in our lives. But I also learned, at a certain point, that most people just don’t even think about it. They’re not affected by it either way, from the music that they hear in a department store or grocery store or on the radio.” He adds, “Some people, it affects them, and other people, it doesn’t.”
“Dance the Slurp” clearly affected Davis, and Cut Chemist, the stage name of Lucas MacFadden, a Los Angeles–based DJ and producer who’d been a member of the hip-hop groups Unity Collective and Jurassic 5. Davis and MacFadden sampled “Dance the Slurp” on their collaboration Brainfreeze, an astounding, fifty-two-minute live mix released in 1999 on Sixty7 Recordings, pressed in limited quantities of a thousand. (Due to high demand, the duo pressed another thousand, and then ceased production; Brainfreeze has since been bootlegged numerous times.) The CDs were sold during DJ Shadow’s 1999 U.S. tour and during Cut Chemist’s Word of Mouth tour with Jurassic 5 (as well as at two authorized record stores in California). The cover is a grainy color photograph of Davis and MacFadden posing in front of a Slurpee machine, each holding a copy of a “Dance the Slurp” 45 and peering through the center hole; the CD label features a reproduction of the original single’s label. Promoted on its insert as a “nonstop live mix of strictly 45s and exercise in vinyl destruction,” the two-track CD is comprised of fifty-six samples, ranging in length from several bars to several minutes, from seven-inch singles in Davis and MacFadden’s enormous, storied record collections. The sampled artists range from the recognizable (Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, Chuck Mangione, Albert King, the Mar-Keys), to the fairly well-known (Eddie Bo, Rufus Thomas, Original Soul Senders), to the obscure (the Mohawks, the Nu People, Wilbur Bascomb & The Zodiac, Singing Principal, the Vibrettes, et al.). The samples range from chunks of anti-drug PSAs and talky movie commercials to funky drum breaks, raw guitar solos, and blissy choruses from soul and R&B numbers.
If you’re paying attention and aren’t ecstatically zoned-out by the DJs’ hypnotic spell, thirty-five and a half minutes in to Brainfreeze you’ll hear a recognizable sound, a slurp deeply buried in the mix and then rising like a sonic bubble to the surface of Eddie Bo’s 1966 single “From This Day On.” The horns in Bo’s tune sound familiar—and soon enough Davis and MacFadden mix in the horns and vocals from “Dance the Slurp” and allow the song to play, virtually uninterrupted, for two minutes, one of the longer samples in Brainfreeze. The DJs slow down the tempo of “Dance the Slurp” by a tone or two for a few bars, more graphically for longer stretches, add reverb to and scratch the slurp sounds, manipulate the horns, loop the drum break. Mixing, Davis and MacFadden subtly change the form of “Dance the Slurp,” and thus its sound, and thus its meaning. And possibly its very purpose. They fundamentally alter the reasons the song might need to exist in the 21st century: less a commercial for a Slurpee than a context-free, pure sound groove, a smoothly moving piston in an engine of funk.
Merriman and Long, toiling in their jingle factory in Dallas, working with analog recording equipment, wouldn’t have dared imagine (and, given the unprecedented race of technology at the end of the century, likely couldn’t have imagined) what occurs in Brainfreeze: a spiked Slurp’s at the center of a wild all-nighter with a guest list as unlikely, and possibly as dangerous, as it is preposterously fun. “When I sample something, it’s because there’s something ingenious about it,” Davis says. “And if it isn’t the group as a whole, it’s that song. Or, even if it isn’t the song as a whole, it’s a genius moment, or an accident, or something that makes it just utterly unique to the other trillions of hours of records that I’ve plowed through.” The effect in Brainfreeze is to elevate the obscurity of a generically performed, novelty merchandise tie-in song to the level of prime and righteous, if sometimes equally obscure, soul and R&B. The nearly hour-long Brainfreeze invites Tom Merriman and Jim Long to the party, dynamically dramatizing, as the best sampling does, the egalitarian impulse behind music: mixing turns up the volume of the ongoing rhythm behind human expression, whether sampling a song that stiffed on the charts, was issued as a promotional record with no hope or interest in the charts, or sold in the millions.
