By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
With a mainstream to rebel against, a deep love of rock's true golden age of freedom (the mid-'60s), and a grasp on that era's melodic raucousness, the first punk-rockers probably saved rock and roll from the death it deserved. Early punk discs are timeless in the way The Sun Sessions or Buddy Holly's Greatest Hits are--for their basic and unstoppable joy. Compare that with the calculated and tired manner in which the punks of today cynically attempt that simple task. And given the second, third, and fourth generation's reliance on that dopey two-step metallic polka beat, bellowed post-Sham 69 vocalizing, and generally tuneless songs, the first punk recordings stand up to this day, whereas '90s punks are as disposable as the current pop discs they purportedly hate. What would you put on the box, the Clash or the new anything on Epitaph/Time Bomb/Fat Wreck? (And, mind you, those labels are making the only accessible rock-and-roll discs of this era.) Case closed.
The punks of the '70s wanted in; the punks of the '90s pretend to be outsiders while turning green with envy over Green Day. They avow eternal independence, but secretly crave stardom. And they always make a big deal out of their ideals, which have always been the province of the pampered. This was no problem for the first wave of punks, especially the beloved, overlooked, middle-class slobs the Dictators--the pride of the Bronx, the missing link between the great metal groups of the era (Blue …yster Cult, Aerosmith) and crushing rawness of the New York underground (the New York Dolls, the Dead Boys).
The 'Tators once proudly proclaimed, "I won't be happy / Till I'm known far and wide / When I'm on the cover / Of the TV Guide" on the track "The Next Big Thing"--which they never were, of course. The Dictators sought and got major-label deals, and they made records completely true to themselves--not out of some bogus stab at "integrity," but because they couldn't do anything else. They should have been enshrined as great pioneers, the grand viziers of garbage culture and trash worship. But they weren't: There's never been much justice in the world of entertainment for men and women out of time. Would the would-be flag-wavers of our burnished era ever stoop so low, or really aim that high?
"We were a bunch of kids with similar tastes in music and senses of humor," says bassist-keyboardist-songwriter Andy Shernoff. "There was no MTV, no 'alternative music,' no nothing, except for hippie bands or classically trained musicians who were dull. Actually, it's a lot like that now!"
No surprise, then, that the Dictators' first new recording in almost two decades--a modest seven-inch single released last year on the ever-vibrant, ever-trashy indie Norton Records--was among the finest rock slabs of the year, not to mention punk slabs. And more recently came news that the Dictators would engage on their first cross-country jaunt since the turn of the decade. As they push 45, 48, 50, 55--whatever--one wonders why on earth the Dictators continue. Touring again and playing small clubs, they must be another bunch of lunkheads reuniting for one final stab at something, right? Wrong.
They never broke up. It only looked that way to those who saw guitarist Ross the Boss' metal maniacs Manowar; rhythm guitarist Scott "Top Ten" Kempner's Blasters-esque Del Lords, critics' darlings for a split split second; and Wild Kingdom, the band that featured Shernoff, Ross the Boss, and the Dictators' frontman, ex-wrestling roadie Handsome Dick Manitoba.
"We never really stopped playing around New York," Shernoff says. "There's always been a demand for the band to play. Promoters in Europe knew we were doing this, the money is good, and it's always fun. So even when we did other things, we could always return to being Dictators."
More specifically, they could return to being a massively amazing quintet of proud teengenerates turned middle-aged quasi-degenerates. Politically incorrect in the punk sense (longer hair, guitar solos, tempo changes, not quite as ironic or radical as their more earth-shattering brethren from Queens, the brothers Ramone) and lacking the idiot grandiosity and tenor-screech vocals of the typical metal band (Handsome Dick has perhaps a six-note range, and that's being generous), the 'Tators never fit in anywhere. This may have explained their commercial failure in the '70s. And their critical failure as well--that is, with the snobby snits who penned their dissent or outright apathy in the pages of The Village Voice, at the time the main bible for the Bowery boys and girls of CBGB.
Had these scribes possessed a single strand of perspicuity, they'd have noticed that the first truly punk record ever made was the Dicts' debut, 1975's Go Girl Crazy. Before the Ramones but after the Dolls, this out-of-nowhere masterpiece states the punk manifesto more clearly than the stuck-on-lefty MC5 or the wrecking-our-records-with-Seconal jamming of the Stooges. Paeans to throwing up, Mickey D's, and sopors (that's "quaaludes" to you whippersnappers); ludicrous Beach Boys parodies; gung-ho deconstructions of Sonny and Cher and the Rivieras; and an anthem called "Master Race Rock" that admonishes the listener, "Don't forget to wipe your ass"--this was so punk, it had zits in the grooves.