THE DICTATORS GO GIRL CRAZY!
(40th Anniversary Edition)
‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…’
The year was 1973 and the music business needed a good kick in the ass. The innovations that marked the 1960’s were a dusty memory.
Jimi, Jim and Janis were dead. The Beatles had broken up and the Rolling Stones string of Jimmy Miller produced masterpieces had ended. The only Stones song to hit the top 10 that year was ‘Angie’… a ballad! Things were heading in a bad direction. The music business had become a vast wasteland of sensitive, hippie singer-songwriters, pompous technical virtuosity and insipid, inane pop. It was starting to get very mellow…. and go very, very wrong.
Let me set the scene: the top selling record of 1973 was “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree" by Tony Orlando and Dawn, while the second best seller was "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" by Jim Croce. The number one selling album was "The World is a Ghetto" by War followed by Seals and Croft’s "Summer Breeze”. The anti-social rebelliousness that had defined rock and roll through the 60’s was in retreat.
There were glimmerings of hope in England - where glam rock ruled the charts with dynamic, three minute, hook filled songs sung by pretty boys in makeup, satin and high heels. Unfortunately, piquing sexual mores didn’t play well in America. The definitive glam rock album, David Bowie’s ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’ reached number 5 on the UK charts but stalled at 75 in America. As a matter of fact, many of the UK’s biggest chart success in 1973 never even saw the light of day in the States. To get my UK rock and roll fix, I tuned in Scott Muni’s “Things From England” every Friday afternoon on WNEW-FM. On Saturday, I would take the subway down to Bleecker Bob’s in the “Village”, buy the records, then head over to the newsstand on 6th Ave and pick up 3 week old copies of the New Musical Express and Melody Maker to keep track of the sensational musical adventures of Slade, Mott The Hoople, Wizzard, Suzi Quatro and Roxy Music.
Meanwhile, New York was fraying at the edges. The middle class was evacuating the city for safer options in the suburbs. This meant cheap rents for artists and musicians who were willing to put up with the dirt, drugs and crime of a desolate downtown. The Mercer Arts Center, a performance space on the border between Greenwich Village and the recently designated Soho, became a magnet for the arts and home for The New York Dolls.
The Dolls had developed a devoted following by capturing the glammy, androgynous excitement that was developing in England. They eschewed technique for feel and sincerity for attitude - capturing the original spirit of rock and roll that had disappeared from the Billboard charts. Performing in front of a few hundred people they looked and acted like rock stars, but I was impressed by how they blatantly let their influences show. Finally a band that was listening to the same albums as I was. As the saying goes: “Don’t judge someone by the color of their skin, judge them by the quality of their record collection!” The Dolls also galvanized something special in me and dozens of other music fanatics in their audience. Something life changing. Maybe, just maybe, I could do what they were doing - get some friends together and start a band.
At the time, I was attending college. Well, attending might be the wrong word. I was registered in a college - but attending the local bars. I was more involved with publishing my satirical fanzine ‘Teenage Wasteland Gazette’ and doing occasional reviews and articles for rock magazines like Creem. One day I ran into Ross 'the Boss’ Friedman who confidentially told me he was considering quitting his current band (called Total Crudd) and getting something new started. I quickly volunteered my services on bass - an instrument I didn’t even own at the time. As the conversation continued, Scott ‘Top Ten’ Kempner’s name came up. Scott was the only guy we knew who liked The Stooges and also played guitar. You see, in those days if you met somebody who liked the Stooges, you immediately bonded. We called Top Ten and he quickly dropped out of the college he wasn’t attending, even faster than I did. Our mutual friend Richard Blum, soon to be Handsome Dick Manitoba, became our roadie and eventually joined us onstage. In the spirit of Spinal Tap, the drummers came and went until we settled on a friend of a friend, Stu-Boy King.
There were certain assumptions you could make about a rock and roll fan in 1973: they were under 30 years old, they had long hair, they did drugs and they were against the war in Vietnam. Dropping out of college to play the 'devil’s music’ was our parent’s nightmare - even though it was our saving grace and the light at the end of the tunnel for our lives. They had legitimate concerns as rock and roll wasn’t exactly a smart career choice in those days. There were no universities issuing music business degrees and no Rock and Roll Hall of Fame awards dinners as pop groups had a notoriously short shelf life. As far as they were concerned, it was a craze that would eventually fade away to be replaced by the next teenybopper fad. Finish college and develop a back-up plan they pleaded - and there was good reason to feel that way.
If rock and roll began in 1955, the year Bill Haley’s 'Rock Around The Clock’ was released, then it was only 18 years old in 1973 ... and rock and roll, like us, was still a fumbling teenager.
The future was unwritten.
So, we were a band, though to be honest, Ross was the only one of us who had any musical skills or experience. Scott, Richard and I had never been in a band before. We didn’t even qualify as amateurs. In retrospect, that was one of our assets, as we had no road map or pre-conceived notions. It was all up in the air. We were sarcastic, wise-guy New Yorkers, who liked Pro Wrestling, White Castle, drinking beer and making fun of anything and everything. The trick was to turn those subjects into songs.
