The Inmates: Dirty Water
Over at my other blogging home, we periodically contribute to “Q&As,” where the editor poses a question, and the staff responds. One of the questions was, “What was a song that you didn’t know was a cover?” and I wrote about Johnny Cash’s version of “Ring of Fire.” Back in the pre-Internet days, it was not always easy to learn musical factoids like whether a song was a cover or not, especially if it was a relatively obscure song. Unless you heard the original, or heard a radio DJ mention it, you had to rely on word of mouth, or reading something in a magazine or book. Seems pretty damn quaint, doesn’t it?
As I have mentioned before, starting to work at WPRB in 1979 was not only a huge thing in my musical life, but has influenced my whole life. And having access to the massive, somewhat annotated, record library, and other musical obsessives to talk about music with definitely increased my musical knowledge, but there were, and still are, many gaps.
When I first heard the Inmates’ song, “Dirty Water” when it was released in 1979, I immediately liked its raw energy. It was clearly a retro-garage band sound, with a bit of early Stones, and it was, it seemed, about the dirty water of the Thames and London. I remember playing it pretty often, never once mentioning that it was, in fact, a cover of a song by the Standells, which was about the Charles River and Boston. Because I had no idea that it was a cover. Here’s the original.
Frankly, I have no idea when I learned that, probably when I heard it played on the radio somewhere, and it clicked in. And look, in my defense, it wasn’t like the original was a big hit. It was released in 1965, ran up the charts, peaking at #8 and pretty much faded away, except maybe in Boston, where I am not from, and have never lived, although it later became acknowledged as a seminal rock song.
The Standells were from Los Angeles, and the song is actually not particularly positive toward its subject city. (A few trivia asides—The leader of the Standells was Larry Tamblyn, the younger brother of actor Russ Tamblyn, who was, among other things, Riff in the movie version of West Side Story and Dr. Lawrence Jacoby in Twin Peaks. Lead singer Dick Dodd was a former Mouseketeer who was a dancer in the movie version of Bye Bye Birdie. For brief periods, Dewey Martin, later of Buffalo Springfield, and Lowell George, later of Little Feat, were in the band. And they appeared on The Munsters.)
According to the Internet, despite the negative references in the song about the bad water, frustrated women and crime, including a Strangler, in Boston, the Boston Bruins, a team I don’t root for in a sport that I barely follow, began playing the Standells’ version in 1991, 1997 or 2007, depending on what you read (and there are probably other cites, too, but I got bored looking). The Red Sox, a team that I sort of like, mostly because they are the sworn enemies of the Yankees, also started playing the song, as did the somewhat deflating New England Patriots and the Celtics, who I haven’t liked since the late 1960s.
This has led to a revival of interest in the song, and it has become often covered (and stolen—the Buffalo Sabres play a version substituting the Niagara River). Boston based Celtic punks Dropkick Murphys, big sports fans themselves, cover the song, as has former Red Sox pitcher Bronson Arroyo, a fair rocker in his own right. Other bands often play it it when appearing in the city, including local boys Aerosmith, Bruce Springsteen, who, as you might be aware, is from New Jersey, Dave Matthews Band and Steely Dan.
Although the Inmates had a minor hit with their cover, and have continued to record and tour to this day, I've never heard from them again.