Wednesday, June 24, 2009
"We Have Been Called Rock, Punk, Garage and Surf. I Guess We Do a Little of Each." Dal Winslow of the Trashmen Interviewed!
Rock and Roll music has amassed a rich mythology in its 55-plus year history. Even dating back to famed bluesman Robert Johnson’s supposed “deal with the devil” in the 1920’s, there has been a concerted attempt by record labels and managers to package the artist in a certain way. The Rolling Stones could barely play in 1962 when they issued their first single, a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Come On.” The Stones were fortunate in two respects: they were signed to a major label, London Records and had a savvy manager, Andrew Oldham, who packaged the group as ‘bad boys.” Not every artist receives the type of break the Rolling Stones received. For every Andrew Oldham, Brian Epstein or Malcolm McLaren, there are thousands of labels and managers interested only in the quick dollar return, putting the interests of the artist aside and choosing to market songs as commodities, not works of art.
For the majority of the Trashmen’s 47-year history, they have been saddled with the “goofy great” or “one-hit wonder” stereotype, a stereotype promoted extensively by SOMA Records owner, Amos Heilicher. Although “Surfin’ Bird hit number three on the Billboard charts in 1963, little was done by Heilicher or the band’s manager, George Garrett, to promote the band beyond the success on the initial single. Unlike other rock and roll artists, the Trashmen have been granted a second lease of music life, which began with the band gaining control of their recordings in 1991, reaching new heights in 2008 after “Surfin’ Bird” was featured on the comedy series “Family Guy.” This exposure resulted in “Surfin’ Bird” reaching #8 on iTunes and cracking the top fifty in Britain. Trashmen bassist Dal Winslow recently granted me an interview, in which he discusses the triumphs, disappointments and beurocracies of a band that may yet to have reached its peak after close to five decades in the music industry.
What was the band’s reaction to the use of “Surfin’ Bird” in the “Family Guy” episode “I Dream of Jesus?” How did this collaboration come about?
“This was actually the result of an article from MOJO magazine out of the UK in early 2007. It listed us as one of the top 50 Punk/Garage bands of all time. Shortly after Weird Al (Yankovic) came out in Rolling Stone with ‘Surfin Bird’ is one of the top all time rock hits. Fox picked this up and decided to do an episode on the song. We really did not hear anything until much later, actually a week before it was aired. We never thought the whole show would be dedicated to the song and never imagined the response on the downloads.”
There is a lot of great footage on You Tube of the Trashmen's 2008 tour. How is the band received there? What kind of venues are you playing? How is it different from the United States in terms of fans and overall reaction?
“The response has been overwhelming. The venues are everything from festivals to small 400+ clubs. Every gig has been packed or sold out. Compared to the U.S., if we did the same gig as Medina (Minnesota) in Europe, it would have been packed to the rafters and the crowd would range in the 21-35 year age group. I think the song is hitting a new group of people that were not aware of it. The other thing is that in Europe we are regarded as ‘legends’ and it brings in the new crowd.”
The Trashmen avoided the stereotype of “one-hit wonder” in Europe, making the band one of the few artists from the sixties that have managed to eclipse the image promoted by their original label, SOMA Records. Listening to any Trashmen record shows the band equal to any rock and roll band of the era in terms of talent and ability. Signing to Amos Heilicher’s label proved to be a mistake which cost the group not only money, but also the chance to develop artistically like the Rolling Stones or Beach Boys. Winslow explains:
“At the time Steve (Wahrer) and I were disappointed since we had visions of going to a professional studio in L.A. and working with more experienced engineers. At Kay Bank (studio), we had good engineers but it was more learn as you go. I think a good example of what could have been was Bobby Vee. He signed with Liberty who promoted him to the fullest.” Winslow believes the SOMA signing was the band’s biggest disappointment: “Giving the song (Surfin’ Bird) to SOMA instead of Columbia or RCA, which were courting us at the time. SOMA added nothing as far as assistance with recording, new ideas, etc. They seemed to be in it strictly for the short haul cash.”
