The Dictators

The Dictators

Formed: New York, USA, 1973

Band Bio Part 1 (1973-1975) / Part 2 (1976-1979) / Aftermath / Lineups / Discography

Pre-dating the Sex Pistols and even the Ramones, the Dictators may not have been crucial in the development of punk rock but they embodied its spirit of sarcastic rebellion as well as anybody else and left behind a small but impressive legacy of great music.

Light-headed and light-hearted, they fully embraced junk culture (fast food, beer, wrestling, parties, TV, late night movies etc) and took the piss out of rock and roll years before it became acceptable to do so. Musically, they were lodged halfway between Kiss and the New York Dolls, but hated the glam aspect of the Dolls, adopting their own streetwise style a la Ramones instead. Hailing from Upstate New York, they eventually influenced scores of "fuck art, let's rock" bands but, like so many pioneers, never troubled the charts (except for a top 50 hit in England in 1977) and split up unnoticed by the many. Nonetheless, someone somewhere saw chart-topping potential in their brand of inspired lunacy and they landed a major label deal in late 1974, when Epic Records bore witness. Unfortunately, the American media was so hostile to "punk" that even Blondie didn't make it until 1979, when they starting infiltrating the discos, so The Dictators had no chance. Handsome Dick Manitoba was obviously still considered too sarcy for mass consumption, and the public were idiots.

And of their place in punk rock history, Manitoba had this to say:

"We ain't no New Wave, Jack, we're the Tidal wave!!!"

1973-1975

Bassist/vocalists/songwriter Andy Shernoff, ex-Grand Funk Salinsky, started The Dictators. He had previously written a jokey mimeographed fanzine called Teenage Wasteland Gazette which had attracted the attention of famous rock journalist Richard Meltzer. Shernoff, now calling himself Adny Shernoff, joined forces with fellow teens Ross Funichello (lead guitar) and Scott "Top Ten" Kempner (rhythm guitar) and a guy called Banana, the first in a long line of drummers.

Andy Shernoff, as told in Clinton Heylin's From The Velvets To The Voidoids: The Dictators were formed in 1973. I was going to college and Ross was playing in a local band called Total Crud and he comes to me and says he's gonna quit Total Crud and wanted to form a new band. So we knew this guy Scott Kempner who had similar tastes. I knew of Scott 'cause we used to go record-shopping together. At that time to find somebody who had tastes like Stooges, MC5 wasn't that common so when you found the kindred spirit you became friends with them. We had a bunch of drummers coming in and out. We literally picked up our instruments and started playing. The only guy who really knew how to play was Ross, who'd been playing guitar since he was a kid. I bought my bass and then a year later I was making a record. We were like punk, we were leather jackets, wise-guy know-it-alls. We were [certainly] anti-glitter.

Through Meltzer they met Sandy Pearlman and Murray Krugman, who were at the time were managing Blue Öyster Cult, and in 1973 recorded a five-song demo for the pair (this can be heard on Every Day Is Saturday). After this they found a permanent drummer, Stu Boy, and made their live debut in November '73 at the Prince George Community College in Maryland, opening for Iggy and the Stooges and Blue Öyster Cult.

The DictatorsThe Dictators

In March '74 the band played at Popeye's in Brooklyn, alongside the Stooges-inspired The Dogs. At the end of the set, which was met with either polite approval or indifference, the band invited their incompetent but crazy and charismatic roadie Richard Blum to join them on stage to take lead vocals on 'Wild Thing'. By the end of the song the the audience reaction was so positive that that The Dictators knew they had a star, and Blum re christened himself Handsome Dick Manitoba, and he was duly promoted to "Secret Weapon". (This basically meant he sang backing vocals and the odd lead vocal.) It was not unheard of Manitoba to be seen on stage wearing a wrestling mask and throwing McDonald's french fries during heavy metal versions of disco songs.

Handsome Dick, Rolling Stone, 1977: You know, I stole 17 cars in high school. I derailed a train with a rock. Me and my friends blew up all the thermostats in school with plastic explosives. We stole bowling balls and threw them into buildings from our cars at 90 miles an hour. We got rancid whipped cream from garbage cans at the Reddi-Whip factory and sprayed it on people. It was the best time of my life.

