Obscure Bands And Great Songs: The Trashmen And Surfin’ Bird

In the early ’60s, before the British invasion, American popular music was wide open.  You had Elvis and Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chubby Checker, Connie Francis and Lesley Gore.  You had girl groups and boy groups and novelty songs.  And, emanating from somewhere deep in the American psyche, you had this odd, guitar and drum-oriented sound called surf music.  The surf sound started on the West Coast and rolled east until it reached Minnesota, of all places, and produced the classic 1963 hit Surfin’ Bird.  (And then, unfortunately, surf music was bastardized and stigmatized for decades by the limp tunes of the Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon beach movies, only to be revived by the awesome, crushing sounds of Dick Dale — but that is another story.)

Surfin’ Bird was recorded by The Trashmen, a band that started in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  It was The Trashmen’s only real hit, but what a hit it was!  It probably had the most insultingly stupid lyrics ever heard on a piece of American popular music, incessantly repeating “the bird is the word” until switching to “papa oom mow mow” mid-song.  (It must have driven parents nuts to hear the inane lyrics blasted from a cheap 45 record player, which undoubtedly was part of the song’s attraction.)  The singer was some improbably gravelly voiced guy who sounded like he was having an awfully good time singing nonsense.  And the backing was just loud ashcan drums, with barely perceptible guitar, pounding out a quick-step beat that made you want to move and dance.

Surfin’ Bird is one of those songs that, once heard, is never forgotten.  Every so often it resurfaces, so that its silliness can reach another generation of the young at heart.  And the video below, where the song was badly lip-synced on some Dick Clark-hosted music show, is classic in its own right.

Obscure Bands And Great Songs: Blues Image And Ride Captain Ride

The year was 1970, and the song of the moment was called Ride Captain Ride.  It cut through the boring sounds on the AM radio like a diamond on glass.  You listened to the song and thought:  Who are these guys?  You got the sense that this was a band that was tight and going places.

That sense turned out to be wrong.  The band was called Blues Image.  Although Ride Captain Ride sounds like the creation of a west coast band — after all, the song does refer to the San Francisco Bay — Blues Image hailed from Tampa, Florida.  By the late 1960s the band had performed as the house band at a club in Miami and then moved to Los Angeles to try to make it big.  The group recorded a debut album and then in 1970 released a second album called Open that featured Ride Captain Ride.  The song went to number 4 on the American charts.  Less than a year later, however, Blues Image broke up and its members moved on to perform in other bands.

Ride Captain Ride holds up pretty well as a signature song of a group that disbanded more than 30 years ago.  The song has it all — from the chirpy keyboards in the intro, to the funky drumming and rhythm section, to the fine guitar fills and song-ending guitar solo — but what really made it a classic was the lyrics.  Sung in a key that was easily reachable by even the most vocally challenged teenage boy, the song told the nonsense story of 73 men on a mystical voyage of discovery in words that demanded to be sung out loud.  Who wouldn’t want to ride along to another shore and laugh their lives away and be free once more?

Obscure Bands And Great Songs: The Cyrkle And Red Rubber Ball

The Cyrkle recorded the best upbeat break-up song ever — Red Rubber Ball — but who knows anything about them?  They seem like just another of those ’60s bands with a kind of “psychedelic” name, like Vanilla Fudge or the Strawberry Alarm Clock.  But this is a band with another interesting accomplishment:  they were the opening act for the Beatles for the Fab Four’s final tour, in 1966.

Initially called the Rhondells, the Cyrkle was formed by two students from Lafayette College, in Easton, Pennsylvania, and two other musicians.  They first heard the song Red Rubber Ball from Paul Simon, who co-wrote the song with Bruce Woodley of The Seekers.  The band recorded the song and were rechristened The Cyrkle.  Red Rubber Ball went to number 2 on the charts in the spring of 1966, and The Cyrkle were selected to tour with the Beatles — and then the rocket ride ended.  After the tour the band returned to playing small venues and then broke up, playing their last gig in 1968.

Before they broke up, of course, The Cyrkle produced Red Rubber Ball.  What a pleasure to hear a break-up song that isn’t bluesy and sad!  With the opening calliope-like sound, the bouncy beat, the adenoidal singing, and the uplifting message, Red Rubber Ball has made generations of jilted guys feel better.  What teenager who just got the boot from his girlfriend hasn’t sung “I think it’s going to be all right.  Yeah, the worst is over now.  The morning sun is shining like a red rubber ball” and felt a little bit better as a result?

Obscure Bands And Great Songs: Red Rider And Lunatic Fringe

Who was Red Rider, and how did they come up with a great song like Lunatic Fringe?

