Sunday, June 6, 2021

Bloodbrothers Forever: The Dictators Return (Again)

Lef to right: Andy Shernoff, Albert Bouchard and Ross The Boss of The Dictators (Photo courtesy of Chipster PR)

The Dictators are making new music in 2021.

For a world hammered by bad news over the past several months, the above sentence should excite anyone familiar with this New York Punk Rock ‘N’ Roll institution. Formed in 1973 and notable for consistently great output despite frequent changes to their lineup (which at various times has included three members of Twisted Sister – drummers Richie Teeter and Mel Anderson and bassist Mark “The Animal” Mendoza), regular hiatuses and general indifference from the vast majority of the American record-buying public, The Dictators began their latest era in January with the release of a new single, “God Damn New York.” Sure, it was a welcome reformation, but the band looked considerably different from the last time we saw them. The band’s core trio since the beginning – bassist/keyboardist/vocalist Andy Shernoff and guitarists Scott “Top Ten” Kempner and Ross “The Boss” Friedman – were all there, but there was no Handsome Dick Manitoba up front. Naturally, this glaring omission was the first matter of business I addressed with Shernoff (who was actually their original lead singer anyway) during a recent Zoom call.

“Manitoba broke some agreements with us – with me – that he wasn’t going to use the name ‘Dictators.’ He trademarked the name ‘Dictators’ in his own name – not my name or Scott’s name or Ross’ name. Ross didn’t care. I’ve known Ross a long time; if he’s playing, he’s happy. But me and Scott really did care; we really didn’t want control of the trademark in his name. So, we had some lawyers talk it out, and [Manitoba and Friedman’s band at the time] agreed to change the name. It took a while for them to do it, so that was not good for me and Scott. We were not happy about having to go through all that with a guy who we’ve worked with and we’ve trusted for a long time.”

Then came a dispute over digital royalties collected by the performance rights organization SoundExchange.

“It’s similar to BMI, but they collect money from Spotify, Sirius Radio, Pandora, YouTube… It was set up by the US Government to collect digital royalties. We had a lot of money on hold there, and Richard would not sign off on the money; he wanted a piece of what me, Scott and Ross were doing. The funny thing is, me and Scott hadn’t been in touch with Ross. But over the year and a half of this whole situation, we got a little bit closer. Finally, there was a mediator involved […] Richard finally threw his hands up; what should have happened two years previously finally happened, and the money was cleared. At the end of that, Ross goes to me and Scott, ‘Hey, let’s reform the original band!’ I was like, ‘Whoa, I don’t know if I want to deal with that,’ but Scott thought it was a good idea. I love Scott; I said, ‘Let me think about it.’ So, we thought about it; this was the end of 2019. I said, ‘I’ll tell you what. After the holidays and things settle down – January 2020 – let’s start talking about it. January 2020 comes, and we start talking about it. Then, of course in February 2020, the pandemic hits. In March, things were shutting down. I’m really happy I agreed to do, because it kept me kind of sane over the past year, year and a half.”

In addition to Manitoba being out of the picture, the chances of a full-fledged reunion of the classic Dictators were further diminished by the sad fact that both ’70s-era Dictators drummers who appeared on record, Stu Boy King and Richie Teeter, are no longer with us. These absences were remedied through the arrival of longtime friend and former Blue Öyster Cult timekeeper Albert Bouchard.

“We hired him for his cowbell playing, not for any of his other so-called musical skills,” Shernoff jokes, making a clear reference to Saturday Night Live’s notorious sendup of Bouchard’s former band. “He’s just a guy we want to be with when we’re making music, plus we think he’s a great drummer. He’s a songwriting and an arranger, and he helped out with the production of these records. The all-around 360 of Albert Bouchard makes him perfect.”

“These records” refers to the two new tracks The Dictators have gifted us since reforming: “Let’s Get The Band Back Together” (a remake of a track that originally appeared on Shernoff’s 2013 solo EP, Don’t Fade Away) and the aforementioned “God Damn New York.” Both tracks live up to the band’s legacy and absolutely slay. Have a look and listen below:
Sadly, the current incarnation of The Dictators has been forced to carry on without Kempner, who was recently diagnosed with early-stage dementia.

“He’s in Connecticut with his sister. He’s okay; he’s not suffering. Unfortunately, he’s got a disease without a cure that his father had. It eats me and everybody else up, because we really wanted him to be involved.”

The band’s next single is due for release next month, while Shernoff indicated during our talk that a replacement for Kempner would be announced in the near future.

While The Dictators’ activities in the here and now are being lauded as a grand return, they merely represent the latest actions of a band that never really went away. In fact, they have returned every few years in one form or another after first reuniting in 1980 after a two-year breakup following the release of 1978’s fantastic Bloodbrothers, After a recording sabbatical in the ’80s that saw Kempner form The Del-Lords with former Rik L Rik/Joan Jett guitarist Eric Ambel and Friedman gain considerable notoriety as a member of Manowar (following a stint with Shakin’ Street), most of the band’s classic lineup (Manitoba, Shernoff and Friedman) reconvened on record in 1990 under the rebranded moniker Manitoba’s Wild Kingdom.

