When the garage greats play the Ponderosa Stomp, they're sticking to who they are/were.
The Standells typify one of the many cool things about The Ponderosa Stomp, which takes place this weekend. Yes, there's the yearly thrill of discovery that comes with hearing someone kill that you didn't know existed, and yes, there's the drama that comes with seeing people who've been on the margins of the music business for decades get a great moment with a good band and an enthusiastic audience. But there's also the awkward, endearing buzz that accompanies the borderline naive artist who understands that he, she or the band is cool but isn't positive why. The best rock 'n' roll and folk art are about the maker as much as the product, though often because of the disjunction between the two.
Exhibit A: Larry Tamblyn of The Standells, who play Saturday night as part of a garage band freakout with The Sloths, Ty Wagner, and The Gaunga Dyns. In a recent interview, he told me that they were considered by many to be the godfathers of punk rock - a line that appears in the band's bio on its site, on its Wikipedia page, and in numerous interviews. That may be true, but how punk is it to claim such accolades? To attach real value to such ephemeral tributes?
He relived at length and with clear pride old battles whose participants have largely disappeared down the tunnel of history. He told of how the band won a debate on Art Linkletter's House Party with a Texas business who banned The Standells' "Try It" from the radio stations he owned because he thought it was obscene. Despite the win, the ban continued, sinking the single.
Today, he concedes, "It's about attraction, sexual attraction maybe. But The Rolling Stones had 'Let's Spend the Night Together.' It was sung a little sexily, but what wasn't?"
Still, once you get past that grandfatherly obsessiveness, you can also get to something cool and real. The Standells' best songs are undeniable. "Dirty Water" has endured for a reason, and Tamblyn sang "Try It" with a Jaggeresque lasciviousness that clearly had designs on the daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Middle America.
Although their biggest hit, "Dirty Water," is about Boston and the Charles River, The Standells were very much a Los Angeles band. Tamblyn came from a family of actors. His parents met on Broadway, and his brother is Russ Tamblyn, best known for West Side Story and more recently, Twin Peaks. The combination of that background, their look, and a manager who also represented actors helped them get roles as Beatlesque bands on such shows as The Munsters, Ben Casey, and The Bing Crosby Show. "We were never looking to get into movies," Tamblyn says. "But being in a rock band - are you kidding?"
Their best known screen work was the movie Riot on Sunset Strip, for which they provided the title track. "The song was written by John [Fleck, a band member] and this other guy on the soundstage in the MGM studios in 45 minutes, but it really captured the movement, the feelings, bright lights everywhere," Tamblyn says. "It really captured the essence of The Standells. It was Us against Them and added to our image as bad boys."
They were only one of the garage bands of the day in the movie, but because of the title track and their appearance just minutes into the movie, The Standells are associated with it more than The Chocolate Watchband. Riot on Sunset Strip is an exploitative depiction of the rock 'n' roll, youth culture epicenter in Los Angeles. "Sam Cashman threw that thing together in a couple of months," Tamblyn says. "I love the movie for all the wrong reasons," starting with the fact that it was corny.
"The script was terrible," he says. "All the lines were written by adults; they weren't written by teenagers. They tried to overmoralize to people about the dangers of smoking pot. I have to laugh about it today. A virginal girl participating in a gang bang after taking acid didn't hold true."
The so-called "riots" that the movie depicted took place in 1966 were really a protest of the city's efforts to close and impose curfews on the clubs that catered to rock 'n' roll, the Whisky a Go Go, Pandora's Box and Gazzarri's among them. "Back when the quote-unquote 'riots' were happening, it was nothing more than what the Occupy movement is doing today," Tamblyn says.
Unfortunately, movie and TV appearances didn't translate to another hit, and after the debacle of "Try It," The Standells, like so many band, struggled, went through the internal tensions caused by near-misses and lost focus as they tried to find something musical that would connect. Tamblyn was one of the founders in 1962, and he was part of the band when it dwindled away in the early 1970s. His primary gig became children's stories, which he wrote for 15 years. In 1981, he merged music and children's entertainment when he made a children's album, and the band started got together to play a few reunion shows around that time. The years hadn't chilled the internal tensions in the band though, so they didn't become anything more.
When playing "Dirty Water" became part of the way the Boston Red Sox celebrated a win in Fenway Park in the early 2000s, the renewed attention led to another reunion. In 2009, Tamblyn decided he wanted to do The Standells again full-time, which led to yet another split as the relationships that didn't work in the past still didn't work. He and John Fleck (who joined in 1967) continued with new members to round out the band. They didn't want to simply be an oldies band and decided to cut their first album in 40 years, Bump, which was released in August. They raised money on Kickstarter so that they could record the album as authentically as possible - in a garage, Tamblyn says. "'Dirty Water' was recorded in a garage on a three-track."
The Kickstarter appeal included another disjunction, though, a moment that said they don't quite know where they are in the world. "No major label suits will be allowed in the recording studio and no producers will be dictating to them what to record," it read, clearly revisiting old wounds at a time when it's exceedingly unlikely that they're on Sony or Universal's radar. "That is why the Standells are using July 4th as their funding deadline. Independence Day for an Independent Group!"
Understandably, Tamblyn's proud of Bump, not just because of the way that they made it but because they stayed true to who they are or were.
"We stuck to The Standells sound," he says. "It's a combination of rebellious lyrics and a straightforward sound with no gimmicks."
When The Standells play the Ponderosa Stomp, they'll be joined by Johnny Echols from Love, and the set will also include a few Love classics.