The following first appeared as a chapter in the second book of Martin Popoff’s Ye Olde Metal series, Ye Olde Metal: 1973 To 1975.
For details on each of the five books thus far — 1968 To 1972, 1973 To 1975, 1976, 1977 and 1978 — please see www.martinpopoff.com.
Yes, Manifest Destiny is taken care of in 1977 and Bloodbrothers is written up in 1978.
The Dictators – Go Girl Crazy
(Epic, April ‘75, KE 33348)
Revered by critics, ignored by the industry (except in Spain), The Dictators are New York rock legends that did more for punk rock than people know. It all starts… not back at the first record, Go Girl Crazy! (not the real title, more on that later), but a cupful of years before. I mean, send it back to ’73, and you could slot The Dictators right in there with the Stooges, MC5 and the New York Dolls as four seminal bands that made punk possible.
“You know, this is one of my little pet peeves,” says bassist and chief writer for the band Andy “Adny” Shernoff, making sure we get the naming of the record fixed but quick. “People always say, the Dictators’ first album, Go Girl Crazy!. It wasn’t Go Girl Crazy!; it was The Dictators Go Girl Crazy!, like a movie title. It was supposed to be like a teenage movie or something. That was the concept.”
Still, nothing about that title made a whole lot of sense given the goofball cover art. Lead (but still part-time) bellower Handsome Dick Manitoba (a.k.a. Richard Blum) is pictured striking a pose in the locker room, in the guise of his wrestler alter-ego.
And the rest of the band? Well, they are shown in that favourite boy’s lair of rock ‘n’ roll, the poster-wrapped bedroom. “They were all in our own bedrooms,” says Andy. “Except for Ross, Ross’ was shot in a different one. But mine was shot in my room; those were all the posters I had on the wall at the time.”
It’s a perfect image for this record designed out of the pure love of rock ‘n’ roll, as well as an encyclopedic knowledge thereof. And rock ‘n’ roll means a very specific thing within the Dictators’ camp, not surprisingly, the same thing it means in record collector circles.
“Yes it does mean something different,” explains guitarist Scott “Top Ten” Kempner, who knows rock ‘n’ roll all too well beyond The Dictators, with his band The Del-Lords. “And I think that’s fine. Rock ‘n’ roll had a time and place, like blues and soul music had a time and place. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be playing it or there isn’t an audience for it. As far as it being a thriving cultural or social fashion, to me, I look at rock ‘n’ roll as having existed from ‘55 through ‘58, and then from ‘64 to ‘68, and then maybe ‘76 to ‘78, and then maybe ‘90 to late ‘91? And that’s like the last time rock ‘n’ roll has really been around. And I have no problem with that. I remember there was a time in our history where jazz accounted for 70% of all records sold. And now it’s like a seventh of 1% of all records sold.”
Which all has to do, says Scott, with why Spain eventually had become the band’s “home away from home” over the ensuing decades. “I think Spain is one of these places that has sort of cherry-picked what it likes from American culture. And one of the things that it likes is rock ‘n’ roll. And even though we are kind of on the hard rock end of rock ‘n’ roll, I think The Dictators are still a rock ‘n’ roll band, in spirit, if not strictly in sound. And I think that’s pretty much it. I mean, rock ‘n’ roll is this creature from the past, but it’s blues or soul music.”
“Formed in ’73,” says Shernoff, asked how long the band had been around before the first record. “As a matter of fact, we’ve got some demos we’ll be releasing from the summer of 1973. We were different… I don’t know how different we were. But compared to other bands, following the same attitude and same musical concepts, it was very different from what was happening at the time. The music business was a lot smaller, but one of the things about CBGB’s, is that Hilly (ed. Kristal, deceased from lung cancer at the age of 75, August 28, 2007) encouraged you to play original songs, when there was nowhere else to play, if you were doing original music. If you had a record deal, maybe there were some clubs you could play. But if you were playing covers, there weren’t lots of places to play. If you were doing… I’m trying to think of who was around the time, Led Zeppelin covers and Rolling Stones covers, you could play. But nobody wanted to hear original music.”
