Thirty-five years ago teen rock like the Trashmen's "Surfin' Bird" caught a wave across the prairies--and rode it into adulthood
In the brief moment between JFK's assassination and the Beatles' appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, the Trashmen ruled teenage America. These four garage-rockers, hailing from Robbinsdale and Minneapolis, scored a nationwide hit in the fall of 1963 with "Surfin' Bird," a mindless and insistent bit of proto-punk yammering that mowed its way through safe, early-'60s pop radio like Jaws in a Gidget movie.
"That was hard rock then," remembers Charles Shoen, who founded the Del Counts, one of the dozens of bands that came together during the mid-'60s in the wake of "Surfin' Bird." "It was the sound that replaced Elvis and Carl Perkins."
The sound also sparked something Minnesota had never seen before: a pop explosion. Suddenly, the possibility of overnight success loomed large for scores of guitar-wielding teens in sharp suits and skinny ties, many of whom were already mainstays on the same frenzied Upper Midwest teenybopper circuit the Trashmen toured. The ballrooms, school dances, and soda-pop clubs of Mid-America became stomping grounds for local garage-rockers like the Accents and the Avanties, who soon cut records of their own. And although only the falsettoed Castaways, with their hit "Liar, Liar," were able to register nationally, these bands waged guerrilla war against the coming British invasion with a bracing series of regional hits.
What's striking now about these souvenirs from Teenland, collected on the new Big Hits of Mid-America compilation (see "Surf's Up, Ole!", page 49), is how confident and catchy even the big misses were. The singles, averaging two minutes and 20 seconds each, capture a mid-'60s moment that the musicians now describe as "innocent" and "uncomplicated." This was the one-hit wonderland of That Thing You Do!, Tom Hanks's film about a fictional Ur-teen band from Erie, Pa., called "the One-ders," who achieve success with one sunshiny single.
But the moment was fleeting: The war began drafting band members for service in Vietnam, and those left behind found the scene besieged by flower children and acid rock.
"It got depressing," says Shoen. "Kids didn't go out to dance anymore: They'd sit at home looking at candles and smoking dope." Of course, there was a lot to be depressed about, and the cheeky appeal of a band like Dudley & the Doo Rytes was understandably lost on Dylan fans. Too often, nostalgia for the early '60s seems to mask a don't ask/don't tell view of American history--a longing for the days when Kennedy bombed the shit out of Vietnam in secrecy while Ronnie Spector begged us to be her baby.
Yet there was a more fundamental difference between that world of regional hits and regional tours and the coming of the global rock era heralded by Sgt. Pepper's. Just ask the fiftysomethings involved in the recent series of local '60s-rock reunions, like this Saturday's Big Hits release party at the Cabooze, which features the Underbeats, the Trashmen, the Del Counts, the High Spirits, and the Castaways. These guys--they're all guys--will describe a pop democracy, an era when local singles got local airplay, when bands played just for the fun of it, and when audiences came ready to dance.
"I was at the Danceland Ballroom in Excelsior watching the Underbeats play 'Footstomping,'" recalls Castaways keyboardist Jim Donna, "and the kids were literally stomping their feet so hard on the floor that the owner came up and stopped the band. He was afraid of structural damage." Danceland was merely the largest of six or seven local dance halls, most of them drawing up to a thousand teens on any given night. Though the Prom Center in St. Paul lasted longest, the venues clustered around the intersection of Lake and Nicollet in Minneapolis--Mr. Lucky's, Mr. Magoo's, and the New City Opera House--became a Teenland hangout. "The Del Counts could have played every night of the week," recalls Shoen, whose band played regularly at the Marigold Ballroom on 13th and Nicollet.
"When you went to a place like Danceland, there was this electricity in the air before the band went on," remembers Trashmen guitarist Tony Andreason. And once things kicked off, bands would feed off the intensity in the room and the dancers' requests. "Kids would want to hear new songs on the radio," remembers Cliff Siegel, singer of the High Spirits. "We once played 'Satisfaction' three times in a single night."
"The Trashmen were stars to us, but they were also fan-friendly," says Tom Tourville, who helped compile Big Hits and followed the band in their heyday. "If you wanted to buy a 45, they'd sell you a record right off the bandstand. A lot of the bands drove hearses, and they'd go to the hearse and pull a poster out of the back and sign one for you."
