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Dirty Water: The Story of the Standells

Larry Tamblyn is one of the original members of the Standells, a group that recorded what many consider to be the first punk song, “Dirty Water," which is a 1965 ditty about how Boston is a shit hole. In honor of their upcoming spring tour around the...

by Legs McNeil
Apr 29 2014, 3:55pm

Larry Tamblyn is one of the original members of the Standells, a group that recorded what many consider to be the first punk song, “Dirty Water,” a 1965 ditty about how Boston is a shit hole. Larry is a great guy who grew up in LA in a showbiz family—his brother Russ was a movie star who appeared in West Side Story, The Boy with Green Hair, Gun Crazy, and alongside Elizabeth Taylor in Father of the Bride. Russ also choreographed Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock, which led to Larry obtaining the King’s home phone number, making him extremely popular with the girls at school.

In honor of the Standells spring 2014 tour, Larry and I chatted on the phone about band’s roller-coaster ride of a career. If you’ve never seen the Standells live, write down the tour date that’s closest to your house and then go see them play. You’ll be glad you did.

THE GIANT RAT OF SUMATRA

I was a graduate of Polytechnic High School in Sun Valley, California, and shortly after I graduated I was introduced to a couple of guys, Tony Valentino and Jody Rich. We formed this group. I came up with the name Standells because we were hitting a lot of booking agent’s—and doing a lot of standing around, ha, ha, ha, and that’s how the name arrived:

So we finally found a booking agency and the first major gig they got us was at the Oasis Club in Hawaii. It was me, Tony, Jody, and a 15-year-old kid named Benny King. It was my first time away from home really. I was 19 at the time and it was quite an experience. The Standells alternated with a complete Japanese floor show that had comedians, musicians, dancers—and the Standells came on right after the stripper.

The stripper’s name was Mickey Moto—they brought all the entertainers in from Japan, and I learned years later that that they were using the girls as hookers. The club would lock them into their apartment and we would sneak them out and get them into our rooms, ya know? It was really a high for us to be able to sneak the girls out [laughs].

We were over at the Oasis Club for four months. During that time we went through a lot of transformations—the most dramatic one being that Jody, who was this little guy and the brains of the outfit—turned into this Napoleonic type of character.

Jody was about eight years older than the rest of us, and he was married. He was really jealous of the three of us because we had a lot of girls running in and out of our apartment on Waikiki Beach. Jody didn’t have a lot of the freedoms that we did, and he seemed to want to punish us. So he clamped down on us and implemented a curfew for us to be in at a certain time every night and he made us spit shine his shoes. It was awful!

Tony and I roomed together and Jody and Benny roomed together, and we used to bring girls up there all the time—but the problem was is we found out we had another tenant there—a rat. And he’d always make his appearance when we had girls over, and I’m not exaggerating—he’d always come right out when the girls were there—and they’d scream and run out of the apartment. So you can just imagine how pissed off we were at this rat, ya know? Not so much for eating our food, but for scaring the chicks away.

We finally named the rat Fred, because Fred rhymes with dead, as in, “Fred you’re gonna be dead.”

Anyway, this went on for a good month where Fred would make his appearance and just chase the girls away. So one night, at about two o’clock in the morning, I came back and turned on the radio and Fred must have thought we had girls over there because he kept running out. But this time there was no distraction—and I proceeded to chase him around the apartment and finally he runs into the bathroom and he gets to the tub and he can’t go anyplace—so he turns around and I am kneeling down, in my skivvies with a butcher knife and I’m looking at this rodent and all the sudden he flashes his incisors at me and I go, “WHOA!”

So I back out, and I leave the door cracked open a little bit so I can watch Fred while I’m rethinking my strategy. So there’s a Kleenex box next to the toilet and he jumps inside the Kleenex box—and I go running in, grab the Kleenex box with Fred in it and throw it in the toilet. Now I’m looking at him and saying, “Have you suffered enough or what? Hasn’t this been a great pay-back? We’ve tortured you, like you’ve tortured us!”

