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.