Friday, December 08, 2006

The Dictators

The Dictators are yet another band that is guilty of the MC5 syndrome. Put out a fantastic first album that is out of the mainstream but is a cult classic, put out an overtly commercial 2nd record that doesn’t completely work as either a pop record or an underground rock record, then for the 3rd disc, try to go back to your roots, but remain a little too self-conscious to succeed in regaining the magic of the initial blast.

Unlike the legendary ‘5, though, the Dics stayed together (or never officially broke up during hiatuses) and are possibly better than ever today!

When “Go Girl Crazy!” came out in 1975 it was such a blast of fresh air that a lot of people didn’t know what to think about it! Of course, rock critics loved it, since Adny Shernoff (songwriter/bassist/singer) was one of them and he understood his r’n’r history and drew heavily on now familiar influences of the MC5, Stooges and Velvet Underground, all of which were extremely underground at the time. This was post-glitter/ pre-punk, produced by Blue Oyster Cult producer Sandy Pearlman, including incredible guitarist Ross “the Boss” and it was also laugh-out-loud hilarious as well as a fabulous r’n’r record!

Coming at a time when most rock was ponderously serious, songs with lines like “I won’t be happy, until I’m known far and wide, with my face on the cover, of the TV guide”, “I’m your favorite teengenerate!”, “I drink coca-cola for breakfast, I have Jackie Onassis in my pants” and “I think Lou Reed is a creep” (to name a few), not to mention a duet between Adny and “secret weapon” Handsome Dick Manitoba on “I Got You Babe”, were almost beyond comprehension! The tunes were great, the songs rocked, the playing was super, but it was just too damn weird for mainstream teens and sold only a few thousand copies.

After the disappointment of GGC, the Dics obviously made a very conscious decision to make a commercial record. Adny moved to keyboards (he never thought that he was a great bassist, though he always had a good ear for bass lines) and they added Mark “the Animal” Mendoza on bass. The lyrics were somewhat less humorous, though still plenty of laughs could be found on Manifest Destiny, and they concentrated on pop-song harmonies.

I still love this album, and it has heavy-rockin’ classics like “Science Gone Too Far” and “Young Fast & Scientific”, but the pop tunes dominate. “Exposed”, “Heartaches”, “Sleeping With the TV On”, “Steppin’ Out” and “Hey Boys” sound like they came from a completely different band that the one that created “Go Girl Crazy!”.

One of the highlights is “Disease”, a piss-take on dramatic “rock” songs, with Manitoba ranting that he will get even with the girl who gave him some unnamed VD and saying “I don’t wanna die, but I wouldn’t mind if I was an idiot”!

I had the chance to see them live at this point (with Blue Oyster Cult, who were also terrific) and they were great and mostly did their heavier songs and when they did “Disease”, Manitoba went on a long rant and the then-topical Legionnaires disease, which was pretty hilarious. They were already starting to realize that they were not a pop band, which would lead to more changes.

The last album before breaking up was a return to form of sorts called Blood Brothers. Adny was back on bass (Mendoza was out) and they were back to a stripped down r’n’r outfit. But, they also weren’t as much fun. Maybe the disillusionment with the music biz and the failure of Manifest Destiny to break the band caused them to be a bit more cynical. The songs on this record, while still good, are no where near Adny’s potential and are comparatively downright dark. Manitoba had almost completely taken over the lead vocal spot but hadn’t really learned his strengths and weaknesses yet and so his performance it somewhat spotty.

Don’t get me wrong, I would still recommend this record to anyone, but it is not their best, unfortunately.

After this record, the members went their own way for quite a while, with an occasional reunion show now & again. But eventually, Manitoba and Shernoff created Manitoba’s Wild Kingdom with drummer JP Patterson and the Ramones’ producer/ studio guitarist, Daniel Rey. Just before recording in 1989, Ross the Boss returned to the fold and the resulting album, “…And You?”, is essentially the fourth Dictators record, and a damn amazing one, as well. (I brought this tape on one of my bands’ European tours right after it came out and besides recording two of the songs ourselves, we influenced at least two European bands to cover songs from this album, as well!)

Ironically enough, this is one of their most consistent recordings – great songs from start to finish, great playing, great production, and Manitoba had really learned to control his voice and became a super r’n’r vocalist as well an incredibly charismatic and funny frontman. Many of the songs are mainstays in the Dictators set to this day. Again, this didn’t sell very well – never underestimate the ignorance of the record buying public – which means that it can be difficult to find, but usually can be picked up for a pittance!

Once again, the band took a break – after Top Ten Kempner had rejoined and they toured as the Dictators doing Wild Kingdom (and Dics) songs – and didn’t record again until the late 90’s. Before releasing an album, two singles came out and were some of the best songs that Andy (he dropped the “Adny” spelling after the first break-up) had ever written. “Who Will Save Rock’n’Roll?” is just plain incredible – and extremely appropriate for the time – asking where are the kids that will carry on as the r’n’r flag bearers. Of course, this song was one of the best r’n’r tunes to come out in ages, but Andy was saying that is was time to pass the torch to the younger generation, but no one was taking it.

The other songs on the singles – “I Am Right!”, “Savage Beat” and “Loyola” (a new take on an older, unreleased song of theirs) – are all truly fantastic, with some of the best production and songwriting of their career and showed that they were back and – despite the cliché – better than ever!

The subsequent and (so far) last studio project is D.F.F.D (Dictators Forever, Forever Dictators) which, while is has different takes of “Who Will Save Rock’n’Roll?” and “I Am Right”, it doesn’t live up to the potential of those tunes. Again, a super record and better than most and if you don’t have it got out and get it right now (!!), but, especially given the teasers of those two singles, not the masterpiece that was expected.

I suppose that I am being too hard on Andy and the Dics here – they are one of my all-time favorite bands – and they have put out more mind-bogglingly good r’n’r than any number of other bands put together, but something has always seemed to derail them from achieving the height of greatness that I know they are capable of. Live, they are unstoppable, so see them if you ever have a chance! And, again, all of their records are well worth it – buy ‘em if you see ‘em!


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