Graded on a Curve:
The Trashmen,
Great Lost Album

Depending on exactly where on this spinning rock you currently reside of course, there aren’t many warm days left. If you find yourself staring down the barrel of this situation, then gather your friends, grab your swim gear, wax up that battered surfboard, chock a cooler full of crisp refreshment, jump into that jalopy and head directly to the beach one last time before the weather snaps for good and you and you’re cohorts are huddled under blankets by stereos nursing steaming mugs of sustenance. Egads. And if you can’t spend a day loafing and laughing by the shore, then maybe give the Great Lost Album by The Trashmen a few spins. It can make the most landlocked soul feel like they’re hanging an emotional Ten.

I’ll always hold a special place in my heart for The Trashmen. Famous for “Surfin’ Bird,” one of the most ludicrously infectious slices of full-tilt caveman rock insanity ever waxed, they were primarily a surf band, though one that curiously hailed from the Midwest region of the USA, specifically Minneapolis, Minnesota. While people have been surfing the Great Lakes for years, it’s also fair to say that when people think of beach sounds, they primarily think of coastal bands.

But these suave, hardworking Twin-Cities cats had a bunch of other distinguishing qualities as well, foremost among them their ability to release a substantial amount of material on the back of their biggest hit. Great Lost Album, first released in the early ‘90s and currently available on vinyl from the folks at Sundazed, is a fine example of the numerous factors that contributed to their staying power.

First off, The Trashmen were indeed a prime exponent of instrumental surf style, not only conjuring up the cool, relaxed atmosphere most often associated with The Ventures or Chanteys (of “Pipeline” fame), but also occasionally sliding into the more aggressive pasture defined by the great Dick Dale. That they could additionally knock out a instro-car jam like “Stick Shift” shows just how in touch they were with the culture of their peers, since rods and boards were very much a part of the same youth lifestyle. Furthermore, adapting such pre-existing material as “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” “Greensleeves,” and “Hava Nagila” into the equation proved they possessed distinctive scope as well.

Beyond instro-rock dynamics however, The Trashmen were also a vocal band, and this fact shot into some interesting areas. For instance, like many a party group of this vintage, they were known to tackle R&B and early rock & roll covers, this LP holding a nice one of Little Richard in fact. But instead of trying (and failing) to approximate that crazed wildman’s origins, the approach here is decidedly casual, much more appropriate for the laid back humidity of a mid-summer outdoor bash.

For some this adjustment and restatement of Mr. Penniman’s “Hear You Knocking” will represent a betrayal of what makes the original so great, but I think the change serves as slick testament not only to the strength of the song (the source) but to the quality of The Trashmen’s conception (the interpretation). But that’s not the really the boss card in the Trashmen’s deck, for there’s also some appealing garage-like gestures on display, whether it’s the goofus Dylan-lite of “Mind Your Own Business” or the slightly Doug Sahm-ish Beatles-ism of “Talk About Love.”

And Buddy Holly’s “Heartbeat” moves far outside the band’s dominant mode, sounding close to the smooth pleasantries of The Association or The Tremeloes; unusual, but not at all a bad thing. While the majority of this disc was recorded in ’64, both “Talk About Love” and the Holly cover are from a ’66 session, showing the band grasping new ideas as trad surf reached the end of its commercial run.

Much closer to the band’s standard operational zone is their solid take of the Beach Boys’ “Be True to Your School,” a tune that shows the level of accepted idea-sharing that once transpired between the advancements of groundbreakers (Wilson and company, naturally) and the quick-study ingenuity of those they inspired (a cast of thousands, including these very gents) back in the days before the problematic concept of grand scale originality spread over rock music’s development like so much extra thick peanut butter. It’s just this sort of no big deal stylistic grasping that is actually The Trashmen’s biggest connection to the punk music that was to come in the following decade.

While the elevated mindlessness of “Surfin’ Bird” is justly celebrated as one of the earliest and most suave of proto-punk blasts, the reality is that very little of the band’s stuff ever returned to that level of sonic disruption. Yes, the Great Lost Album’s instrumental “Bad News” does touch slightly upon “Bird”’s zonked essence, and “Bird Diddley Beat” wholeheartedly embraces Sir Bo’s majestic inventions in demented rhythm, emerging as the sort of crazed throwaway that undoubtedly got The Cramps’ Lux and Ivy hard and moist inside the excessive tightness of their leopard-skin pants. But with these exceptions aside, The Trashmen’s true gift to punk was essentially operational and not of aural texture, which contrasts from their Pacific NW brothers in mayhem The Sonics.

Bands like The Ramones, The Dickies, The Rezillos, Agent Orange, and especially those Cramps were all to varying extents inspired by the small-scale rapid-fire gusto that The Trashmen traded in so well, the sort of activity that with apologies to the late great film critic and painter Manny Farber was quite Termite-like in practice, registering very differently from the influx of White Elephants that were just around the corner preparing to parade their spangled stuff. The Trashmen’s stock in trade was music that seemed on the surface to have very little to say, but in reality held a significance that spoke to legions in minor, coded terms.

The difference between the Great Lost Album and the assortment of punks with chips on shoulders, scores to settle and playing fields to level is that The Trashmen’s only agenda was to keep the party moving, make some bucks and impress a few gals, a strategy that worked like a charm right up to the point where the ride was over.

Pure surf was one of the leanest, least alienated musical impulses ever documented, and it can be contextualized historically as riding the tail-end of the largely well-adjusted surface placidity of post-World War II American life before all sorts of excrement hit the fan blades and the ‘60s became THE SIXTIES. And as delineated above, surf served straight up was only part of Trashmen’s bag. But nothing they did was particularly well suited to the long-playing LP.

That’s not to say that 63′s Surfin’ Bird isn’t a stone dilly; in fact that record’s dozen songs comprise one of the indispensible pre-Beatles American rock ‘n’ roll documents. The Great Lost Album falls short of that stature, but that’s not a bit surprising, for again the rec is grafted from different sessions. But the whole thing does cook with supreme confidence across the duration of both sides, never once feeling like leftovers, and that’s a strong tribute to what these guys were doing.

And what The Trashmen did was as deeply rooted in their environment as The Mississippi Sheiks’ jug-band style and The Sugarhill Gang’s square-one rap was inextricably tied to theirs. As such the Great Lost Album is more than just a fun diversion; it’s a vital cultural document.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+ 

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