Birdland Revisited

Thirty-five years ago teen rock like the Trashmen's "Surfin' Bird" caught a wave across the prairies--and rode it into adulthood

In the brief moment between JFK's assassination and the Beatles' appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, the Trashmen ruled teenage America. These four garage-rockers, hailing from Robbinsdale and Minneapolis, scored a nationwide hit in the fall of 1963 with "Surfin' Bird," a mindless and insistent bit of proto-punk yammering that mowed its way through safe, early-'60s pop radio like Jaws in a Gidget movie.

"That was hard rock then," remembers Charles Shoen, who founded the Del Counts, one of the dozens of bands that came together during the mid-'60s in the wake of "Surfin' Bird." "It was the sound that replaced Elvis and Carl Perkins."

The sound also sparked something Minnesota had never seen before: a pop explosion. Suddenly, the possibility of overnight success loomed large for scores of guitar-wielding teens in sharp suits and skinny ties, many of whom were already mainstays on the same frenzied Upper Midwest teenybopper circuit the Trashmen toured. The ballrooms, school dances, and soda-pop clubs of Mid-America became stomping grounds for local garage-rockers like the Accents and the Avanties, who soon cut records of their own. And although only the falsettoed Castaways, with their hit "Liar, Liar," were able to register nationally, these bands waged guerrilla war against the coming British invasion with a bracing series of regional hits.

Babes in teenland: The Castaways strike a pose
Babes in teenland: The Castaways strike a pose

What's striking now about these souvenirs from Teenland, collected on the new Big Hits of Mid-America compilation (see "Surf's Up, Ole!", page 49), is how confident and catchy even the big misses were. The singles, averaging two minutes and 20 seconds each, capture a mid-'60s moment that the musicians now describe as "innocent" and "uncomplicated." This was the one-hit wonderland of That Thing You Do!, Tom Hanks's film about a fictional Ur-teen band from Erie, Pa., called "the One-ders," who achieve success with one sunshiny single.

But the moment was fleeting: The war began drafting band members for service in Vietnam, and those left behind found the scene besieged by flower children and acid rock.

"It got depressing," says Shoen. "Kids didn't go out to dance anymore: They'd sit at home looking at candles and smoking dope." Of course, there was a lot to be depressed about, and the cheeky appeal of a band like Dudley & the Doo Rytes was understandably lost on Dylan fans. Too often, nostalgia for the early '60s seems to mask a don't ask/don't tell view of American history--a longing for the days when Kennedy bombed the shit out of Vietnam in secrecy while Ronnie Spector begged us to be her baby.

Yet there was a more fundamental difference between that world of regional hits and regional tours and the coming of the global rock era heralded by Sgt. Pepper's. Just ask the fiftysomethings involved in the recent series of local '60s-rock reunions, like this Saturday's Big Hits release party at the Cabooze, which features the Underbeats, the Trashmen, the Del Counts, the High Spirits, and the Castaways. These guys--they're all guys--will describe a pop democracy, an era when local singles got local airplay, when bands played just for the fun of it, and when audiences came ready to dance.

"I was at the Danceland Ballroom in Excelsior watching the Underbeats play 'Footstomping,'" recalls Castaways keyboardist Jim Donna, "and the kids were literally stomping their feet so hard on the floor that the owner came up and stopped the band. He was afraid of structural damage." Danceland was merely the largest of six or seven local dance halls, most of them drawing up to a thousand teens on any given night. Though the Prom Center in St. Paul lasted longest, the venues clustered around the intersection of Lake and Nicollet in Minneapolis--Mr. Lucky's, Mr. Magoo's, and the New City Opera House--became a Teenland hangout. "The Del Counts could have played every night of the week," recalls Shoen, whose band played regularly at the Marigold Ballroom on 13th and Nicollet.

"When you went to a place like Danceland, there was this electricity in the air before the band went on," remembers Trashmen guitarist Tony Andreason. And once things kicked off, bands would feed off the intensity in the room and the dancers' requests. "Kids would want to hear new songs on the radio," remembers Cliff Siegel, singer of the High Spirits. "We once played 'Satisfaction' three times in a single night."

"The Trashmen were stars to us, but they were also fan-friendly," says Tom Tourville, who helped compile Big Hits and followed the band in their heyday. "If you wanted to buy a 45, they'd sell you a record right off the bandstand. A lot of the bands drove hearses, and they'd go to the hearse and pull a poster out of the back and sign one for you."

In this fancentric climate, the Trashmen decided to record "Surfin' Bird" only after it inspired a powerful audience response. "We kind of put it together in the dressing room of Chubb's Ballroom," remembers Andreason. "[Drummer] Steve [Wahrer] used his voice, and he was laughing like crazy. And so he said, 'I'll just go and do Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow until I shake my head and tell you when to change.' And he did that and the crowd reaction was just incredible." Of course, the song was a little more self-conscious than that anecdote implies. Wahrer's vocal simultaneously ripped off two songs by a white R&B group called the Rivingtons, "Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow" and "The Bird's the Word," and the song's double-time vigor was obviously influenced by California surf rock like the Ventures' "Pipeline."

Next Page »
Minnesota Concert Tickets

Concert Calendar

  • May
  • Mon
  • Tue
  • Wed
  • Thu
  • Fri
  • Sat
  • Sun