Note: I’m republishing this interview I did in 2014 with Larry Tamblyn, one of the original founders of the Standells. John Fleck, one of the key members of the Standells for many years, has died of AML Leukemia this past October 18. You can read the Standell’s announcement of it here. It is in tribute to him that I share this with you.
Tiki Oasis, held in San Diego earlier this month, featured lots of great entertainment along with great rum, parties and seminars. The capper to the event was the performance of the Standells, one of the most iconic of the 1960’s groups. Their influence has been felt by many in the music industry, earning them acclaim as a key influence on the garage and punk band genres. Not just playing concerts but still actively recording new songs, the Standells are still thrilling crowds with their music. Dirty Water, their hit from the ’60s, is just as well-known today as when it was a new hit song.
Indeed, over the years, groups as varied as the Dave Matthews Band, Aerosmith, Bruce Springsteen and U2 have covered some of the Standell’s songs. Dirty Water is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of 500 Songs that Shaped Rock. Their influence on many of the seminal punk groups cannot be measured. Songs like Riot on Sunset Strip set the stage for hard-hitting film music. However, along with new fans picking up their new album BUMP and enjoying the Standells on their recent tour, the Standells, with original founder Larry Tamblyn and original bassist John Fleck are not resting on their laurels but instead writing and producing some really good new songs. At the Tiki Oasis, these guys proved they can still rock the crowd.
I had a chance to sit down with Larry Tamblyn before the Standell’s performance and talk about music, the Standells, Dirty Water and life on the road.
Larry, how’s it feel to still be touring?
Well, it’s bittersweet, in that audiences still want to see us and there are people out there, young and old—-we have teenagers that we play for and ‘oldies like us’ that come to see our concerts, so it’s a good mix. It’s a little bit harder—-no, it’s a lot harder than it used to be because we had a lot more energy back then. With me, we just got back in May. We had an eighteen city tour across the nation in one month and it was absolutely exhausting. It’s not like it used to be in a lot of ways and then in a lot of ways it is. You’re up there playing and you see the same kind of enthusiasm and the same kind of responses that we used to get back in the ‘60s.
One story——we were in Denver and we had just gotten done with the gig and we were signing autographs. We always do that, so I was signing an autograph on the jacket of this twenty-something year old girl. A very nice person, very shy. And so she reached over, as if to hug me and just grabbed me and threw the biggest kiss on me that I’ve ever had in my life and I was floored! Here’ I’m old enough to be her grandfather! I was really honored to have this young woman, not that I would have taken it any further—-I’m happily married, would never think of that, but just to have a young girl think of me in those terms, that’s really neat.
What helps keep the music fresh to you?
We rehearse a lot and we just don’t live off of our past. We actually have a new album out that we recorded ourselves last year. We built our own garage studio, because that’s where you get your creativity. It is in a little junky place where you have no distractions, no polished floor and perfect acoustics; and somehow it pumps your creativity, so that’s exactly what we did. It’s probably one of the best albums that we’ve ever done. So that keeps it new, and doing our new songs also helps to keep it new. We do them in concert along with the old songs and we’ve had everybody, even old fans that have been with us since the beginning, say ’I like that new stuff, it’s as good if not better than the old stuff’. I couldn’t believe that, hearing it from people. You expect, ‘why don’t you do this and why don’t you do that’ and instead they say, ‘I like this new song. ‘It’s All About the Money, that is a great song’. We just came back from Italy, we did a big concert over there and they said the same thing over there. So we know we’re hitting the right spots in our concerts so that helps it to be new. But the other thing in doing the old songs, it’s kind of magic.
So what was the story behind Dirty Water?
Dirty Water was recorded in a garage, so we really are a garage rock group, perhaps the first as many say, or ‘The Godfathers of Garage Punk’. Or Punk. I don’t know, originally we were the ‘Godfathers of Punk’ and then it became ‘Garage”. The engineer was a genius, Armin Steiner. He had more hits out of that studio……….it was done in three tracks. But what we did, Ed Cobb had this song, he presented it to us and we said, ‘we’ll do it if you allow us to arrange it the way we want’ and he did. We came up with the guitar lick, with a lot of the lyrics and a different kind of chord structure. Instead of a straight seventh, it was an augmented seventh. We did a lot of things that made it what it was. When the record came out, we spent two days, because we also recorded ‘Rari’ there, we recorded the songs and forgot completely about them. We never imagined that Dirty Water would become the hit that it became.
So how did a band from Los Angeles create a song that is so popular and so identified with Boston?