For inspiration I turned to Brian Wilson and Ray Davies. I always admired both for the idiosyncratic worlds their songs created. Brian depicted Southern California as a teenage paradise of cars, girls, surfing, and beer. While Ray Davies’ vignettes of English life seemed romantic and exotic to a kid who didn't own a passport. I hoped that one day, I too would gaze on a Waterloo sunset, just like Terry and Julie. I yearned to do what Brian and Ray did - write songs about my world, in my own irreverent way and to communicate what it was like to grow up carefree and sarcastic in a New York City borough. I wanted to speak my own personal truth, just like my favorite songwriters did.
So, I wrote the very first song of my life: 'Two Tub Man." Combining Who-style power chords, an aggressive tempo, facetious lyrics and obscure pop culture references - I found my template. Every line dripped with attitude and sarcasm because sincerity and earnestness seemed so … Laurel Canyon. I sought out other provocative titles that drew you in and then led you off in completely different direction. So 'Back to Africa' wasn't a racist rant, but rather, a love song to a black girl. ‘Teengenerate' was a portrait inspired by Manitoba - who actually did eat eggs all day long. Some people took offense at the title of ‘Master Race Rock’, though a cursory listen revealed it as a manifesto for the Dictators lifestyle. Teenagers were the master race!
The goal was to create a disruption, shock, offend, get a rise out of people. We presaged political correctness as well as punk rock. The last tune I wrote for the album 'The Next Big Thing' was a song about ambition (though I couldn’t resist outing us as Jews.) ‘Weekend' might have been the worst offender. A sweet pop melody disguised a cartoon celebration of drugs, violence, bodily fluids and anti-social behavior. At least nobody ever called me out for nicking the guitar riff from Buddy Holly’s ‘Heartbeat’ - amateurs steal, professionals borrow.
Musically, our influences were easy to identify. Our turntables were dominated by The Who, Alice Cooper, Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets, Raw Power and the second MC5 album, Back in The USA. Detroit, the last bastion of real rock and roll, was our cornerstone. No discussion of the band’s influences could be complete without acknowledging the immense impact Abbott and Costello and Andy Kaufman had on us. We obsessed over their surreal comedy - dissecting every detail which helped us craft the inside humor that defines the ‘Girl Crazy’ record. As far as we were concerned: the more tongue in cheek, the better. Our managers and producers Sandy Pearlman and Murray Krugman not only let us follow our peculiar, non-commercial muse, they actually encouraged it. It was Murray who surreptitiously recorded Manitoba’s rants in the studio, then inserted them between the songs. He also had the vision of making the album cover an homage to a pro wrestling magazine. I am still baffled that Epic records let us get away with everything.
We had one recurring problem, finding venues to perform. There was no place to play. The Mercer Arts Center had literally collapsed, CBGB’s was just opening and Max’s Kansas City existed as a venue for touring musicians and record company showcases. Sure, there were numerous rock clubs in the suburbs but they were only interested in cover bands. People didn't care about original tunes, they wanted to hear the hits. Sandy and Murray also managed the Blue Öyster Cult, so they had connections to get us opening slots out of town. We would travel hours to play the most inappropriate shows. The Dictators opening for Rush or Billy Preston or calypso singer Exuma! The mind boggles. Needless to say they were all disasters. When The Coventry opened on Queens Boulevard to serve the burgeoning New York glam-rock scene, we finally had a semi-regular gig in front of a receptive audience. Supposedly ‘mob run’- the club was also home to The New York Dolls, KISS and a band called Sniper that featured a nerdy singer named Jeff Starship (soon to be rechristened Joey Ramone).
They say you need to put in 10,000 hours to achieve mastery in a field. We were woefully short. The Beatles performed 8 hours a night 7 days a week in Hamburg, We didn’t do 8 hours in a month… or 2 months…or a year!! I’m going to guess that we only did 20 shows before we made ‘Go Girl Crazy’. It didn’t matter - there was no audience for what we were doing anyway. We learned to entertain ourselves onstage by being loose and jokey. Unfortunately, rock was serious business and mocking its pretensions with bratty adolescent humor wasn’t always appreciated.
We were a band out of time.
In August of 1974 we entered Columbia Studios to record 'The Dictators Go Girl Crazy.' Coincidentally, the Ramones played their first show at CBGB’s the very same month. Evidently we weren’t the only ones feeling the vacuum in rock and roll. The punk revolution was inevitable, for every action there is a reaction. I assert that punk is at the core and a necessary component of every great rock and roll artist. Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, The Beatles and The Stones all thumbed their noses at society and did things their own way, without apology. Rebellion and insolence holds a sacred place in the hearts of rock and rollers. Sometimes you have to look back before you move ahead. We tried to be part of the continuum even though we never reached the household name status of our more successful friends and contemporaries. The Ramones and The Sex Pistols defined the sound of punk. We helped define the attitude.
Enjoy this record in the spirit in which it was recorded.