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The Dictators

A band who epitomized punk before punk rock became a musical or cultural phenomenon, the Dictators embraced the joys of junk culture – professional wrestling, greasy hamburgers, late night television, fast cars, and cheap beer – along with big guitars and roaring music that was unapologetically simple and straightforward. What was most surprising was that they were doing this in 1973, before the Ramones could give punk its aural template, and their debut album, 1975's The Dictators Go Girl Crazy!, appeared two months before the first Ramones LP. Initially, their sound had more in common with burly hard rock than what came to be known as punk, though by the time they issued 1978's raucous Bloodbrothers, their attack grew leaner, faster, and more emphatic. Bloodbrothers was also the final album from their first era, but the Dictators stubbornly refused to die, staging occasional reunion tours and re-emerging with an excellent reunion album, D.F.F.D., in 2001. Despite periods of tension within the band, founder Andy Shernoff revived the Dictators again in 2021, releasing a handful of singles and hitting the road. The Dictators began in 1973, when Andy Shernoff (sometimes credited as Adny Shernoff), a music major at the State University of New York at New Paltz and editor of a rock fanzine called Teenage Wasteland Gazette, met up with Ross Friedman (also known as Ross "The Boss" Funichello, Ross "the Boss" Friedman, or just Ross the Boss), a hotshot guitarist playing in a band called Total Crud. They shared a passion for bands like the Stooges, the MC5, the Flamin' Groovies, and the New York Dolls (Shernoff went to grade school with John Genzale, who became the Dolls' guitarist Johnny Thunders), and decided to form a band. With Shernoff on bass and vocals and Ross the Boss on lead guitar, they recruited Scott "Top Ten" Kempner to play rhythm guitar and went through a number of drummers before Stu Boy King became their regular timekeeper. While Ross the Boss was the only member with significant musical experience, the nascent band caught the attention of Sandy Pearlman, a producer best known for his work with Blue Oyster Cult. With Pearlman's help, the Dictators landed a deal with Epic Records, and with Murray Krugman, Pearlman produced their first LP, 1975's The Dictators Go Girl Crazy! By this time, a friend of the band, Richard Blum, had become their roadie, and started appearing on stage, sometimes dressed in wrestler's gear, delivering rants modeled after the braggadocio of pro wrestlers riling up the crowd, as well as occasional backing vocals. Taking the stage name Handsome Dick Manitoba, he was credited as the group's "Secret Weapon" in Girl Crazy!'s liner notes, spieling and lending his vocals to a purposefully sloppy cover of "I Got You Babe." The sarcastic humor and heavy attack of The Dictators Go Girl Crazy! bore little resemblance to anything on rock radio in 1975, and many critics were more puzzled than won over by the album, and while it was later embraced as a key proto-punk text, it was a commercial flop and the Dictators were promptly dropped by Epic. The band reworked themselves, with Shernoff moving over to keyboards, Mark "The Animal" Mendoza taking over as bassist, Ritchie Teeter replacing departed drummer Stu Boy King, and Manitoba becoming their primary lead vocalist. After striking a new deal with Asylum Records, the band recorded 1977's Manifest Destiny, which saw them toning down their guitar power and their humor for the sake of a more accessible sound, though tracks like "Science Gone Too Far" and "Young, Fast and Scientific" showed their idiosyncratic side hadn't entirely gone away. The Dictators toured extensively behind Manifest Destiny, and a string of U.K. dates exposed them to the British punk scene, inspiring them to streamline their sound and turn up their amps. "Faster and Louder" was the first song on the third Dictators album, 1978's Bloodbrothers, which was their strongest and most coherent set to date, as well as including an uncredited vocal cameo from Bruce Springsteen. As good as the album was, Asylum proved to be no better at promoting the Dictators than Epic, and Teeter quit the band, with Mel Anderson taking his place. He didn't last long in the group, as the Dictators broke up in 1979. In 1981, the Dictators staged a one-off reunion show, and the cassette-only ROIR label released an album drawn from the show, Live: Fuck 'Em If They Can't Take A Joke. (It was later reissued under the less contentious title New York, New York: The Dictators Live.) By this time, Shernoff was focusing on songwriting and production, and Ross the Boss was playing with a French hard rock band called Shakin' Street; in 1982, he co-founded the power metal band Manowar, who would enjoy a taste of the mainstream success that escaped the Dictators. Kempner, meanwhile, started a tough, rooty band called the Del-Lords with former Joan Jet guitarist Eric Ambel, releasing four studio albums between 1984 and 1990. In 1986, Shernoff, Ross the Boss, and Manitoba launched a new band, Manitoba's Wild Kingdom, which revived the spirit of the Dictators with a stronger metal influence. With J.P. "Thunderbolt" Patterson on drums and guest guitar from Ramones associate Daniel Rey, Manitoba's Wild Kingdom issued the album …And You?, in 1990, and while the single "The Party Starts Now" scored some MTV airplay, the disc didn't sell beyond the Dictators' cult following, and they split in 1991. In 1996, the Dictators once again reunited, with Frank Funaro of the Del-Lords on drums, releasing a single on Norton Records, "I Am Right" b/w "Loyola." A second single, "Who Will Save Rock 'n' Roll?" b/w "The Savage Beat," followed in 1997, and they began work on an album. 2001's D.F.F.D. -- featuring Shernoff, Manitoba, Ross the Boss, and Kempner, with Funaro and Patterson trading off on drums – proved to be one of the Dictators' very best albums, with excellent material and fiery performances. The band toured behind the release, including a memorable appearance at Little Steven's Underground Garage Festival in 2004, and two East Coast shows were recorded for the 2005 live release Viva Dictators! The Dictators continued to launch occasional tours (most notably in Spain, where they'd gained an especially loyal following), but as Shernoff and Kempner devoted more time to their solo careers, the Dictators splintered. In 2012, Handsome Dick Manitoba launched a new band, Manitoba, which featured himself, Ross the Boss, Patterson, Daniel Rey, and bassist Dean Rispler (ex-Murphy's Law and a respected producer). The band initially focused on the Dictators and Manitoba's Wild Kingdom songbooks as well as full-bodied cover material, and in 2013 they changed the name to the Dictators NYC and began working on new original material. In late 2015, the Dictators NYC issued a new single, "Supply & Demand," written by Manitoba and Ross the Boss. After a legal dispute with Shernoff, the band changed its name back to Manitoba, before breaking up in late 2017. The same year Manitoba began playing out, Shernoff issued his first solo EP, Don't Fade Away, and in 2015, he helped coordinate a deluxe reissue of The Dictators Go Girl Crazy!, which was remastered and expanded, including two remixes by Andrew W.K. In 2019, Handsome Dick Manitoba issued his first solo album, Born in the Bronx, and the following year, Shernoff introduced a new edition of the Dictators, featuring himself, Ross the Boss, Kempner, and drummer Albert Bouchard of Blue Oyster Cult. The band kicked off their new activity with a digital single, "God Damn New York," but a few months later, they revealed that Kempner was forced to leave the band due to serious health problems. Keith Roth took over as the Dictators' rhythm guitarist, and more digital tracks followed, "Let's Get the Band Back Together" and "Festivus" in 2021, and "Thank You and Have a Nice Day" and a cover of the Osmonds' "Crazy Horses" in 2023. Guitarist and co-founder Scott "Top Ten" Kempner died on November 29, 2023, after struggling with early onset dementia. He was 69 years old.
© Mark Deming /TiVo


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