Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Dictators

I have to confess that I first bought the New Musical Express because it had a cover feature on Fleetwood Mac at the time of the Fleetwood Mac album that was the commercial breakthrough for the Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks incarnation of the band. The second issue of NME that I bought related the notorious television appearance of the Sex Pistols on the Bill Grundy show, where he made a drunken pass at Siouxsie Sioux and invited s swearing response from the Pistols. At the time it caused immense outrage in the British media, and hence amongst the repressed middle classes, that at the same time brought UK punk, which had been going for a year or two already, into the limelight and made the members of the Pistols recognisable faces about London. From this time forward punk was a big thing and effectively the only thing in British rock for a while.

The NME covered not only the UK punk acts but also the more prominent US punk rockers, from a scene, principally in New York, that predated the UK punk explosion and influenced it. The NME adored the Ramones, made Debbie Harry of Blondie the punk sex goddess, and elevated Television and the Talking Heads to the level of the intellectual leaders of the New York rockers.

Even before I was an NME regular I was an avid follower of the US rock monthly Hit Parader. The first issue I bought in 1975 featured the then fresh and burgeoning New York punk scene with the aforementioned Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, Television, Richard Hell's Heartbreakers, Wayne County, The Miami's, and others, who gigged and released records yet never became as famous as the big names.

The NME also had sympathies for a generation of "lost" bands who predated and influenced the punk scene, such as The Stooges and Big Star; the conceptual descendants of the Nuggets style punk originators from the Northwest of the USA, such as The Dictators; and the newer metal groups like Cheap Trick who were faster and sharper than the dinosaurs of heavy metal.

The NME writers had an obsession with perfect pop. This was not the disco pop flooding the airwaves and that ruled the discotheques. It was defined as perfect rock and roll. According to the NME the Ramones were the very epitome of perfect pop. There was another band that was seen in pretty much the same light and that band was The Dictators who were in fact forerunners of the New York punk scene and the Ramones and in a way initially closer in spirit to Cheap Trick than to the punks.

The Dictators were led by rock critic Andy Shernoff and its first lead guitarist was Ross "The Boss" Funicello (or Friedman) who founded extreme metal band Manowar when he left The Dictators. More weirdly, the wrestler Handsome Dick Manitoba sang lead on some songs on the first two albums and eventually became the band's only lead singer.

Go Girl Crazy! (1975) was The Dictators' debut album and is a fine example of a band with songs awash with hard rock chops, pop smarts and humour. There even a smokin' version of "California Sun," recorded by The Ramones on their second album.

From opening track "Next Big Thing" to closing track "(I Live For) Cars and Girls" this album is a blast. Short, sharp and entertaining. Although the songs are not limited to sub-3 minute blasts, there are only 9 tracks on the album, even fewer than the standard of 60's albums. Handsome Dick does various intros and takes co-lead vocals on "I Got You Babe" and is the only singer on his boastful anthem "Two Tub Man." The band rocked real hard and sounded like they were having fun too. I guess The Dictators and early Cheap Trick were both kind of hard rockers who avoided the cliché of heavy metal bombast and sludge in favour of tunes and the rock and roll spirit, and saw no reason why lyrics should be po'faced or just dumb.

The Dictators were about teenage fun and excess and made no bones about it. Yet it was a knowing kind of excess. Most of the tunes on the album were originals, but they did "California Sun" and brought a whole new sensibility to "I Got Me Babe," the Sonny and Cher hit.

There was a bit of a gap between Go Girl Crazy! and the follow up Manifest Destiny (1977). This in turn was followed by Blood Brothers (1978.) The advent of punk and New Wave obviously gave the band a second shot at a career based on their status as prophets in the wilderness who were ahead of their time. These albums were still not very successful, and were not highly rated, and then the band disappeared off my radar because the NME stopped taking an interest in the band. The second and third albums never showed up in any of the record stores I haunted.

