This is the 80th post in a weekly series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song is posted each Monday. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
On a trip to Boston with his girlfriend, singer-songwriter and producer Ed Cobb was mugged. The experience soured Cobb on the city, and inspired him to write the unflattering ode to Boston, “Dirty Water.”
Cobb originally wrote it as a blues song. When he passed it onto The Standells, the band members tweaked the music and some of the lyrics. But most of Cobb’s initial song remained, with allusions to the then-filthy Charles River and the curfews facing young women in college:
Yeah, down by the river
Down by the banks of the river Charles (aw, that’s what’s happenin’ baby)
That’s where you’ll find me
Along with lovers, muggers, and thieves (aw, but they’re cool, too)
Well I love that dirty water
Oh, Boston, you’re my home (oh, you’re the Number One place)
Frustrated women (I mean they’re frustrated)
Have to be in by twelve o’clock (oh, that’s a shame)
But I’m wishin’ and a-hopin, oh
That just once those doors weren’t locked (I like to save time for
My baby to walk around)
Well I love that dirty water
Oh, Boston, you’re my home (oh, yeah)
Because I love that dirty water
Oh, oh, Boston, you’re my home (oh, yeah)
“Dirty Water” became the only Top 20 hit for the band, peaking at Number 11 in 1966.
Larry Tamblyn, cofounder of The Standells, told Boston.com in 2015 that the band was surprised by the song’s success:
It was recorded in 1965, but it didn’t hit the charts until 1966… It started getting play in Orlando. It went toward the top of the charts there, and spread into Miami, and it slowly spread its way up the coast… There was such a long lag between recording that we had forgotten it. We basically had to relearn it.
In the last 50 years, as “Dirty Water” has taken on an outsize role as Boston’s unofficial theme song. Writing for Boston.com in 2015, Adam Vaccaro pinpointed the ’90s as the time when “Dirty Water” started becoming part of Boston culture. It was then that the maligned Charles River was declared to be clean, such that a “Dirty Water” reference was low-hanging fruit for every reporter crafting a lede or copy editor writing a headline. (It still is.) In 1995, the Boston Bruins began playing the song after wins, and within three years, the Red Sox adopted the same tradition. Two decades later, the song has spread its tendrils beyond the Bruins and the Sox to become a musical shorthand for Boston. It’s appeared in commercials, including an ad for Benjamin Moore.
The irony is that when the members of The Standells recorded the song, they had never been to Boston. In the last five decades some of the bands to record the song had no Boston ties either, with at least two bands tweaking the song to erase the Boston references. Other covers have leaned into the song’s association with Boston, including one by a former Red Sox player.
Garage band The Gants covered “Dirty Water” on the band’s album “Gants Galore,” released in 1966. The arrangement was similar to The Standells’, though The Gants added some noticeable piano. But the most obvious change was in the chorus, where The Gants said, “Miami, you’re my home.”
Psychedelic rock band Freedom released its “Dirty Water” cover in 1970, tweaking some of the lyrics and renaming it “Frustrated Woman.” The song sounded a little less garage-y than the original, with some slightly more polished, bluesier guitar interludes.
The Inmates was one of a few British bands to revive garage rock in the late 1970s. The band had a hit with its 1979 cover of “Dirty Water,” spent 10 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at Number 51 in early 1980. “The river Charles” became “The river Thames,” and when it came time to say, “Boston, you’re my home,” The Inmates’ substituted London instead.
Icelandic shoegaze band Singapore Sling ended its 2002 debut album, “The Curse of Singapore Sling,” with a “Dirty Water” cover. At almost seven minutes long, the cover was a slow burn of fuzzy guitars that sounded more like The Jesus and Mary Chain than The Standells.
Boston punk band The Dropkick Murphys played “Dirty Water” on its 2002 album, “Live on St. Patrick’s Day.” The only thing more Boston than a “Dirty Water” cover performed by The Dropkick Murphys on St. Patrick’s Day would be if they had a Red Sox player with them.
A few years later, a Red Sox player did cover the song. Pitcher Bronson Arroyo released a covers album in 2005, appropriately called “Covering the Bases.” Released the year after Arroyo helped the Red Sox win the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, the cover referenced that historic victory and name-dropped many of the team’s most famous players.
Australian band Pearls covered “Dirty Water” for “Antipodean Interpolations of the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968,” released to mark the 40th anniversary of Nuggets. Reinterpreting the song as a dreamy noise pop song, Pearls all but jettisoned the original arrangement.
Over the years, the song has been a go-to for live shows, particularly in the two decades since The Bruins and The Red Sox adopted it as a post-win celebration song.
The Standells performed “Dirty Water” at Fenway in 2004 to mark the historic Red Sox appearance in the World Series.
Aerosmith played “Dirty Water” live at a 2009 show, bringing on The Dropkick Murphys to help them.
Bruce Springsteen played “Dirty Water” at 2012 show at Fenway, introducing it by saying, “I want to tell you a little story… A story about YOUR town!”
The following year, “Dirty Water” was played at least three times at live shows in Boston, taking on a new symbolism in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings. The Dropkick Murphys played the song at a live show shortly after the attacks, with several fans onstage singing along them.
Later that year, Frank Turner performed “Dirty Water” in Boston, and instead of having the lyrics on a teleprompter or a music stand, he recruited James Lynch of The Dropkick Murphys to hold a sheet of the lyrics up for him.
But of all the live versions of “Dirty Water” performed in Boston in 2013, perhaps the most memorable version was at the “Boston Strong: An Evening of Support and Celebration” benefit concert. Aerosmith, Dane Cook, Jimmy Buffett, James Taylor, Peter Wolf, and the New Kids on the Block all sang the song together like a bunch of friends at karaoke.
As important as the song is to Boston, its influence goes beyond the so-called “Hub of the Universe.” The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame listed “Dirty Water” as one of the “Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.” As I said earlier, The Standells never had a bigger hit. But Ed Cobb, the band’s producer who wrote “Dirty Water,” did have a bigger hit. A much bigger hit.
That, of course, was “Tainted Love.”