Surfin’ Bird is a cultural phenomenon that has been flittering around pop culture for the past sixty years and has been described by, Canadian music journalist, Alan Cross, as ‘the most influential novelty song ever’. The song is a combination of two hit songs written by doo-wop group the Rivingtons. The chorus’ of their songs: Papa oom Mow Mow and The Bird’s The Word were united by the Trashmen, in a rendition that topped reverb soaked guitar lines and drum beats with manic vocals. The Trashmen’s versions upped the tempo from the Rivingtons’ originals to create a recording that seems almost improvised and as though it is teetering on the edge of pure chaos. This hectic and fast paced song has had a lasting impact upon pop culture.
As with many songs in music history, Surfin’ Bird has experienced controversy. Legal action was threatened against the Trashmen and their record label by the Rivingtons for plagiarism. The result of which was the writing credits being changed to acknowledge the Rivingtons, while, the performance credits were maintained for the Trashmen. Despite this, until a law suit in the 1980s, most of the money this would have earned the group went to Amos Heilicher and his Soma record label.
The song has propagated through pop culture in many differing forms. Despite the song’s clean surf rock elements, it is also widely considered to be proto-punk and has had a direct impact upon groups such as the Ramones, who were influential in establishing punk, and the Cramps. Both groups have released covers of the song as tributes to the Trashmen. The intensity, mania and short length of ‘Surfin’ Bird’ can all be seen in the work of these artists.
The song has also been utilised for film. One of the most effective examples of this is in Full Metal Jacket. Kubrick places the song over the top of a montage of American soldiers in Vietnam. The contrast between the song and the visuals is effective in creating a dissonance that demonstrates the chaos and insanity of war.
Many will know the song best from the Family Guy episode, in which the song becomes a fixation of the show’s main protagonist Peter Griffin. This use of the song has led to a renewed presence of the song in pop culture. This directly led to a 2010 online campaign to make the song, that year’s Christmas number one and a resulting peak in the UK charts at no. 3. This increased popularity with a much younger audience has influenced new creatives, such as Ski-mask the Slump God and his 2017 song: Bird Is The Word. I find it fitting that a song which directly took from a doo-wop group, has now, not only been covered, but also in turn been taken and incorporated into new genres.