Side by Side 75: A 7-Eleven Musical reviewed by Kim Cooper
There are those who look askance at people who buy records from the Salvation Army quarter bin. These are the same folks who buy Primus CDs new, so I don't really feel any need to be embarrassed over my grubby vinyl rooting fingers. They can look down their noses all they like, because they're stupid and would never understand.
But you do. You know that the best records are the most fucked up records. That Black Oak Arkansas says more to you than Guns ‘N Roses ever could. That Word Records of Waco, Texas (feature story forthcoming) outshines Dischord for sheer consistence of creative vision. And that Andy Williams' version of "God Only Knows" carries a cringe factor so high that root canal would almost be preferable to a second listen.
But these are common discoveries; delightful, but not rare. There are also records so incredible that when you find one it's like you've unearthed a ruby in a dung-hill. One such album was bought by Mister Grady Runyan in the Pacific Northwest. The name of that record is "Side by Side 75."
The year was indeed 1975, and the Southland Corporation had just had the best year in its history. President Jere W. Thompson called his managers together for a gigantic blow-out convention. He wanted to thank them, and their families, for the fine jobs they were doing upholding the 7-Eleven standard of quality. As an extra special treat, Thompson commissioned The Stanford Agency to compose a live musical as the climax of the convention. The Stanford Agency gave Larry Muhoberac, a genius, the task of writing this musical.
Even if you've never crawled naked down Sunset Blvd. for a Coca-Cola Slurpee, this record will touch you in a special place. It elegantly spells out the unique attributes of America's favorite convenience store with an insider's perception that is probably new to you. So not only is the music great, but the record is also a learning experience. Admit it: you never gave much thought to what it was like behind the counter of a mini-mart. Or even if you did pull the midnight-to-six shift a few times in high school, you failed to get into the head-space of the store's owner-manager. But maybe you should have, because to judge by the frantic overcompensation on "Side By Side 75," the owner-managers--at least at this stage in Southland's development--were ready to go on a mass killing spree at the corporate headquarters. The convention and musical were clearly meant to unruffle some seriously disordered tail feathers and to spread a corporate message of love and togetherness.
Did it work? Let's examine the evidence. "Oh Thank Heaven," the first number, is described in the liner notes as "a musical happening!" (Remember, this is 1975, not 1966.) And it really is a happening of sorts, with its oscillating electronic waves and inspired chants of "Everybody's doing it," "Save on everything," "If it's not around the house it's just around the corner," "Hot to go,","Oh thank heaven for 7-Eleven," and the ever popular "Drink cups, drink cups." Sort of a nightmarish melange of all the advertising slogans you thought you'd forgotten, as performed by K-Tel's version of Kraftwerk. If I had a reel-to-reel player I'd examine this song for subliminal messages: "You will sit quietly in your seat and not launch yourself at Jere's throat..."
"What Would We Do Without You/Side By Side" purports to be "an exciting medley of two great musical numbers [that] sets the pace of the show as well as the theme for our 1975 Convention. The two song titles along with the lyrics really do say what we all feel... that we're all in this together. What would we do without each other?" Probably have much lower blood pressure. A terrible, off-key male voice intones, "If we have a dis-a-GREE-ment/ You bring the CEE-ment/ I'll bring the glue." Because while "we're gonna gripe/ And maybe complain/ Believing in each other/ That is our aim." There follows a spoken litany of managerial complaints: "You know, sometimes these corporate guys do have some pretty nifty ideas... some times;" "For years I thought our merchandizing manager knew what he was doing." "Where'd you get that idea?" "Beats me."; "Talk about corporate ideas--the only thing good about Hot To Go is the name... but who's gonna eat the name?" And yet all gripes are just so much dryer lint in the wind as a cheery chorus pipes in with Southland's credo: "Togetherness is what we're after/ From now on we'll just hear laughter/ Side by side by side." The tap dance percussion is an especially welcome touch. Snork...yeah, this number always breaks me up.