“We had no idea,” adds Ross The Boss, perhaps more famous as future he-man guitarist for Manowar. “We had no friggin’ idea what The Dictators were. It was like a hybrid between The Who and the Beach Boys. Sandy Pearlman discovered The Dictator in 1973, ‘74. He came upstate where we were living. Richard Meltzer brought him up, discovered the band. He’s a very, very… I can’t describe him, a very introspective person. A brilliant genius, I think. You can’t really pigeonhole him into anything. There had always been friction (laughs). But I think probably for the first two albums, things worked pretty well. Murray Krugman, I didn’t think he was the best of producers. But Sandy is an amazing person. If he wants to do something, he will do it. And he doesn’t care how much money he spends.”
Sandy of course is most well-known as manager, co-producer and heavily contributing lyricist to Blue Oyster Cult, and also as manager, briefly of Black Sabbath, and producer of The Clash’s Give ‘Em Enough Rope. He was also manager of The Dictators, using his BOC mate Murray Krugman to co-produce this “baby band” of his as well.
“I have no recollection of making the first record,” says Pearlman, calling working with Andy and the gang “a breeze” compared to the meticulous Cultsters. “It was like wow, here we are a few months later and it’s done. All I can remember is Handsome Dick sliding down the handicap access ramps at the CBS studio yelling, ‘He steals home!’ I think it was during the 1975 World Series. So that kind of stuff, or him going out saying, ‘Hey, I’ll be back in an hour’ and not showing up for ten hours. And we find him at 4:00 in the morning asleep in a toilet bowl in the upper floor bathroom after going out and trading shots with some guy, and somehow making it back but going to the wrong floor, throwing up and going to sleep with his head craned on the toilet bowl. It really happened. So that’s the kind of stuff that went on there. So that was like wow, this is a lot of fun.”
Handsome Dick was notorious around The Bronx for such behaviour, and had actually joined The Dictators as a roadie. He’s actually not singing much on Go Girl Crazy!, and in fact, is not even listed as an official member (this of course will change later) – it is Andy who is credited as lead vocalist. Rounding out the lineup was “Stu Boy King” on drums. “I was in college, and he was a friend of a guy I knew,” notes Andy. “He had a clear drum set, which I thought was cool, so we let him in the band (laughs). But he was very difficult. He wasn’t a team player. And he also wasn’t a very good time keeper. So that leads to problems.” Stu would be replaced by Richie Teeter come the Manifest Destiny follow-up of 1977.
Go Girl Crazy! (as you may have noticed, we’re gonna use the short title) opens up with Handsome Dick entertaining Catskills-style a small crowd of polite attendees to an imagined Dictators show. The Next Big Thing starts sweetly, but then throws a shoulder into big dumb heavy metal, cowbell included. Lyrically, it’s all wisecracks, goofy bravado and admissions of non-rock ‘n’ roll Jewry. Ross fires up a molten solo that almost breaks his guitar in half.
“Let me see, Next Big Thing, hey, it’s about ambition, you know?” laughs Andy. “Being a teenager. Come up with a heavy riff… that Turbonegro stole, and the Ramones took it also. They changed one chord though. Turbonegro stole it, they took the riff. The Ramones did it for I Just Want To Have Something To Do, but they switched one chord. But they acknowledged to me where they got their inspiration from. Turbonegro used the exact riff in the song Get It On.”
