The Dictators - Biography
The Dictators are a classic example of the “ahead of their time” syndrome. Born after the decline and disbandment of proto-punk bands such as the MC5 and the Stooges, and before the emergence of The Ramones, Television, and other punk bands, The Dictators career saw them torn between arena dreams and small club realities..
Andy Shernoff was a smart, funny undergraduate at State University of New York, New Paultz. He wrote, edited and published an early fanzine, Teenage Wasteland Gazette. Through his fanzine he formed a friendship with rock writer Richard Meltzer, lyricist for Blue Oyster Cult and author of The Aesthetics of Rock, the first book to treat rock music with an academic yet humorous approach. A serious and articulate rock 'n' roll fan, Shernoff formed the Dictators with friends from his Queens, New York neighborhood. Before becoming The Dictators, the band went through various name changes, including Beat the Meatles, Fireman’s Friend (taken from the title of a Superman TV series episode) and the infamous, Cancer of the Dick.
The last was bestowed upon the band by their “secret weapon,” roadie and occasional singer, Richard “Handsome Dick Manitoba” Blum. Blum had a legendary reputation in the neighborhood for his over-the-top drunken parties (Meltzer describes one apartment-destroying bash in his 1975 article “Handsome Dick Throws the Party of the Century”), and his in-your-face New York street attitude.
From his association with Blue Oyster Cult producer Sandy Pearlman, Meltzer helped the band, who had played only a handful of live performances, to secure a record contract with Epic. The resultant album, Dictators Go Girl Crazy! (1975 Epic Records) produced by Pearlman and released in 1975, now stands as an utter classic. It is often noted as the first punk rock album. But at the time, Shernoff’s funny, articulate lyrics, set against a pastiche of metal, surf and even folk-rock (a cover of “I’ve Got You Babe”), precipitated mostly scorn from serious-minded rock critics as well as rock audiences.
The songs celebrated teenage pop culture in general and Blum’s life in particular — his friends, parties and obsessions. Among the last were sex, goofy teenage kicks, drugs, and perhaps most importantly, pro wrestling. Band members took on wrestling-styled stage names — Kempner became “Top Ten,” Ross Friedman became Ross “The Boss” Funichello, and of course Blum assumed his “Handsome Dick Manitoba” mantle with aplomb. The cover art featured Blum in full wrestling attire — cape, boots, and muscle-flexing pose. Sprinkled throughout the record were snippets of wrestling braggadocio, with Blum skewering pro wrestlers and rock stars alike. Long before Cindy Lauper and Lou Albano joined forces, the Dictators brought wrestling and rock together. Blum’s rough and pitch-challenged vocals were scattered judiciously throughout the album, with Shernoff acting as primary vocalist.
Before the Dictators, no one in rock music had treated drug use in a positive or joking fashion, nor had anyone so blatantly and literally denigrated the icons of rock royalty (e.g., “I’m just a clown walking the street/I think Lou Reed is a creep). Audiences and critics alike simply did not get the Dictator’s Queens-specific humor or their too-fast-for-metal riffs and retro cover songs. The Sonny and Cher cover (recorded at a time when the pop-folk duo was beneath the contempt of rock audiences) featured Blum assuming the female voice in the song. The humor was crude, sophomoric, and hilarious, but fell mostly on deaf ears.
There wasn’t a CBGB’s yet, nor hardly any bars or clubs elsewhere in the US from which to fashion an independent tour. Most bars and small clubs still featured cover bands performing note-for-note renditions of the popular songs of the day. Original music was played by superstars in huge arenas; bar crowds just wanted to dance to the familiar hits, not be confronted by the spectacle of Blum pelting audiences with White Castle french fries. Forced into the old tried and tested method of bringing a new unknown band to the public, the Dictators found themselves opening for arena bands such as Kiss, Foreigner, and Uriah Heep; heavy metal bands whose audiences booed and pelted the ‘Tators with bottles and garbage.
