By Ryan Gueningsman
MEDINA, MN Unless you were a teenager growing up in the 1960s, you may not have heard that the bird is the word.
Now, thanks in large part to the popular television show “Family Guy,” an entire new generation is hearing for the first time that the bird is, indeed, the word and being introduced to the music of Twin Cities-based band The Trashmen.
The band that gave the world the bird “Surfin’ Bird” to be exact and got away with it, will be performing a rare show in its homestate of Minnesota Saturday, May 2 at the Medina Entertainment Center.
Like many bands of the 1960s, The Trashmen is taking on a new life of its own today. Three of its four original members remain lead guitarist/vocalist Tony Andreason, rhythm guitarist/vocalist Dal Winslow, and bass guitarist/vocalist Bob Reed. Original drummer/vocalist Steve Wahrer passed away from esophageal cancer in 1989, and was replaced in the line-up with Andreason’s brother, Mark.
Minnesota remains home to all four band members. Tony Andreason lives in Minnetonka, Winslow in Ham Lake, Reed in Apple Valley, and Mike Andreason in New Brighton. Together originally from 1962 to 1967, the band made a lot of music but, without question, its biggest hit was the party record “Surfin’ Bird.”
“We came up with that song,” recalled lead singer Tony Andreason last Wednesday over breakfast in Plymouth. “We always said it was probably a nightmare Steve had one night, but the truth is, we saw a group called The Sorenson Brothers, and they were playing this wild song ‘The Bird is the Word.’
“We’d never heard it before, so Steve came up with this crazy voice and he was fooling around with it. We were playing Chubb’s Ballroom, and he said, ‘what if we try to do this live tonight?’ We just had the guitars back then without amplifiers. He said ‘I’ll just nod my head when we’re going to change chords.
“So, that’s what he did. He stopped in the middle of the song, and he just had to do something, so that’s where he came up with that middle part, and the crowd went wild.”
With that, the “Surfin’ Bird” was invented, as well as a dance craze that swept the nation. “Surfin’ Bird” was essentially a combination of two songs by the band The Rivingtons but The Trashmen made it their own.
Local disc jockey Bill Diehl, who was at the show, told the band he didn’t know where they came up with that, but said that it was something that needed to be recorded.
“So we did,” Andreason said. The band recorded “Surfin’ Bird” in Minneapolis, and Diehl entered it into a “battle of the bands” in Minneapolis, and it won. It was then sent to a “battle of the bands” competition in Chicago and won there as well. The group couldn’t get “Surfin’ Bird” out fast enough. Not long after, a single record of “Surfin’ Bird” was produced.
“They thought they had themselves something that was hot,” Andreason said. “I think the first weekend it sold 30,000 copies and the rest is history, as they say.”
Not long after, the four band members went into the studio and laid down the songs for the “Surfin’ Bird” album.
“In just a couple of days, we recorded the ‘Surfin’ Bird’ album,” Andreason recalled. “I’ll bet the whole thing there was probably 10 to 15 hours in the studio, and that was about it. A lot of it was done live.”
The band soon went surfin’ coast to coast with the bird, thanks in large part to a booking agent named Jimmy Thomas.
“He called us and wanted to take us out for 10 days,” Andreason said. “I think, at that time, we were going to be paid $250 a night, so a little over $50 a piece before expenses. We did so well he paid us double every night. Jimmy booked us for the whole time that we were touring.”
“We never had a contract with him,” Andreason said. “Just a handshake.”
Andreason said Thomas was “a very honest guy” and said Thomas knew ballrooms across the country because he had the Jimmy Thomas Orchestra he also toured extensively with.
Thomas booked the band at larger and larger venues, and before they knew it, Andreason said the band found itself touring with the likes of The Four Seasons, Jan and Dean, Lou Christie, The Four Tops, The Crystals, Terry Stafford, and other top groups of the day.
“We went on the road with them, and then everything really took off after that,” Andreason said. “We started playing bigger venues and making more money, but there wasn’t a lot of money at that time.”
He explained that record sales at the time was three cents a record combined, split amongst the four guys.
“If you sold a million records, that’s $30,000,” he said. “Today if you sell a million records, you’re gonna make $2 or $3 million dollars. The heck of it is, the record (“Surfin’ Bird”) sold way over a million records. We don’t know exactly how much it sold, but it’s millions now. Even though it was three cents a record, we still didn’t get paid.”