A campy cover of I Got You Babe was next. The Sonny And Cher Comedy Hour had been a huge TV hit for all of its 1971 to 1974 run, with this song closing out each show, the couple’s daughter Chastity often invited up for a cuddly croon. It’s one of two covers on the album, the other being a ripping California Sun, which more directly played to the band’s ‘60s rock roots, as well as to the argument of the band as a big influence on The Ramones. “California Sun was a song we always loved,” says Andy. “And I guess I always had a fascination with California, growing up, loved the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean. We loved the song so we did it. I Got You Babe was actually Murray Krugman’s idea. It was kind of goofy. We never played it live or anything, just put it on the record.” Handsome Dick shows up for one of his cameos, adding a Fred Flintstone quality to Andy’s Barney Rubble.
“I knew that punk rock was on the way,” recalls Ross. “But we were never really like the Ramones, although we had a lot in common. We did influence them to wear their leather jackets, because we were the first. We had the album out first, and we did California Sun first, so…we pre-dated punk rock, CBGB’s punk rock as we know it, all those bands. At one point in New York, there were only three bands with record contracts, us, Kiss, and the New York Dolls, and they came before us by a couple years.”
Back To Africa… well, this is sorta The Dictators’ answer to the Dolls and Stranded In The Jungle. “You know, I liked weird titles, and titles that were going to attract a little attention,” quips Andy. “And Back To Africa was like a catchphrase. And if you are a racist, you would say, ‘Go back to Africa.’ When actually, it was just a song about a black girl (laughs).”
Another metal highball comes next, Master Race Rock throwing up another little faux racist red flag. Of course, the lyric is more a series of jokes about how The Dictators have the ability to kick your ass amidst any adversity you can throw their way, including the gasoline shortage.
Scott says that, well, The Dictators really did think of themselves as rock conquerors. “First album was the epitome of innocence,” says Kempner. “Not in some like Republican family values sense, but in the sense that we were completely unencumbered by anything other than making the record we thought would be the coolest record ever made. And there was nothing during the making of that record that got in our way to inhibit that goal. So we followed that through. I would say the second record was an attempt… I mean, I think the second record has the most varied opinions in the band. For me, personally, speaking for myself, I felt the band was good enough to compete with anyone. I didn’t care whether they were big-time arena rock bands. I didn’t think there was anything we weren’t good at. And I wanted to make a record that could stand up, that was competitive in that way. I didn’t feel that we needed to rely on anything, any kind of gimmicks, whether they were comical gimmicks or anything else. I feel like Andy’s songs were good enough, as good as anybody’s, that anybody was writing in the mid-‘70s.”
Were you good live?
“We were starting to not get… we were starting to achieve our not horribleness. We were beginning to not be absolutely horrible. That’s about the best I can say about the band live in those days.”
“We were not like that,” adds Scott, asked if drugs and drink were a big part of the band’s scene. “I mean, there were drugs here and there. We weren’t puritans or anything. But we weren’t guys who were in love with the image of Keith Richards as much as we were in love with his music. And his image seemed to have spawned enough people to consider it a religion almost, you know, the wasted thing, anything from people like Johnny Thunders to Joe Perry, and everything in between, from like scuzzy, junky rock to slicked-back arena rock. That was never something that we were concerned with. We were who we were. We were an actual New York band. Most of the bands who were part of the New York scene were bands by people who came from outside of New York, in love and enamoured with an image basically, that is personified by Andy Warhol and that whole scene. And we were certainly not that. We were very comfortable with being guys from the Bronx who played stick ball, played sports and loved rock ‘n’ roll. We weren’t like juvenile delinquents. We just weren’t.”
How much of the band’s sound and presentation had to do with this arena rock thing being pushed by Sandy Pearlman?
“You know, everybody believed in the band’s commercial potential. Nobody wanted to shortchange the band’s commercial potential. It wasn’t anybody pushing anybody. While there were varying opinions on anything, and there still are to this day, we always have operated with a general consensus. And Sandy Pearlman, whatever else you could say about him, his talents as a producer or whatever, he was as much an innocent in the way that we were. He had a vision, as left field as it might have been, and as esoteric and as eclectic as his inspirations were, that he wasn’t about to be sidelined by somebody else’s idea of commercial potential. So we really never had anything forced on us. That would be really to misrepresent those guys. We were undermined a little bit, not so much by their enthusiasm, but maybe their lack of actual hands-on technical experience in the studio.”
