The theme of this week’s Cerys Matthews show (2 July) on BBC Radio 6 Music was rivers, to celebrate London Rivers Week. In the words of London Rivers Week’s website it:
‘aims to inspire people like you to take pride in our waterways, understand the challenges they face and come together to create a healthy future for our rivers.’
I’m not sure about that ‘like you’, which sounds a tad patronising, but the sentiments are sound. Naturally Cerys played an enjoyable selection of tracks, but one I was expecting which didn’t appear was Dirty Water. Written by Ed Cobb and originally performed by the Standells in 1965, they sang about Boston, Mass., USA, referring to the ‘banks of the River Charles’ and including the line ‘Aw, Boston, you’re my home’.
That wasn’t though the version I thought I might hear. A pub rock band I used to see regularly in the late 1970s/early 80s in London was the Inmates. A vague link was a school friend, Jeff Mead, who organised these outings. He was friends with somebody called Mike Spenser (whose sister Maxine by coincidence I worked with for a while). Spenser had had formed the Flying Tigers but they had broken up, producing two bands – Spenser’s the Cannibals, with whom Jeff played for a while on bass, and the Inmates.
The Inmates covered Dirty Water and did very well with it, substituting the banks of the River Thames for the Charles, and London for Boston. A generally punchier version than the Standells’, with singer Bill Hurley channelling Mick Jagger, it was a huge crowd-pleaser guaranteed to get everybody dancing. The song was included on the LP First Offence and issued as a single.
Surprisingly, it was the Standells’ Dirty Water which was used on the soundtrack to the film Fever Pitch (2005), a missed trick. The Inmates’ though appeared in the 1999 film EDtv.
One unfortunate line which may account for its failure to appear on Cerys’s show is ‘Those frustrated women have to be in by 12 o’clock’. This was apparently a reference to the curfew imposed on female students in 1960s Boston but frankly didn’t make much sense in late 1970s London, and sounds sexist now.
Yet overall there is a difference in tone between the Standells’ and the Inmates’ approaches. Where the former feels sneering and ironic (they didn’t even live in Boston), the latter has always struck me as sincere; a love letter to a London that, despite undoubtedly grotty aspects, still evident beneath its creeping homogenisation, is a city worth celebrating and worthy to be called home.
Thankfully the Thames is a lot cleaner than it used to be, but the Inmates’ Dirty Water feels relevant all the same. I’ve not lived in the city for a quarter of a century, but the river is in the DNA of all Londoners, wherever they find themselves, and Dirty Water is its appropriately grungy anthem. It would have been wonderful if Cerys had found time to play it in celebration of London Rivers Week. Perhaps she will next year.