Hey guys, Ernie here with another piece from David Buck, who knows the truth about the Surfin’ Bird. Previously, he was talkin’ Y2K.
Today in Tedium: In a recent Tedium piece, Ernie posed the question: “Can one become nostalgic for abrasive noises?” He was referring to alarm clocks, but that got me thinking about songs others may find annoying or abrasive like “It’s Halloween” by the Shaggs, just about anything by the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, and an old surf song that seems to keep popping up in my life—“Surfin’ Bird.” I once owned a 45 RPM record of “Surfin’ Bird” by The Trashmen. Despite its repetitive lyrics and abrasive vocals, I must’ve listened to the silly thing a few hundred times as a kid. There’s no accounting for taste. Lately, I’ve seen the song pop up in some unexpected places and I’m amazed at the mark this one-off novelty tune has left on the pop culture landscape. — David @ Tedium
Today’s GIF comes from the American Bandstand performance of “Surfin’ Bird.” Of the song, Dick Clark said: “If you were to review back and think of all the strange and unusual sounds of 1963, I guess this one would have to win an award of some sort.”
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The amount of the first royalty payment The Trashmen received for the song. Trashmen guitarist Dal Winslow had his check framed instead of cashing it back in 1964. It now resides in the basement of his Minnesota home, along with other Trashmen memorabilia. “Surfin’ Bird” spent 13 weeks on the Billboard Charts, peaking at #4 on Jan, 25 1964. The song has a surprisingly long history and continues to resonate one way or another with many people today. The B-side of “Surfin’ Bird,” “King of the Surf,” failed to chart at all.
The band whose hits strongly inspired “Surfin’ Bird”
In 1962, a popular Los Angeles doo-wop group had a hit with a song composed primarily of nonsense syllables. A deep bass voice begins singing, accompanied by the rest of the group’s divine vocal harmonies. The song, “Papa-oom-mow-mow” is fun, laid back, highly melodic and became a hit on the Billboard charts that year.
One year later, the Rivingtons recorded “The Bird’s the Word,” enjoying further chart success and exposing the world to the fun, upbeat tune that would become the foundation for another big hit from 1963—“Surfin’ Bird.”
“Legend tells us the Trashmen sometimes delighted their audiences by traveling to their gigs in a real garbage truck. They might be just another game on the collector’s auction lists that if their drummer—the late Steve Wahrer—hadn’t (I presume) gargled razor blades before taking the lead vocals on “Surfin’ Bird.”
— Dr. Demento, in the liner notes of The Dr. Demento 20th Anniversary Collection, released in 1990.
So where did The Trashmen come from, anyway?
It all began with a garage band from Minnesota called The Trashmen, whom—contrary to some accounts—were not Trash men themselves. The name was based on a song they wrote as teens called “Trashmen Blues.” The band started playing both songs at local shows. The band heard “Papa-oom-mow-mow” and “Bird’s the Word” performed by a Wisconsin cover band one night and decided to incorporate the tunes into their own set.
The band’s drummer and singer, Steve Wahrer, decided to experiment with combining the two songs during a gig and “Surfin’ Bird” was the result. The band then recorded the song, which became popular on local radio, eventually hitting the national charts. The band recorded a 12-song album named after their famous song.
The album is mostly instrumental, fun and readily available on streaming services and online. It’s worth every reverb-soaked minute of surf music goodness.
The song has certainly stood the test of time and is quite well known over 50 years later. It even has some famous fans. Rolling Stone magazine says undisputed king of song parodies, “Weird Al” Yankovic loves this song. There’s certainly some validity to this, as a snippet of “Surfin’ Bird” appears in the famous “Yoda Chant” that Al and the band have performed during concert encores since 1991.
Everything isn’t all rosy, however—the Rivingtons sued the Trashmen for plagiarism and are now credited as the songwriters of the song.
The number of times the song has been heard—usually slowed to 16 RPM in the middle—on the Dr. Demento Show. The formerly syndicated comedy and novelty radio program may be partially responsible for the song’s continuing popularity in pop culture. The show has been known to revitalize careers—the resurgence of the 1946 song “Shaving Cream” by Benny Bell in the 1970s and its subsequent hit status in 1975 were the direct result of of its popularity in The Dr. Demento Show. Despite the song’s popularity on his radio show, Dr. Demento rarely plays it at normal speed. When the song came out, he was playing the record on a four-speed record player, and decided to slow it down in the middle, to 16 RPM. He and his friends thought it was funny at the time. When he became Dr. Demento, he remembered this and “Surfin’ Bird meets the Creature from the Black Lagoon” was born. You can listen to this version on several older Dr. Demento Shows, most recently on this show from 2015, over at his official website.
