Friday, January 27, 2012

The Dictators (Bonus Video Friday)

All of my standards of rock & roll professionalism are based on The Who in 1969, nature’s most perfect rock & roll organism EVER. That unifying factor is going to hold us together through a BIG BUNCH of digressions in this edition of Growing Old With Rock & Roll. (author’s note; the whole Who/Dictators thing got so out of hand so quickly that the other two digressions – "Why were late 70’s punk bands SO unprofessional?" and "Why are the young supposed rock & roll bands of 2012 SO puny & bloodless?" – will be postponed to a later date. Somebody remind me.)

Digression One – Why has there never been an American version of The Who?

I truly feel that The New York Dolls were a pretty damn good stab at an American version of The Rolling Stones. I further feel the original Patti Smith Group circa 1976-1978 might also be a contender in that Stones sweepstakes, but I think you kinda hadda be there for that one, so I’m not going to press it. And a lot of you might question (based on scant recorded evidence) my pick of Buffalo Springfield as America’s answer to The Beatles, but I stand by it. Buffalo Springfield boasted three great songwriters and lead singers (Stephen Stills, Neil Young, Richie Furay), great instrumental interplay, great personalities. If only the Springfield had gotten a great producer, or indeed, even a REAL producer for their first album and if only they could have learned to coexist as a group with three strong writers. (But then again, that’s what split the actual Beatles, but not until they recorded 12 albums and many, many singles from ’63 to ’69.) (This actually brings up a whole ‘nother digression, i.e. How quickly rock & roll transmorgified itself between 1963 and 1969.) Plus I realized as I was typing this that America’s version of The Beatles was probably actually Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, but that band got so horribly self-righteous and hippie-fied after the Déjà Vu record they even lost me, and I loved ‘em in their heyday. (In one of the truly terribly naïve moments of my childhood I was glad when CSN&Y got huge because I thought it would give them enough money so that Stills & Young would leave and go back to reform Buffalo Springfield with Richie. Oh, little Ricki C.; you were so innocent, so cute, and so wrong.)

The Who, however, are another animal entirely. I can’t think of a single American band that ever came anywhere close to touching The Who for songwriting genius, instrumental power, and just flat-out charisma. I guess Cheap Trick might’ve come somewhat close circa Live At Budokan and Dream Police in 1978, but that might have been a little too calculated: Goofball/offbeat songwriter guitarist, Pete Townshend = Rick Nielsen; pretty blonde lead singer/screamer, Roger Daltrey = Robin Zander; dark-haired brooding/invisible bass player, John Entwhistle = Tom Petersson; zany drummer Keith Moon = Bun E. Carlos. If you try to convince me Rick Nielsen didn’t build that model with airplane glue in his garage in 1969 you’ve got another think coming.

The Dictators, though, mighta been a contendah a couple of times. Great rock & roll songwriting from Adny/Andy Shernoff (if "Steppin’ Out" from 1977’s Manifest Destiny isn’t a stab at the greatest Who song Pete Townshend forgot to write, I don’t know what is), great searing lead guitar from Ross "The Boss" Funicello/Friedman (my good friend & rock & roll brother Hamell On Trial thinks there were TOO MANY guitar solos in The Dictators, a point I must diametrically dispute), and the perfect blend of genuine rock authority AND A SENSE OF HUMOR that I always loved in The Who. If, indeed, there was one thing The Who completely lost after Keith Moon’s passing (apart from rock & roll’s greatest drummer EVER, of course) it was that sense of humor. Think about "Pictures Of Lily," think about "I’m A Boy," think about "Sally Simpson." All of those songs were simultaneously heartbreaking AND hilarious because the band contained both Pete Townshend AND Keith Moon in constant yin/yang pendulum action. (Plus there’s that great scene in The Kids Are Alright where The Who are sitting around a conference table and Pete Townshend is expounding/pontificating about how "The Who have to change and progress and stop being such a circus act," while Keith Moon initially nods in supposed agreement until he is compelled to do a headstand in his chair to undercut the pretentiousness inherent in Pete’s diatribe. Townshend, then, is left to try to balance a drink on Keith’s boot heel to save face. I never liked Led Zeppelin much, but at least they had the good sense to break up when they lost their drummer and he was never as integral or indispensable to the band as Keith Moon was to The Who. Pete, you shoulda had the good goddamn sense you were born with and broken up The Who for good when Keith left this mortal coil.)