Amos Heilicher, the “Godfather of the Twin Cities record business,” possessed a habit of promoting himself ahead of the artists on his SOMA record label. Despite “Surfin’ Bird” being the highest charting hit his label would ever garner, Heilicher would continue to describe the song, in an interview with Jon Bream, as “the worst record in the world…I laugh every time I hear it…it’s that bad.” The moxie was typical of Heilicher, who “was always there to take kudos from the press,” according to Winslow. Distribution of “Surfin’ Bird” was the sole saving grace from the Trashmen’s relationship with SOMA, Winslow believes: “They did that well, in 17 different countries and multiple labels. Soma and Garrett paid for recording time. Other than that they were useless. We got more promotion from our booking agent, Jimmy Thomas, out of Luverne MN.”
It’s fairly inconceivable for a band as talentless as Heilicher believed the Trashmen to be to not only have a top five hit, but also have that same song be enjoyed by multiple generations over four decades. Winslow states: “We were pretty popular in the cities and surrounding areas before the record.” If the Trashmen had not signed to SOMA, their path might have been similar to their Minnesota contemporary, Bobby Vee, who as previously mentioned, signed to a major label, Liberty Records. Vee’s first big hit, “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” hit number three in 1962, but he went five years before his next top ten, “Come Back When You Grow Up,” also charted number three in 1967. Liberty Records stuck with Vee through this gap, as they did with instrumental group the Ventures. Although SOMA Records, cast away the Trashmen in the sixties, the band possessed a song that is now on the iPod of many young people who love rock and roll.
Amos Heilicher also proved to be a cheapskate when the Trashmen were asked to appear on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. The result would not only a triumph of adversity, but a testament to the Trashmen’s drummer, the late Steve Wahrer, the original singer of “Surfin’ Bird.” Winslow “took Steve to the airport and picked him up when he returned the same day. Dick and Soma would not pay for the whole group to go. Steve had a great time and it is still being shown on You Tube. He was used to hiding behind the drums and not doing front work. He was very nervous when they told him he would be alone on camera.” Steve Wahrer performed a maniacal version of “Surfin’ Bird,” doing ‘the bird” for the entire duration of the song. Exhausted afterward, Wahrer gave a charming interview to Clark. His innocence and enthusiasm can resonate with anyone from a small town wanting to make it big in the city. Although Wahrer passed away in 1989, his vocal on “Surfin’ Bird” is as instantly recognizable as any in the history of rock and roll.
Although songwriting credits to “Surfin’ Bird” were ultimately given to R&B/Doo-Wop group, the Rivingtons, the origin of the Trashmen version had little to do with the songs originally titled “Papa Oom Mow Mow” and “The Bird’s the Word.”
Dal Winslow: “We had not heard of the Rivingtons when we first heard this song. A band from Wisconsin performed “Bird is the Word” as we thought it would be a great idea to change it up and add it to our list. We started playing it at dances and it became the most requested song. George Garrett agreed to pay for all recording and be our “personal manager. He cut the deal with Soma for distribution. The studio (Kay Bank) was not familiar with rock, only radio spots or small jazz groups. “Surfin’ Bird” was recorded in two segments, specifically to let Steve catch his breath. All others were done live. We did overlay the background vocals…there was only a 16 track recorder at the time.”
The success of “Surfin Bird” was used to full advantage by Amos Heilicher and George Garrett. “Since our song and album were so successful,” Winslow states, “they had musicians beating a path to their door to make them a hit. I’m sure they made a ton of cash off these groups. It only took a few months to see the only thing George was managing was the money coming in, He really never did any promotions.” One of these groups, Gregory Dee and the Avanties, performed a spirited song called “Olds Mo William,” which used a Steve Waher-esque “Do the bird!” to bridge into the chorus. The single was a fast-paced, frenetic shout out number. “It was kinda flattering,” Winslow said. “At least it was original. Most of the groups that came to record were doing covers, and not as good as the originals.” An underrated song if there ever was one, “Olds Mo William” was Soma’s best attempt at recreating the magic of “Surfin’ Bird.” Soma Records did manage to produce one more great single, “Liar Liar” by the Castaways, which hit #12 in 1965.
