Minneapolis, MN

The Trashmen's 'Surfin' Bird'

Frank Mastropolo

The Band’s Founding Members Recall the Classic That Influenced Punk Rock

Photo byCharly Records UK

On November 13, 1963 the Trashmen released the surf rock classic “Surfin’ Bird.” Despite its sound, the band recorded the song 2,000 miles away from the sun, sand and surf of Southern California.

By 1962, the Trashmen had developed a loyal following in Minneapolis, where they played covers of tunes by Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis at roller rinks, armories and ballrooms. Drummer and lead singer Steve Wahrer, lead guitarist Tony Andreason, rhythm guitarist Dal Winslow and bassist Bob Reed were in their teens when they formed what would become the prototypical garage band.

Later that year, a trip to California by Wahrer, Andreason and Winslow would change the band’s musical direction. Andreason says that he immediately fell under the spell of the Southern California surf.

“I had never seen the ocean. I had never been even close to the ocean. I remember when we saw it, I just went out on the beach and I just sat there staring at it.”

At Huntington Beach, the band fell in with some local surfers, who introduced them to the infectious beat of surf rock.

"Pipeline" by the Chantays

“We hadn’t really heard it before,” Andreason said. “The Chantays had a song out at the time, “Pipeline,” and we heard Dick Dale, so we went and bought every Dick Dale record we could find.”

Dick Dale is credited with launching the surf music craze in the 1950s. Called “The King of the Surf Guitar,” Dale used his distinctive reverb to evoke the roar of the ocean in songs like “Misirlou.” The Trashmen returned to Minnesota, determined to reinvent themselves as a landlocked surf band.

"Misirlou" by Dick Dale

“We just fell in love with that sound,” says Winslow. “People had heard of the Beach Boys, of course, but they hadn’t heard of the real surf music that Dick was playing. It went over like crazy.”

In the summer of 1963, the Trashmen played the Country Dam, a dance hall in Amery, Wisconsin. There they heard another popular Midwest group, the Sorenson Brothers, who wowed the crowd with a song called, “The Bird’s the Word.”

“We got a bang out of it,” says Winslow, “It was really the first time we heard it.”

Later that year, in the back room of Chubb’s Ballroom in Minneapolis, Steve Wahrer announced that he’d like to perform a warp-speed version of the Sorenson Brothers’ tune, but not in his normal voice. Wahrer, who often experimented with different singing styles, cracked the band up when he demonstrated a new, raspy growl. The result would become a rock classic: “Surfin’ Bird.” Its most memorable element was an insane vocal break midway through the song, which Reed says Wahrer created for a reason.

“We’d do the song several times a night so he basically needed a break; in the middle of a song you can’t stop and take a breather and then go again. He finally decided, well, you gotta put something in there, so he just came up with a bunch of gibberish.”

The song was an immediate hit at record hops staged by local disc jockey Bill Diehl, “The Rajah of the Records,” who encouraged the band to commit “Surfin’ Bird” to vinyl. Crowd response caught the attention of Soma Records; the Minneapolis indie label produced its records at Kay Bank Studio, a small, no-frills operation.

"Surfin' Bird" by the Trashmen

“We did that song live and I was facing Steve, I was just 10 feet away from him,” says Andreason. “I don’t know how many times you could actually do that song before your voice would go. It wasn’t more than a couple of takes.”

“When we recorded it, we did it in two halves,” adds Winslow. “Steve did the first half and then stopped and picked up and did the second half. Then he did the middle and that was all spliced together.”

Released in November 1963, the song was an immediate hit, reaching No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. The Trashmen would soon learn that the song’s roots reached back to the West Coast, but not to surf rockers like Dick Dale. “Surfin’ Bird” was inadvertently based on two songs by the Rivingtons, a doo wop group formed in Los Angeles in the early ‘60s.

"Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow" by the Rivingtons

Lead singer Carl White, baritone Sonny Harris, tenor Al Frazier and bass singer Turner “Rocky” Wilson Jr. had harmonized in various vocal groups since 1953. In 1962 they teamed as the Rivingtons and their debut single, “Papa Oom Mow Mow,” was a novelty hit. It was bass man Wilson who created the “papa oom mow mow” hook one day while kidding around in the studio; his repetition of the phrase fueled the song’s popularity. All four members of the Rivingtons shared the writing credits, as they would a year later on “The Bird’s the Word.”

"The Bird's the Word" by the Rivingtons

When “Surfin’ Bird” became a success, the Rivingtons’ publishers complained. Despite the Trashmen’s complete reworking of the two songs, which dropped the verses and combined the choruses, full writing credits for “Surfin’ Bird” were turned over by the Trashmen’s management to the doo wop group.

“The way we did it was so much different, so much faster,” says Winslow. “And that shows you how naïve we were. We should have said, ‘Look, we’ll split it with you. That is not the same song that you guys did.’”

On the strength of “Surfin’ Bird,” the Trashmen toured non-stop, appearing with the Four Seasons, Jan and Dean, Frankie Avalon and other pop stars of the ’60s. When American Bandstand was unwilling to pay for the entire band’s trip to appear on the dance show, Steve Wahrer, who died in 1989, lip-synched the song on his own. “Surfin’ Bird” became so popular that fans created their own “Bird” dances.

“Surfin’ Bird” enjoyed a resurgence in popularity when it was covered by punk rockers the Ramones in 1997 and the Cramps in 1978; perhaps that’s why the Trashmen are often characterized as pioneers of punk rock. Andreason thinks that’s ridiculous.

“We weren’t anything close to a punk band. We wore suits on stage, we all dressed alike, white shirt, tie, tab shirts. When I look back on it, we were real straight. We’re just a garage band.”

In 2008, “Surfin’ Bird” won a new generation of fans when the tune appeared in the Fox TV animated comedy Family Guy; it has been used periodically ever since. Winslow says that if there’s a secret to the song’s longevity, it’s that it has no deep meaning.

"Surfin' Bird" on Family Guy

“It’s a great rock and roll song, it’s not about pain and killing and everything else. It’s just hot.”

“I think it’s endured because it was so different,” says Andreason. “It’s kind of an ear worm song, you hear it and it just sticks in your mind.”

Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever and New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make New York Rock, selected by Best Classic Bands as two of the Best Music Books of 2021 and 2022

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Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever and New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make New York Rock, selected by Best Classic Bands as two of the Best Music Books of 2021 and 2022. He is also the author of the What's Your Rock IQ? Trivia Quiz Book series; Ghost Signs: Clues to Downtown New York's Past, winner of the 2021 Independent Publishers Book Award; and Ghost Signs 2: Clues to Uptown New York's Past. Mastropolo is a photographer, and former ABC News 20/20 writer and producer, winner of the Alfred I. DuPont–Columbia University silver baton. His photography is featured in the Bill Graham Rock & Roll Revolution exhibition.

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