The greatness of the song starts, of course, with its title.  The phrase Lunatic Fringe absolutely reeks of fear, paranoia, and danger.  And then the song reinforces that feel with a lonely, ominous intro that conjures up images of a deserted street corner on a dark night where you hope you don’t encounter a gang of skinheads carrying truncheons.  The song’s slow pace is like a watchful walk down that dark street, past darkened store entrances and alleyways, as you hear footsteps behind you and a police siren in the distance.  And the lyrics, which are all about secret societies and their efforts to undermine civilization as we know it, apparently were motivated by the Holocaust and the murder of John Lennon.

The band that created the song with such a creepy feel turns out to be Canadian.  Red Rider released a series of albums in the 1980s.  They never had a song that made it to the top 40 charts in America.  Lunatic Fringe was first released in 1981, but became popular only after it was featured in the 1985 movie Vision Quest.  It is one of those songs that defines the ’80s, but it’s message has continuing resonance whenever some nut acts out their own private troubles — something that unfortunately happens far too often.

Obscure Bands And Great Songs: Sam The Sham And The Pharoahs And Wooly Bully

In the ’50s and early ’60s, rock ‘n roll was simple and, well, fun.  The songs were about things like cars, or finding the right girl, or some new dance.  The weighty, political issues of the day were reserved for the folk singers, with their heartfelt lyrics about social injustice, their severe black clothing, and their ultra-serious attitudes about everything.  At some point in the mid-’60s, with the Vietnam War, civil rights, and street protests dominating the news, politics invaded rock ‘n roll, and the innocence of the music was never quite the same again.

The song Wooly Bully by Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs epitomizes the early days of rock ‘n roll.  It’s a song about nothing, and the music could not be more basic.  A repeated series of chords on a synthesizer, a basic rhythm guitar backing, a saxophone solo, and a bunch of dancing guys shouting out the mindless lyrics.  Put them all together, and you have one of the most infectious rock ‘n roll dance songs ever recorded.

The YouTube video of the song, below, is classic because it is live and shows some musicians who are having fun, not taking their performance too seriously, and enjoying their moment of fame.  And how about the politically incorrect band members, with Sam in his cheap, costume shop turban and the “Pharoahs” mysteriously clad, not like ancient Egyptian rulers, but rather like Bedouins?

Obscure Bands And Great Songs: Hocus Pocus And Focus

It was the early 1970s.  It was a time when you could hear just about anything on the radio.  Playlists hadn’t yet hardened into the genre-specific, focus group-driven, audience-targeted sameness of today, where you know exactly what you are going to get.  For perhaps the last time, American popular radio could be full of surprises.  And one day, when I was about 16, one of the surprises was the extraordinary song Hocus Pocus by a Dutch group called Focus.

Hocus Pocus is unquestionably one of the greatest air guitar songs of all time.  The intro, with its great guitar riffs and drumming, sucks you in — and then you begin to realize that the song is seriously weirdHocus Pocus is a technically an instrumental, even though the human voice is heard throughout and is, in fact, one of the most important instruments being played.  Rather than lyrics, however, the singer is alternately yodeling, straining to perform some kind of musical scales, sounding like a cartoon character that has been at the helium tank, and finally insanely cackling.  And the unique vocal gymnastics lead perfectly into the stunning guitar solos and manic drumming.  What a great song!

Hocus Pocus reached number 9 on the U.S. charts, but the single version really didn’t do the song justice.  I went out and bought the album, Moving Waves, because the extended version of Hocus Pocus — which comes in at close to 7 minutes and is the version in the Youtube clip below — is as close to perfection as music gets.  I played that album in my bedroom until the grooves begged for mercy.

Obscure Bands And Great Songs: ? And The Mysterians And 96 Tears

What can you say about a band whose lead singer is identified by a punctuation symbol?  A band that was known as one of the greatest garage bands in history?  A band that recorded a song that many critics view as the first true punk rock song?

Why so many questions?  Because the band was ? And The Mysterians — a sunglasses-wearing group that hailed from Saginaw, Michigan — and the song was 96 Tears.

On October 29, 1966, 96 Tears hit number one on the Billboard charts.  What a song!  With its hypnotic, alternatively choppy and swirling organ licks, the self-pitying, then angry, then resigned lyrics, and the great bass riff when the song shifts to “and when the sun comes up,” 96 Tears cut through the copycat sounds being played on AM radio and was instantly original and definitive.

Almost 45 years later the band is still performing the song, most recently at a show in Detroit at the end of July.  The video below, which is pretty hysterical, was recorded by the band in 1998.