The British Invasion and psychedelic music began to dominate the 60’s music scene around 1965, leaving bands like the Trashmen with a changing audience which preferred to listen and inhale music rather than dance to it. Instrumental bands like the Ventures managed to maintain their popularity for most of the decade, largely due to the support and promotion of their record company, Liberty Records. Without this backing, the Trashmen saw their audience dwindle, deciding to disband in 1967. Winslow saw “a different response to our music. The crowds were not dancing and wanted war songs and message tunes. The blues and James Brown also started to become more popular. As we started to play clubs we decided that it was time to bail. None of us wanted to become lounge lizards.”
The Trashmen left the music scene and began their careers as normal, ordinary Americans. “We all worked for corporate America, including investment firms, manufacturing and banking.” Drummer Steve Wahrer continued to perform, using the Trashmen’s “name for a short time and then transitioned into other groups,” stated Winslow. Time passed, yet for some reason, “Surfin’ Bird” continued to be played on the radio and eventually covered by the Ram ones and the Cramps. The song was also used in the classic Stanley Kubrick film, “Full Metal Jacket.” Despite two decades of longevity and accolades, “Surfin’ Bird” was still being licensed by Amos Heilicher in budget compilations of “goofy greats” and “wacky wonders.” Ironically, some of the worst songs of the sixties era, “Harem Holiday” and “Animal Instinct,” were recorded by the “King of Rock and Roll”, Elvis Presley.
Presley’s record label, RCA, and his management managed to prevent any of these musical abominations from being associated with the mythology of the man who gave the world “Heartbreak Hotel.” Amos Heilicher, on the other hand, had no issue with placing “Surfin’ Bird” next to Alvin and the Chipmunks or Sheb Wooley’s “The Purple People Eater.” This decision for the easy dollar led to the misconception of the Trashmen as a novelty act and not the recognition of the group as a top band of their era. Imagine, if you will, the Beatles being promoted on “Yellow Submarine” as their magnum opus, without any context of the band making a song for kids. Perception is a big argument in how an individual sees the world and the things that surround them. If a song is marketed as a classic, it will be considered under those stipulations. If it is sold as a joke, it will be taken thusly so.
After 28 years of Soma distribution, the Trashmen decided enough was enough: “In 1991 we finally got fed up with hearing our song used and went to court to gain licensing rights,” Winslow stated. “At the time, it was being licensed illegally by Musicland, a division of Amos’ empire. The ironic thing was they had no contract to do so. The only contract that ever came across our desk was a document on management by Soma and Garrett. This was never signed since Tony (Andreason, the band’s lead guitarist) was only 20 at the time and his father said he would not sign it. In retrospect, a great decision. The (court) declared we had full ownership of all masters and any distribution or licensing going forward. We now receive compensation for any time the song (“Surfin’ Bird”) is used.”
Since this verdict, The Trashmen have seen a renaissance that is incomparable to any artist from their era, propelling the group from a funny footnote to a band worthy of induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They are about to embark on a second European tour, after performing a concert at the “Back to the 50’s” Minnesota Street Rod Association show in St. Paul. During this time they will see fans old and new, young and old. To some they will be legends, to others a passport to an infinite memory of youth and innocence. Cars and bars, girls and tilt-a-whirls. To others, for a tiny moment of an hour, there is a band. A great band. A band that celebrates all that is great about rock and roll music. The persistence and diligence inside every kid when they pick up a guitar, trying to get the Chuck Berry lick down until it is as sweet as sugar on cereal. The Trashmen are the code word for belief. What’s the word? Don’t you know the word? It doesn’t need to be said. We all know…