It's hard to imagine in these days of "Cop Killer," "As Nasty as They Wanna Be," and Madonna that four nice young men simply suggesting that their fans "Try It" could cause such a hullabaloo.
The time and place was mid-sixties USA, and the group was the Standells, who were following up their smash teen-angst hits "Dirty Water" and "Sometimes Good Guys Don't Wear White" with the psychedelically-infused and quickly banned exhortation. Writing from the distance of 1972, rock historian and Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye, in the liner notes to Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From The First Psychedelic Era, declared the banning of "Try It" an honor. In reality, it spelled the end of the Standells' career.
"This guy, (radio mogul) Gordon McLendon, thought he was going to clean up the rock 'n' roll scene," fumes drummer/vocalist Dick Dodd - who along with keyboardist/vocalist Larry Tamblyn, and guitarist Tony Valentino had turned out in LA for a rare screening of Riot On Sunset Strip, which features rockin' performances by both the Standells and the Chocolate Watchband. "He was just a lot of hot air, but he was a very powerful man. He owned a bunch of radio stations across the country, and he said, 'I'm gonna tell kids what to buy and what to listen to.'"
"He went on the news," adds Tamblyn, "showed a picture of our record, and said, 'Don't buy this. It's a filthy record.' He made a national campaign out of us."
Shockingly innocent, the song never actually spells out what the band is urging you to try, although popular opinion held it was a blatant request for a girl to surrender her virginity.
Dodd recalls: "At the time, we just said, 'Well... er... uh... just try having a good time.' That's baloney! 'Try It' meant 'TRY IT!' But this guy (McLendon) took us on a TV show (Art Linkletter's House Party) and tried to rip us apart!"
But, like the P.M.R.C. vs. Twisted Sister/Frank Zappa debates over record labelling some twenty years later, the moralistic moron underestimated the intelligence of the supposedly long-haired hooligans he opposed, and the nationally televised debate was a decided victory for rock 'n' roll.
|Banned! - The Standells' Try It LP|
"He said how bad we were, how bad we were for the country," states Dodd. "We asked him about that song from the '30s, the lyrics go: 'Bees do it/Birds do it... Let's do it.' Well, what's 'do it'? It's the same as 'try it'! Plus, Larry had found out some things about McLendon..."
"We'd gone to Dallas (McLendon's home town) to do some shows," says Tamblyn. "I found out that the man was a pervert! He'd been booked for statutory rape of his 13-year-old niece! So, we planted people in the [television] audience, and every time it looked like he was making some headway somebody would yell out, 'What about your niece, McLendon?' He'd get red and look out into the audience to see who was saying it."
Dodd adds, "There were so many kids there with posters saying STANDELLS! and WE'VE TRIED IT! that it was pretty one-sided. But it was either going to be that way or everyone would've been on his side. I don't think it would've evened out so we could have had an adult discussion about the song."
The band wasn't always so controversial. Check out the liner notes to The Hot Ones! - a collection of Top Ten hits including the Monkees' "Last Train to Clarksville," the Kinks' "Sunny Afternoon," and Sam the Sham's "Lil' Red Riding Hood" covered by the Standells - which makes them sound about as wild as the Archies: "The Standells really like doing what they do. Sure, part of it's being famous and making money and who doesn't like that? But these four guys honestly dig their music, their performances, their recordings - yes, their fans too. They enjoy being a group."
Tamblyn and Valentino ("and two other guys") formed the nucleus of the Standells in 1962. The group's first job was in Hawaii as part of a Japanese floor show at the Oasis Club - they went on right after the stripper! When the "two other guys" (bassist Jody Rice and drummer Benny King) left a few months later, Tamblyn assumed the leadership of the group (at one point the band's full title was Larry Tamblyn and the Standels - the extra l was added in 1963), and the guys came home to California.
|The Standells - promo pic|
It was at the Peppermint West that the band hooked up with manager Bert Jacobs. Tamblyn recounts the negotiations that ensued: "He came in and said, 'Hey, I'd like to get you a contract and do a record.'"
