January 14th, 2011 | Interviews

Luke McGarry

Don’t you know about the BIRD?!? Of course you do, you piece of human GARBAGE! EVERYBODY knows about the BIRD! You know all ABOUT it because a band called the Trashmen surfed straight outta the tundra of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and fucking DELIVERED it to you on an irresistible, hormone-heightening vinyl platter sometime around 1962, a date someone needs to tell Dave Markey was the real Year Punk Broke! Virtually every bad-assed lo-fi hi-energy punk with a smirk—from the Novas and Los Saicos in the sixties on up to the Ramones, the Dickies, the Dwarves, and that band from Burger Records you like so damned much—owes a big heapin’ helpin’ of thanks to the Trashmen for breaking so much sandy soil with a shit-eating grin. And that goes DOUBLE for the entire cottage industry of bleeding-treble surf bands that began in the nineties and of which the Trashwomen are only the most obvious tips of the ten-toes-over iceberg! With that in mind, L.A. RECORD is as pleased as PUNCH to be interviewing Dal Winslow, the original and current rhythm guitarist for the Trashmen, whose words of wipeout wisdom were only made that much more poignant by the slight Fargo lilt to his voice as he gloried in the heyday of the Bird Dance Beat. This interview by Dan Collins.

When the Trashmen started in 1962, what was the state of rock and roll in your neck of the woods?
Dal Winslow (rhythm guitar): It was at its peak! It was all about fun and cars and girls and guys and summer. There were a lot of good groups here in Minneapolis that were playing. Tony [Andreason], the guitar player, was from here originally. Steve [Wahrer] the drummer was from Iowa. And Bob [Reed] the bass player was from North Dakota. My family moved up from Nebraska in the fifties.
I just saw that Family Guy segment: Peter Griffin sings the entire ‘Surfin’ Bird’ along to your original recording and dances around on the floor of his kitchen. Unfortunately, you guys don’t get any royalties from things like that—you had to give the publishing up in the sixties to the Rivingtons for basing it off of their songs.
We originally heard a Wisconsin band do ‘The Bird is the Word,’ and we just thought it was a hoot. And as we were playing at a ballroom one night called Chub’s, Steve said ‘let’s try to do that, and I’ll just fake it.’ And in the middle he stopped and did the ‘ba-ba-ba-ba-ba,’ and the DJ said ‘You should record this!’ Our manager at that time came back and said ‘They’re saying you copied it from another record. It is ‘The Bird’ and it is ‘Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow.’’ We had to give up the rights. And we didn’t even fight it, which was a big mistake. The Oak Ridge Boys, who sang ‘Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow’ in the middle of ‘Elvira,’ didn’t have to give that up. But we were young and dumb!
You guys have some other amazing recordings. What is it about ‘Surfin’ Bird’ that makes it the perennial hit and not ‘Keep a Knockin’’ or ‘Henrietta?’
If you ever figure it out, then you’ve got the million dollar question answered. I haven’t! It’s been lauded as the worst record of all time, along with ‘Louie Louie,’ and it’s also been lauded as one of the ten best of all time. I think it’s just a plain, good-hearted rock song that people can associate to. As we play nowadays, we usually end the set by playing ‘Surfin’ Bird,’ and the people out there, whether eight or 80, they just go wild to that song. They just start singing along with you and dancing. I guess it just kind of instills energy in people. It’s still living—in fact, it just got picked up by the Wii gaming people for Just Dance. If you had told me 40 some-odd years ago that you would still be out there doing this when you’re 60-some-odd years old, I would have said, ‘Yeah, right!’
Were audiences 40 some-odd years ago wilder than they are now, or less wild?
They were pretty much the same then as they are now, but you used to play like four hours in ballrooms. Even when we had the record and did some touring in the United States, the jobs we played would be three or four hours, and they would be in ballrooms that would hold a thousand, 1500 kids, and they would be dancing all the time. We aren’t a band that has a lot of stage antics; it’s just the music that gets you up off your feet and gets you moving. And one of the reasons we kind of hung it up in ’67 or so was that the whole music scene changed. It was more blues oriented and more psychedelic, and with the war going on, people stopped dancing, and they just kind of sat out in the middle of the ballroom and looked at you. But the crowds nowadays, especially over in Europe—they pack the place. We play maybe 70 to 90 minutes, and it’s just full-tilt from start to finish. They’re into this sixties dress over there and rockabilly, and it’s like stepping into a time warp sometimes over there.
Instrumentally or vocally, I don’t think the Trashmen ever did a ballad. Did you purposefully set out to be so … agro?
Yep! We’ve been classified as punk, surf, and garage. But it was also the limitations of our singing. We did the best we could with what we had—we did more of ‘in unison’ singing than harmonies. We had a great singer with Steve Wahrer on the drums, who died in 1989. He did the ‘Bird,’ and he could do all kinds of voices, so we were able to mix it up. We could do some songs with words, and then do some great instrumentals, because Tony on lead guitar was one of those guys who listens to a song once and memorizes it, like with ‘Miserlou.’ And then we said, here’s another song we used to play, ‘Malaguena.’ Let’s turn that into a surf song! And Dick Dale later actually put that one into his set.
The Belairs, one of the first surf bands, made the distinction between ‘surf music’ which was complex and mostly instrumental, and ‘beach music’ which was more vocal, like the Beach Boys. You guys don’t seem to mind switching from instrumentals to vocals—did you see a distinction between the two styles?
They are correct—surf music has so many different facets. Beach Boys music is so much different than what Dick Dale does. The Beach Boys was more a cappella, like the Lettermen. Instrumentally, they were mediocre! They played a big ballroom up here that we had played at called Danceland, with the original five with David Marks in it. And I turned to Steve and said, ‘Wow, these guys don’t sound like they do on the record!’ And that was before they had all the sound systems and everything else.
