With songs like "Sometimes Good Guys Don't Wear White," "Why Pick on Me" and "Riot on the Sunset Strip," the Standells brand of cranked-up garage rock in the 60s earned them a reputation as among the godfathers of punk rock. The fact their music has been covered by the likes of Aerosmith, Minor Threat, Bruce Springsteen and U2 – not too mention a litany of punk acts emerging in 1977 – illustrates that their knack for punchy hooks has engendered them to musicians and fans alike.
With an instantly recognizable-and easy to play-guitar intro, "Dirty Water" became a garage band staple in 1966. Onetime Four Preps member Ed Cobb wrote the song, but the Los Angeles–based Standells version recorded in a garage studio in southern California turned it into a growling classic. Once squeaky-clean, the Standells went proto-punk in a bid to glom onto the bad-boy image of British groups like the Rolling Stones and the Animals. Drummer/vocalist Dick Dodd (a former Mickey Mouse Club Mouseketeer) sneered his way through this tale of unrequited lust and of vitriol aimed at Boston. That city retaliated by banning "Dirty Water," which didn't hurt sales. The canny Standells went on to record such anti-establishment tunes as "Sometimes Good Guys Don't Wear White," "Have You Ever Spent The Night In Jail," and the theme from the teen exploitation film Riot On Sunset Strip, about the L.A. police crackdown on long-haired hippies, which, by the time of the film, the Standells had just about become.
Still performing today, the Standells toured the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum during a tour stop in Cleveland, Ohio. We caught up with the proto punk rockers, including founding member and keyboardist Larry Tamblyn.
Rock Hall: Rock and roll means different things to different people. If somebody asked you to describe rock and roll, what would you tell them?
Larry Tamblyn: Rock and roll also brings a lot of different thoughts in my mind. It is music with a defined rhythm and back beat. It is music that evokes a primal emotion. It is music that makes one want to dance, to play air guitar, to pound out the beat on a surface before you. Most of all, it something personal to everyone, a universal language which is easily discernible in any language, in any corner of the world.
RH: If somebody had never heard your music before, how would you explain it to them? What would you tell them to listen to first and why?
LT: We did our music in our own unique way, which was different from many other rock groups. Our lyrics were always rebellious, and reflected the wants and need of the average person. The Standells have been described as the “Working Class Rock Group." We touched on subjects such as a lower-class individual trying to find his way in a world that judged a person by his wealth, as opposed to his character, such as “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White." We dealt with the low lives who lived around a river, which was once considered one of the most polluted rivers in the nation. And because of our song, the Charles River is now among one of the cleanest in the nation.
RH: More than a few music writers have contended that the Standells were among the earliest purveyors of punk – though nearly 20 years before "punk" had a name, much less a scene. What influence do you think the group had on the punk acts that followed – from the Ramones all the way to Minor Threat?
LT: I think that perhaps many of these groups like the Ramones, Minor Threat and the Stooges who came along in the 70s and 80s (and even lately, such as the Vaccines), really needed to latch on to music and feelings that were primal and real. They had to deal with issues such as the plight of the working class. Many of them couldn’t help but refer to the Standells and seek out ways to deal with these issues.
RH: Outside the Hall of Fame Inductions, the Museum in Cleveland honors those who've shaped rock and roll for more than 50 years. Why do you think it's important to have a Museum committed to preserving that history, for fans young and old?
LT: My own opinion is that it’s like keeping an accurate record for future generations, so that no one can later come along a dispute it. Believe me, we have people disputing the Standells history all the time. We try to keep an accurate picture and biographic accounting of the exact Standells history, which is open for all to see. I am humbled by the sheer amount of rock groups who were openly influenced by the the Standells and have been inducted into the Rock Hall.
RH: Your Cleveland gig was at the Beachland Ballroom in Cleveland. Talk about playing in Cleveland over the years, how the city has long embraced rock and roll, the scene, the fans – what makes it a rock and roll town?
LT: The City of Cleveland has always played a major part of my life. My older brother Russ Tamblyn starred in the movie The Kid from Cleveland. I have always recognized that the city played an important if not key role in the infancy and development of rock and roll.