In this fancentric climate, the Trashmen decided to record "Surfin' Bird" only after it inspired a powerful audience response. "We kind of put it together in the dressing room of Chubb's Ballroom," remembers Andreason. "[Drummer] Steve [Wahrer] used his voice, and he was laughing like crazy. And so he said, 'I'll just go and do Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow until I shake my head and tell you when to change.' And he did that and the crowd reaction was just incredible." Of course, the song was a little more self-conscious than that anecdote implies. Wahrer's vocal simultaneously ripped off two songs by a white R&B group called the Rivingtons, "Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow" and "The Bird's the Word," and the song's double-time vigor was obviously influenced by California surf rock like the Ventures' "Pipeline."
Local disc jockey and rock 'n' roll booster Bill Diehl caught the boys' manic hybrid and encouraged them to record it. Once they did, he put it into circulation at WDGY, then the prominent rock station, along with KDWB. "If you were a local band and they liked your record, they'd play it on the air," says Andreason. "That's why a lot of these groups came out of Minneapolis. In Chicago or New York, they wouldn't play local music." In today's globalized radioland, playing a popular local band like Greazy Meal is almost unheard of. But at the time, this was how hits were made.
Longtime Minneapolis-based music entrepreneur Marsh Edelstein was a promoter for the Del Counts and knew the system well. "What I'd do is put bands through the teen clubs for six months," he says, "like the Barn [which was literally a barn], the Marigold Ballroom, and the Prison in Burnsville. And the bands would gain enough notoriety to be in demand, so kids would book them at schools and colleges, where you'd make your money. The teen clubs were just for marquee value, something you also needed to get airplay."
The fact that the groups were, more often than not, teens themselves inevitably made for some tough crash courses in business savvy. "Groups spent a fortune on equipment," Edelstein remembers, laughing. "They'd go to B-Sharp and buy everything, and I'd go, 'What'd you do?' They'd say, 'Well, Marsh, we're signed. We know we're going places.' I'd go, 'Guys, please. You're going to fraternity parties.'"
"Some of our band members were still in high school, and our parents literally had to drive us to some of our first jobs," remembers the Castaways' Jim Donna. The Castaways's first gig was at Jerry's Pizza in Richfield, earning the band $50--and a pizza. "We thought that was a great deal," Donna says.
But when the teens' single "Liar, Liar" hit the Top 40, everything changed. "We were used to playing ballrooms with maybe a thousand kids. Now we were doing a concert in San Francisco with Sonny & Cher headlining and 50,000 people in the audience. We got onstage and looked at each other and--I'm not kidding--we were scared to death. But once we started playing, everything was OK."
Even for Teenland's non-national stars, garage rock was a quick and strange way to grow up. "I missed out on a lot of things in life," says Shoen, whose Del Counts endured the psychedelic era and continue to perform locally. "I mean, I didn't go to my high school prom, I played for it. Plus everybody else's in the city. I must have played every high school from '65 to '70 for every kind of event. But to come back and still play people's 10-, 20-, and 30-year class reunions is an incredible feeling." It's a cliché to wonder aloud at how utilitarian live music can turn into disposable pop, yet eventually become enshrined as "timeless," but the cliché itself is timeless too.
"Surfin' Bird" was a goof: "We didn't have 'artistic differences' within the band," says Andreason. But it had all the crazed, aimless energy of a generation that has since, well, settled. (The song now is used to hawk cell phones.) Today Andreason is a financial planner. Siegel is a sales executive at KARE-TV (Channel 11). Donna is a real estate appraiser.
"When we were growing up, this music was for teenagers," explains Danny Alexander, whose Mill City Music Festival first reunited many of the Soma-era bands last year. "It didn't exist in bars. When you graduated from high school, you were expected to go to college and get married and forget this stuff."
The Underbeats, the Trashmen, the Del Counts, the High Spirits, and the Castaways perform Saturday at the Big Hits of Mid-America CD release party at the Cabooze. Admission is $10. 7 p.m. door. Music starts at 8 p.m. Call 338-6425 for more information.
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