Surfin’ Bird was an out-of-the-blue novelty hit for Minneapolis surf-rockers The Trashmen back in the early-60s. It’s a bizarre blast of up-tempo, exuberance that’s endured across five decades, thanks partly to covers by The Cramps and the Ramones, Full Metal Jacket and the endorsement of certain cartoon characters.
The Trashmen’s original Surfin’ Bird was essentially a cover itself; a surf-rock reimagining of the choruses from two separate songs by the brilliant ’60s doo-wop group The Rivingtons – The Bird Is The Word and Papa Oom Mow Mow.
When it became a highly unlikely hit for The Trashmen it famously featured on a 1964 edition of American Bandstand with their singer/drummer Steve Wahrer lip-synching solo while performing an undignified but memorable chicken dance. He was there on his own because the band’s record company had refused to fly the rest of the band for the recording.
The Cramps started playing Surfin’ Bird live before The Ramones. Johnny admitted, “We heard them doing it, so we started playing it”. The unhinged bubble-gum pop of Surfin’ Bird was perfect for The Ramones anyway. Fast, retro rock ‘n’ roll, comprising three chords and a bunch of lyrical hooks – That IS The Ramones.
It also fitted in with the band’s self-deprecating way of answering the mainstream’s misconceptions about their mental functionality. Whether it was because of their appearance, playing style or the blunt subject matter of their songs, they were often dismissed as unhinged or mentally subnormal. Songs like Pinhead, Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment, Teenage Lobotomy and Surfin’ Bird were their way of hitting back.
Obviously everyone now knows that the Ramones were in fact geniuses. They wrote brilliant songs and developed a playing style and complete street gang aesthetic – encompassing the clothes, the shared surnames, the logo that launched ten million t-shirts and the stripped back attack of their live performance – that no band before or since has ever matched.
The Trashmen meanwhile carried on performing until 1967 but never managed another hit, which goes to show, it isn’t as easy to make a career out of fast, three-chord, bubble-gum pop as The Ramones made it look.