Obscure Bands And Great Songs: Wang Chung And Everybody Have Fun Tonight

The scene is a small, sparsely furnished two-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of Alexandria, Virginia, just off Little River Turnpike.  It is the early summer of 1986, about 2 a.m. on any day of the week.  In the combination living room and dining room, I sit on a rocking chair, rocking and holding a squalling infant so that his belly presses against my shoulder.  Every light in the apartment is turned off, but my face is lit by the dim glow of the TV screen, which is tuned to MTV. The baby finds the noise of the music videos — because this is back in the day when MTV actually played music videos — to be strangely soothing, and listening to the sounds helps him to fall asleep.

One of the videos that seemed to play every night was Everybody Have Fun Tonight by Wang Chung.  It was one of those iconic, instantly and forever memorable productions that popped up occasionally during MTV’s heyday.  (Another was Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer, for example, and yet another was Dire Straits’ Money For Nothing.)  The video featured a constant series of quick cuts that created a herky-jerky, strobe-like effect.  The band members (one of whom looked vaguely like Sting) stood there while chaos occurred behind them.  I always wondered whether watching that video posed problems for people with seizure disorders.  The song was good, with its bouncy beat and strong drum backing, the lyrics seemed to have obvious sexual overtones, and the aside “Can you tell me what a Wang Chung is?” was funny — but the video took a good song and made it a classic.

By the time they recorded Everybody Have Fun Tonight Wang Chung had two members, Nick Feldman and Jack Hues.  The group had been around, in some incarnation or another, for a number of years and had changed its name a few times.  According to Wikipedia, Wang Chung was supposed to be a phonetic spelling of the Chinese words for “yellow bell,” which was used to describe the sound of a bass note, but it also had the slang sexual connotation everyone expected after hearing the song.  The group recorded a few other popular songs in the mid-80s — Dance Hall Days was one of them — but it split up within a few years and never again reached the heights it enjoyed with Everybody Have Fun Tonight.

Obscure Bands And Great Songs: The Standells And Dirty Water

The Standells were the classic garage band.  Although their only hit was about living in Boston, the band was actually from Los Angeles.  They played for years — including playing themselves on an episode of The Munsters, oddly enough — but lightning struck only once, with the song Dirty Water.

The backstory about Dirty Water is interesting.  The song was not written by a member of the band, but by the band’s new producer.  As the band went to work on the song, it began to take shape.  The band’s guitarist, Tony Valentino, contributed the irresistible opening guitar lick, the singer, Dick Dodd, did some memorable improvising (“Ah, but they’re cool people.”), and the  echoey production values made it sound like the song was actually recorded in a garage.  It’s hard not to like the humor of the song; you get the impression that the songwriter really loves Boston, with all of its quirks and dangers.  It’s no surprise that the song is played after home victories by the Boston Red Sox and other Boston professional sports teams.

The Standells didn’t do much after Dirty Water, and broke up before the ’60s ended.  During their brief existence, however, they recorded a classic.

Obscure Bands And Great Songs: Argent And Hold Your Head Up

The other day I realized that my Ipod is filled with some great songs from some pretty obscure bands.  One of the great things about the internet, however, is that you can do some quick research  and learn some interesting things that make the bands a bit less obscure.

A good example is the band Argent, and the song Hold Your Head Up.  The song is a classic of early ’70s rock that was a staple of rock radio stations when I was in high school.  A butchered singles version hit no. 5 on the American charts in 1972.  It’s obvious from listening to the song that the band members have some significant musical talent — but from where?

A few Google searches inform us that Argent was named for Rod Argent, its founder.  Argent, a keyboard player, had been a member of The Zombies and had played on songs like Time Of the Season.  (Now that I’ve learned this, I see some parallels between the sound of Hold Your Head Up and the sound of Time Of The Season.)  The lead guitarist, Russ Ballard, and the bassist and drummer all were veterans of other bands.  They clearly had some musical chops, and it shows.

Hold Your Head Up had one of the greatest intros of any rock song of the ’70s.  It starts with an undercurrent of sound from the keyboards, like a musical depiction of a tingle running up your arm.  A simple, thumping bass line joins in, and then a choppy, raggedy sounding guitar.  The beat is slow and deliberate.  The vocals are a bit distant, and at times the moaning, trilling keyboards are almost like a second vocalist.  The lyrics are a few verses, so short they could have been written on a cocktail napkin with plenty of room to spare, that are repeated over and over.  The repetition gives the song a kind of anthem-like quality.  The heart of the song, in my view, is an extended instrumental section with just the organ and a cowbell — and it was this part that hit the cutting room floor when a “single” was produced for release in the States.  Fortunately, in Columbus WCOL-FM played the long version, and that it what I listened to in those days.

Argent recorded another terrific song, called God Gave Rock And Roll To You, which was not a big hit but which featured a great guitar riff and chorus.  It was covered by Kiss and also by a series of Christian rock acts.  Isn’t it amazing what you learn on the internet?