The recent World Series triumph of the Boston Red Sox reminded me of one of the unlikeliest pairings ever in rock and roll. Nine years ago, when the curse of Babe Ruth still haunted Red Sox fans, the team invited the Standells, a Southern California-based group from the 1960s, to perform their 1966 hit “Dirty Water” in Fenway Park before game two of that World Series.
No city contains more Los Angeles Lakers haters per square mile than Boston, yet residents have embraced the Standells as if their name was actually Aerosmith or the J. Geils Band. The reason is simple: Beantown pride. “Dirty Water” features the snarling vocal of drummer Dick Dodd singing the line “Boston, you’re my home.” Based on a real encounter near the Charles River involving Ed Cobb, writer of the song and the group’s producer, “Dirty Water” reached #11 on the national charst in July 1966. Nearly 40 years later, the song became part of the magic of 2004 when the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years.
Surprise has been a critical factor in white r and b and rock and roll since Elvis Presley recorded “The Sun Sessions” in 1954. Many first-time listeners assumed Eric Burdon, Mick Jagger, the Young Rascals, the Average White Band, and countless others to be black. After being found out, these performers explained that they weren’t wannabes or deceivers, but honest interpreters. Other than purists, the white audience didn’t much care and bought the records anyway.
The Standells didn’t sound like black performers but ticked-off white guys who were raised in dull, smoggy, stifling suburbs, which could well have represented the truth. They were reacting to California-as-paradise—along with Camelot, one of the prevailing myths of the early 1960s. Both ended due to acts of violence: the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963, and the Watts riots of August 1965.After “California Girls” was released that summer, for many years, the Beach Boys stopped releasing songs in which cool cars, beautiful young women, or sunshine received top billing. Angry blacks, drugs, and “Rubber Soul” compelled Brian Wilson to become a different, and many would argue better, pop composer.
The Standells did not have to break from their past: “Dirty Water,” the group’s first single, was recorded several months after Watts. Portraying a version of urban/suburban angst—women with a midnight curfew, a polluted river, dangerous excursions after dark—“Dirty Water” hinted at a menacing turn in America’s cities. Boston could stand in for Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York.
That song gave the Standells an attitude and pose from which they rarely deviated during their three-year run on the chart. The word “punk” has been applied, although one should not confuse this band of modish rockers with the bleeding, bare-chested nihilists who emerged out of London and east Hollywood a decade later. The two were as different as the latter half of the 1960s were from the latter half of the 1970s.
Like the Beach Boys, the Standells (Larry Tamblyn, Tony Valentino, Gary Lane, and Dick Dodd) recorded singles in which the titles gave it all away: “Riot on Sunset Strip,” and “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White,” plus “Have You Ever Spent the Night in Jail,” and “Why Pick on Me,” neither of which was asked as a question.
“Riot on Sunset Strip,” inspired by a real-life series of confrontations between long hairs and law enforcement in the fall of 1966, blames the cops for ruining the neighborhood with their heavy-handed and unnecessary tactics. As riots go, this one wasn’t much: a thousand or so youths lined the streets to protest a 10 p.m. curfew and loitering laws. There were arrests and pushing and shoving.
But with civil disturbances, as with much else, location is everything. Among the people gathered along the Strip were fledgling musicians and filmmakers in search of ideas. This comparatively minor incident generated two notable songs—the one by the Standells, which was recorded for a movie also called “Riot on Sunset Strip” and “For What It’s Worth,” a top 10 hit for the Buffalo Springfield in January 1967.
“Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White”—the group’s best single in my opinion—features a surging organ, haughty crashes of the cymbal, and a cocky vocal that taunts straight society for presuming every girl wants to date the prototypical nice boy. Here the Standells don’t question authority: they trample over it.
In “Have You Ever Spent the Night in Jail,” the establishment pushed back. But the song’s jaunty beat suggests that 24 hours in the slammer is more of an inconvenience than a trauma. And after you’re released, there are great stories to tell.
“Why Pick on Me” is issued as a challenge. The bullies who go after this kid might want to consider a more compliant target.
During the mid and late 1960s, rock bands didn’t so much hang around but come and go. In just the period from 1965 to 1968, the music changed from folk rock to raga rock to hard-edged blues to acid rock to punk to psychedelic to back to the basics—plus any number of minor trends in between. Songwriters and producers were under great pressure from record labels to keep pace while not sacrificing integrity and quality. Even the Rolling Stones cracked under these conditions, although I think “Their Satanic Majesties Request,” the LP released in December 1967, is far better than the disaster proclaimed by many critics.
The talented groups that went to an early grave in ’68 included the Association, Lovin’ Spoonful, Mamas and the Papas, and the Standells. Their places were taken by a new batch of performers who had been impatiently waiting on the sidelines like basketball teams at a crowded high school tournament. Change came so quickly to rock and roll in the 1960s that the audience hardly had time to mourn the passing of one band before turning its attention to another.
Not until the advent of CDs and the rediscovery of these bands—mostly by the estimable Rhino Records, which in 1989 released the 18-song “Best of the Standells”—did the group receive a proper tribute, and new royalties.
But along with the music, the Standells had the added distinction of being the early exemplars of a new attitude, sound, and look for a region that had been busily peddling its own mix of healthy hedonism and sweet dreams, especially to young people. After Watts, Los Angeles went mad for a few years: the assassination of Robert Kennedy (1968), the Manson murders (1969), and the Chicano Moratorium (1970), which included looting, burning, and four fatalities.
The street tough stance of the Standells, echoed by the Seeds, the Music Machine, and other Strip-centered groups at that time, was an ideal match for LA during the mid and late 1960s. Some 48 years after the release of “Dirty Water,” the career arc and music of the Standells are one of many symbols of a dangerous and exhilarating period in LA history.
Still, on the other side of the country, they think about the group and its biggest-selling single in a different way. “Dirty Water” is not just the official song of the Boston Red Sox, but the Boston Celtics and the Boston Bruins as well. Dodd, who was recently diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, took it a step further, recording “Tough Like Boston” with his band the Dodd Squad in 2011—two years before the Boston Marathon bombing gave added meaning to the title. You can learn more about the song, and Dodd’s progress, by going to www.dickdodd.com.
The next time the Celtics play the Lakers in the NBA finals, which may not be for a while, through the taunting, name calling, and challenges to manhood, remember that there once existed a band that somehow managed to bring these warring cities together.