Of all the great rock ‘n’ roll groups playing around the Twin Cities in the mid-sixties, the one that really broke out into the Big Time was the Trashmen. Of course, national fame came based on the silly novelty tune “Surfin’ Bird,” but keep playing their eponymous LP and you’ll hear some of the best surf music ever recorded!
There are many books, magazines, and websites around that will tell the story of the T-Men, including their page at minniepaulmusic.com so this page won’t go into the all the details, but here are a few tidbits:
MIKE JANN TELLS IT FROM THE BEGINNING
On October 8, 2017, lead guitar player Tony Andreason was given the second annual Bill Diehl Award. His childhood friend and official Trashmen historian, Mike Jann, delivered these words at the ceremony:
It was way back in 1955 when the nuns at our grade school heard that Tony and I both played guitars. They put the word out that we should get together, and bring our instruments.
The first time I heard Tony play, his picking nearly “knocked my socks off!” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! And when I learned that he enjoyed country music, that was an instant bond that would last through the years — some 60 years now — and counting!
We would get together for regular jam sessions as often as possible — usually in his parents’ basement in North Minneapolis. After a while, we were invited to perform at a few Sunday evening church suppers. Hey, they paid us $10.00 for the twosome! We were happy to get the gigs!
Tony usually played at least one instrumental tune, while I played rhythm guitar. By then, I was brave enough to sing some Johnny Cash songs, while Tony would play the lead guitar parts.
And speaking of our mutual country music bond, one Saturday night we were parked in my ’48 Plymouth on a hill overlooking Crystal Lake in Robbinsdale, listening to the radio. A while later, a police officer came up and asked, “What are you boys up to in there?” One of us replied: “We’re listening to the Grand Ole Opry — from Nashville — on the radio! The reception is better up here by the lake — Less interference.” The cop said something like: “Well — maybe — O.K., fellas…” and left — scratching his head. No beer in that car!
In 1957 someone asked us if we would like to be in a Knights of Columbus Talent Contest. We decided to give it a try! The Grand Prize was a recording session. Tony led off playing his instrumental arrangement of the “Guitar Boogie Shuffle.” Then we did a Homer & Jethro parody version of “On Top of Old Smokey,” and somehow we won the Grand Prize! We beat out the runner-up accordion player that played “Lady of Spain.”
The Grand Prize took us to Kay Bank Recording Studio on Nicollet Ave. in South Minneapolis. We recorded two songs — one a song I had “written” and the other was Tony playing an instrumental medley on his guitar.
A few years later, Tony started playing out at the Crystal Coliseum on Friday nights for teen dances with various rock bands, including “Jim Thaxter and the Travelers.” As I listened to his guitar playing, I knew there was “a change coming” — that our little twosome was about to change direction completely for Tony, as rock bands started calling him to play lead guitar.
Little did ANY of us know back then that Tony would return to Kay Bank Studio six years later with Steve, Dal, and Bob, to record a hit song that would put Kay Bank and Minneapolis back on the national pop music charts!
I vividly recall the night when “Surfin’ Bird” was first played on the radio — the “Pick to Click” listener call-in program on Wonderful “Wee-Gee,” WDGY! Tony, myself, and Larry LaPole were working on recording some demo songs of Larry’s.
Tony went out to the car radio to monitor what was happening on WDGY. All of a sudden, Tony came back in and excitedly announced: “They played our record!” This happened three times that night — making “Surfin’ Bird” the winner for night!
That would dramatically change the direction for the future of the 4-piece Trashmen band!
Over time, Tony became very proficient in the recording studio, many times calling upon what he had learned while previously attending McPhail School of Music in Minneapolis.
Adding to Tony’s list of musical credentials, it really came as NO SURPRISE to me when Tony joined a bluegrass band: “The Platte Valley Boys.”
Finally, the Platte Valley Boys provided the platform with those tight, clean bluegrass harmonies that he loves so much. And he could leave his Fender Stratocaster and amp at home — and only bring his acoustic guitar to the gigs!