In due course I also bought the CD version of Go Girl Crazy! It was definitely worth duplicating. Yet I still never came across the other albums even on CD. It was only when I trawled through iTunes that I found the two records and at bargain prices too.

iTunes is one amazing record store for someone who still has a keen, if oddly nostalgic, interest in the records I could never listen to in my youth, although I devoured the reviews, because they were simply not available to me. It is also good for helping me replace in digital format certain vital records I once used to own.

Anyhow, I now own the first three Dictators albums as digital albums.

Of course I rate Go Girl Crazy! highly not only because it is a damn fine album but also because it is a record I got into when I was in my late teens when such things really matter. In the first years of collecting records I had so few records that I got to know each one individually really well. I could not buy as many records as I would have liked because I did not have the funds and anyway there was a limited choice. Now I have enough money to buy pretty much what I want when I want and it is impossible to develop the same kind of attachment to any record. There is just not enough time or opportunity to listen the albums as often as I used to do.

Having said that, I still believe that Go Girl Crazy! is that rare beast of an album with no weak track on it. Each and every one has a great hook, strong playing and lyrics that are smart and funny.

The two year break between die debut album and Manifest Destiny does not seem to have done the band much good. This second album was released after New York punk broke out and after the UK punk explosion, in fact it was released during the rise of New Wave that followed punk in the UK. In a way Manifest Destiny seems to be aimed at that New Wave audience. In America these bands were typified by thin young men in skinny jeans, unconstructed jackets and skinny ties. Presumably the Dictators were too old school and punk (in the New York sense) to go for that look. They did adapt the music somewhat to tone the rock and to emphasise the pop and somehow the lyrics are no longer funny and knowing.

The album ends with a rather flat live version of the Iggy Pop classis "Search & Destroy" sung by Handsome Dick. It is as good an example as any of the lack of real power in this version of the band. The increased proficiency does not raise the level of commitment and excitement.

The snotty teenage arrogance is gone, replaced by older and wiser twenty-something attitude. Not altogether in a good way. The tunes are still there. The pop smarts are intact. It is the insouciance that is sorely missed.

If one can say that the Dictators were one of the influences on British punk and New Wave, then Blood Brother is probably heavily indebted to that punk breakthrough with strong echoes of the Ramones leavened through the fast, heavy rock style of the album. Handsome Dick is the undisputed lead singer and no longer the comic relief, so to speak, that he was on Go Girl Crazy. Unfortunately Andy Shernoff's snotty punk tones are more interesting and more appealing. On Blood Brothers the band rocks hard, with plenty guitar solos yet even the high energy of the songs cannot quite drag the album into the reaches of excellence of the debut, from only 3 years before. If one remembers The Dictators at all, it will be for Go Girl Crazy. Both Manifest Destiny and Blood Brothers are workmanlike records that cannot be faulted for lack of work ethic and at the same time cannot be exalted for results.

The story of the MC5 is the same, except that in their case the second album of the three studio albums they released, Back in the USA, is the brilliant record. Debut album Kick Out The Jams was a strong introduction yet lacked the certain something to make it into a must-have experience, and High Time, the third album, has plenty power and presence yet lack the unique attractions of Back In The USA.

The MC5 and The Dictators (and one should include The Stooges) were prime, non-heavy band, influences on UK punk and New Wave and Power Pop mostly for one record each. We should be thankful that we have those brilliant records. It is sad for an act to be a one hit wonder or to be primarily remembered and revered for only one record, but even so, one act of visceral brilliance is better than none.

Blood Brothers closes on "Slow Death" by The Flamin' Groovies who were at the very least spiritual forebears of the original concept of The Dictators and it may have sounded like a stroke of genius to perform this homage. It certainly rocks hard enough. However I do not think that the song is done justice for the subtleties of the Groovies' version of it and what should have been a high point and rousing departure falls slightly flat for that. That is the story of The Dictators.



No comments: