ROCHESTER, Minn. — “Surfin’ Bird” could have been one of the most annoying and forgettable novelty tunes in the history of rock ‘n’ roll music.
Instead, it became the No. 1 hit in Minnesota in early 1964, and made it to No. 4 nationally. “Surfin’ Bird,” recorded by the Trashmen, was by far the biggest hit by a Minnesota act up to that time. The band seemed on the verge of nationwide stardom.
In the early 1960s, the Trashmen had set the pace as the best and most popular combo in the state. Dressed in suits and ties, with their hair slicked back in the early Elvis mode, the Trashmen were anything but trashy. Their performances at Twin Cities dances were spiked with raw, but still relatively tame, rock ‘n’ roll. The members — Tony Andreason, Dal Winslow, Bob Reed and Stever Wahrer — developed a huge following. Local fans believed it was only a matter of time before the Trashmen hit the big time.
To do that, they would need a song — not just any song, but something truly distinctive.
The Trashmen were dedicated to keeping up on the latest trends in popular music. In 1962-63, surf music was the wave to ride, and the Trashmen made a couple of trips to California to see what this fad was all about. Out there, the Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, the Surfaris and others were recording odes to sun, surf and hot rods that were becoming nationwide hits.
So, the Trashmen came back to frozen Minnesota and added surf tunes to their set list while searching for that elusive hit song.
It came almost by accident when the Trashmen on stage one night combined into one song two West Coast hits, “The Bird’s the Word” and “Papa Oom Mow Mow,” and gave them a surf-style spin with a dose of grit. The audience went wild.
So did record-buyers when the song, given the new title of “Surfin’ Bird,” was released on the small local Soma label on Nov. 13, 1963. Within a week, 38,000 copies of the record had been sold, according to Rick Shefchik’s 2015 book, “Everybody’s Heard about the Bird.” “No local group or artist had ever sold so many records so fast,” Shefchik wrote.
In early December, with the nation reeling from the Nov. 22 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a mindless song like “Surfin’ Bird” filled a need in the collective psyche of American youth.
The record exploded nationally, with airplay from coast to coast. In January 1964, “Surfin’ Bird” seemed poised for the top of the national record charts, which were based on sales and airplay.
Then came the tsunami bigger than surf music: The Beatles.
On Feb. 1, 1964, The Beatles’ first American hit, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” jumped past “Surfin’ Bird” on the charts and went to No. 1, where it stayed for seven consecutive weeks.
The Trashmen carried on for a few years, but were never able to equal the success of the admittedly whacky “Surfin’ Bird.”
But the Trashmen are still viewed fondly by fans and music critics. The All Music Guide calls the Trashmen “one of the great American teen band combos of all time” and rates the band’s debut 1964 album five out of a possible five stars.
As for “Surfin’ Bird,” the song has been part of the soundtrack of several films and TV shows, including “Full Metal Jacket,” “E.T. the Extraterrestrial” and “Family Guy.”
Minnesota’s Trashmen, in other words, were more than just a novelty.