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.