Every so often, a figure from behind the scenes of popular music garners such renown that he or she becomes a household name: “Colonel” Tom Parker, Quincy Jones, and Carole King (as a hitmaking songwriter before she stepped into the limelight) to name a few.
And then there are all the countless others, the ones who passed through this realm largely unheralded by the record-buying public. One of these was songwriter and producer Ed Cobb, who would have turned 80 today. You may not know his name, but he left his mark on some very disparate—and uniquely compelling—byways of pop music.
Cobb’s musical career began as a member of the Four Preps, a white doo-wop group that scored two Top Five hits in 1958. The Preps’ sound was safe and family-friendly; hardly the stuff of legend. But early on, Cobb gravitated towards songwriting and production, penning soul and R&B numbers rather than the Preps’ squeaky-clean material. One of these was a little number Cobb wrote for Gloria Jones called “Tainted Love.” It didn’t make much of an impact in its first two iterations, but on its third try became a record-breaking smash, hitting #1 in 17 countries. (Of course, close readers of Cover Me will already know this story.)
But there’s more to that song’s journey. When we recently spoke with Fugazi frontman and Dischord Records co-founder Ian MacKaye about Ed Cobb – his other band Minor Threat covered Ed Cobb’s “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White” – he alerted us to a yet another cover of the song:
“Probably one of the greatest covers of all time….I want to say it’s like Gene Loves Jezebel; it’s something super-gothy. [Editor’s note: It’s Coil.] It’s SO slow…I remember they used to show it at 9:30 (Club) on the screens: The video is a guy dying of AIDS. It is AMAZING-sounding.”
In 1962, a couple of years before “Tainted Love,” Cobb had written the magisterial ballad “Every Little Bit Hurts.” 16-year-old Brenda Holloway first recorded the song as a demo for indie label Del-Fi. Then after signing with Motown in 1964, she rerecorded a more polished version of the song, which made it to #13 on the Billboard Top 100.
Like “Tainted Love,” “Every Little Bit Hurts” found even greater success in its afterlife, being covered by Spencer Davis, George Clinton, the Clash, the Jam, Alicia Keys and – in a particularly compelling version – the Small Faces, among many, many others.
If Cobb had stopped writing after these two songs, one a worldwide smash hit – albeit one that took 25 years to break – and the other a standard of the soul / R&B genres, by most reckonings he would have secured at least a small place in pop music history. But it’s what he did next that puts such an odd and compelling twist on his story.
In 1965, the Standells were a middling white R&B band playing fairly uncompelling versions of other people’s hits (“Money,” “Bony Moronie,” “Louie Louie”) and generally going nowhere. After signing with Capitol Records imprint Tower, they teamed up with Cobb, who gave them a couple of his harder-edged songs to see if they could come up with something more memorable.
The first was called “Dirty Water.” Supposedly written after Cobb was mugged on a visit to Boston, it’s a strange and propulsive blues rocker, made all the more so by the band’s ad-libbed interjections (“I’m gonna tell you a big fat story, baby!”). It went to #11 on the Billboard Top 100 in early 1966, earning the band a slot opening for the Rolling Stones on their summer tour of the States.
“Dirty Water” brought a brash, proto-punk sound to the airwaves, even if the band themselves were hardly rabble-rousers. Fast-forward to the punk explosion of 1976/77, when the recent Nuggets album fueled a resurgence of interest in “garage” or “1960s punk.” Curated by future Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye, it featured “Dirty Water” as the compilation’s second track.
It wasn’t long before the covers started popping up. In 1979, a version by British pub rockers the Inmates went to #51 on the American Billboard Top 100. The band “Anglicized” the track, substituting “London” for Boston and “River Thames” for “River Charles.” Then, in a wily promotional push, they recorded similarly localized versions for other cities all across America. So much for “punk.”
Later, Sleater-Kinney offshoot Wild Flag would cover the song, and – owing to its association with Boston and Fenway Park – so would the Dropkick Murphys and former Red Sox pitcher Bronson Arroyo on his Covering the Bases album, a true touchstone in the “baseballcore” genre.
It was the Standells’ next single though – “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White,” also by Cobb – that really resonated with the future punks of the world. A stomping kiss-off to the prejudice of polite appearances, it was arguably “Good Guys” more than “Dirty Water” that planted the band’s stake in the ground as menacing anti-establishmentarians.
A young Ian MacKaye first heard “Good Guys” not from the Standells original, but from a cover by the Cramps. The connection is a real head-scratcher: The progenitors of psychobilly were hardly known for the clean living and social justice agenda associated with D.C. hardcore. Here’s MacKaye on an early exposure to the Cramps, a show notable for another sort of “exposure”:
“I saw them four times in 1979! When he did ‘Human Fly’ he said ‘I’m an unzipped fly’ and he pulled his dick out and ran through the audience. Not prepared for that! I was sixteen years old, I was fuckin’ flipping!”
When they decided to cover “Good Guys” themselves, MacKaye and his Minor Threat bandmates were in the throes of an identity crisis that would eventually shatter the band:
“(‘Good Guys’) was challenging for me, cause the singing’s so hard. At that time, we were going through a lot of drama about the direction of the music. The band really wanted to ‘progress,’ while I wanted to ‘evolve.’ Members of the band – maybe all of them – had become really enchanted with U2… But I couldn’t sing to it. It didn’t speak to me as music. It was at that time this song (‘Good Guys’) came in, and this was garagey enough, and I knew the melody, so I knew roughly what to do.”
Listen to MacKaye talk about Minor Threat’s cover of “Good Guys” in more detail:
There’s still one more chapter to the Ed Cobb saga. His last association of note – with Bay Area garage rockers the Chocolate Watchband – was without a doubt his most exploratory, and for those interested in the history of American underground rock, arguably the most enduring.
Alternately fierce and snarling, trippy and eerie, the Watchband took American R&B and filtered it through obscure, hard-edged English bands like the Pretty Things and Yardbirds. Though neither of their two albums or handful of singles troubled the charts, their songs –
including the Ed Cobb-penned “Let’s Talk About Girls” – live on in many fine cover versions through the years, including this one from the Undertones, best known for their hit “Teenage Kicks.”
As the ‘60s ended, Cobb drifted out of music production and became, of all things, a champion horse breeder. He died of leukemia in 1999, aged 61. Over the course of his career he had earned a whopping 32 gold and platinum records and 3 Grammy Award nominations.
But for fans of underground music, it’s the lesser-known songs that may stand the test of time: Songs like “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White” that challenged the conformist bent of popular music, if only for a brief instant. Though they were quickly washed away by the waves of more approachable sounds that characterized much of the era’s music, for those few lucky enough to catch on, they were both a beacon and an inspiration to go against the flow. Thank you, Ed, wherever you are.