“Teengenerate was based on Manitoba,” says Shernoff. “He was a character, still is a character, and he inspired that song.” And he co-sings on it too, again, adding the bellow to Andy’s thin, teen twang. One Alan Glover is credited as pianist on this one and on Cars And Girls, but Ross says this is BOC’s Allen Lanier.
Next up is the band’s punky and aforementioned California Sun, again Andy applying an adolescent sneer to it, bolstered by arch-New York gang vocals. Ross again turns up and turns up, peeling off a killer guitar solo. Whereas Ross admits, “I was the only one that was the quote ‘virtuoso,’ always (laughs); that’s just the way it was,” Andy adds that, “We certainly weren’t that good players. And we certainly knew nothing production. We just set up and we played live. I guess the solos were overdubbed and the vocals were overdubbed. Nowadays, people track the drums, do the parts one by one. It was a pretty easy process, if I remember. All the stuff with Manitoba talking, Murray and Sandy just kept the tape going whenever he was doing anything in the studio. So they recorded everything he was doing, and they ended up taking bits and pieces out and putting them in in front of the songs, and it helped give the record texture, made it a little different than other records at the time.”
One of the best examples of this preambles Manitoba’s signature Go Girl Crazy! track Two Tub Man, the album’s third and last molten metal rocker. Notes Andy, “Two Tub Man was the first song I ever wrote, and actually it was a song about what I thought was the punkiest guy I knew, but before there was the term punk, in those days. A guy with attitude, like people I knew, who had the same attitude about food and girls and watching television and general pop culture as I did. Two Tub Man might have been ’73, and the last some I wrote for the record would have been The Next Big Thing, maybe ’74?”
So, er… what’s a Two Tub Man?
“Hey, I don’t know! I was much more creative in those days. I was much more spontaneous with these things. Writing a song now… boy, it is work! Back then, I just cranked it out. I tell you, it gets harder when you get older. You know when you’re young, you have more time. As a kid. And now it’s like a million things are interfering in your life…”
Kempner comes to grips with The Dictators’ place within the thorny – even embarrassing and cringe-worthy – genre of heavy metal. “The metal that came out of us was this natural sort of desire to play aggressive, hard, fast music, and that is where we sort of sideswiped heavy metal. I mean, obviously, with Richard as a lead singer, it’s only like the last ten years that singers like Richard have come to front new metal bands. Back then you had to sound like Robert Plant to be in a metal band. So even when we were playing heavy stuff, we never perceived it to be part of heavy metal, as much as it was sort of a natural thing. These were the influences and these were the styles that came very naturally to the band. It was an outgrowth of stuff we all liked. I mean, we weren’t going to sound like the Village Green Preservation Society version of The Kinks, but we were the You Really Got Me version of the Kinks. To me it’s like that. If they were playing through Marshalls, they would’ve been called a heavy metal band.”
”First album was the epitome of innocence. Not in some like Republican family values sense, but in the sense that we were completely unencumbered by anything other than making the record we thought would be the coolest record ever made. And there was nothing during the making of that record that got in our way to inhibit that goal. So we followed that through.”
