The Cramps were playing Surfin’ Bird live before The Ramones. Johnny admitted, “We heard them doing it, so we started playing it”. The unhinged bubble-gum pop of Surfin’ Bird was perfect for The Ramones anyway. It was fast, retro rock ‘n’ roll, comprising three chords and a bunch of lyrical hooks. That IS The Ramones.
It also fitted in with the band’s self-deprecating way of answering the mainstream’s misconceptions about their mental functionality. One time Marky remembered when the band were on tour and stopped at a restaurant. When their tour manager Monte Melnick left the band alone inside to go out to the van a concerned woman approached him and asked, “Are you taking care of those retarded men”. “She thought we were retarded guys in a van, being nursed by Monte. She meant it.”
Whether it was because of their appearance, playing style or the blunt subject matter of their songs, they were often dismissed as stupid or crazy and songs like Pinhead, Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment, Teenage Lobotomy and Surfin’ Bird were their way of hitting back.
It’s plain to see that The Ramones were in fact geniuses. They wrote brilliant songs and developed a playing style and complete street gang aesthetic – encompassing the clothes, the shared surnames, the logo that launched ten million t-shirts and the stripped back attack of their live performance – that no band before or since has ever matched.
The Trashmen’s original Surfin’ Bird was essentially a cover itself; a surf-rock reimagining of the choruses from two separate songs by the brilliant ’60s doo-wop group The Rivingtons – The Bird Is The Word and Papa Oom Mow Mow. It became a novelty hit for The Trashmen and was famously featured on a January 1964 edition of American Bandstand in which their singer/drummer Steve Wahrer lip-synched solo while doing a chicken dance. He performed solo because the band’s record company had refused to fly the rest of the band to the show’s recording.
The Trashmen carried on performing until 1967 but never managed another hit. It isn’t as easy to make a lasting career out of fast, three-chord, bubble-gum pop as The Ramones made it look.