“Dirty Water” is a song by the American rock band The Standells, written by their producer Ed Cobb. The song is a mock paean to the city of Boston, Massachusetts and its then-famously polluted Boston Harbor and Charles River.
The song’s Boston and Charles River references are reportedly based on an experience of Cobb and his girlfriend with a mugger in Boston in the mid-1960s. In addition to the river, other local interest items in the song include the Boston University women’s curfew — “Frustrated women … have to be in by twelve o’clock” — and a passing mention of the Boston Strangler — “have you heard about the Strangler? (I’m the man I’m the man).” Boston is also home to Simmons College, a women’s college that, like many such institutions, had a curfew for students. Cambridge, on the opposite banks of the Charles River, was home to Radcliffe College, then the women’s college counterpart to Harvard College. There is disagreement regarding the identity of the “frustrated women”. In a city with many colleges and universities, as well as a large Navy presence (historically), it could be purposefully unspecific.
First issued in late 1965 on the Tower label, a subsidiary of Capitol Records, the song debuted April 30, 1966 on the Cash Box charts and peaked at #8. It reached #11 on the Billboard singles charts on June 11. It was the band’s first major hit single; their earlier charting record, “The Boy Next Door,” had only reached #102 on Billboard’s “Bubbling Under” chart in February 1965.
Although “Dirty Water” is beloved by the city of Boston and its sports fans, the song first became a hit in the state of Florida, breaking out on WLOF in Orlando in January 1966.
Dirty Water was also the title of the Standells’ most successful LP, their only nationally charting album. This LP charted on both Billboard and Cash Box magazines’ charts, peaking at #52 and #39, respectively, during the summer of 1966.
The song is traditionally played by Boston sports teams following victories. The Boston Bruins ice hockey team began playing the song in 1991, and the Boston Red Sox baseball team followed suit after home victories beginning in the 1997 season. The surviving Standells have performed the song at Fenway Park from atop the Green Monster. The song’s famous guitar riff was recorded with a Fender Stratocaster through a Vox AC30 amplifier by Standells’ guitarist, Tony Valentino. The song is also included in the soundtrack for the film Fever Pitch, which includes the Boston Red Sox leading up to the 2004 World Series.
Dirty Water was included in the influential compilation album Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965–1968, and is listed in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.”
Though the song is credited solely to Cobb, band members Dodd, Valentino, and Tamblyn have claimed substantial material-of-fact song composition copyright contributions to it as well as contributing to its arrangement.