Right, right, right, we’re supposed to be talking about The Dictators. I guess we gotta face facts: If I’m gonna claim godlike Who-status for The Dictators we have to deal with the Handsome Dick Manitoba question. No way am I gonna be able to claim to you, dear readers, that Handsome Dick could ever go one-on-one vocally with Roger Daltrey. As great and charismatic a frontman the Handsome one is, he really didn’t sing that great, did he? And Andy singing his own tunes was shaky at times. But what I respect immensely was that Shernoff could undoubtedly have found himself a blonde pretty-boy David Lee Roth-style lead singer, but he didn’t. Andy’s from Brooklyn, not L.A. Plus, owing to my friendship with Hamell On Trial I was privileged enough to meet Handsome Dick Manitoba in person at his namesake watering hole in N.Y.C. in 2004 the night before The Dictators’ triumphant performance at Little Steven Van Zandt’s International Underground Garage Festival, and let me say this: That man is the living embodiment of a rock & roll lead singer. Rock & roll isn’t a paycheck to Handsome Dick Manitoba, it’s not a way to get his mug into People magazine, it’s not his ticket to sell out his entire rock & roll heritage to become clown judge on American Idol, it’s a way of life. (And how many rock guys are better-looking in their 50’s than in their 20’s?)

Andy Shernoff, Handsome Dick Manitoba, Ross "The Boss" Friedman, Scott "Top Ten" Kempner, Mark "The Animal" Mendoza (for a little while) and the entire Dictators drum corps; Louie Lyons, Stu-Boy King, Richie Teeter, J.P. "Thunderbolt" Patterson, I salute you. Dictators Forever, Forever Dictators.

The Dictators rockin' Spain in 2008.  inspirational verse; "June 1st, '67 / Something died and went to heaven / I wish Sgt. Pepper NEVER taught the band to play."  - Andy Shernoff, 2001 
also, is "My Generation / Is not the salvation" a not-so-subtle dig at Pete Townshend for dragging the rotting, bloated corpse of The Who around concert stages all these many years, or am I just projecting?

The Dictators are often lumped in with punk, as a kind of afterthought/missing link between The New York Dolls and The Ramones in the history of New York City rock & roll, but they were WAY more than that. They never laid low, slinking around CBGB’s or The Mudd Club, trying to score gigs and/or heroin. They went out and played for kids.  They went out and opened arena shows for the likes of Uriah Heep, Styx, Kiss, and other bands of that ilk. (Sorry, Colin.) (Adny Shernoff had this great quote back then along the lines of, "We could never sell out as bad as Peter Frampton and sell 13 million records, but we could certainly sell out as bad as Aerosmith and sell 2 million.") The first time I saw The Dictators live they were opening for AC/DC at Columbus, Ohio’s, Agora Ballroom in 1977 and they more than held their own against Bon & Angus and the boys. Punk poseurs? Skinny-tie new wave wimps? I don’t think so, pal, these guys were a rock & roll BAND. This is a postcard Andy sent to my rock & roll fanzine, Teenage Rampage, in 1977 from some Holiday Inn somewhere on the road.

Bonus Friday Bonus Video clip - The Dictators live 8/14/2004

This clip comprises The Dictators entire set at Little Steven’s International Underground Garage Festival August 14th, 2004, on Randall’s Island in New York City. I was at that show. (In fact at the 5:17 mark, the guy with brown hair & a black t-shirt next to the white-haired guy wearing a red & white baseball cap, that’s ME.) The clip takes FOREVER to buffer on my computer, but it’s worth the wait. (Go get a cup of coffee from the kitchen while you’re waitin’. Run around the block, get some exercise.) Spin magazine’s review of the festival had a great quote – "With a combined age of around 250, The Dictators almost carjacked the show with their NYC-proud gutter-punk anthems." – that I initially resented until I did the math (5 members times 50-some years, I guess it does come in at 250). As I find myself growing old with rock & roll I now take it as a badge of honor.

© 2012 Ricki C.

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