The DictatorsSigning with Epic Records, they recorded The Dictators Go Girl Crazy!, a dazzling debut album which sank without a trace. It was simply ahead of its time, issued in a vacuum a year after the second New York Dolls flopped and mere months before CBGB's became nationally prominent. Remorselessly sarcastic originals like 'Master Race Rock' ("We're the members of the master race/Got no style and we got no taste") and 'Teengenerate' battle it out with even more sarcastic covers of 'I Got You, Babe' and 'California Sun'. Thoroughly hedonistic, the band play with no subtlety whatsoever (as befitting their obsession with wrestling), with Ross The Boss contributing flashy near-heavy metal guitar solos and Top Ten churning out riffs that the Ramones started swiping on Road To Ruin. Very highly recommended. Best lyric: "I'm just a clown walking down the street/I think Lou Reed is a creep".

Unfortunately for the 'Tators, Epic did not know how to market the band and although the LP was recorded in August '74 it was not released until March '75, by which time drummer Stu Boy had quit. The band were then dropped by Epic. In July 1977 Rolling Stone magazine stated that the LP had only sold 6,000 copies.

Andy Shernoff, as told in Clinton Heylin's From The Velvets To The Voidoids: They couldn't get airplay. They couldn't do anything with it. It was completely unmarketable, image-wise and sound-wise, so they dropped it - pretty quickly.

The group staggered on for a few months with Ritchie Teeter on drums, but split in September, after which Scott and Ross formed a short-lived band with CBGB live favourite Helen Wheels.

1976-1979

Manitoba, Ross the Boss, Top Ten and Teeter reformed The Dictators in early 1976 with Mark "The Animal" Mendoza on bass/vocals, Shernoff having decided to not rejoin, choosing to work instead as songwriter for the band. Unfortunately, noted big mouth Manitoba got the group in serious trouble that March, when he was hospitalised by Wayne County during a concert at CBGB's. Manitoba, Shernoff and Stu Boy had gone to see Wayne County & The Backstreet Boys and Manitoba started heckling County, calling him a queer. Words were exchanged. Manitoba's taunting was apparently done for a laugh rather than spite, but County was (quite rightly) offended and smashed Manitoba over the head with a microphone stand. As a result, The Dictators were blacklisted by County's manager Peter Crowley, who booked all the acts at Max's Kansas City, and virtually the entire New York punk scene turn against them, although The Dictators found allies at Punk magazine.

The following comes from the book Please Kill Me:

Andy Shernoff: Richard was heckling, sort of loud, and sort of out of the blue. Wayne County picked up his microphone stand and smashed it down on Richard's shoulder. There was no violent move from Richard, outside of verbal aggression. Wayne said that there was an attack, but there was none.

Handsome Dick: I remember not having any sort of feeling of anything but verbal aggression, I had no feeling of physical aggression. But in those days at GBGB's, you had to step up on the stage, literally, to get to the bathroom. So the taunting was going back and forth, and then he interpreted a move that I made as a violent move.

Jayne (Wayne) County: Just as I grabbed the microphone stand, it ran through my mind, Do not hit him in the head, hit him down there somewhere where it'll just get rid of him but not kill him.

Bob Greun: I was standing at the back of CBGB's, there was all this commotion, we didn't know what was going on, except there was some chaos. It seemed like a fight - people screaming and yelling. Next thing I knew, they dragged Handsome Dick Manitoba out - literally, two guys were dragging him, he was limp in between their shoulders, with blood pouring out of the side of his head.

Jayne County: All my friends were standing up going, 'Finish him off, finish him off, man!' They were standing up going, 'Finish him off', with their thumbs down.

Scott Kempner: [Later] we went out to get Wayne County, and his manager and anyone else that decided to stand up for him, and couldn't find them. He was hiding, like a little fucking pussy. Then reality set in and we were talked out of beating up Wayne County.