Jacobs lived up to his word. Not only did he garner the group a recording contract with Capitol Records subsidiary Tower, he also arranged appearances for them in several teensploitation flicks (besides Riot On Sunset Strip, the Standells are also featured in Get Yourself A College Girl and Zebra In The Kitchen) as well as regular stints on American Bandstand, and its Paul Revere and the Raiders-hosted summertime cousin Where The Action Is. The band also guest stared as rowdy housesitters for The Munsters in the episode "Far Out Munster." And no one lets Dodd forget about that...
"Every time somebody sees it they say, 'Hey, Dodd, I saw you on TV last night. God, didn't you guys know how to sing back then?' We went in to record the songs for the show ("Do the Ringo" and a cover of "I Want to Hold Your Hand"), and this old guy came out and put the mike in the middle of the room, right? He goes into this booth, and I'm looking at the rest of the guys going, 'I don't believe this.' No headsets, no dividers, no nothing! He says, 'Go through the song.' We thought we were putting down a basic track - putting the bass, guitar, and drums on one track. So, we went through it a couple of times, then he comes out and says, 'Alright, we're going to take one. Now sing real loud.' We didn't do the music and then sing to the tape - we had to sing REAL LOUD!"
Just how the Standells went from safe churners of Top Ten cover songs to snarling teen punks is still being debated, but it all centers around a fortuitous meeting with producer/songwriter Ed Cobb - himself a member of the ultra-clean Four Preps. The liner notes to a Rhino Records Best Of compilation lean towards giving Cobb the imaging credit: "Rather than a combined future in a Disneyland-like middle American heaven, Ed and the boys pulled a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde and bounded back with a very seething, resentful, provoking approach that was very influenced by the Rolling Stones."
On the other hand, Dodd (a former Mousekeeter, who replaced Gary Leeds in 1964 when Leeds went on to join the Walker Brothers) recalls his own influence on the group: "When I met the band they all wore suits, and they were playing really danceable, kind of tra-la-la music, while I was really into rock 'n' roll." He also notes the group's subsequent influence on Cobb: "He was a real clean-cut kid. Then he met us and kind of changed!"
|"Far Out Munster" - The Munsters meet the Standells|
"We kind of recorded it and then put it away," chuckles Valentino. "We were recording some songs with Sonny Bono at the time..."
"Yeah!" Tamblyn breaks in. "We recorded it along with 'Rari' and several others, and had forgotten about it."
"We recorded it in a studio above this garage," reminisces Dodd. "It wasn't even air-conditioned or anything, and it was so hot in LA. The room was a sweatbox! So, we did "Dirty Water," and we all kind of looked at each other and went, 'Eh.' Then Ed called me up and said, 'Let's work on this vocal some more,' because he really didn't have the whole song finished. I came up with most of the last verse and [the intro]":
"I'm gonna tell you a story
I'm gonna tell you about my town
I'm gonna tell you a big fat story, baby
Yeah, it's about my town..."With the amazing success of "Dirty Water," the Standells were in a position to tour the States - that they did so as openers for the Rolling Stones makes the shows legendary. Just how did that tour come about?
According to Dodd, he pleaded with Bill Wyman to take the Standells on the road with the Stones. "I was always saying, 'C'mon, take us on tour, man. You guys are really big stuff!' And this was just at the time that they were really hitting. The English thing was just humungous! So, Bill's saying, 'Well, if you guys had a hit record...' Then for some reason we were in Seattle and our manager called us up saying, 'You guys will not believe what happened. You're #1 in Miami!' From being #1 in Miami - that's where the song broke - it just spread. The next thing I knew, we were on tour with the Rolling Stones! And in every city we played, 'Dirty Water' was at #1!"
It must have been quite a culture shock to go out on a tour of that magnitude, not just because of the Stones, but because of the hysteria surrounding them.
