Its 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. 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.
Ironically, although "Dirty Water" is beloved by the city of Boston and its sports fans, the song actually first became a hit in the state of Florida, first 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 the early 1990s, 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 aFender Stratocaster through a Vox AC30 amplifier by Standells' guitarist, Tony Valentino.
Dirty Water was included in the influential compilation album Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965–1968, and is listed in the The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's "500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll."
- British garage rock revivalists The Inmates covered "Dirty Water" in 1979 (and replaced Boston and the Charles with London and the River Thames), a version which was a mid-sized international hit and reached #51 on The Billboard Hot 100 singles chart in January 1980. This song was promoted with customized promo versions recorded for many towns distributed to radio stations. For example, the promo copy played on Jackson, Mississippi's WZZQ said "Pearl River" and "Jackson you're my home."
- The song is sampled at the beginning of "These Are the Days," the first track on The Ducky Boys' 1998 album Dark Days.
- Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band with special guest Peter Wolf closed with "Dirty Water" during their back-to-back shows at Fenway in 2003.
- Boston punk band Dropkick Murphys often include the song in live sets, such as the one documented on 2002's Live on St. Patrick's Day From Boston, MA and at the 2007 Boston Red Sox baseball World Series victory rolling parade. A version recorded with The Mighty Mighty Bosstones' Dicky Barrett was released on Fenway Recordings' 2002 compilation In Our Lifetime, Vol. 3: The Revenge of Boston.
- Icelandic indie band Singapore Sling covered it in its 2002 debut album The Curse of Singapore Sling, released in North America and Europe the following year.
- Former Red Sox pitcher Bronson Arroyo's 2005 cover album, Covering the Bases, includes a version of the song.
- U2 included a snippet of the song while playing "Vertigo" during a two-night stand at Boston's TD Garden in December 2005.
- Aerosmith covered the song at both shows in their hometown of Boston during their 2006 Route of All Evil Tour and again at a show on their 2009 Tour, with the Dropkick Murphys.
- The Buffalo Sabres NHL team plays a cover version of this song before the beginning of the 3rd period. This version substitutes River Charles with Niagara River and Boston is replaced with Buffalo.
- Dirty Water has been the victory anthem after Boston Bruins wins since the early 1990s. The song was played at Rogers Arena during the post-game Stanley Cup celebration of the Bruins victory over theVancouver Canucks.
- Dirty Water has been the victory anthem at Fenway Park since 1997.
- Dave Matthews Band covered "Dirty Water" during the encore on their second night of a two night stand at Fenway Park, on May 30, 2009.
- Steely Dan covered "Dirty Water" during the encore of their performances at the Wang Theatre in July 2009.
- Dirty Water was played at the TD Bank Garden during the post-game 2008 Larry O'Brien Trophy presentation to the Boston Celtics after their six-game victory over the Los Angeles Lakers. The Celtics have adopted "Dirty Water" as their victory anthem since the Doc Rivers era began.
- Dirty Water has been the victory anthem of the New England Patriots since the turn of the 21st Century, and was played at Reliant Stadium after the Patriots won Super Bowl XXXVIII.