In spite of all this, things slowly reverted back to normal, and The 'Tators resumed gigging. Even though the publicity from the County incident may have been negative it was publicity all the same, and in due course they signed a deal with that most corporate of record labels, Asylum, home of Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell, and The Eagles. (Prior to the Asylum deal the new group's first venture was recording the main title music for a film called Jabberwalk, a cheapo Mondo Cane type documentary which featured senior citizen brothels, mud-wrestling schoolgirls and drive-in churches. That theme song, America The Beautiful was issued as a 7" single, with someone called Julie Chrisman on the B-Side.) And by the end of the year Shernoff had rejoined, and was now found playing keyboards as well as the occasional lead vocal.

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Manifest Destiny, released in late summer '77, has appalling cover art and over-compressed production (unlike Go Girl Crazy!'s crystal clear ring), and shows signs of commercialisation: 'Steppin' Out' and 'Heartache' are near-conventional hard rock, whilst the ballads 'Sleepin' With The T.V. On' and 'Hey Boys' border on soft rock. Thankfully, 'Young, Fast & Scientific' and the B-movie themed 'Science Gone Too Far' show they've not lost their sense of humour, and a punked-up 'Search And Destroy' allows them to pay tribute to the Ig. Best lyric: "Short hairs/Give me long stares". The LP was actually very good indeed, but did not chart on either side of the Atlantic, although the scorching Search & Destroy managed to scrape into the UK Top 50, partly because it had been issued on a 12" single, a bit of a novelty at the time. Another song from the album, Hey Boys was issued as a single in the US did not do much for the band's profile over there.

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Of the more mature new material:

Adny Shernoff Rolling Stone, 1977: We didn't meet our responsibility to relate to our audience in the early days. People thought we were making fun of them. I'm actually more of a businessman than a musician or satirist now. We have to define our market,

Handsome Dick, Rolling Stone, 1977: The humour just wasn't going over. It doesn't pay, literally, and this career has to work. I've never been able to work a nine-to-five job - rattles my brain.

Top Ten, 1977: People are gonna say we're New Wave but musically we're not. To me the real rock 'n' roll heroes are those who practice, not those who get up on stage and just look cool. I never saw it as selling out. To me, the idea of making it easy for the mass audience to understand is not selling out. At the time I really believed that it was our duty as rock 'n rollers to make music that everyone could understand.

The Dictators - Manifest Destiny AdvertThe Dictators

Mendoza absconded in early '78, going on to join Twisted Sister, a smart move. The Dictators chose to carry on as a quintet, with Shernoff now carrying out bass duties as well as tinkling the ivories. Album #3 Bloodbrothers marked another move towards the mainstream, but was a solid record, mixing punk and rock incredibly well. Amongst the nine great songs is the much-covered 'Faster And Louder' (which features a barely audible Bruce Springsteen), a tribute to their favourite haunting ground '(Minnesota Strip'), a nod of the head to Meltzer ('Borneo Jimmy') and a ripping version of The Flamin' Groovies 'Slow Death'. Best lyric: "Everybody should pick up a guitar, it's the American way".

But even all this effort was for nowt. The LP was yet another commercial flop, and early 1979 the group split up again, shortly after having recruited a new drummer, Mel Anderson, who left to join Mendoza in Twisted Sister.

Aftermath

Following the break-up, Shernoff, Top Ten, Ross and Alexander (basically the last 'Tators lineup minus Manitoba) tried carrying on as The Rhythm Dukes but this also failed. As for Manitoba, he turned to cab driving. "Top Ten" went to France and joined the excellent Shakin' Street. The Dictators still got together now and again, one such reunion from 1981 commemorated on Fuck 'Em If They Can't Take A Joke, a cassette-only recording taped at CBGB's in 1981. Drawing on all three albums, as well as covers ('What Goes On', 'Search & Destroy', 'Mott The Hoople's 'The Moon Upstairs') and interspersed with some wickedly funny inter-song banter (Manitoba's charm as a front-man has never been in doubt), it is a fitting testament to an immensely entertaining band. (The Dictators Live: New York New York is a CD reissue with three extra tracks.)

