Considering that the first Dictators album came out in 1975, scads of credit is due these hearty pre-punk New Yorkers for blazing a long trail, melding the essentials of junk culture -- wrestling, fast food, TV, beer, dope, cars, scandal sheets -- with loud/hard/fast rock'n'roll and thus creating an archetype that has been adopted and adapted by countless other bands. Although wavering wildly in terms of style and track-to-track consistency, all of the band's albums are great. As protégés of genius music journalist Richard Meltzer, the Dictators helped translate a lot of intellectual fandom's crazed hypothetical theorizing about rock'n'roll's possibilities into wretchedly wonderful reality. Originally formed as an homage/response to the MC5, Flamin Groovies, New York Dolls and the Stooges, the Dictators wound up playing a similarly crucial and inspirational role to the generations that followed them. Even more amazingly, the group has endured to compete (artistically/conceptually if not commercially) with those acolytes -- and their progeny.
The Dictators began as a quartet: Teenage Wasteland Gazette publisher Adny Shernoff (vocals/bass), monster guitarist Ross the Boss, Scott "Top Ten" Kempner (rhythm guitar) and Stu Boy King (drums). Legendary Bronx party boy Handsome Dick Manitoba (Richard Blum), who had joined his pals' band as their roadie, was photographed in wrestling regalia for the cover of their first LP, guested on some of the tracks and was listed in the credits as "secret weapon." (It was only a matter of time before he would assume his rightful position as the band's lead singer.) Produced by the Sandy Pearlman/Murray Krugman team responsible for the Blue Õyster Cult, The Dictators Go Girl Crazy! is a wickedly funny, brilliantly played and hopelessly naïve masterpiece of self-indulgent smartass rock'n'roll, pre-indie-rock proof that regular kids could make the major-label record (as if there were an alternative at the time) they always imagined. The album has covers ("I Got You Babe," "California Sun") that unravel history, hubris ("The Next Big Thing"), cherce Shernoff songs about the "Weekend" and "Teengenerate" life, Manitoba's first signature song ("Two Tub Man") and even an original surf-rock gem, "(I Live for) Cars and Girls." The Rosetta Stone of punk pop and an absolute classic released years before a company like Epic could even begin to imagine how to convince anyone to buy it.
Immediately after the album's release, King took a hike and various troubles beset the band, resulting in a two-year delay before a follow-up was issued on another label. By then, Manitoba had become the fulltime vocalist. Drummer/singer Ritchie Teeter and bassist Mark "The Animal" Mendoza had joined, which allowed Shernoff to switch from bass to keyboards. Although the sonic quality was mortally damaged in the original mastering (and a CD reissue has yet to appear), Manifest Destiny comes across with another helping of brilliant Shernoff originals like "Steppin' Out," "Science Gone Too Far!" and "Sleepin' With the TV On," plus a stunning rip through the Stooges' "Search and Destroy." The musical approach is less tongue-in-cheek and sounds nearly adult, but any band fronted by Manitoba could hardly fall prey to rock-star pretension.
Falling in with novelist Richard Price, the Dics made some concessions on Bloodbrothers in a last-ditch attempt to turn the band into a commercially viable proposition. Mendoza had already left for greener metal pastures (specifically fame and fortune with Twisted Sister); the five-man lineup sent Shernoff back to bass. Despite the halfhearted attempt to sell out, the band comes across with some great tracks -- two stirring love anthems ("Stay With Me" and "Baby Let's Twist"), a tribute to Meltzer ("Borneo Jimmy"), a seamy tale of teenage prostitution ("Minnesota Strip," named for a then-notorious stretch of 8th Avenue), another Manitoba declaration ("I Stand Tall") and an electric statement of purpose ("Faster and Louder," an expansion on the previous album's "Young, Fast, Scientific"). A blinding cover of the Flamin Groovies' "Slow Death" closes the album, putting a lid on the Dictators studio days and, shortly thereafter, the band as well.
One of the band's reunion gigs around the New York area in late 1980 and early '81 resulted in the album-length live cassette, which finds the group in fine form, with a couple of non-LP/new songs ("Loyola," "Rock and Roll Made a Man Out of Me") and Manitoba doing a riotous star turn as singer, ringleader and MC. (The Dictators Live: New York New York is a CD reissue of that document, with three bonus songs added from a subsequent show.) The Dictators played a tenth anniversary reunion concert in New York in January 1986 and another show the following year. By that point, Kempner had formed the Del-Lords, leaving Manitoba, Shernoff and Ross (following his launch and departure from the straight-up metal Man-o-War) to form Manitoba's Wild Kingdom.
Where the Dictators briefly shouldered heavy metal as a means to commercialize their punky pop, Wild Kingdom did just the opposite. Injecting wit, economy, intelligence and classic pop structure into heavyweight rock power, the brief but utterly satisfying ...And You? is metal for those allergic to the form and a substantial post-punk treat for those partial to attitude-heavy Velvet Underground acolytes. Reviving the Dictators' old "New York, New York" and adding nine equally potent new tunes (many taking a older'n'wiser cautionary approach to drug-abuse and other self-indulgence), the LP is a speeding, fun-filled race that rocks like crazy and never falters. Shernoff airs his sardonic view of the music industry in "Haircut and Attitude" and his sense of his fairplay in "You Had It Coming." Ross riffs with shredder abandon, and Manitoba sings with strength and enthusiasm bordering on desperation.
In 1991, with both offshoot groups disbanded, the original Dictators reformed (with Del-Lords drummer Frank Funaro, later spelled by Wild Kingdom skinsman J.P. "Thunderbolt" Patterson) and set out on tour, something they have done with increasing dedication, geographic reach and consistency ever since. A decade later, after reissuing a couple of catalog items, they hatched a new studio album, D.F.F.D. (Dictators Forever, Forever Dictators). Far from being the needless afterbirth of middle-aged punks attempting to elbow their way back into a kids' game, this tower of power recapitulates everything the band has ever done and elevates it with clever writing, blistering but clean production and rejuvenated fervor in the playing and vocals. This is pop punk for grownups, with worldly lyrics that may leave younger listeners in the cultural dark. Wisely, the Dix don't pretend to be anything they're not -- it takes a lot of old-school brio to ask "Who Will Save Rock and Roll?" (as opposed to the postmodern question of why anyone should) -- but that doesn't keep them from being both contemporary and true to their legacy. As on previous albums, the songs paraphrase ancestors, drop names and roll out New York City spirit in spades. Set to singalong fist-in-the-air melodies and against Ross's furious squalling, Shernoff's lyrics analyze life ("Pussy and Money," co-written by David Roter), worship music ("The Savage Beat"), ask questions ("What's Up With That?"), make tall claims ("I Am Right") and establish tall myths ("In the Presence of a New God"). Quite a feat.
A fan dream come true, Every Day Is Saturday combines a hefty stack of demos, leftovers (including several previously unissued Shernoff compositions), alternate versions and radio commercials with entertaining and exhaustive liner notes by the band's main men. The unfamiliar renditions of repertoire classics from "Master Race Rock" to "Borneo Jimmy" to "What's Up With That?" are not overly illuminating of the creative process, but they compare respectably to the finished tracks and in some cases ("Sleepin' With the TV On") demonstrate how a drastic rethink can turn a song inside out.
-- Ira Robbins