You guys all went on a vacation to Los Angeles in the early sixties. Is that where you learned to play surf music?
I was getting every surf album I could get, and Tony and Steve and I said, ‘Let’s just go to L.A. and Newport and Manhattan Beach and check it out, and kind of absorb the atmosphere.’ We saw some of the groups out at Redondo Beach. And we came back, and said, ‘Okay, now we’ve got it! I’ve stood at the ocean; I can hear the ocean. I’ve seen the light, ha ha!’ We were the only group up here in the Midwest turning the reverb up and playing things like ‘Miserlou’…. And the kids just went bananas for it. A lot of the stuff we played was the Dick Dale stuff.
I know when Dick Dale started, he had to take coils out of old electric organs to use for his guitar’s reverb sound. What gear did you use to get that sound?
When we first started playing it, we didn’t have a reverb. The flip side of ‘Surfin’ Bird,’ ‘King of the Surf,’ was played without a reverb at all. The only reverb on that was put on during the recording session with the recording equipment. We didn’t get a reverb until the Fender Reverb Tank was available—and we got a whole lot of those! We started off with the Fender Bassman and Band-masters and moved up to Showmans and then moved up to Dual Showmans.
How did engineers make reverb in the studio?
That first album, those songs were just recorded BAM! Steve sang the ‘Bird’ as we were playing it, and all those songs, there wasn’t hardly any overdub. It was a good sized studio, but they had just been doing radio spots and some polka bands once in a while. So we come in there with these big Dual Showmans and the drum set, and they were like, ‘Oh my god, they’re going to blow the roof off this place!’ But we wanted to do some echo for the middle of the ‘Bird’ and things like that, and they said, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do: we’re going to set something up in a room upstairs up here, a dark room, and we’re going to put some mics up there and we’re going to pipe it back and forth.’
They’d put an amp on one side of the room, a mic on the other, and try to record the sound cascading off the walls.
Yep! And even playing the gigs, there was no mic-ing of sound like you have now. We carried our four microphones with us, and those we set up through a little transistor mixer that we set on top of one of the Dual Showmen and ran right into the amp! Those were the four mikes. Steve had an old echo machine—what is now a valued relic, I saw in one of the guitar magazines—that he sat next to him and plugged his mic into it so he could have echo on his voice. When he wanted to do his gurgling sounds, he could turn up the echo. We were our own sound guys, and our own road crew.
Were there groupies, or was that a later thing?
We had quite a few ‘groupies,’ and by ‘groupies’ I mean people who were good friends, girls and guys, who would follow the band all over up here. As we cut the ‘Bird’ and started touring, we did hardly any gigs up here, and then we didn’t have very many groupies. We had a fan club, but not very many groupies. We had this syndrome that’s common. We were really popular up here and just packed any place you could have a dance in, from a VFW hall to a roller rink, but once we hit that record and it hit the national charts, and we went around the United States and South America and Canada, that was almost the end of our career here.
There’s a big disconnect now between bands that are on the radio and are huge, and then sort of ‘real,’ hardworking bands that may be local but that have an actual ‘scene.’ It sounds like that distinction wasn’t unusual in the sixties either.
What was nice back then was that, if you had a record, you could take it out to the local radio station and they would give it some spins for you. Sometimes after a gig—at say midnight—we’d go out there and sit with the night DJ and chew the fat, and give him a record, and he’d play it—it was easier to get your record played on the local stations. That all changed real fast. I know you couldn’t do that nowadays, because they’re all controlled by giant conglomerates. They would play the bigger groups, but they would also promote the local bands.
What bigger groups did you play with?
We did several gigs with Jan and Dean. We did them with Fabian. We did a gig with Frankie Avalon, the Rivieras, Lou Christie. Before the ‘Bird’ came out, we were a really successful band up here, probably one of the top bands touring the Midwest, and that was about the time the Four Seasons came out, and we backed them up on several of their gigs. Four of the nicest guys you’d ever meet.
How about on your recent tours?
We played with a group called the Neanderthals out of New York, but other than that, we’ve been on our own. We’ll play a local club, and there’ll be a local group that’ll play there for about an hour and then we’ll go on. We haven’t really toured with another band.
A lot of bands in more recent years have covered Trashmen songs. Or they’ll do other songs but in your style. Like, I interviewed a band called the Trashwomen
Oh yeah! I’ve got their EPs that they had!
What band has covered you that you’ve enjoyed the most?
Oh, the Ramones! They did ‘Surfin’ Bird,’ and they did a great job of getting it up to date, and they’re pretty well known for that. Another group that did it is the Cramps, which was very popular in Europe. And then there was a group—I can’t think of the name of it right now, but the two guys in ABBA, before ABBA, did a version of ‘Surfin’ Bird’ over in Sweden. I said, ‘Oh my God!’
I saw the Cramps once do a 30 minute version of ‘Surfin’ Bird,’ and Lux Interior kicked a hole in the ceiling while doing it! What’s the longest version you’ve ever done?
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! You’ve got to remember, we’re not 20 anymore! We string it out for about 4 or 5 minutes, and it’s always a fever pitch at that time. In Europe, those crowds get so wild at times, and they’re just dancing like crazy, and I tell them ‘When we play the ‘Bird,’ this place is going to come apart,’ and sometimes it does! People get up and dance on tables—if we carried it on for 20 minutes, I don’t think there’d be anything left of the ballroom!