Surf's Up, Ole!

California dreaming: Midwestern rock rides a pipeline into the surf sound with Big Hits of Mid-America

Soma Records, foremost purveyors of the "foot-stompin'" Twin Cities sound inspired by the Trashmen's "Surfin' Bird," began in 1957 as a polka outfit. Soma owner Amos Heilicher had been a jukebox salesman and a distributor for the fledgling Mercury Records when he decided to buy the local indie studio, Swedien Recording, and cut some of the monsters of oompah on the local music scene. But Soma's first hit came at the tail end of the '50s with Bobby Vee and the Shadows' "Suzie Baby," a rockabilly number that hit so hard, Soma had to enlist the more established Liberty Records to meet the demands of mass distribution.

In 1960 the label had its first bona fide national hit when a Wisconsin country group called the Fendermen went to No. 5 on the Billboard chart with their take on Jimmie Rodgers's "Mule Skinner Blues." Heilicher soon began receiving tapes from all over the Midwest, awarding the best with a $495 advance to cover studio time and manufacturing costs, along with the all-important privilege of having 100 copies of the platter distributed among DJs throughout the Upper Midwest. The bands themselves were given 200 records and as many accompanying press releases to sell or give away as they saw fit.

In 1961 Soma hired a freelance producer to clean up a "horrible sounding" record, called "Surfin' Bird," by new signees the Trashmen. He must have done a pretty lousy job; today, despite decades of punk and metal bombast, "Surfin' Bird" still sounds as raw as any pre-Stooges rock 'n' roll. Drummer Steve Wahrer turns what should be an invitation to enjoy a new dance into an idiot's edict, bellowing "Bird! Bird! Bird is the word!," like a cross between Wolfman Jack and Benito Mussolini. ("All right, for Christ's sake. I'll do the damn Bird," jokes my girlfriend.) In 1963 plenty of rock 'n' roll had been moronic to a fault, but here was rock that was both dumb as a doorknob, and dogmatic as a boot in the belly.

"Surfin' Bird" flies out of the just-issued, 48-cut compilation The Big Hits of Mid-America: The Soma Records Story, 1963-1967 like a B-1 Bomber terrorizing a Brooklyn Park prom. And well it should. The song basically lit a fuse for a nascent local garage-rock explosion, spawning a slew of semi-skilled surf rock, white R&B, and post-Beatles pop bands, and one more national hit, the Castaways' "Liar, Liar."

In its day, that scene was chronicled on two volumes of The Big Hits of Mid-America, compiling cuts by eight "Bird"-land wannabes: Gregory Dee and the Avanties, the Underbeats, the Accents, the High Spirits, the Gestures, the Chancellors, and the Castaways. Out of print since shortly after their original release in 1964 and '65, the albums have finally been reissued on 2 CDs that add cuts by more than half a dozen bands Soma left behind the first time around.

In an age of reissue glut, Big Hits is an anomaly. Recently there have been dozens of compilations (like Michigan Brand Nuggets or the Texan anthology Flashback) that chronicle the various scenes that popped up in the mid-'60s. But all those records came out after the release of the garage-rock classic Nuggets in 1972, relying less on the source material than on the prodigious archives of record nerds.

The two Big Hits records were unique in that they were released to capitalize on a nationwide interest in a regional sound that was then breaking. Packaged with cover art showing a map of the U.S. and a big red dot over the six-state region represented on the vinyl, Soma's compilations are direct ancestors to American punk compilations like Twin/Tone's ironically titled 1979 new-wave set, Big Hits of Mid-America Volume III.

Far too exhaustive to be anything but excessive, the CD reissue feels more like an archaeological dig than a party record. But it does unearth a fascinating culture. We begin with the innocent, ambitious surf rehashings of the Underbeats, Gestures, and Avanties. Then move on to mawkish British Invasion rip-offs like the Unbelievable Uglies. Finally, our excursion ends just shy of proto-hippies like the Litter, who started injecting the scene with drug-fueled barbarism.

What separates the early music from the latter is a loss of innocence. It's hard not to chuckle at the self-conscious goofiness (or comic cynicism) of a band called Sir Winston and the Commons turning the hippie salvo "we're gonna live again--forever!" into a pot-laced pick-up line. Yet it's even more fun to fall for the landlocked Gestures' beachie dreams of surf-rock heaven.

Here were kids living in a music world in which anyone, anywhere could create an alternative reality out of the sounds coming off their bedroom turntables. (Sound familiar, suburban hip-hop heads?) All the would-be Mankato beachcomber needed to fashion his own pipeline to the charts was desire, spare time, and, most importantly, disposable income. "I bought everything Dick Dale recorded," says Tony Andreason of the Trashmen, who had enough to travel to California and "find" surf music.

Identifiable regional styles had existed since the dawn of the recording era, but it's hard to imagine someone listening to this California sound on a transistor radio and connecting the music to the Lake Street ballroom bands who were appropriating it. In fact, it took 20 years before the Trashmen's junk-rock inheritors, the Replacements, posthumously recognized the ironic appeal of a snowed-in Dick Dale rip-off with their guitar ode to the Burnsville ski slope "Buck Hill." Sadly, the Hill's owners did not take advantage of such a rare promotional opportunity, and the Replacements went on to release a series of commercially unsuccessful punk albums before disbanding in 1991.

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