Well Fred looked up at me with these really sad eyes and I’m thinking, “You know what? As much as he’s done, I can’t do this—I can’t kill ‘em.” So I grabbed a towel and went in and grabbed Fred and took him a good distance from the apartment and let him loose. I never saw him again, but boy, I could sense his presence on several occasions when we had chicks at the apartment!

Anyway, as time went on, Jody just started going crazier and crazier—he would take amphetamines and stay up all night and come up with these insane ideas about doing songs and they didn’t jive, ya know? So what happened was—Jody was high on Bennies and he had long since just intimidated the poor drummer, really browbeat him until he went home to his parents. So we had to get a drummer and actually we got the drummer from the Japanese show, he did double duty. And as Jody was getting more and more difficult—he was just impossible—and one night he blew up and he fired Tony and me.

So we said, “Okay,” ya know?

Basically, what he was doing was firing himself, because he no longer had a band. So what was he gonna do? Jody got back with us, but he didn’t apologize or anything, he just said, “Well let’s just stick it out…”

And we did, but as soon as we got back in the States, we parted ways with Jody.

THE MUNSTERS

When we got back to the States, we reformed the group and brought in Gary Leeds and Garry Lane to replace Jody Rich and Benny King. Then we started playing in this nightclub in Hollywood called the Peppermint West. The club was kind of a franchise of the Peppermint Lounge in New York, and then Gary Leeds left us—he gave us some bullshit story about how he was trapped and was going into the army. But that was nonsense—he formed a bunch of groups before he became “Gary Walker” in the Walker Brothers.

So when Gary left, we auditioned drummers, but none of them were quite the right, until this young punk came walking by the name of Dick Dodd. Dick was with a couple of surf groups and he heard about Gary leaving the Standells and he came in and auditioned for us. We’d heard he was a former Mousekeeter, ya know, on the Mickey Mouse Club on TV and he really got razzed about that. But then he sat down behind the drums and just blew us away with his drumming. Then he sang—and that even blew me away more! I just said, “WOW!”

Dick had all of two weeks to catch up, learn our material and he did a great job. But he was kind of a young punk; he had a bit of an attitude, with a lot that punk style, before there was even a name for it. But we razzed him about being a Mouseketeer before we heard him play, and he was pretty embarrassed about it, but he wasn’t a regular on the Mickey Mouse Club. Interestingly, there was another guy on that show by the name of Jimmy Dodd and people thought he was a relative, but Dick wasn’t. They just happened to have the same last name. Coincidently, I also became friends with Cubby O’Brien—who was a regular Mouseketeer on the Mickey Mouse Club—and was also a great drummer. Cubby sat in with me one night and played drums way back when in the 50s—so the Mickey Mouse Club provided the world with a lot of drummers, ha, ha, ha!

So we razzed Dick about being a Mouseketeer until he sat down behind the drums and man, did he kick ass, our mouths dropped open. He was so good!

Dick was such a good singer that that he kind of overshadowed me there for a little while, but that was okay. I was always looking out for what was best for the group. I did almost all the lead singing on our first album, The Standells in Person at PJ’s, and Dick sang a couple of songs on that—“What Have I Got On My Own,” and “Help Yourself,” which got some airplay as well, ya know?  

We did The Munsters back in 1965 before we were ever had a hit record, and, by then, the Beatles had hit big and the producers were looking for a group like the Beatles to be on the TV show. For me, doing The Munsters was the biggest thrill ever, cause I was a fan of The Munsters, I used to watch it every week! I loved that show!

Originally were gonna have us be a fictional group, but then decided that they’d just use the Standells name. It’s probably one of the most famous Munsters episodes ever and we played ourselves and we got more notoriety from that show than “Dirty Water,” cause it’s just constantly coming up.

The plot of the episode was this big rock group, “The Standells,” wanted to find a place to get hide from our fans, so we picked the Munsters home on 1313 Mocking Bird Lane because it was already run-down and we were getting charged too much money for destroying hotel rooms.