Three times movies and a TV show used “Surfin’ Bird” to meaningfully advance the plot
1. Back to the Beach—This 1987 beach movie stars Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon. The movie functions as a parody of the 1960s Beach Party films for which the two were well-known. While it began as the brainchild of Frankie Avalon, the film eventually had 17 writers mold it into the fine piece of cinema it is today. THe best part of the film is when Pee-Wee Herman— the persona of comedian/actor Paul Reubens—performs “Surfin’ Bird” for a crowd of dancing teenagers at the beach. The performance is complete with some fun-house mirror weirdness, Pee-Wee Herman uttering his trademark laugh while dancing energetically and back-up dancers clad in tacky orange clothes and various wigs. It’s certainly a sight to behold.
2. Full Metal Jacket—In this tense scene from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, the viewer witnesses a standoff between U.S. forces and the Viet Cong, ending in victory. The aftermath is then documented by a trio of soldiers using an old camera and boom mic. The song fits here—a well crafted bit of cognitive dissonance that genuinely serves the plot.
3. Family Guy—Of course this would be on the list. It’s probably the single most egregious use of the song in recent pop culture. In the 2008 episode “I Dream of Jesus,” lead character Peter Griffin acquires a copy of the 45 RPM record (maybe that’s what happened up my copy!) and begins to play the song ad nauseum to the chagrin of the characters around him.
Eventually, the record is (literally) broken. Peter wins in the end, however, when he is given the ability to make the song play through the air around him, sans record. Never content to make something a one-time joke, the writers of Family Guy have sprinkled “Surfin’ Bird” throughout numerous episodes. In 2014, comedy rapper the Great Luke Ski collaborated with Chris Mezzolesta of the band Power Salad to remixed the points where Peter sings the song and create something resembling a full-length version of “Surfin’ Bird.” It’s not for sale, nor does it seem available on YouTube, but it can be heard on this Dr. Demento Show from 2014 (heads up: it’s also a $2 stream). The Family Guy episode is readily available on DVD and Hulu.
The year Pringles unveiled their “Pringles Now” ad campaign. The commercial stars a young Taj Mowry—brother of the stars of the then-popular ABC sitcom Sister Sister—as the kid unleashing a Pringles-based version of “Surfin’ Bird” as other folks happily crunch the potato chips while the song plays on. Fun and not greasy, uh-huh (uh-huh, uh-huh).
Hey! You got surf in my punk!
Outside TV and film, the song has been covered numerous times since its peak popularity in 1964. Most of these have been in the rich vein of punk rock.
Outsider rockabilly/punk outfit The Cramps recorded their own raucous cover version of the song as the A-side of a single in 1978 (the B-side was “The Way I Walk”). The band had already been performing the song live for few years prior. Another band saw them perform the song live and decided to add it to their own shows, eventually committing it to tape themselves.
The Ramones—whom Paste Magazine refers to as “the quintessential American punk band”—covered the song on side two of 1977’s Rocket to Russia album [Amazon link]. As the penultimate song on the record, it neatly wraps up an overall strong record. This version is more straight ahead punk rock, with a clearly defined vocal and superb guitar playing with just the right amount of crunch and noise. Oh, and they nail the “papa-oom-mow-mow” section with magnificent aplomb and skill.
As a completely unrelated bonus, Rocket to Russia contains one of my favorite Ramones songs, “Teenage Lobotomy,” along with several other classic Ramones songs.
Other artists have covered the song, but none as well known—or as good—as The Cramps and the Ramones. The song works as well as a punk song as it does surf music. Outsider artist No Bunny did a superb version of his own on the recent Dr. Demento Covered in Punk double album, released Jan. 12, 2018.
And then there’s The Radioactive Chicken Heads. The California-based band covers a wide variety of songs, compete with theatrical staging and a punk rock aesthetic. On the recent reboot of The Gong Show, the band performed their cover version of “Surfin’ Bird”—until they were gonged. It’s a shame, too, because the band’s rendition of the song is skillful and superb, with just the right amount of zaniness.
“The song keeps getting used in the most random ways, which is good for us.”
— Bob Reed, bass player for The Trashmen, during a 2015 interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The band occasionally gets together for shows based on whatever random offers come in. And a lot of random things come in.
The Trashmen remained active as a band for five years. In 1967, the band amicably called it quits. Before their run concluded, they’d released ten 45 RPM records—many of them surf songs playing off the bird theme of their one and only hit—played over 200 shows the previous year, appeared on American Bandstand (Steve lip-synched “Surfin’ Bird”) and released a full-length LP, considered one of the first rock and roll albums to be produced and recorded in Minnesota, per official history at the band’s official Minnie Paul Music page.
Sadly, the original drummer and lead singer of “Surfin’ Bird,” Steve Wahrer, died at the age of 47 in 1989. The Trashmen, however, continued on, reuniting and performing numerous times through the years, as recently as 2015. The song even hit #3 in the UK charts in 2010—not bad for a goofy little surf tune.
Their song has stood the test of time to become a pop cultural phenomenon that will delight fans new and old for generations to come. Guess it’s not so abrasive after all.
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