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The Trashmen

Arguably the greatest landlocked surf band of all time, the Trashmen are best remembered for their debut single, "Surfin' Bird," a manic blast of primitive garage rock thunder with a crazed, gravel-voiced singer howling "Papa Oom Mow Mow" over it all. It was wild in a way few singles were in 1963, and guaranteed the Trashmen a certain immortality; it's been a staple in movies, television shows, commercials, and oldies radio shows ever since. It's also an anomaly in their catalog; for the most part, the Trashmen were a surf band in Minnesota, a land of lakes, singing about cool cars and hanging ten over reverb-enhanced guitar lines and a crisp rhythm section. 1964's Surfin' Bird was the only album they released in their original run, but 2022's The Best of the Trashmen gives a better overview of their career, and 1990's Live Bird '65 – '67 and 2012's Teen Trot are archival releases that capture how they sounded on-stage in front of an audience. The story of the Trashmen begins in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1955, when close friends Tony Andreason and Mike Jann were learning to play guitar. The two were country music fans, and they'd worked up an act where they impersonated Johnny Cash and his guitarist, Luther Perkins. On the advice of a friend, they entered a talent contest being held at a local Knights of Columbus hall, and won studio time at a local recording facility. The duo cut a pair of songs, and Roy Drusky, years before he became a successful country singer, was working at a radio station as a disc jockey. Drusky liked Andreason and Jann's demo disc and spun it on air, giving them their first taste of success. Not long after that, Jann dropped out of the act and Andreason, a teenager whose head was turned by the new rock & roll sounds that were making the charts, began playing with a pair of fellow young rock fans, Dal Winslow and Steve Wahrer. The three landed a gig as part of Jim Thaxter's backing band the Travelers, with Thaxter on bass, Andreason on lead guitar, Winslow on rhythm guitar, and Wahrer on drums. Before long, the group parted ways with Thaxter, and began playing dances and teen clubs in Minnesota under a variety of names before they settled on the Trashmen, the handle inspired by a local hit, "Trashman's Blues" by Kai-Ray. As the Trashmen honed their approach and went through a handful of bass players, they fell for the sound of surf music, a new style pioneered by guitarist Dick Dale that was an extension of West Coast surfing culture. The Trashmen adopted it as their new guiding sound. In 1962, they also found a permanent bass player, Bob Reed, and became a frequent attraction on the Twin Cities rock & roll circuit. Meanwhile, Steve Wahrer hatched an idea for a song in which he laid a frantic vocal inspired by a pair of hits from the R&B vocal group the Rivingtons, "Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow" and "The Bird's the Word," over a raw, no-frills garage/surf melody. The song went over big at their shows, and they borrowed money to record it as their debut single. Released on the local Garrett Records label in November 1963, "Surfin' Bird" quickly became a local hit after heavy Minneapolis airplay, and in December, it hit the lower reaches of the national charts and peaked at number four on the national singles charts -- suddenly the Trashmen were stars, touring the country and appearing on national television. However, the band was still working on more original songs when "Surfin' Bird" became a smash, and they didn't have much in the way of a follow-up. Garrett Records rushed the band through an album, Surfin' Bird, which was dominated by covers and songs contributed by Larry LaPole. The group was delivering surf music as strong as most West Coast groups, and Wahrer was able to add his trademark vocals to numbers like "Bad News," "A-Bone," and "Bird Bath," yet the Trashmen only scored one more Top 40 hit, "Bird Dance Beat," and their time as a charting act was over by 1965. The Trashmen still fared well as a live act, but national touring opportunities were beginning to dry up, and recordings made for a projected live album in 1967 were shelved when the venue backed out of a sponsorship deal. By the end of 1967, after the release of a final single, "Green, Green Backs Back Home," Tony Andreason, Dal Winslow, and Bob Reed had all left the Trashmen, and Steve Wahrer hired ringers to keep the group on the road in their absence. The final lineup of the band didn't last long, and Wahrer retired the group in 1968. The enduring popularity of "Surfin' Bird" made it hard to keep the Trashmen down; they staged occasional reunion shows in the '70s and officially relaunched in 1982, playing on a semi-regular basis and beginning work on a new album. Sadly, Steve Wahrer died in 1989 due to throat cancer, and the album saw a belated release in 1995 as Comic Book Collector. By this time, the Sundazed label had reissued the majority of the Trashmen's back catalog, as well as the unreleased 1967 live tapes (they were included on Live Bird '65 – '67) and another live set documenting their August 1965 appearance at Wisconsin's Pierce Country Fair, Teen Trot. After Wahrer's death, Tony Andreason brought in his brother Mark Andreason to play drums with the band, and after he left the group in 2009, Bob Reed's son Robin Reed took over behind the kit. Guitarist and longtime Trashmen fan Deke Dickerson teamed up with the band to record an EP in 2013, I'm a Trashman, and the following year, Dickerson and the Trashmen cut a full album together, Bringing Back the Trash. In 2016, more than fifty years after they debuted, the Trashmen played their final shows in Minneapolis, deciding it was time for the band to call it a day. In 2022, as "Surfin' Bird" continued to be an irreplaceable part of American culture, Sundazed released a newly remastered collection of the group's finest songs, The Best of the Trashmen.
© Mark Deming /TiVo


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