So the Munsters rent their place out to our manger and go check into a hotel for the weekend—and we move in and decide to throw a party with a bunch of hippies—but of course, they’re a bunch of beatniks really, they made them look more like beatniks than hippies, ha, ha, ha! As I said, this was 1965, and hippies weren’t as well defined then as they would later become.

One guy was playing the bongo drums, and they’re doin’ poetry; I mean, that was beatnik, rather than hippie!

So Munsters get worried about their home and decide to come back and check on us, they find there’s this big, wild party that’s going on and they’re outraged! The Munsters come in and are really going to let us have it—but they’re welcomed instead of frightening everybody. That was the twist—that everybody loved ‘em and Herman was referred to as “The Jolly Green Giant.”

So Herman Munster was asked to get up and do a poem and he got up and it was just the most ludicrous thing you’ve ever heard, since he made it up as he went along. But they had the camera on us and we had to all look like we were just really into what Herman was saying.

Actually both Herman and Lily Munster were asked to contribute something to the “hippie” party, and Lily actually sang with her own voice. Yvonne De Carlo, who played Lily, was a big Broadway star and she had a great voice. Both Herman and Lily, played by Fred Gwynne and Yvonne De Carlo were just really wonderful. Fred Gwynne was terrific, you find that a lot of established actors are really good people, ya know?

But we did not pick out the songs on The Munsters, they told us what songs to sing, and a lot of comments were made about the fact that we did, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” but that was their decision, not ours! Although we loved the Beatles dearly, it was just an odd thing to do another groups song, but we did it—plus another song that was written by Pat and Molly Vegas, “Everybody Ringo,” another song that referenced the Beatles, cause everyone was crazy for them.

I had a speaking line on that episode where I was meeting with our manger and they wanted me to eat a banana for some reason at the same time. Somehow the banana and me just didn’t jive, and I just couldn’t get through the lines. It got so to where I was putting the banana, not in my mouth, but on my nose, ya know? I probably went though at least half a dozen bananas before we finally got that scene done and I was really sick that night.

I'M GONNA TELL YOU A STORY ABOUT MY TOWN

When we met our producer, Ed Cobb, he really seemed to have a feel for what we were into, so he collaborated with us. Ed had this song that he wrote and he presented it to us, but we weren’t too impressed with it. It was called, “Dirty Water,” and it was just a standard love song, ya know, a 32 bar blues song.

I never heard directly from Ed what the song was about. He was very private and didn’t talk a lot about personal things, but we heard though a lot of people that he had actually gone to Boston and gotten mugged there, as the story goes, and he wrote about it, so that’s what “Dirty Water” was about.

So we said, “We’ll tell ya what, Ed: let us take it and work with it and rearrange it.”

And so we came up with all these things. What really made it a hit was the guitar riff that Tony came up with that starts the song off—that famous guitar riff that everybody knows. And Dick Dodd actually wrote a lot of the lyrics—he wrote all of the famous asides like, “I’m gonna tell you a story about my town, I’m gonna tell you a big fat story baby…” He wrote all that—but none of us got any writing credit!

Then Ed Cobb listed his friend, Lincoln Mayorga, as doing the musical arrangements on the record, and didn’t list us! And Lincoln never set foot in the studio! Except, back then, it wasn’t a studio, it was a garage. It was Armon Snyder’s first studio that he built in his garage, and it was a funky place with fiberglass on the walls that weren’t covered. We recorded it on three track and we ping-ponged all of the instruments. You know what ping ponging is?

Ping-ponging is when you play back one track and you record along with it onto another track, so all the instruments were doubled. And the second time though, Dick actually played mallets on the bass drum, so that’s why we had that wonderful base drum sound. Then we added the background vocals and the lead vocal so it was all done on three tracks, in a garage and thus, “garage rock” was born. Armon Snyder had more hits out of that garage—Paul Revere & the Raiders early stuff was done there and a bunch of other 60s groups.