Depressed by poor sales, bad reviews and unappreciative arena fans, Shernoff quit and the band temporarily disbanded. Dropped by Epic, the band soon regrouped and signed with Asylum Records, for whom they delivered a much more mainstream effort, Manifest Destiny (1977 Asylum). Shernoff moved over to keyboards, drummer Stu Boy King was replaced by Richie Teeter, and new member Mark “The Animal” Mendoza took over on bass. The album was melodic metal, but while Shernoff’s lyrics still evinced a sense of humor (the song “Science Gone Too Far” was inspired by the schlock horror film “Night of the Lepus” about giant mutant rabbits.), one got the sense that he was holding himself back. Blum remained a part-time vocal presence in the band, taking the lead vocal only on two songs, including “Diseased,” possibly the best song penned about veneral disease since Woody Guthrie’s “VD Blues.” By the time of the album’s release punk rock had happened, but the album’s nod to the genre — a cover of the Stooges “Search and Destroyed,” seemed overly obvious. Shernoff was torn between his growing appreciation of the punk scene, and his still strong desire for a mainstream radio hit. On the plus side, a club scene for new bands now existed in the major cities. Tthe Dictators toured the US, making a powerful impact on the San Francicso music scene with multiple appearances at fabled punk club The Mabuhay Gardens.
Their third album, Bloodbrothers (1978b Asylum) found the band wholeheartedly embracing punk rock, exemplified by the statement-of-purpose opening track “Faster and Louder,” which also features an uncredited appearance by Dictators fan Bruce Springsteen. Blum assumed lead vocals on all songs. His singing, though still limited, had improved, and the stripped down band — Mendoza had left to join future fright-rockers Twisted Sister and Shernoff resumed bass duties — offered up a set of tight, smartly written punk featuring some of Shernoff’s best writing, as well as the by-now awesome lead guitar playing of Friedmaqn. Still, the radio hit Shernoff hoped for never came, and the band split up again not too long after the record’s release.
Following the breakup, Blum was reduced to driving a cab and struggled with heroin addiction for a time, while Friedman joined first French metal band Shakin’ Street, and then caveman-metal rockers Manowar. The band occasionally reunited for the odd party gig. In 1981, they issued a cassette release of live performances, including some unreleased material, entitled Live, Fuck ‘Em If They Can’t Take a Joke. (1981 ROIR). Kempner founded The Del Lords (named after Three Stooges producer Del Lord), who released a few albums in the late 80's.
After several quiet years, Shernoff reunited with both Blum and Kempner to form Wild Kingdom, soon renamed Manitoba’s Wild Kingdom. Their sole release, an EP titled And You…? (1990 Popular Metaphysics/MCA) was lauded by the mainstream press, a first for Shernoff and company. Friedman signed back on as well, and they began calling themselves the Dictators again. The reconstituted Dictators released their fourth album, D.F.F.D. (Dictators Forever, Forever Dictators) with replacement drummer Frank Funaro, (currently with the reunited Camper Van Beethoven), in 2001. Viva Dictators (Escapi), an album of new material, some of which compares favorably with the best of their earlier work, was released in 2005. The band toured widely behind both releases, and were well received by their ever-faithful fans, by now including many of whom were too young to have seen the band in its original incarnation.
They continue to tour every so often. Shernoff has gone on to produce, most notably the Joey Ramone solo album, Don’t Worry About Me. Manitoba has found fame as singer for MC3, comprising the three living members of his teenage heroes the MC5. He also has a bar, Manitoba’s, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and joins the likes of Bob Dylan as a Sirius Radio DJ. Friedman plays and produces for a number of mostly metal acts, while Kempner has recorded two solo albums. Original drummer Richie Teeter passed away in 2012. Like their Queens neighbors, The Ramones, they never had a hit, but are destined to remain longtime favorites with their loyal and fervent fan-base. Dictators forever, forever Dictators.