Like fine wine, Tony’s instrumental and vocal talents have only improved with age. I am proud of Tony’s musical accomplishments — and even more proud to call him my friend!
Random Notes on the Trashmen:
- Despite their landlocked situation, three of the four band members actually did go to California, where they absorbed the Dick Dale sound and rode the waves.
- The famous album cover in front of the trash truck was taken at Wally McCarthy’s Lindahl Olds at 494 and Penn Ave. where scenes from “Fargo” were later shot. It’s now Best Buy headquarters.
- “Surfin’ Bird” entered the Billboard Charts on December 7, 1963, and stayed there for 13 weeks, peaking at #4.
- The song was originally to be called “Surfer Bird,” but Bill Diehl suggested that “Surfin'” leant a little more action to it.
- Reaction to the song was mixed; in January 1964 Will Jones reported that one Texas listener offered a radio station there “any amount of money” to take it off the air. “The station told him to send his money to the March of Dimes, and smashed its copy of the record….Meanwhile the Minneapolis record company that created the hit is lining up extra pressing plants in Michigan and California to keep up with the demand for the disk.”
- The B-side of “Surfin’ Bird” was “King of the Surf,” the best surfin’ song of all time, bar none! The sudden success of “Surfin’ Bird” required that a flip side be written quickly, and Larry LaPole was enlisted to write it. Larry had never been to California, but fellow Minneapolis Tribune writer Mike Jann gave Larry a column that Will Jones had done on July 28 with definitions of surf terms. The column, “Avast, Gremmies–Surfing Tide is Rolling In,” has virtually all the terms Larry used in the song.
- On December 8, 1963, Irv Letofsky wrote a two-page feature on the Trashmen for the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune – “Trashmen ‘Have the Beat Kids Love.'” Although Tribune music critic Dan Sullivan “applied the rare superlative ‘It’s the worst song I’ve ever heard,’ It matters not. The beat’s the thing. (Surfin music’s the thing, too, although surfing style of dancing hasn’t really reached the Midwest, informants say. It’s coming from the West Coast.)”
- George Garrett noted that the name the Trashmen might have come from a record about a trash man that was out about three years ago. [Probably “Trashmen’s Blues” by Tony Kai-Ray] “But we like what the disc jockeys do with the name… like ‘Back up and get a load of this.'”
- On January 12, 1964, a party at Kay Bank Studio celebrated 500,000 in sales for “Surfin’ Bird.” Will Jones reported it as “one of the more remarkable parties of the season,” hosted by officials from SOMA, distributor; Garrett Records, producer; and Kay Bank, where the record was made. It was also a launch party for “Bird Dance Beat” and the “Surfin’ Bird” LP. “The party was attended by disk jockeys, record peddlers, and a few young persons whose function was to dance The Bird.”
- “Bird Dance Beat” (b/w “A-Bone”) charted on February 8, 1964 and stayed for seven weeks, peaking at #30.
- The “Surfin’ Bird” album, on Soma Records, hit the Billboard Chart on February 15, 1964, and stayed there for 15 weeks, peaking at #48. It was available at Record Lane and Musicland for $2.88. 2013 ebay prices range from $120 to $1,000 for a copy autographed by all four members.
- A third single release, “Bad News” b/w “On the Move” hit the Billboard Bubbling Under charts on May 16, 1964, but by then the Beatles had hit and surf was over.
- The Trashmen were featured on “American Bandstand” – only the show was too cheap to fly out the entire band, so Steve Wahrer (the drummer and singer) was out there alone, doing the Bird. Now we know how to do it!
- In late 1964 the group went on a tour of South America. A planned tour of the UK in 1965 had to be postponed because of the British Invasion but they finally made it in 2010.
- Another gem from Will Jones was a rumor that the Beatles and the Trashmen were going to team up to form a new group. The name of the new band? The Litterbugs!