About a month or so after we finished recording the single, Dick Dodd left the Standells. I can’t tell you why he left the group, I guess he wasn’t too happy with the way we sounded, and he was always complaining about Tony Valentine’s guitar playing. I don’t even think he even told me he was leaving. He told one of the other guys, I don’t remember him telling me directly. He joined some other rock group called the Ravens, and whatever they were doing was where his head was at.

See, after we recorded it, we completely forgot about “Dirty Water,” we just thought it was going to be another recording. We had no idea it would take off like it did and it wasn’t until months later—about nine months later—that the song really started getting action. It was sometime around late 1965 or early 1966 that the song started getting radio airplay—and as soon as it started getting attention, of course Dick wanted back in the group.

I’d brought Dewey Martin in to replace Dick Dodd, and Dewey had a great voice—a real ballsy voice. Dewey would later become famous as Buffalo Springfield’s drummer, and I really liked him, but the other two guys in the band didn’t care for him that much. So the other guys were happy to have Dick back because they didn’t like Dewy. But I wasn’t happy to have Dick back because there was all this kind of animosity between him and the guitar player and I didn’t wanna be in the middle of it anymore. And Dick always seemed to have an attitude about something. Even though later Dick became my very good friend, back then it was kind of tough, because he really had this punk attitude—so I wasn’t really glad to see him back.

I had to tell Dewey that Dick was coming back. I said, “You know Dick’s on the record, and “Dirty Water’s” starting to happen,” and that he was out of the group. Dewey was pretty cool about it. So he left and Dick was there the following night. So it worked out.

We were playing at a nightclub in San Jose when all of this went down, the club was a biker bar and it was kind of a wild place—there would be fist fights every night. And the president of the local chapter of the Hell’s Angels in San Jose was in there every night with his fellow gang members—and he and I became friends. Believe it or not, the president’s name was “Fuckup,” and how I happened to become friends with him is that I saved him one night from getting hit over the head with a beer bottle. There was a fight one night—there were fights there every night—but on this night I got Fuckup’s attention before this guy was going to hit him over the head with a beer bottle.

So Fuckup and I became friends and he gave me his business card that actually said, “Fuckup, Hell’s Angels,” and he said if you ever get into any trouble you just show this card. So I put his card in my wallet and forgot about it. Well, years later, I was standing outside of a recording studio and a couple of these biker chicks came up and started hassling me. I thought they were going to roll me, they were big chicks—they were tough biker chicks and I didn’t know what to do, ya know?

So I pulled out Fuckup’s card and I showed it to ‘em and they just bowed down; they were in awe! Fuckup, he was a legend to other bikers! So instead of instead of mugging me these girls became my friends! That was my “Get-Out-of-Jail-Free” card!

TOURING WITH THE STONES

I think we were in LA we heard “Dirty Water” the first time on the radio. No, I take it back; we were on tour back east when we heard it. See, it went to Number One in Florida—in Orlando and then straight from there to Miami and that’s where it started getting noticed. It wasn’t even on the charts yet, hardly. So we went from playing the Esquire Club in Seattle, ya know, we went from playing gig to gig—to arriving in Orlando on a plane with a screaming mob of teenagers waiting for us.

You talk about a shift, I mean, we went, “WOW! Are they here for us?”

They were all screaming, tons of kids and disk jockeys waiting for us and that was quite something. We toured up and down Florida: Miami, Orlando, Jacksonville—I mean all over the place. The highest “Dirty Water” showed on the Billboard Charts was Number Eight, but there were other magazines at that time that showed it higher, like Cash Box showed it as Number Eight too, but Record World showed it as Number One. They all just had different ways of measuring sales.

The single of “Dirty Water” was recorded in 1965 and the Standells album, Dirty Water, was recorded in 1966. See, when “Dirty Water” started rising on the national charts—it broke in Miami, and then spread from one state to the next, so it was then decided that we had to have an album to capitalize on the success of the single.