Instead, the band made its money on the road with Thomas.
“We toured all over the world at that time,” Andreason said. “We played 289 one-nighters in ‘64. That doesn’t include some of those venues we’d play two or three nights. So, we were on the road constantly. In ‘65, it was the same way - 272 I think it was.”
Though at the height of their musical careers, some things had been happening that the band members weren’t even aware of.
“There were things that happened back then . . . we were offered a contact with Columbia Records and didn’t even know about it,” Andreason said. “We were kept in the dark about it. We were young and really, I guess you’re stupid when you’re 20 years old, but we trusted people we shouldn’t have trusted except for Jimmy Thomas. Jimmy made it happen for us. He was the reason that we were as successful as we were particularly on tour dates because he kept us really busy and we played some just fantastic venues back then and played with just about everybody that was around at the time.”
When the music scene began changing rapidly, The Trashmen were faced with a hard question keep playing music and trying to get another hit, or hang it up and move on to the next chapter of their lives.
“We were still playing all the time, but the music was changing and going to acid rock,” Andreason said. “There was a lot of drugs starting to be used and the audiences changed they weren’t dancing anymore. They were sitting on the floor. We didn’t want to play it. Not that we couldn’t play it we just didn’t want to.
“Our time had come and was going. We didn’t want to ride it down and play clubs and just play five nights a week someplace we didn’t want to do that. We wanted to do something else. We had ridden the wave, so to speak, and enjoyed the ride.”
Andreason said when The Beatles came out, if you were an American group, it was tough to sell records.
“Unless you were The Four Seasons or The Beach Boys, you weren’t selling records,” he said.” So, when it ended in ‘67, everything comes to an end and everything changes. We thought we’d go on to a different part of our lives.”
Andreason said Winslow aspired to get back into banking, go back to school, and begin a career. He said Reed was working as general manager for a manufacturing company.
“Steve wanted to continue to play,” Andreason recalled. In what seemed to be a majority-rule situation, The Trashmen decided to call it quits in 1967, and focus on other career paths and families.
“We left on good terms. In fact, we’d go out and see Steve play some nights and see how he was doing,” Andreason said. “He played his whole life. That’s all he did. There should be a movie made on his life. Steve was the kind of guy that, he was just a loose cannon in a way . . . he was the kind of guy, if he had $10 in his pocket, and you needed it, he’d give it to you that’s just the way he was. He was a free spirit for sure. He was a good guy, a loyal guy. He went on to play, and we started our careers.”
However, music still ran through their veins. In the 1970s, the band got together and played a few shows.
“We played some shows where (Bob) Dylan came out and watched us all night long. In fact, I read it in Rolling Stone. They asked him what he’d been doing, and he said he’d been out to see The Trashmen,” Andreason said.
After The Trashmen heyday, Andreason became a successful financial advisor with North Star Resource Group.
“So, we played very little, then in 1999 we hadn’t played for a long time a guy by the name of Eddie Angel contacted me, and they wanted to put together a show in Las Vegas. We hadn’t been playing at all. I called the guys again and asked if they wanted to go to Las Vegas and do a show, and they said, ‘yeah.’
“We went, and they’re still talking about it,” Andreason said with a smile. “It was one of those happenings, and it was pretty much a punk crowd. They just reacted to our music so positively. We left the stage that night, and Dal said, ‘gee, if we never play again, this is the way to go out.’”
But fortunately, that was not the end for The Trashmen.
“They were so good in Las Vegas,” Andreason’s girlfriend Barbie said. “They sounded good. Their voices were there.”
The present day Trashmen
Now more than 40 years after “Surfin’ Bird” climbed the charts and took the world by storm, Andreason, Winslow, Reed, and Mark Andreason are finding themselves traveling and being The Trashmen again.
About two years ago, band members discovered an unknown cult following overseas.
“Now, we’re back touring again. We didn’t know we were really big in Europe,” Andreason said humbly. “I was talking to Bobby Vee, and he told us we were really big in Europe. I said really? I told Barbie that we were big in Europe. She started checking online and said, ‘you guys gotta get back together.’