"Ring Them Bells" is, simply, "a story about a guy who looked all over the world for his niche, a place to do his thing. And after all that searching he found it in the form of a little 7-Eleven store right back in his home town." The young man's adventures are rattled off at breakneck speed, with my favorite being the quite incomprehensible statement (with appropriate sound effects) that, "then he ran a cafe up in Washington state/ But then the blue plate special broke and so he broke the blue plate." After failing in Washington he tries Alaska, and it's there that he has a near epiphany upon seeing a bright red and green 7-Eleven sign looming over the tundra. Touching, ain't it?
If there's a hit single on "Side By Side 75," it must be "I'm Not Getting Married." Imagine, if you dare, the most shrill, irritating female voice you've ever heard. Something like Kate Smith's bellow mixed with Phyllis Diller's "wacky" enunciation and Charles Nelson Reilly's staccato phrasing. Can you hear it? Is your spine twitching? Good. Now multiply that feeling tenfold and you have the effect of the singer of "I'm Not Getting Married," who is either Lette Rehnolds or Nancy Meyers. The song alternates between saccharine sweet evocations of the holy bond between an owner-manageress and her store, and the cold-footed bride's frantic attempts to talk herself out of the "marriage." The male counterpoint effuses, "Bless this day woman joins the store/ Benefits galore." But Lette-Nancy is having none of it, and spouts her distaste in no uncertain way. Since she doesn't want to open a 7-Eleven, she is of course just another hysterical female, "Bless this girl totally insane/ Slipping down the drain/ And bless this swain in whose heart/ She has caused such pain." Lette-Nancy spits back, "Go, won't you go? Look you know I adore you all but why must I try for a wholesale ratio?... I don't like ice cream, I hate cottage cheese, I don't like kids, I hate green peas. Thank you all for the training school, thanks a lot but I'm no fool... I'M NOT GONNA DO IT!" But when the wedding bells chime in Lette-Nancy's sentiment gets the best of her, "Well, I guess I'm gonna do it." And a heavenly choir looks up from their chili dogs to bless the union..."Amen."
Of course "SBS 75" wouldn't be complete without an interminable rock opera. "Another Hundred People Just Came into the Store" is "a ‘today' statement about our stores and our company's history." It is also funky as an old pair of shorts, and sung to the tune of "Ode to Billy Joe." The chain's history is spelled out in verse: from Jody Thompson's Texas ice dock of 1927 through the mass birth of identical 7-Eleven stores along the East coast and all across America. The best lyrics are in the "interesting business" section; let me share some with you. "A half a dozen kids who collected the cups/ They just happened by/ So they moseyed around/ Making that Slurpee sound/ Really slurping it down." "It's an interesting business/ Some come to leave some to stay/ And everyday/ The ones who stay are frolicking (?!) in the split pea soup and the dairy vault/ Selling hot to go with a pretty smile/ ‘Hey lady, where's the salt?'/ The slurp machine's broken and the bread's not here/ It's not my fault!" And, "I'm coming and going when I change the shift we meet at the door/ Then I hired a guy who was born to drift, left with half the store... /But I love the business anyway, now isn't that great?"
The last two numbers are pretty disposable. An exceptionally irritating song called "It's You" ("It's not Judy Garland or Spanky McFarland/ It's you!") sounds like the kind of music they play in Farrell's ice cream parlors, and the performance closes with that old campfire favorite "We've (?) Got the Whole World in Our Hands."
It doesn't matter. The first five songs are enough to earn "SBS 75" the title of thrift store find of the decade. "Side By Side 75" is insidiously catchy. If you ever hear it you'll soon be singing its verses to the horror of anyone unfortunate enough to be near you. And yet, as connoisseurs of bad taste we feel compelled to make this offer: if you really want to hear this unbelievable artifact, send us a blank cassette (a C60 is fine) and return postage and we'll make you a copy. But don't say we didn't warn you about the brain damage that will result. If you've ever needed Tampax and a cream soda at 3 a.m., this record speaks to you. Indeed, it speaks to us all. (this appreciation originally appeared in Scram #1, Summer 1992. Free tape offer no longer available-- god knows where the damn thing is today!)