Once upon a time, there was this loud music called rock'n'roll which people started to take too seriously and it became rock. Then they really fouled things up and took rock seriously and now we have horrible crap. Luckily, even years after the fact, there were a number of brave, hopeless individuals who somehow remembered that rock was supposed to be loud, fun, and crazy. One bunch of misfits was called the Dictators and even though they managed to make some of the best music of the 70s or any decade you could name, they also managed to sink into obscurity while they watched their peers and opening bands move from small clubs to arenas.
Before such preveyors of New York City downtown music as Blondie, Talking Heads, Ramones and others tried to storm the music world, a fanzine editor named Andy Shernoff put together the Dictators, who made three whole albums before breaking up. Luckily, the band has reformed in the last few years, touring in the States and Europe. There are negotiations underway for an anthology/reissue of their albums as well as a tribute album.
Before you started the Dictators, you were putting out a fanzine, right?
When I was an actual teenager I started a fanzine called the Teenage Wasteland Gazette. This was in the 70's , before I was in a rock band. I would make up bands and write articles about them, put my friends in them, make up concerts, basically satirizing the anemic rock scene of the time. I had a few cool people writing for me like Richard Meltzer and Lester Bangs. They would send me the stuff that was rejected by the mainstream rock press because it was too outrageous.They were the first writers with real punk attitude before punk attitude in the media became commonplace and generic. I used to get free records, get free tickets for shows and parties. It was all a scam, a rock and roll swindle.
So what was your impression of the music business from doing this?
It seemed too easy to get things out of. It was real easy because of the magazine. Then the band started up and we got signed within a year of me buying my first bass. So things were a little too easy- little did I know.
Epic Records, right? How did you get started with them?
We were involved with some people who brought some guys down from Epic and they liked the band. I knew Sandy Pearlman and Murray Krugman through the magazine because he was friends with Richard Meltzer- they were working with Blue Oyster Cult. Murray was working marketing for CBS. They got us the deal.
When the band started out, what kind of places were you playing at?
Nowhere. We didn't play any places before we got the deal. Maybe just some parties at New Paltz College (upstate New York). Columbia paid for a demo even before they heard us. Sandy and Murray were involved with Blue Oyster Cult so they said "OK, here's some money." We did the demo at this classical studio down on 30th Street where they recorded orchestras. So they just invested some money in the demo, they heard it and they liked it.
How did you get to know the other guys that joined the Dictators?
My room-mate in college friends with Scott Kempner and Ross (Funichello) was playing in a local band. Then we went through a bunch of drummers. Dick Manitoba was our roadie but he kept destroying too much of the equipment. So we had to get him away from the equipment and we let him sing.
How did you get the name Dictators?
We had a bunch of names and we settled on that one. We thought it was the funniest.
So you were the one originally writing all the songs?
Yeah, I wrote all the Dictator tunes, music and lyrics. I co-wrote a few with fellow Dictator Scott Kempner who eventually found his own songwriting voice in The Del-Lords.
What kind of music where you listening to at the time?
Mostly Detroit stuff - The Stooges and The MC-5 who were the model for the Dictators. A lot of garage rock, like The Standells, Chocolate Watchband. Some band called the Beatles, The Who, The Who, The Who, The Who, and did I mention The Who?...The Who records don't stand up as well to me nowadays, but their live show at the time was an astounding , mind-blowing experience. The Who and The Stooges defined excitement in live entertainment at the time. Rock was a pretty staid boring, going-through-the-motions experience at the time.
I try to define what rock was in those days. It was a pretty boring procedure in what bands where doing when they got on a stage.
Do you have any particular groups in mind?
Just like Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Yes. You know, "expressing themselves" with their long solos. Then, there were was no Sex Pistols, no punk rock, no Ramones. So we saw this other stuff and said " What the hell is this? Get these guys out of here." So the Stooges came along and they felt pretty much the same way. Actually, the first concert the Dictators did was with the Stooges and the Blue Oyster Cult. This was at Prince George Community College, outside of Washington, around 1974.
That was one of the last Stooges shows then?
No, they were around for another year or so. This was the best Stooges, when they had (James) Williamson, Ron Asheton and Scott Asheton. It just defined a certain element of danger and excitement in rock.
Other than the Who and the Beatles, these other bands you liked didn't sell a lot of records. Were you worried about that kind of thing with the Dictators?
When we started, we had our vision. We thought that every kid in America was going to relate to what we were doing. It took twenty years for that vision to be fulfilled.
What was wrong in 1975 then?
Well, there was no radio, no MTV. The way you sold yourself was through live concerts. There was a problem that we weren't focused musically. One thing I respect about the Ramones, who were trying to do similar things, is that they were really focused. They were a little bit older than us. They were a little more mature about it than us. They took a little more business attitude about it and we were just out there having fun. Ramones made it very clear about what they were doing. We had solos, we did harmonies, we did fast punk rock songs, we did heavy songs. We varied ourselves a little more. There was just no question about what the Ramones were doing and it has more impact. Especially on the first record or two just on the marketing perspective, it was harder to define what the Dictators were doing. It was easy to define what the Ramones were doing.