“I said ‘nah,’ but she said, ‘you call them up and see if they want to go back out and do some shows.’ She pushed me to do it, otherwise it wouldn’t have happened.”
Before booking a major tour overseas, the band members first had to find out if they still had it and could still play.
“We rehearsed 13 times, and it came back to where we thought it was pretty good as good as a garage band could be, and for our own music and our own style. We decided to go out and try it,” Andreason said. Before heading overseas, a few dates were booked in the United States.
“Eddie booked us at a place in Chicago at a place called Fitzgerald’s,” Andreason said. “So, that was a success. We decided we’d try it in Europe just to see how it would go.”
Not long after, the band was booked to perform in places like Barcelona, Spain. Strange requests for autographs, and being offered other amenities overseas was something the band wasn’t expecting, but the band members enjoyed every minute of it.
“We get such a kick out of it, after the show, with all the posters and things people buy,” Andreason said. “We’ll stand around as long as it takes. In Europe, there was a line of people with pictures, and we would take pictures with them. We did that, I think, for an hour-and-a-half, along with signing posters and merchandise.”
The band then went back and did 11 more shows in eight different countries.
“That was a very successful tour, and the good thing about it is that it got really good reviews, so that helped. So then we went back for another one. We’re going back in July of 2009 for some more dates,” he said.
Andreason said there was no resistance from any of the band members about getting back together and making a second go of living their dream.
“We can’t believe it,” he said. “It is like it was 45 years ago. We enjoy every minute of it.”
Andreason said it’s funny how the band is just obscure enough that people will think they knew a neighbor or a friend of a friend’s cousin that was in The Trashmen.
“I met one guy in a crowd in Denver,” Andreason said. “We were doing a show, and the guy came up and said, ‘my neighbor was in the band,’ and told me I must have played (in the band) after that. I told him ‘yeah, that must be it.’
He said a television show host from Nashville had a gentleman on the show who claimed to produce “Surfin’ Bird.”
“He was never there,” Andreason said. “A guy supposedly was our agent . . . I think we were obscure enough that people don’t know they can’t prove one way or the other, but all you have to do is go online and you can see who is in The Trashmen.”
At a Trashmen show, a woman was bragging once to Barbie that she had dated the lead singer of The Trashmen. Barbie asked the woman if she had seen him recently, and took her back to meet Andreason.
“She almost fainted,” Barbie said with a laugh.
Any regrets about not playing that much in the 1970s and 1980s?
“I don’t have any regrets about that. We wish it would have lasted longer, but we didn’t want to ride it down,” Andreason said. “We quit, I think, at the right time when we should have quit because of what was going on at the time. Everybody was getting into playing the loudest music you could play.”
He recalled the group was doing some studio work, and said there were three women in there who had been doing drugs.
“They left the studio, and two of them were killed . . . I don’t want this. I don’t want to be involved in this.”
He also said he’s happy with his career, and said it’s allowed him to meet a lot of friends and new people. Barbie said some people who knew Andreason for 20 years had no idea he was the lead singer of The Trashmen.
Stepping on stage again, now, Andreason said is like coming full circle for the band.
“When you go on stage like this, it’s like time stood still,” he said. “It’s not a drudgery at all for us. You’re the same person, you just get a little more fired up.”
Being from Minnesota, just where did that California surf sound influence come from?
“We’re a landlocked surf band,” Andreason said with a laugh.
In the early 1960s, the band decided to travel to California to see the ocean.
“I’d never seen the ocean before, so we drove to Huntington Beach. I think all of us just sat there and looked at the ocean in a trance,” Andreason recalled. “We went and stayed at a hotel right across the street from the surf in Balboa, CA.
It was there they heard what would become “surf music.” This was before The Beach Boys had hit the scene. Dick Dale had been perfecting the surf music style, and Andreason was hooked.
“I brought every Dick Dale album I could find,” he recalled. “I learned the ‘Dick Dale Stomp,’ ‘Lets Go Trippin’,’ ‘Misirlou,’ and all these songs. We started playing a few at some of the venues we were playing, and the kids had never heard anything like that. The sound was so different. We played it different, too we had our own sound, our own style. There wasn’t a really surf style yet.
“The kids had never heard anything like it. They’d start coming in surf outfits and dancing like they were on the surf board. They seemed to really grab a hold of it and enjoy it at that time. Surf has lasted a long time at different levels.”
