Yes, it was made famous (lately) by Family Guy, but it was also featured in Full Metal Jacket, doncha know?
But what does it all mean? A quick Google search will turn up all kinds of (I think unfounded) speculation that “the bird” in the lyrics refers to giving someone the finger. The official title of the song, “Surfin’ Bird” is purported to be giving someone the finger and wagging it back and forth.
I don’t think so.
So what is “the bird” that is “the word”? Well, I have a theory.
The Trashmen may have been a popular band at the time (interesting perspective in this story), but the tune wasn’t theirs alone. In fact, they were ripping off a white R&B group called The Rivingtons. The Trashmen took two Rivingtons songs, combined them (they were pretty similar already) and played them at about twice the speed with a surf-rock edge and an almost proto-punk flair.
Now, I wouldn’t have had any clue what “the bird is the word” meant to The Rivingtons, either, except I have a hunch that, as an R&B group, even a white one, they were drawing on black influences.
And here’s where Ernest and Julio Gallo came in. Post-Prohibition, the bros. Gallo decided that they wanted to corner the wine market. The cheapest, fastest was to do that was to get drunks hooked on low-end fortified wine. The Gallos pulled no punches in their marketing — allegedly throwing empty bottles into gutters as a way to increase brand awareness. Those brands included Night Train Express, Ripple and Thunderbird.
One of their early tricks was a catchy radio jingle (I’ve googled for an audio file but to no avail) for Thunderbird wine that went like this:
What’s the word? Thunderbird
How’s it sold? Good and cold
What’s the jive? Bird’s alive
What’s the price? Thirty twice.
The market penetration was so successful that one story has Ernest Gallo driving “through a tough, inner city neighborhood and [pulling] over when he saw a bum. When Gallo rolled down his window and called out, ‘What’s the word?’ the immediate answer from the bum was, ‘Thunderbird.'”
Of course, you don’t have to take the word of a website like bumwine.com for it. Check out this 1957 recording by Red Prysock, one of the early progenitors of R&B. The song is actually called “What’s the Word? Thunderbird”:
You can find several examples of musicians from that era referencing the jingle and the catch-phrase, “What’s the word? Thunderbird.”
It’s not too difficult to imagine the connections: From poor inner-city drunks, to black musicians, to white musicians ripping off the black musicians, to other white musicians ripping off the first white musicians … like a music industry game of “telephone,” an advertising jingle got turned into a cultural touchstone, was ripped from its context and then repurposed as a gibberish piece of rhyme.
If the bird is the word, I think Thunderbird low-end fortified wine is the bird.
Think about that, Peter Griffin.