So Ed Cobb flew up to Seattle where we recorded the Dirty Water album. We hadn’t recorded with him since the single, so we were glad to see him. We went into Kearny Barton’s Audio Recording Studio in Seattle, the famous studio where some of the Sonics records were recorded. We did the Standells first album in about three days and it was probably a four track studio. We were presented with a lot of the songs by local artists like Jim Valley, who wrote “Little Sally Tease” and eventually joined Paul Revere & the Raiders.

Once “Dirty Water” became a hit, we toured with both Paul Revere and the Raiders and the Rolling Stones—and the Stones were a great group back then and one of my favorites. We flew in this charter airline with the Stones and the plane could have flown without the engines because they were so high. The Stones really lived up to their bad-boy of rock ‘n’ roll image, especially Mick Jagger, I’m surprised he’s lived this long.

On one of those flights we were up around twenty thousand feet, in a two-engine jet, and the pressure window on the plane cracked. You never saw a bunch of guys that were so stoned sober up so fast! The pilot put the plane into a steep dive, at about a 45-degree angle, because the air pressure dropped—and I wasn’t frightened as much as amused—as I watched the Stones sober up real quick.

We did some concerts in stadiums with the Stones where the kids just went wild. In fact, they had riots at the Boston concert that we did with them. The Stones were up there playing and the crowd started rushing he stage and the security people fired tear gas at the kids and it was pretty scary. That was probably scarier than when the plane went into that steep dive.

And we were caught right in the middle of this riot!

We had to cut the concert short and we were on the bus—the Stones had a limousine—but the rest of us were on buses. It was the Standells, the McCoys and the Tradewinds who were on that tour with the Stones—and we had to drive through that tear gas—and I wanna tell you that was pretty potent stuff. It was like a warzone.

When the Stones flew, they were just alone with the roadies. They never brought along girls, but they certainly had a number of them waiting for them at the different stops. There were literally thousands of groupies running around the halls of our hotels—and, as a matter of fact, we used to call it the “Groupie Stampede!” You could here their little feet running after us, like “Chhhssssss,” so getting girls for anybody was not a problem cause they pretty much threw themselves at the groups. So there was never a case where they took one of those girls with them on tour.

I was invited to dinner with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Brian Jones one night and they ordered these London steak dinners, but I was still in my 20s and I used to pour ketchup on everything. So we’re all sitting around their hotel room and they brought the food in and I asked for some ketchup and poured it on my steak. Mick Jagger just looked at me and said, “Fuckin’ Yank!”

But the three of them pretty much kept to themselves. I was a lot closer to Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman. And I was a lot closer to the McCoy’s, who had a hit with “Hang On Sloopy.” One time when we were on tour, we went to New York and we thought we’d buy some new outfits at this store in Greenwich Village. So we went into the store and we said we’re looking for some outfits, and the clerk grabbed some suits and said, “I have the perfect thing, these just came in.”

And we said, “Did any other rock group get these suits?”

The guy said, “Oh no, you’ll be the only ones. These are all we have.” So we bought them and we board the plane and in walks the McCoy’s with the same suits! I was good friends with Rick Derringer and Randy, so we arranged for a schedule where we’d wear the suit jackets one day and they would wear them the next.

It was on that Stones tour, where we went from rioting, screaming crowds, with teenagers running up on the stage and trying to grab at you—and then we played in Salt Lake City, Utah, and as radical as those wild shows were, this was completely opposite. The Stones were met with polite applause and Mick Jagger started cussing the audience, saying, “Fuckin’ Mormons!” Yeah, he was really pissed off about it, because his whole act was very sexual. I know that he would put something down his pants to make him look like he had a lot more equipment than he did.

TRY IT

“Try It,” was about our fourth recording, it was right after we did “Riot On Sunset Strip” and Billboard Magazine had picked it to be our next big hit. We thought for sure it was going to climb the charts, but right about that time, this man from Texas, by the name of Gordon McClendon, who was the owner of radio station KLIS and a big company that programmed for a number of radio stations, decided to form this committee to judge record lyrics and for some reason he picked out song “Try It” for being obscene and encouraging young girls to have sex.