— Scott Kempner
“We weren’t that conscious of metal as being a separate entity,” continues Scott. “You know, rock had yet to demograph itself down to so many splinter groups. I mean now, metal has its own million splinter groups. Back then, in our mind, it had something of the rock atmosphere and it was good. While we were fans of Black Sabbath, we were tremendous haters of Led Zeppelin. I personally really hate Zeppelin. I think the bands that almost caused the Dictators were Led Zeppelin, The Allman Brothers and The Eagles. The Eagles had corrupted country music, which I love and treasure. The Allman Brothers had just taken the worst aspects of the Grateful Dead and applied them to this mushy version of blues. And Led Zeppelin had actually turned the blues, which is my greatest passion of all – real rock ‘n’ roll – into a cartoon. It was a Vegas act as far as I was concerned. And they actually stole credit from guys who were starving, families that needed the money. To me that was a little bit… I don’t know, maybe because those people didn’t want to defend themselves, I really took that personally. And the Rolling Stones turned me on to all those people when I was a kid, brought those people out when they were on Shindig. I remember they had Howlin’ Wolf with them. They really paid their debts. But Zeppelin, here were some guys, to me, who were just saying, ‘Well maybe if we just don’t say anything, we’ll get all the credit.’ But the metal influence was filtered through bands like The Who. That was the closest thing. We liked Black Sabbath, but The Who were more a consensus band for The Dictators. It was the MC5 version of hard rock.”
Weekend was a great melodic hard rocker, which virtually zoomed right by punk and predicted power pop. Ross plays some beautiful licks, while Andy adopts the guise of a teengenerate wanting to bust out. “Weekend is, hey, don’t you wish every day was Saturday? (laughs). That’s a line in the song, best part of the week, when you were growing up, no school, hanging out with your friends, having a great time. I think everything I did was very influenced by the ‘60s, and yes, that one for sure.”
And as the saying goes, you can’t do wrong with Louie Louie chords, which are all over this song, muscled up by Ross, the supported in the schoolyard rumble by lots of vocal tips ‘n’ trickery.
Go Girl Crazy! ends with a full-on Beach Boys ‘60s party rocker called (I Live For) Cars And Girls, which is again, not so much like unplugged Ramones as it is pre-plugged. Or gerrymandered.
“Hey, I loved that title, wrote the song,” quips Andy. “We had a live record that came out two or three years ago and we did it at a rehearsal and I really liked that version. It’s a little tighter with the drumming; the rhythm is tighter. But I again, I think it captures the spirit of the band, lyrically. I would say that our little place in rock history is the attitude that the lyrics had at the time. There weren’t many bands doing things like this. Maybe Chuck Berry (laughs); he would do a song called (I Live For) Cars And Girls, but he wouldn’t use that title. But that’s our contribution to rock culture, is the attitude of the lyrics. The subject matter, food, cars, girls, having an attitude. And it certainly helped make a musical impression.”
“The Dictators were popular with one school of critics,” offers Kempner, in closing, adding specificity to the impression the band would make, the legacy the beloved Dictators would leave. “There was Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer, Nick Tosches, Creem magazine… but people who liked their rock ‘n’ roll without quite as much sarcasm, and wanted a little bit more of the sexual glamour, I think those people were turned off. And I think that it was misunderstood. I think there were people who thought that… you asked the question whether Sandy was calling the shots, and were we some new version of a Sandy Pearlman joke on the world, you know? And I think that no, that was really us. I think that was a big part of who we were. In some places we were perceived as critic’s darlings, but in other versions of the history of CBGB’s, we’re not even mentioned. It’s almost like we polarized people in that way. So, that was… coincidentally or ironically, Bloodbrothers was the first album of ours to get a positive review in Rolling Stone.”
Rest assured though, history was to deem all three of the original band’s albums classics. Manifest Destiny was to be christened the artsy one, and Bloodbrothers the raw and rocking, hot-clocking guitar charger. But Go Girl Crazy!? Well, as Scott has articulated, it’s the album that resonates with innocence. There are no rules, no sacred cows, simply because no one’s bothered to photocopy these kids a set of such rules. Metal meets surf music, and then a bit of whiteface meets the Master Race. Ultimately, however, what it’s really all about is Teengenerate and his buddy Two Tub Man out for cars and girls. Night after night, neither proves attainable, but who cares when waiting at home, you’ve got stacks of the latest stereophonic hi-fi records to console you that both will come… in time.
— Martin Popoff