“Our manager at the time wanted us to call it The Dictators. In retrospect, I think we should have called it The Dictators, but Scott wasn’t in it. I said, ‘It isn’t really The Dictators without Scott,’ but I think we could have done it. If I could go back in time, I would have called it The Dictators. We did pretty well on radio and MTV – a lot better than The Dictators ever did.”

The Manitoba’s Wild Kingdom era was memorialized on the 1990 album …And You?, a fun and updated take on the Dictators sound that was bolstered by the MTV hit “The Party Starts Now.” The album was mixed by Andy Wallace, who would soon earn fame for his work on Nirvana’s Nevermind.

“Andy did a great job, but it really sounds very ’80s to me. But it’s okay. I like the songs, and it’s high-energy. It’s quick and to the point – a lot of fast stuff. I think it’s a fine record.”

With Del-Lords drummer Frank Funaro (who was eventually succeeded by Wild Kingdom’s J.P. “Thunderbolt” Patterson), The Dictators returned to the stage and studio by the mid ’90s, later releasing a long overdue fourth Dictators album, D.F.F.D., in 2001. Later years saw Manitoba, Friedman and Patterson perform under the band name Manitoba” before morphing into “Dictators NYC,” thus launching the legal back and forth that led us to the present.

With The Dictators again a living and creating entity, Shernoff and company show that longevity has been the group’s greatest strength – even if international fame and massive album sales have always been elusive for them. If you say the word “Dictators” to a hip Tri-state-area music fan of a certain age, you’ll likely see that person stand at attention. If you utter the same word to someone in the Midwest, you’ll likely be met with a blank stare. As legendary as The Dictators are on the East Coast, they have never been a lucrative endeavor on a scale eventually experienced by many of their original-era Punk contemporaries. Why in the world didn’t The Dictators reach a wider audience despite releasing fantastic albums (including two during Punk’s golden age) and being one of the fiercest live acts on the planet? Shernoff has a few answers.

“The first record [1975’s Go Girl Crazy!] came out, and we were kind of amateurs. We got signed [to Epic] very quickly, and Ross was the only guy who could play his instrument. Me and Scott were just kind of faking it, and [Stu Boy King] was totally incompetent. (laughs) It was a fun record, and it was a failure – it didn’t sell. Obviously, it’s been re-released five times since the ’70s, and people consider it a classic now, but it failed at the time. We overcompensated on the second one [1977’s Manifest Destiny]. We thought, ‘We’re going to make a record that’s commercial! We’re going to get airplay!’ We’re not the kind of band that writes commercial songs. So, we overcompensated in 1977; I call it ‘the wrong record at the right time.’ [That year] was really the time you could really make an impact with an off-the-wall record, and we made kind of a straightforward record. We played a lot; we were in England at the end of ’77 when the Sex Pistols record came out and The Clash were happening. We saw all these bands; all of sudden, it was, ‘Whoa!’ In America, nobody really cared; there were no bands that were successful. The Ramones weren’t successful. Blondie had a little bit of success, but nobody was on the charts. But you’d go to England, and The Sex Pistols are on the top of the charts. The Clash, The Stranglers… hit record after hit record. We were saying, ‘Holy mackerel!’ We came back and reassessed; we said, ‘Let’s just stick to the basics here.’ We stripped it down a bit, and I wrote a lot of songs really quickly after I came back from England. We made Bloodbrothers, which would have been the perfect record for 1977 – but it came out in 1978! We had two records on Elektra that didn’t sell, so we got dropped again and took a break.”

Of course, those of us who did buy those albums and have followed The Dictators over the years know how bulletproof they were and still are. They didn’t sell out arenas, but they kicked the asses of everyone who cared to listen. And with new music already here and more on the way – 46 years after the band’s debut album – they stand as one of the most durable acts in American music history. There are plenty of forgotten bands with Gold records, but very few can say they’re creating solid work nearly 50 years later. That’s good enough for Shernoff.

“I’m not like a famous guy, but I’ve made a lot of records. I have 200 credits on albums as a player or producer/songwriter. I’ve been in a dozen bands. I’ve had my songs on TV and in movies. I ain’t complaining. I didn’t have a hit record; I had a career. That’s the way the cookie crumbles, you know? What really counts is that every day you make music is a good day. The fact that I can make music every day is really a tremendous gift, and I think Ross and Albert feel the same way. That’s one reason why we’re really getting along today. We’re not trying to make a hit; we’re not trying to change the world or get rich. We just want to make the best high-energy Rock ‘n’ Roll in that little Dictators format that we can – and we’re doing it!”