This is a medley made up of the choruses of two R&B classics by the '60s doo-wop group The Rivingtons: "The Bird Is the Word" and "Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow." The brainchild of Trashmen drummer Steve Wahrer, the song was a quirky and consumable hit, boldly combining surf music with novelty R&B.
The Trashmen were a garage band from Minneapolis, which isn't surfing territory. Despite critical acclaim, they managed just one more minor hit before disbanding in the late '60s: the 1964 #30 "Bird Dance Beat."
When this became a hit, The Rivingtons were awarded writing credit for the song, since it was based on their compositions. This was a huge financial benefit, as they receive royalties every time the song is used in a movie, TV show or commercial. The Trashmen claimed that they heard The Rivingtons songs through cover versions played by a Wisconsin band called the Sorenson Brothers, and insisted that "Surfin' Bird" was an original recording.
The Trashmen were left with the performance royalties, which while certainly not scraps, were far less lucrative. The band says that for their first payment, they each received a check for $1.88, but they eventually got a lump sum of $4,500 each. This was all they got until the mid-'80s, when they filed a lawsuit against the company that had bought the recording.
How did a band from Minnesota create a surf-rock classic? The quartet soaked up the sunshine and sounds of California when they took a road trip there in spring, 1963. Returning home, they incorporated the surf sound into their shows when they played local gigs, and eventually worked up "Surfin' Bird." That summer, they played an early version of the song at Chubb's Ballroom in Maple Grove. A local disc jockey named Bill Diehl introduced them to George Garrett, who ran a record label called Garrett Records. The band recorded the song at Kay Bank Studio in Minneapolis, and Diehl played it on his WDGY "Battle of the Bands" segment. Issued on Garrett Records, the song became a regional hit in November, and was picked up by the larger Soma label.
A full album was quickly recorded, and the band was dispatched on a tour, traveling the country in a Chevy Greenbrier van. They played 292 gigs that year, but couldn't get higher than #30 with any of their subsequent releases. In 1967, they called it quits as their sound fell out of favor.
One of more bizarre American Bandstand moments took place on the January 4, 1964 episode of the show, when Trashmen lead singer (and drummer) Steve Wahrer performed the song solo. A perplexed Dick Clark introduced the performance by calling "Surfin' Bird" one of the most "strange and unusual" songs of 1963, before introducing the band, which was just Warner doing a chicken-like dance as he gamely lip-synched along.
After the performance, Clark questioned him about the "strange sounds" he created, and Wahrer said, "Probably I was watching too many Tarzan movies." He made a point to Clark that the band wrote the song themselves.
Wahrer's bandmates didn't join him because the band's management wouldn't pay to fly them to Philadelphia.
The Ramones gave this song new life when they recorded it on their 1977 album Rocket to Russia. Other artists to cover the song include The Cramps and Silverchair.
An entire 2008 episode of the TV show Family Guy
revolves around this song. In the episode, which is entitled "I Dream of Jesus," Peter Griffin goes to a '50s diner where the song plays and he declared it his favorite of all time. When the manager removes the song from the jukebox because it's from the '60s, Peter procures it from him, then plays it constantly at home. He proceeds to drive everyone around him absolutely nuts with the song and with his constant reminders that "the bird is the word."
After the episode was screened on BBC2 in April 2009, this song entered the top 75 of the UK charts for the first time.
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A campaign to make this the 2010 UK Christmas #1 resulted in the song selling 68,000 in the week before the 25th of December. As a result it achieved its highest UK chart position to date of #3 behind Matt Cardle's "When We Collide
The song has been used in the movies E.T., Full Metal Jacket and Pink Flamingos, and also in the video game Battlefield Vietnam. Pee Wee Herman sang it in the movie Back To The Beach. It was also used in popular commercials for California Coolers, and in a spot for Pringles.
The song was released shortly before the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy, so it took longer than usual to climb the chart. It reached its US chart peak on January 25, 1964.
The Trashmen reunited from time to time in the '70s and '80s to perform various one-off gigs. Lead singer Steve Wahrer died of esophageal cancer in 1989 at age 47, but the other three members started playing again in 2007. In 2014, they released an album called Bringing Back the Trash with guitarist Deke Dickerson.