It’s part of the New England culture now. They play Dirty Water on the “Duck’ tours, on the boats and everyplace you go they play Dirty Water. It’s more than the Boston Red Sox now. It started off with the Boston Bruins, I think they were the first ones to use it. And the music, as I understand it, the music director left them and went to Boston [Red Sox] and he got to come up with all the music that they use. He was looking for the right opportunity to play Dirty Water because he loved it. It wasn’t until, Mo Vaughan, with the bases loaded, hit a grand slam, it was like a walk-off grand slam. How much better can you get than that? They played Dirty Water and the crowd went nuts. it’s been a fan favorite ever since. They’ve tried to change it, they’ve tried everything since, but the fans just love Dirty Water. ‘They love that Dirty Water’, even though it makes fun of the way life was back then, it made fun of the wretched conditions of the Charles River, which was at one time one of the most polluted rivers in the nation. Now it’s one of the cleanest. It made fun of the nightlife, uh the lowlife around the river and yet it’s a favorite of the people of Boston and elsewhere. You can’t go anyplace without hearing that song any more, so it’s an iconic song and we’re glad to be part of it.
What are some favorites of your new songs?
I think that It’s All About the Money, that was written by John Fleck and me. He’s the other original member. We wanted to get a couple of songs, hard-hitting songs like the Standells used to sing that’s really talking about society and the way it is. In this case, we were going after the wealthiest 1%. Great target! So that’s what the song is about. It’s talking about the kids marching in the street again like they are doing with the ‘Occupy’ groups and that’s what it’s all about. We have another song, Mr. One Percent and that’s another one that’s really fun to do. People love it——it’s more of a comedic take on that.
We also, I think as far as favorite songs, one of the songs we did on the album is 7 and 7 is. Of course, John, our bass player, used to play a lot with John Echols in ‘Love’ together and John said, ‘Why don’t we do this song in the album?’. He played it for me and that is a GREAT song. It never really got, we felt, really got what it deserved. It was never Top Ten, in fact I don’t think it ever think it was Top 40. any ways, we decided to do that and it’s one of my favorite songs. John says it sounds as good as when ‘Love’ did it and he was in on that whole thing. I’ve got to trust his judgement on that. so that’s another one of my favorites. And Mark also sings several songs that are really good. One is just a really snotty song called Big Fat Liar and it’s something the Standells would have tackled back in the ‘60s. ‘He’s a big fat liar…’ and it’s something we would have sang back then, just snotty and in-your-face. So that’s another one of my favorites.
I think we have a lot of good songs. It took us a year to make this album because we were also doing shows during this time. It’s always hard to do shows and then come back in the studio and start fresh. We were writing songs during this time too and so that took up a lot of time. If there was any song we felt was weak, we wouldn’t do it. We started off on a couple songs and they just weren’t happening. One of them, I must say, was a song that I wrote. It just wasn’t happening and there was no way that you could make it happen. Just like making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. You know, if it isn’t there it’s not there. We’d just go on until we were totally, all of us, it just wasn’t me, I did produce it and I also engineered it. It was all self-contained, we didn’t bring in any outside people to do it. We did it ourselves and so we weren’t about to let it go out unless we were totally happy with it, all of us. I think that’s the sign of a good producer too, not somebody who goes in as a dictator, but someone who collaborates with the guys, gets ideas from them and then draws out the best type of performance out of it. There’s a couple of songs that started out different, Big Fat Liar was one of them. Mark wrote it along with one of the other guys and he kind of had a different idea. I was able to listen to it objectively and say, ‘Wait a minute. why don’t you try this on the melody and instead of starting out really low, start out high and rearrange this?’. We did that with a couple of songs that they had written and they really came out great.
How did you develop your ‘sound’?
It’s interesting that you should as me that. We built a special room for the guitar and because it’s such a small studio we had to build a special ‘closet’ for the amp. There’s a lot of experimentation until you start to hear something that really sounds cool in one song, that seems to lend itself in one song as opposed to another, mostly through experimentation. sometimes a song would call for almost a George Harrison type of lick and so that’s what we would try to get. Fortunately, Mark’s such a good guitarist that he can do any style of guitar at all real well.
Larry, do you have plenty of rock and roll in you? I’m 71 hears old, I admit it! I try to stay as young as I can. I think that music keeps me young. so yeah, my phrase is, “I be rockin’ til I be droppin’”. That’s kind of the way I feel, because as long as I’m playing music, it’s making me feel youthful, it’s making me feel loved, it gives me a lot back. And I think it’s a helluva lot better than sitting on my front porch slide rocker, slobbering and watching the cars going by! So I think I’ve got many more concerts yet. When I make people happy, it makes me happy. On our tour, I get people coming up to me and telling me how much, not just Dirty Water, but songs like Mister Nobody—-I had a guy that came up and gave us a huge tip. We never get tips! He gave us a huge tip in one of the clubs and he said, Mr. Nobody, his dad used to play it for him. And he said that his dad played it because ‘I want you to be somebody and you are somebody’. so this is to remind you that you are somebody. He said that he owes what he is today to that song and to hearing it and reminding himself who he is. Isn’t that great?
Thank you, Larry!