Ever get tired of playing the ‘Bird?’
“The Trashmen we always enjoy performing. People ask me what my favorite song is or if I ever get tired of playing the ‘Bird,’ and I never do,” Andreason said. “It’s different every time. What made us feel good good or bad is they say we sound just like the records. We’re just a four-piece garage band.”
Reed and Winslow were self-taught musicians, and Andreason was trained classically. All of the members of the band had parents who were into music.
“We’re said to be one of the top ‘punk’ bands of all time, but of course, we weren’t punk at all,” Andreason said.
What is The Trashmen to you?
“Well. I think we had a dream as a group of guys. You know, we started playing together Dal and I did when we were about 14 and we met Steve, and then Bob came in 1962, Andreason said.
“Our dream was to have a record, and to have fun playing rock and roll. We were just fortunate enough to have a record that took off, regardless of the money or anything at that time. It was just an absolutely incredible experience. Meeting all these people you heard about . . . just being about to do that to live your dream that’s everything. If you have a dream and a passion and you’re able to live it, that’s absolutely everything.
“It was a passion that I had and that everybody else had, and it was carried out.”
And now to be able to live that dream again . . .
“We never took ourselves too seriously, and we still don’t,” Andreason said. “We play what we think is real rock and roll, and we like to play it we enjoy playing it, and we’re not doing it for the money at this point. It’s just that we love to play.
“We don’t know how this will turn out at Medina, but it gives us an opportunity to play. A lot of our friends are coming out. It’ll be a lot of fun it’ll give me a chance to go on the bus. I would love to do that be a full-timer again.”
Andreason said traditionally, the band hasn’t done well in its homestate, and he isn’t sure why that is.
“Historically, we haven’t drawn very well in our own hometown. We’ll go to Chicago and fill a place. We’ll go to Los Angeles and will fill a place. We went to Cleveland at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” Andreason said. “They had a press conference for us the next day at the hall of fame. We sat on stage answering questions for an hour. Fans were there and came up out of the woodwork with albums and things we hadn’t seen in a long time. That was sold out, too.”
The band has been recognized in Minnesota, and was inducted into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame in 2005. Andreason also remains active in the Minnesota Bluegrass and Old-Time Music Association.
“Bluegrass has always been a passion of mine,” Andreason said. “I love it.”
He has played with the Platte Valley Boys for about 12 years. So, between the Platte Valley Boys and The Trashmen, it’s obvious Andreason still has a lot of music to share with the world.
“This opportunity to play again for us . . . we never thought at this time in our lives we’d ever be playing. We’re just enjoying every second of it,” Andreason said. “For us, we have so much fun just being able to do it at this point. We kind of treat every time we get on the stage as maybe the last time.”
And about Family Guy?
“We’d never seen it before,” Barbie said with a laugh.
“I watch it once in a while, but I don’t really watch a lot of TV. Particularly, I don’t watch sitcoms or reality TV I just can’t take it,” Andreason said.
“Family Guy” producers contacted Sundazed Records and a deal was struck to feature the song “Surfin’ Bird” in an episode of the show for the series’ seventh season.
“I Dream of Jesus” is the second episode of the seventh season of “Family Guy,” and originally aired Oct. 5, 2008, according to Fox. The episode centers around main character Peter Griffin’s obsession with a “Surfin’ Bird” 45 record and asking people, “Have you heard?”
“It was done about a year ago. So, it was a nice surprise because he (record label representative) called us up and said, you know, we made this deal a year ago and it’s going to happen on Family Guy it’s a real nice, sweet deal that we made, and it came on, and I gotta say, looking at it, I was astounded, really. Jesus worked in a record store, and they wanted to tell the world that the bird is the word,” Andreason said with a laugh.
The show made him think back to the band’s former drummer who passed away.
“We always say, ‘I wonder what Steve would say,’” Andreason said.
Thanks to “Family Guy,” a whole new generation is being introduced to “Surfin’ Bird” and The Trashmen. The song has recently been climbing the singles charts in the United Kingdom, and was at number 34 last week.
Barbie said the song was heavily downloaded right after the “Family Guy” episode debuted, and people also have “Surfin’ Bird” as cell phone ring tones.
“It’s been quite a trip, that’s all I can say,” Andreason said.