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"We'd get off the plane and there'd be 50,000 kids waiting to see the Stones," recalls Dodd, "and we'd have our limo, and the McCoys (fronted by a barely teenaged Rick Derringer, who were topping the pop charts with "Hang On Sloopy") would jump into their limo... This is a funny story: We were doing a soundcheck somewhere in the Midwest. The Stones hardly ever came to soundchecks, and usually we really couldn't get a soundcheck. So us and the McCoys were just jamming, y'know. It was an empty auditorium. I wasn't playing drums; I was up front doing this whole Mick Jagger thing - just going crazy! I had a pair of sweat socks stuffed down the front of my pants, and I was prancing and dancing around. Everybody was cracking up! Then all of a sudden, we heard some people clapping toward where the lightboard was, and there were Mick and Keith just cracking up! He says, 'Very good. Very, very good!' I was so embarrassed. I was just going, 'Oh, no.' But he thought it was funny. Nothing ever came down that he thought we were making fun of him."
The two follow-up singles - "Sometimes Good Guys Don't Wear White" and "Why Pick on Me" (both written by Cobb) - didn't race up the charts quite as quickly (reaching #43 and #54 respectively), but both maintained the gritty rhythm and blues sound of "Dirty Water," and the growled lyrics cemented the Standells' tough stance...
"Good guys, bad guys which is which
The white-collar worker or the digger in the ditch
Hey, and who's to say who's the better man
When I've always done the best I can..."
Another Cobb-penned tune (again written from personal experience), "Have You Ever Spent the Night in Jail," from the Why Pick On Me album - recorded a year before the infamous Rolling Stones' drug busts - was evidence, according to one reporter, that the Standells were "the equivalence of a menacing, musical street gang."
With the 1967 Try It album - the group's last full-length release - the Standells began flirting with the new psychedelic sound, culminating with two of their most innovative songs: the title track single (which Valentino points out was #1 at every radio station playing it before the ban) and the hypnotic "All Fall Down," written by Dodd (although the original LP gives Dodd sole credit, subsequent reissues and best of compilations give co-writing credit to John Fleck). The drummer remembers the producer's initial resistance to including its anti-war sentiments on the album, saying: "I really fought for that one. It makes me feel good that you like it."
"I was hanging out at the Whisky," Dodd explains of the band's changing direction, "and all these bands were playing there - Love, the Byrds... that whole drug scene. In those days, everybody was getting high." He self-consciously tacks on, "I, myself, just drank milk!" Then he reveals how he came to write the song: "I got mad one night because of what was happening in Vietnam. I was watching the news, seeing all these guys running through the fields, getting shot, dropping like flies. Then the announcer said, 'We're in the race again...' And this nursery rhyme was going through my head - Ring around the rosy/Pocket full of posies/Ashes, ashes/We all fall down."
|Dirty Water album cover pic|
The first 45 to flop was the non-album track "Don't Tell Me What to Do" b/w "When I Was a Cowboy" (the B-side is categorized as a "psychedelic/western"). Released prior to "Try It" and recorded under the pseudonymous moniker Sllednats (Standells spelled backwards), the band weren't really surprized by its lack of sales: "Nobody knew who it was," notes Tamblyn.
The group's final two singles were "Can't Help but Love You," an unconvincing stab at Stax-inspired soul, which only reached #78 in the charts, and "Animal Girl," an out-of-character, standard love song which failed to chart at all.
But nothing beats the sounds on those mid-sixties Standells' records - as dozens of current bands imitating the style and stance of "Dirty Water" will attest to.
"The thing about it was, Ed wasn't really trying to capture great musicianship," offers Dodd, giving as much credit to producer/songwriter Cobb as to the band itself in explaining the music's lasting quality. "He was just trying to capture an emotion, and he did a pretty good job. There's a few mistakes here and there, but the feel was right. We weren't hot musicians, or anything. We just had something - a chemistry - that made us sound the way we did. We played well together."
By the way, what did the guys think of Riot On Sunset Strip some twenty-five years on?
Dodd: Well, when it first came out, people weren't laughing that much! The language... The way the kids were saying things like, "C'mon bird, let's fly out of this joint!"
Tamblyn: And nobody ever really said, "Let's cut out!" Or when that reporter was talking to the other one, saying, "These kids are on grass and acid!"
And what about their own performance scene?
Tamblyn: I thought we looked pretty good, actually! I compared it with some of the other groups [in the film], and I thought we could be doing the same thing today and pass pretty well.
This article was revised on April 17, 2017 based on information gratefully received from @Standells on Twitter.