Try to catch lightning in a bottle three times, and you might just end up all wet.
It’s common in pop music for performers to basically repeat the hit that made them successful. Think of Chubby Checker following “The Twist” with “Let’s Twist Again.”
Or, think of the Jackson 5ive, who did it twice. “I Want You Back” and “ABC” are very similar records, in terms of arrangement and sonics. So are their next pair of singles, “Mama’s Pearl” and “The Love You Save.”
(Of course, those are four great singles … or are they two great singles?)
Go to the same well three times, though, and that’s usually when you cross St. Hubbins’ Line.
I learned this on YouTube the other night, when I found that one of my favorite songs had spawned not one, but two, closely patterned sequels.
Everybody knows the pure blast of stream-of-consciousness moronicism that is “Surfin’ Bird.” It became a Top 5 hit late in 1963 despite its almost complete lack of lyrics, melody or chord changes.
(Don’t misunderstand me; this is a good thing. “Surfin’ Bird” rides a deep wave of unhinged momentum that most bands don’t even know exists.)
Scarcely had “Surfin’ Bird” lost its chart momentum when the Trashmen plowed back into the fray with “Bird Dance Beat,” which reprised the pinched, echoey lead vocals, hard-driving beat, and “papa-oom-mow-mow” chant of its predecessor.
“Bird Dance Beat” managed to reach No. 30 early in 1964 — saving the Trashmen from one-hit wonder status, and the relentless VH1 mockery that nowadays comes with that.
Still, the invaluable ARSA database of local radio-play charts shows that the Bird’s audience was — to steal another Spinal Tap riff — becoming more selective.
“Surfin’ Bird” appears on 246 local radio charts in the ARSA records, while “Bird Dance Beat” appears on just 77. If you listen to both, you’ll agree that there were good reasons for that.
Other bands might have taken that chart performance as a signal to bring in the Minneapolis Symphony and cut a lushly textured ballad about young love.
But the Trashmen stood by their bird. Switching record labels, they came back the following year with the exquisitely if unimaginatively titled “Bird ’65,” which (to the best of my memory) I’d never heard of before I found it on YouTube.
(EDIT: For accuracy and clarity, I should point out that “Bird Dance Beat” and “Bird ’65” were not released back-to-back. The group released several singles in between, none of which were Bird-themed, and none of which were hits.)
“Bird ’65” is a little slower than its predecessor. But for the most part, it’s cut from the same cloth. Same rasty lead vocals; same papa-oom-mow-mow.
They even stop in the middle and do the heavily reverbed mock-vomit again — and you’ve gotta love a band that’s so faithful to their sonic signature.
“Bird ’65” shows up on not a single chart database in the ARSA archives — not even one from the band’s hometown of Minneapolis, which had staunchly supported the first two Vogellieder.
And I thought I knew why: I hated “Bird ’65” the first time I heard it. For one thing, it has actual lyrics (like “Bird Dance Beat”), which is a decided strike against it.
But the more I hear it, the more I like it. It has a big splashy stompy beat, with a ride cymbal that eats everything in its path except for some stray strands of cheeseball fuzztone guitar.
And while the song is not as manic or random as “Surfin’ Bird,” it touches just a little bit of that same irrational monkey nerve. There are a lot of bands in this world — some of them quite highly compensated — who will never record anything as pure or primal as “Bird ’65,” never mind “Surfin’ Bird.”
In this case, I’ve come to believe that “Bird Dance Beat” is the weak link in the series.
Still, I think my hypothesis holds true. Any given arrangement of chords and words has two good takes in it before it plays out, much as you can only get two cups out of a teabag. Sometimes the best two variations of a song aren’t the first two … but only two will be worthwhile.
I suppose it might have been fun to hear the Trashmen fly straight into the face of this wisdom.
It would have been a weird sort of pleasure to hear them dress up the Bird in new musical clothes every year. “Bird ’71” could have been James Taylor-style mellow picking; “Bird ’73” could have been Philly soul, with strings and horns; “Bird ’76” could have been disco (with a vocal recorded through a CB radio receiver to boot).
It is probably for the better that that didn’t happen, though. It would have worn thin by the time of the synthesizer-drenched “Bird ’82,” not to mention the inevitable dubstep “Bird 2012.”
We are better off with three jewels — well, two jewels and a chipped rhinestone, anyway — from the mythical depths of the eternal American basement.