Gordon was very conservative, and a born-again Christian, I believe, and he went on national campaign about our record “Try It,” saying, “This record is a classic example of what we call obscene, and we’re not going to play it on any of our stations and we advise other radio stations not to play it as well.”

That stopped the record dead cold, it mean it was number one on a lot of markets and all the sudden they refused to play it anymore. In Los Angeles for instance, it was number one on KLRA, and KHJ refused to play it—so it stopped our song dead in it’s tracks. I mean, it was probably no more encouraging to a girl to have sex than “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” ya know? The lyrics were, “By the way that you look I can tell that you want some action / Action is my middle name / Come over here pretty girl I’ll give you satisfaction / But two are needed for this game / I’ll give you sweet love you’ve never had before.”

How tame is that?

At this time, Art Linkletter had a TV show called House Party and he had a segment on it called “Let’s Talk,” where he’d have on different factions debating each other on issues and had the Standells on debating Gordon McClendon. We were really pissed, to say the least because we thought it was going to be a hit record, and so did everybody else and we were just beside ourselves. Anyway, Art Linkletter heard about him banning our record and decided to have us on the show debating McClendon and we were pretty well prepared and we went on the show. They had this debate at the Hullabaloo Club, which was a big teenage nightclub that was very popular back then and later became the Aquarius Theater, and we used to play there with the Buffalo Springfield and other groups.

The place was chocked full of teenagers; so you couldn’t ask for a better audience for the Standells. Word got out to all those kids, I don’t know how, maybe through our manager about some of Gordon’s misdeeds and during the debate, somebody would shout out, “What about the baseball games, McClendon?”

And his face would get all red because it was known that his radio station did “live” broadcasts of baseball games that the announcer’s didn’t even go to. So we massacred him in this debate, and literally made him look like the fool that he was, because it was so ludicrous. We brought up the fact that the Rolling Stones had “Let’s Spend The Night Together,” what does that mean, ya know? But I really got him when I said, “What about the song ‘Birds Do It, Bees Do It’? What does that mean?”

Immediately everybody roared, and I said, “What are they referring to, ‘Birds do it, bees do it, let’s fall in love?’”

He couldn’t answer that, of course, but they cut that out in the editing, but everyone who was in the audience knew we massacred him. I mean his face was red throughout most of it. He came marching in the building with what looked like Secret Service Agents surrounding him, all these guy dressed in suits with the ear pieces, an army of bodyguards.

But it was all for naught, the record was destroyed—people just wouldn’t play it even though it was selling, and, I think, that was probably the beginning of the end for The Standells.

Catch the Standells on tour this spring:

4/27- Tremont Music Hall – Charlotte, NC 
4/28 – Local 506 – Chapel, Hill, NC
4/29 – Black Cat – Washington, DC
4/30 – BB King's – Lucille’s - 2 shows – New York City, NY
5/2 - Open Arts Stage - Bordentown, NJ
5/3 - Brighton Bar - Long Branch, NJ
5/4 – Iron Horse Music Hall – North Hampton, MA
5/5 – Brighton Music Hall – Boston, MA
5/6 - Cafe Nine - New Haven CT
5/7 - The Brickhouse - Dover, NH
5/8 – Lovin Cup – Rochester, NY
5/10 – Beachland Tavern – Cleveland, OH
5/11 – The Magic Bag – Ferndale (Detroit), MI
5/13 – Mayne Stage – Chicago, IL
5/14 – Shank Hall – Milwaukee, WI
5/16 – Knickerbockers – Lincoln, NE
5/18 – Herman’s Hideaway – Denver, CO
5/21 – Cheyenne Saloon – North Las Vegas, NV

Back in 1975, Legs McNeil co-founded Punk magazine, which is part of the reason you even know what that word means. He also wrote Please Kill Me, which basically makes him the Studs Terkel of punk rock. In addition to his work as a columnist for VICE, he continues to write for his personal blog, PleaseKillMe.com. You should also follow him on Twitter: @Legs__McNeil.

Previously: Scott Asheton, Iggy Pop's Brother in Noise