Most fans of classic-rock radio know The Standells garage-punk classic “Dirty Water,” which was listed in Rolling Stone’s “Top 500 Songs That Shaped Rock Music.”
The guitarist who created that recording’s iconic riff is still very active in music. Having just released a new single, “Late Night Radio,” with singer/songwriter Dan Markell, Tony Valentino is also currently producing new artists, recording with ex-Ramones drummer Richie Ramone, working on his first solo album, and planning a punk-rock musical. His playing is also featured on a new CD, The Standells Live On Tour – 1966.
He’s been called “The Godfather Of Punk Guitar,” and Conan O’Brien refers to him as “The Riffmaster.”
On the video for “Late Night Radio,” you’re seen alternating between playing with a pick and using your thumb. Has that always been your style?
It depends on the mood I’m in at a particular moment. When I do play lead, I like to use really hard picks. Playing rhythm is a different story.
How did you start out playing guitar?
The first guitar I got, when I was about 12, was made by my uncle back in Sicily. It became the joy of my life, having my own guitar and learning major and Italian chords. I also ordered one of those pickups from a magazine and hooked it up to a radio.
After you came to America, what was your first proper electric guitar?
It was a Sears Silvertone, and my brother tells me my first amp was ironically a Standel.
Who were the first artists to really make an impression on you?
Back in Italy, I heard Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock.” I was flipped out by the way Danny Cedrone played the guitar – the solo drove me crazy! Later, when I came to America, a friend turned me on to an album by Freddie King which I listened to until it was worn out. It really gave me a big inspiration to start playing different kinds of chords, to put some soul into my playing and try to capture the feel of the American artists.
How did you come up with the famous riff for “Dirty Water?”
The song had originally been presented to us by our manager, Ed Cobb, as a regular three-chord blues thing. I had some lyrics, and then (lead singer) Dick Dodd started making up some… “I want to tell you a story. Tell you ’bout my town…” So, I started messing around on my guitar and the guys said, “Yeah, that’s great!” When the record came out, we weren’t credited as co-songwriters. Being from Italy, I didn’t know about things like writing credits. It took us a lot of years, but the courts finally awarded us our 50 percent of the song.
What kind of equipment were you using on the recording?
It was a white Telecaster that I had bought in Hawaii. I used it with a Vox AC30, and when I changed the electricity reduction and turned down the knob on top, the sound became fuzzy, like using a fuzzbox. The sound was incredible!
After “Dirty Water,” the band made great follow-ups like “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White” and “Why Pick On Me,” but didn’t have the same success.
Our label, Tower, was a subsidiary of Capitol, which was the Beatles’ label. We got caught in the whole Beatlemania thing. So, our records weren’t promoted that much, because they were totally devoted to The Beatles.
The Standells once kicked Lowell George out of the band.
He was much more musically advanced than any of us, but Larry Tamlyn hated him. “He’s like a hippie, he’s got no shoes!” (laughs.) He was great, but we let him go.
You’re not with The Standells any more.
Me and Larry own the name, but I don’t want to be involved with the new lineup, which isn’t the real band (Ed. Note: Dodd passed in 2013).
From your long musical career, what are you the most proud of?
That someone coming from a little town in the mountains of Sicily got to work with so many great stars, and came up with a riff that kids all over the world still play. Steve Lukather (from Toto) once came up to me, bowed, and said, “If it wasn’t for you, I would have never learned to play the guitar.” When I hear things like that I say, “Oh, my God. I did that?”
This article originally appeared in VG July 2016 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.