After this Ross The Boss went into full-on heavy metal mode with Manowar and Kempner joined The Del-Lords. Later, Shernoff wrote songs for the Ramones. In 1986 Manitoba, Shernoff and Funicelli formed Wild Kingdom with drummer J.P. "Thunderbolt" Patterson. These guys were The Dictators in all but name: check out the wonderful album And You? (1990) for proof.

Years later, in 1996, Manitoba, Shernoff and Ross the Boss reformed The Dictators with a new drummer (ex-Del Lord Frank Funaro), recording the singles 'I Am Right' and 'Who Will Save Rock 'N' Roll?', and a few years after that a new lineup - Manitoba, Shernoff, Ross the Boss, Top Ten and Patterson - released the triumphant comeback album D.F.F.D., a superb platter which combined the qualities of their first three studio albums with the rockier moments of Wild Kingdom and bits of Blue Oyster Cult and even Bo Diddley. A smashing record, this is the best, and I repeat, the best comeback album by any punk band: on 'Who Will Save Rock N' Roll' (a different version to the one they released as a single a few years earlier) they answer that very question emphatically. Best line: "I don't have a clue/And I don't trust those who do".

I'll stop there, except to say that further reunions followed, but legal wranglings followed Shernoff's departure in 2011, and so in 2013 the group became known as The Dictators NYC. Then, in 2017, after more legal squabbling they carried on as Manitoba NYC.

DISCOGRAPHY

Singles / Albums

The Dictators ‎– The Dictators Go Girl Crazy! The Dictators / Julie Chrisman - America The Beautiful / This Is America  The Dictators ‎– Manifest Destiny The Dictators - Hey Boys The Dictators - Search & Destroy
The Dictators Go Girl Crazy!
(LP, 1975)
America The Beautiful (7", split with Julie Chrisman, 1976) Manifest Destiny
(LP, 1977)
Hey Boys (7", 1977) Search & Destroy
(7"/12", 1977)
The Dictators ‎– Bloodbrothers        
Bloodbrothers
(LP, 1978)
       

Extraneous Releases

The Dictators - Fuck 'Em If They Can't Take A Joke The Dictators - The Dictators Live: New York New York The Dictators - Every Day Is Saturday The Dictators - Manifest Destiny / Bloodbrothers The Distators - Faster... Louder - The Dictators' Best 1975-2001
Fuck 'Em If They Can't Take A Joke
(Tape, 1981)
The Dictators Live: New York New York
(CD, 1998)
Every Day Is Saturday (2xLP/CD, 2007) Manifest Destiny / Bloodbrothers
(CD, twofer, 2010)
Faster... Louder - The Dictators' Best 1975-2001 (CD, 2014)
The Dictators ‎– The Next Big Thing EP The Dictators ‎– Live Rochester NY, July, 77      
The Next Big Thing EP (12", 2015) Live Rochester NY, July, 77 (LP/CD, 2016)      

Bootlegs

The Dictators ‎– The Dictators The Dictators ‎– CBGB 1977 The Dictators ‎– Rock Genius    
The Dictators
(LP, 1980)
CBGB 1977 (7") Rock Genius (3xCDR)    

Various Artists

Sharp (16 Sharp New Rock Acts) Holland LP 979 (WEA): Faster And Louder

New York Rockers US Tape 1989 (ROIR): Minnesota Strip

DIY: Blank Generation - The New York Scene (1975-78) US CD 1993 (Rhino): (I Live For) Cars And Girls

1-2-3-4 Punk & New Wave 1976-1979 UK 5xCD 1999 (Universal): Search & Destroy

No Thanks! The '70s Punk Rebellion US 4xCD 2003 (Rhino): Two Tub Man

Links

THE DICTATORS NYC

CARS 'N' GIRLS: ANDY SHERNOFF INTERVIEW

PUNK 77

MANIFEST DESTINY: A HARD ROCKER IN PUNK CLOTHING

 

You can add stuff and make comments/corrections by emailing me at:

jane@punkygibbon.co.uk

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