Their record actually come out a year after yours. How did you hear about them?
They used to come see us. There was one club in New York called the Coventry. We were the only punk rock band playing there so we were outcasts there. Joey used to come see us. Then I saw a poster with Joey on it, saying the Ramones were playing at CBGB's. So I went there and there was the Ramones and Blondie playing there with maybe a dozen people in the place. Blondie really hadn't got their shit together but the Ramones did about fifteen songs in fifteen minutes. It was like "Wow!" It was brilliant.
So this was around the time that the whole punk rock scene starting to break out in New York?
It was just getting rolling. There was no real scene yet (in 1975). Around '76, a scene started coming down.
Do you think that the Dictators fit into all of that?
We did and we didn't. We aren't arty. We were more into "Fuck art, let's rock." You had the Heartbreakers, Ramones, Dictators, Dead Boys. It was maybe conceptual in some degree but it wasn't overtly arty. The influence was more having fun and the audiences were more physically involved.
What did you think of the other bands from then?
I liked almost all of the bands. I like Blondie, Talking Heads, Television. Some I like a little more than others. Blondie, The Dead Boys, Television, playing Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, two shows a night. Opening bands were the next level of upcoming bands. In that year of '76, it was different, having that kind of level of bands playing together.
The Dictators were doing shows around then?
We were as big a draw as anybody. The big draws were Ramones, Talking Heads, Television, Blondie. Just a lot of great bands.
You were talking about Dick Manitoba before. You were the band's singer before Dick?
I was singing and we brought him out for the encores. He had a certain charisma and a certain presence that was exciting so we used him more and more.
You didn't worry about him taking over things from you?
No, I was more worried about him singing the songs right.
After the first album, what happened with Epic Records?
The record wasn't very well accepted with the radio. Just look back and see what the hit songs in 1975 were. It also wasn't well recorded or produced. We could barely play our instruments at the time. So we got dropped a few months after the record came out.
There was no place in the music business for what we were doing. It took a year or two for people to accept the idea of what we were doing. Twenty years later, it really got accepted. The fact is that twenty years later people are still interested in the band. Rhino is doing a compilation and there's tribute record being done in Spain. People still talk about us and write about us and I'm flattered.
Why do you think it's taken so long for things to come around? Or why now?
I think it's more of a historical perspective. We made the first punk rock record in New York. We were the first ones to come out wearing leather jackets and jeans and attitude and snottiness and wild guys. And people liked the songs.
The other New York bands were able to stay with their labels and make some money. Why was it different for the Dictators?
The records. There were elements about our records that were good but they weren't well recorded. We were unfocused. We had all different people singing songs. There were internal problems. We didn't get the right tours very often. We'd go back and forth between stadium shows with Kiss to doing a show with Billy Preston one time. The band was as much to blame as the record company, the managers, the producers.
So the same thing happened when the band went to Elektra Records?
Yeah, we were on trial and they found weren't a "marketable entity." The thing is that the rest of the other bands didn't always sell either. Television didn't sell records, Dead Boys didn't sell records. Blondie was successful, Talking Heads were successful. The Ramones didn't sell records except that they sold enough to do another record. They never really had big sales in America. Outside of America, they did OK. Fifteen percent of the bands that put out records make money.
I heard that the Dictators toured with AC/DC and you guys took turns opening up for each other.
Yeah, it depended on where we were playing and who was more popular. We had Cheap Trick open for us one time too. The problem is that it costs a lot of money to keep a band on the road and trying to make and sell records at the same time.
So you think that's a reason why the band broke up after a few years?
We were beat. We just got tired of doing it. We were sick of everybody. It's hard to maintain a band. Now when we play, it's a fun thing, it's not a business thing. We can go out and do twenty songs after two rehearsals and we're better than we ever were. We play Europe once in a while. We play every few years and that's it. We may tour Europe again this fall.
Around the late 80's, you and Dick started up Wild Kingdom and had a record out. What led you back into making records again?
Around that time, we were hearing bands like Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax that were into punk rock and heavy metal. So we started playing, made a deal then made a record. It did pretty well, and MTV played the video a lot but it got to be a dead end. Record company problems, internal problems. It just got to be a pain in the ass. It's like being married to four or five people and not making a lot of money.
What about any new material coming out?
We got a few new songs in the can which maybe coming out in the Rhino set. It probably won't be out for a year. We're just starting to discuss it with them now.
When you play outside the States, do you find that there's a lot more interest for your music?
In Europe there is more of an appreciation of late 70's New York punk because they respect it as an artistic movement, they see it from an historical perspective, a changing of the guard from the old to the new. Now if they can only learn to speak a real language like English...
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