In the mid-1960s, a bunch of guys from California recorded a song that is now a part of Boston’s cultural wallpaper.
At Fenway. At bars. On oldies radio. At really bad karaoke. Seemingly everywhere you turn, there are the frustrated women with equally frustrating curfews, lots of river pollution that is still somehow endearing, and thieves who are cool people.
“Dirty Water” is ubiquitous.
We caught up with Larry Tamblyn, a founding member of The Standells, to talk about the song that everyone knows.
Q: Talk to me about the origins of Dirty Water. Is it true that you guys had reworked the entire structure of the song?
A: “Dirty Water,” in its raw form was presented to us by [producer] Ed Cobb, who wrote the song supposedly about an experience where he got mugged in Boston. Now, I don’t know how true that is. That’s the story we heard. He was a very private person he didn’t share a lot with us.
He basically had a 32 bar blues song. That’s what it was. Nothing too special about it .He gave it to us and we said “Well, let’s see what we can do with this.”
So we completely restructured it, added the guitar rift in it and changed the chord structure, added a lot of lyrics and made it into what it was. Not surprisingly, we didn’t get any credits for writing nor arranging.
Q: Did that anger you?
A: Yeah it did piss us off. He gave credit for the arranging to Lincoln Mayorga, who was his friend who never set foot in the studio. And I’m actually a great admirer of Lincoln. He’s a great classical composer. But he would tell you to this day he didn’t participate (in the creation of the song). But Ed used to do things like that.
Q: Isn’t the song about how Boston is this strange hellhole? Why do you think people here have embraced it so much?
A: It’s maybe reverse psychology, I don’t know. It’s certainly about the seedier side of Boston, there’s no question about that. And yes the people have embraced it because it says “Boston, you’re my home.”
Q: Is the lesson that people hear what they want to hear when it comes to lyrics? Is that the takeaway here?
A: Yeah it is, but a lot of people know what the lyrics are and they still love the song. We’ve been practically adopted by the area. The Red Sox play it when they win. We’ve been to every [Red Sox] World Series since 2004. All the sports teams play it.
It was used in the campaign to clean up the Charles River, we’re pretty proud of that. It’s brought a lot of comfort to people. After the Boston bombings, they played it all over the place. It brought a certain level of comfort to people. It’s used on the duck tours. Standells’ Dirty Water is quite synonymous now with Boston, even though we’re from California.
Q: I was going to ask you about that. You recorded a song about Boston that people from Boston love before ever stepping foot in the city or the state. Boston is about as parochial as it gets. Have people ever called you a fraud?
A: Plenty of people have. Plenty of people have called us frauds, that’s among the kinder terms they’ve called us. Some have called us opportunists. We really aren’t.
We were adopted by Boston. We didn’t ask to be there but we were brought there by the people and we accept that for what it is. We certainly have not used that for mileage, so to speak. However, Boston has used it for plenty of mileage.
We’ve never once pretended to be from Boston.
Q: When did it become clear to you that this was becoming a hit?
A: We recorded in 1965 and it didn’t reach the top of the charts until June the following year. It was about eight or nine months at least, I think. We were actually up in Seattle, playing a club up there once we realized it was going to be a hit. Ed Cobb, our producer, flew up there to record the album. Back in those days you put the single out first, then you did the album. We did the album in about three days.
Q: Some people consider “Dirty Water” to be the first punk song. What do you think about that label?
A: Myself, I go along with anything, I’m easygoing. Yeah, we were labeled the godfathers of punk rock. Our songs were us-against-them themed. We were always considered a working class rock group. We spoke about issues that ordinary people cared about. I think that stuck with people.
Q: I had read you were on tour with the Rolling Stones, when there was practically a riot here. Is that true?
A: That was wild to say the least. We did that tour in 1966. I particularly remember the Boston show, or the Massachusetts show I suppose I should say. It was at a stadium in Lynn [the Manning Bowl]. It was an outside field. We had played. Then the Stones got up there and they started doing “Satisfaction” and the crowd rushed the stage. The security shot off tear gas. Here we were in this stadium full of tear gas and we had to drive through this stuff when we left the stadium. It was something else.
Q: Is it true that on that same Stones tour you were on an airplane that lost its cabin pressure and as a result had to go into a steep decline that freaked everyone out. Did that happen? And what was everyone’s reaction? Did all the musicians have a group freakout or mass confessional moment a la “Almost Famous?”
A: I love that movie. That came the closest, in my opinion, to what it was like back then.
Put it this way: we were in a two-engine plane and I think we could have flown without the engine, if you get my meaning. Everyone was so out of it.
The pressure window cracked, the outside window cracked. So the pressure inside the plane immediately dropped. And they had to put the plane into a dive. You’ve never seen so many stoned people sober up so fast in your life.
I think it happened right next to Brian Jones and Keith Richards. It’s just one of those things you ran into on those tours. It was still a lot of fun.
Q: Would you say “Dirty Water” changed your life?
A: Of course it has. We made the song and we never for the life of us thought it was going to be a hit. We recorded and almost a year later it became a hit. Everything was out of left field. Yes, it was a big hit and it was the kind of hit it stayed on the charts for a long time. It certainly helped us a lot.
You know what? Back then you had so many groups around. We had a run and then we kind of faded. It wasn’t until the 80s and 90s that we had a rebirth. When we broke up in 1970, I thought that was the end of it. In the early 80s I’m seeing these groups the Pandoras and the Go-Gos comparing themselves to the Standells and I’m thinking “What the hell?”
The Standells play Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton this Sunday (5/4) and Brighton Music Hall in Allston on Monday (5/5).