Sometimes a sample leaps genres in startling ways. That’s Eva Gabor—aka Lisa Douglas, from the Green Acres theme song—in the chorus of Deee Lite’s impossibly fun 1990 dance-floor jam “Groove Is In The Heart.” Listen to the “I” in the line “I couldn’t ask for another.” That’s not the charming Lady Miss Kier but Lisa D, who’s actually proclaiming, a quarter century earlier, “I get allergic smelling hay!” A catchy hook’s a catchy hook. That Davis and MacFadden edit “Dance the Slurp” into Kraftwerk’s “Numbers,” from the band’s 1981 album Computerwelt, shows how tuned their ears are to the absurd, surprising, body-moving pleasures of sonic, culture-spanning simultaneity: a danceof-the-week number already hopelessly square when it was released grabs the glossy, cool hand of electronic avant-garde krautrock synth-pop and . . . well, the point is, don’t think too much about it, just hit the dance floor.
Describing Endtroducing…, Davis says, “I was trying to find a sound different from everybody else’s, so the source material had to be different from everybody else’s. I was looking for records that I felt like were really obscure. Whether those were funk 45s, which nobody was up on yet, or kind of weird rock albums.” Co-conspirator MacFadden shares Davis’s take on the possibilities opened up by sampling. “I really appreciate novelty records with drum breaks,” he told me. “It’s something I think beat diggers are attracted to probably because it’s the least likely place to find one.” MacFadden first heard about “Dance the Slurp” from Z-Trip, a Phoenix-based DJ and producer. “He’d found out about it from an extended Beastie Boy member named AWOL, and I immediately was intrigued.” He added, “I told Shadow, and, of course, he found it fairly soon after. I think I got mine from a seller out here in Los Angeles a little bit after Shadow got his.” Mixing and “playing old music for a new crowd” intrigues and moves MacFadden. “I doubt anyone had ever heard this jingle, and to blend it with Kraftwerk just seemed to be the right context to put it in. ‘Slurp’ became a household name with 45 collectors after that. We’ve since moved on to using Cola and Milk jingle drum breaks for later projects.”
My brother Paul carried “Dance the Slurp” inside of himself for decades as he dragged his record collection with him from suburban Washington, D.C., to San Francisco to Manhattan—where he worked for several years in a jingle factory—to Berlin, where he now lives, and DJs and releases music under the name Snax. In 2002, he collaborated with the musician Kahn in the electro-disco duo Captain Comatose. In “Theme From Captain Comatose,” the lead track on their album Going Out, those old drums and horns from “Dance the Slurp” pop up, repurposed as the jumpy foundation and funky, leap-from-the-turntable breaks in a dance-floor jam. Some music just gets in and stays in.
• • •
Crate diving, beat digging, Shadow and Chemist recognized and celebrated one of Merriman and Long’s prime goals: get up and dance, kids. The kinds of jingles that Merriman, Long, and so many others composed in a different context, in another life, now take on new values—rhythmic, cultural, sensual—in the hands of turntabalists. But sometimes this new value comes at a cost. Witness the waves of lawsuits brought by copyright holders against DJs and artists in recent decades: once a record with samples begins to sell, the boundaries of permissions and uses can quickly tighten up. I broached the topic of such legal issues with Gimarc when we spoke. He searched the records of ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) and BMI (Broadcast Music), the two largest United Sates performance rights organizations committed to controlling and protecting artists’ copyrights. After a minute of silence, he muttered, with a tone of mild disbelief in his voice, “Did they really never register this thing? I’m looking through ASCAP and BMI, and I don’t see it under Merriman. He’s an ASCAP guy. I’m just really shocked. I would’ve thought that once it started getting sampled that somebody would’ve registered it, just to makes sure. Southland did have something to defend after Brainfreeze was released, but they probably never had any intention of it going to a place where it would actually get used on the radio or in a movie or a TV commercial, or something outside of their control, which would be the only way you’d necessitate registering with ASCAP or BMI.”
I asked MacFadden about a lawsuit that the Southland Corporation was rumored to have brought against him and Davis. “It never went beyond a cease and desist letter,” he explained. “It was being bootlegged all over the world and making tons of money that didn’t go to us. Although we didn’t press more than 2,000 copies, the project went on to gain so much traction that they saw us as the ones being responsible, so of course we complied, even though we never planned on making anymore, and we explained to them that we weren’t in control of the bootleggers, so it may still be manufactured by someone other than us.” Meanwhile, MacFadden was struck by a bold marketing idea of his own. “I was trying to pitch them putting me and Shadow in a television commercial mixing doubles of ‘Dance the Slurp’.” Southland passed.
“I think they really slept on a hip campaign idea,” MacFadden sighed. “Oh, well.”
Joe Bonomo's collection of music essays is Field Recordings from the Inside. His new book, No Place I Would Rather Be: Roger Angell, a Writer's Life in Baseball, is forthcoming in 2019. Find him at No Such Thing As Was (nosuchthingaswas.com) @BonomoJoe.