“Can you see 10 years from now, ‘The Copacabana Presents: The Trashmen?’ ”
Dick Clark smugly asked those words in 1964 at the end of what has to be one of the strangest “American Bandstand” performances in the show’s 47-year history. He clearly didn’t expect Minnesota’s first chart-topping rock band to have much of a history.
Trashmen guitarist Dal Winslow relishes getting the last laugh: “Here it is, 50 years later, and we’re actually doing pretty good.”
Everybody’s heard about “Surfin’ Bird.” An unlikely hit in the wake of JFK’s assassination, the Trashmen’s 1963 goof-off single has been reused by everyone from the Ramones and Stanley Kubrick to Pee-wee Herman and, most recently, Fox TV’s “Family Guy.”
However, few of the Minnesota music lovers who will see the Trashmen perform at First Avenue Saturday for 89.3 the Current’s birthday party probably know the story of the pioneering local musicians behind the iconic song.
Take three of your wisecracking, Minnesotan-talking uncles with wire-rim glasses, gray beards and anti-Obama bumper stickers and imagine them as onetime rock stars, and you’ll get an idea of what the Trashmen are like now.
Along with their drummer and primary singer Steve Wahrer, who died of cancer in 1989, the guys rode the wave of their raucous if ridiculous hit for three years before initially calling it quits in 1967. They went on to lead remarkably normal lives with families and respectable jobs, including financial planner and IT technician.
Five decades later, these retired grandpas are being invited to play one of the hippest local club gigs of the year. They also just put out their first record in 25 years, a collaboration with respected California retro-surf guitar player Deke Dickerson.
“I don’t think the Trashmen guys have any idea how important they are,” said Dickerson. “They’re cult rock stars to a lot of people around the world.”
Thanks to legal action in the 1980s that got them back some — but not all — of the rights to their hit song, they all now receive recording royalty payments alongside their Social Security checks.
“The song keeps getting used in the most random ways, which is good for us,” said Bob Reed, the bassist, over midday coffee at the kitchen table in Winslow’s house in Ham Lake.
Winslow’s basement is the nearest thing to an official Trashmen museum. One wall has their old album covers from the Soma Records label, including the original 1964 “Surfin’ Bird” LP. Another wall features mid-’60s posters for their concerts in Midwest ballrooms with the likes of Fats Domino and Jan & Dean.
Most curious of all, a check made out for a whopping $1.88 hangs in one of the poster frames — the first royalty the band members received for “Surfin’ Bird.” Winslow saved it to show what a No. 4 hit in Billboard got you in those days.
“I cashed mine,” Reed recalled with a laugh. “I needed it back then.”
Minnesota’s kings of surf
All around age 21 at the time they hit the charts, the Trashmen had been playing together in various bands since attending high school in Robbinsdale and north Minneapolis.
After guitarist Tony Andreason got out of the service in 1962, they took a road trip to California to soak up the sunny surf-rock sound just starting to take off — which they brought back and played in local ballrooms and teen centers.
The band’s longtime friend and resident historian Mike Jann remembered the Minnesota guys’ sudden transformation: “They had to use an article we clipped out of [the Minneapolis Tribune] that listed all the different surf jargon of the time.”
They first improvised “Surfin’ Bird” during a performance at Chubb’s Ballroom in Maple Grove over the summer of 1963. Local disc jockey Bill Diehl was there and insisted the band record the messy jam as a single to play on the radio.
Diehl soon hooked them up with Nic-o-Lake Records store owner George Garrett, who had started the fledgling Garrett Records. After one failed recording session at the store, they wound up cutting the definitive version at Minneapolis’ Kay Bank Studio at Nicollet and 26th Street.
“This was before Fender made its reverb amps or other [rock recording equipment], so we really played it like you hear it,” Winslow recalled. “Steve did it brilliantly.”
Within a few weeks of Diehl first playing the song in a “Battle of the Bands” on WDGY, it had spread across the Midwest and then onto the Billboard chart. The full album was then wham-bammed and issued in the early spring of 1964, by which time the Trashmen all squeezed into a Chevy Greenbrier van and hit the road, cramming in 292 performances by year’s end.
“We killed that van in one year, we put so many miles on it,” Winslow recalled.
Said Andreason: “People always ask us how much we partied — being young guys on the road like that — but the truth is we really didn’t have time to do that. We did have a lot of fun together, though.”
After three years and about 10 failed attempts to land a follow-up hit, though, it stopped being fun.
“We saw the writing on the wall,” Winslow recalled. “Vietnam was in full swing, rock music was going more psychedelic and getting more serious. It wasn’t really our scene anymore.”
While the four members did eventually receive a lump sum of $4,500 apiece from record sales in the mid-’60s — Reed remembers buying a new Plymouth Fury with it — they would not make any more money off the song until winning a mid-1980s lawsuit.
Their case was against Minnesota record mogul Amos Heilicher, who picked up the single from Garrett as soon as it started getting airplay and issued it via his own Soma label.
Also the founder of the Musicland record-store chain, Heilicher justifiably claimed ownership of the “Surfin’ Bird” recording for two decades. When the makers of California Cooler wine coolers used it in a national TV commercial in the mid-’80s, though, the band members said enough is enough and sued.
“We told him to show us the contract, and he couldn’t, because we never signed one,” Winslow claimed.
The Trashmen won back the recording rights to “Surfin’ Bird” but long ago lost their songwriting rights to the hit, which is the more lucrative territory among music royalties.
Not long after “Surfin’ Bird” became a hit, Soma was threatened with a lawsuit by the Los Angeles doo-wop group the Rivingtons, whose singles “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow” and “The Bird’s the Word” clearly provided a blueprint. The Trashmen said they’d never heard the original recordings, but instead heard a Wisconsin band, the Sorenson Brothers, covering them. And anyway, they thought they had reworked the songs enough to call their version an original.
“We were left out of it and really never had the chance to fight it,” complained Winslow.
Reed pointed to the Oak Ridge Boys’ 1981 hit “Elvira,” which also uses the common “papa-oom-maw-maw” passage: “The Oak Ridge Boys didn’t let [the Rivingtons] take their songwriting credit.”
Thanks to their successful careers after quitting the road in 1967, though, the surviving Trashmen were able to keep money matters out of the band’s legacy in the decades that followed.
They played sporadic reunion shows in the ’70s and ’80s, only in the Twin Cities — and “only when it made sense and seemed like a fun idea,” recalled Andreason, who continued playing music in the country and bluegrass realm (he still gigs regularly with the Platte Valley Boys). Wahrer continued drumming and toured with Bobby Rydell and several Nashville singers before his death at age 47.
“Steve was really a versatile drummer and singer who could do Jerry Lee Lewis better than anyone — and a great guy, too,” said Andreason, who took up vocal duties at subsequent gigs.
In 2007, with their parental and professional obligations decreasing, the surviving Trashmen started performing more often after they accepted an invite for their first of several European tours. Stateside, they have played cool oldies/garage-rock festivals in recent years such as New Orleans’ Ponderosa Stomp and the Las Vegas Grind. Reed's son Rob now serves as their drummer, nicknamed "Trashkid" even after he entered his 50s.
“We really don’t go looking for jobs, but just respond to people’s requests,” Winslow said, alluding to a new offer to headline the punk-flavored Memory Lanes Block Party over Memorial Day weekend in Minneapolis.
“Sounds fun,” was his response upon hearing a description of the block party. In other words, it’s right up the Trashmen’s alley.