The Dictators were one of the finest and most influential proto-punk bands to ever walk the Earth – John Dougan
The streets of New York are a hard, cold place where the strong flourish and the weak fall between the cracks, subsumed and consumed by a city that doesn’t care about anyone, and even if it did, it wouldn’t give solace and shelter to those it thought undeserving.
When Frank Sinatra sang about being able to make it anywhere if you can conquer New York, he was speaking from experience, as he knew what a harsh and demanding mistress the city was, and is.
It gives no quarter and expects none in return, which made it the perfect environment, and home base for The Dictators.
The Dictators believed, and continue to believe in a simple philosophy – bigger, better, harder, and faster, and they picked up the baton that had been dropped by the MC5 and pushed the envelope of pure rock and roll power beyond breaking point.
John Dougan once claimed that The Dictators were one of the finest proto-punk bands to have walked the Earth, and he was right. They strutted through the streets of New York City as if they owned them, and no one, not even the city herself, was brave enough to argue with them.
If it hadn’t been for The Dictators, there wouldn’t have been a Ramones, and if the legends from Queens hadn’t inspired them to pick up their instruments, there wouldn’t have been a Sex Pistols.
Without The Dictators, punk rock as the world knows it, simply wouldn’t exist.
They were the real deal, an unexploded atomic bomb that would countdown to destruction and detonate every time they hit the stage.
They reveled in their reputation as a fierce uncompromising live band, and even though their recorded output isn’t as vast, or as comprehensive as their fans wish it was, it still packs more than enough power, if the volume is turned up high enough, to level an entire city.
Street Walking Cheetahs
Even though they formed a year before he entered the microphone booth to lay down the infamous sentence when Iggy Pop uttered the opening line to Search And Destroy and told the world that he was a “street walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm”, he could have been talking about the founding members of The Dictators, Andy “Adny” Shernoff and Ross “The Boss” Friedman.
Shernoff, while studying at the University of New York, became friendly with guitar virtuoso Friedman, who was then playing in a local band called Total Crudd.
Tired of propping up bands who were destined to do nothing and go nowhere, and fearing that his then band’s name might be prophetic, Friedman agreed to form a new band with his friend, and in nineteen seventy-two, in a small apartment in New York City, the first embryonic line-up of The Dictators started making plans for the future.
After recruiting rhythm guitarist Scott “Top Ten” Kempner and finally finding drummer Stu Boy King, The Dictators finally got down to the dirty business of writing the songs that would challenge, and eventually change the world.
Somewhere along the way, they bumped into the man who they would often refer to as “the secret weapon”, “Handsome” Dick (Richard to his mother, and Dick to everyone else) Manitoba, who after becoming the band’s roadie, would eventually end up leading them as their frontman.
Armed with Manitoba, The Dictators began to play anywhere and everywhere they could, and slowly, but surely, word of their proto-punk rock gospel started to spread.
Popular punk rock mythology would have us believe that The Dictators had it easy and that slavering record labels eager to find the next big thing chased the band until they gave in and reluctantly signed to Epic Records.
Like most of the inner-circle gossip and myths that perpetuate underground legends, it’s ninety-nine percent hot air and one percent rumor-fueled truth.
The simple fact of the matter is that The Dictators earned their record deal the hard way, by grinding away night after night in the clubs of New York City and making a name for themselves as a band who could always pull, and entertain, an audience regardless of what was happening in the real world.
Signing with Epic in the opening weeks of nineteen seventy-five, The Dictators headed straight into the studio and laid down the songs that they had been beating New York audiences to death with for eighteen months.
The songs that they recorded were released three months later as their debut album, Go Girl Crazy!.
It made an immediate impact on the critics in their home city, and their fan base eagerly devoured it.
They were among the only people who did though, as the album wasn’t distributed properly, and despite Go Girl Crazy! now being widely acknowledged as the blueprint for just about every seventies punk band that followed in The Dictators wake, a lot of less tuned in, and switched on music fans who were raised solely on mainstream radio rock, just didn’t get it.
They didn’t understand what they were listening to, and the band’s debut album disappeared without a trace.
The Next Big Thing
Frustrated by the lack of label backing for, and the sales of their debut album, as nineteen seventy-five came to a close, so did The Dictators.
Their parting of the ways was short-lived, however, and they reconvened in early nineteen seventy-six to draw up the next chapter in their plans for world domination.
Except this time, they were two members short, as Stu Boy King didn’t want to go through the heartache again, and founding member Andy Shernoff was also reluctant to return to the band he formed and was replaced by Mark “The Animal” Mendoza, who would later find fame as the bass player for another of America’s most outrageous bands, Twisted Sister
Shernoff’s time away from The Dictators was short-lived and in nineteen seventy-seven, he became the band’s keyboard player, returned to the fold, and once again became what he was always destined to be, a Dictator.
With a new line-up in place, The Dictators were ready to return to action and hungry to prove to the world that they were more than worthy of the praise that their adoring fan base heaped on them, so they tried their hand at finding another record deal.
It wasn’t exactly easy, as an industry that was built on the premise that a band is only as good as the units they can shift was reluctant to take a chance on The Dictators after Epic’s spectacular failure to help them to land the success that should have rightfully been theirs for the talking became common knowledge.
The Dictators did have one trick up their sleeve, their secret weapon, “Handsome” Dick Manitoba.
With a rare talent for attracting trouble and leaving it in his wake, Manitoba was a controversy magnet, and thanks to an incredibly public “disagreement” with Wayne County, The Dictators were mired in and surrounded by controversy.
Manitoba’s conflict meant that Asylum Records were only too happy to step into the breach, answer The Dictators call, and sign the Godfathers of Punk. If there’s one thing that labels love more than money, it’s publicity and The Dictators had made a fine art out of creating their own news, both good and bad.
And in ninety seventy-seven, The Dictators recorded and released their second album, Manifest Destiny.
Asylum, unlike Epic, knew how to handle The Dictators and their second album sold more units and did significantly better than their debut had. The band had found their home, and they were happy to stay with Asylum for their next album.
Bonded By Blood
While the band as a whole was happy, or as happy as they ever could be, one of their members wasn’t, and in nineteen seventy-eight, shortly before they were due to record their third album, Mark Medoza left The Dictators and Andy Shernoff once again became the bands bass player.
Bloodbrothers, widely praised as being the band’s most formidable record and the one that actually managed to capture their live sound and spirit of wild abandon, was released later that year, and despite featuring a cameo by Dictators superfan Bruce Springsteen, it once again failed to set the world alight.
Thinking that their time was never destined to arrive and that they would continue to grind away and never receive the accolades, praise, or fame that they deserved, The Dictators hung up their guitars and abandoned hedonism in favor of other pursuits in nineteen eighty.
And, for all intents and purposes, the world forgot about them and moved on, even if their fans and the musicians whose lives they had forever changed couldn’t, and wouldn’t do the same.
In the years between the band originally splitting, and eventually getting back together (you knew they would, the best bands always do), the members of The Dictators kept themselves busy and devoted themselves to a variety of different pursuits.
Andy Shernoff wrote and played music with Joey Ramone, teamed with Dick Manitoba to become a member of the Wild Kingdom, and formed the garage band, The Masterplan.
Scott Kempner was a founding member of both The Del-Lords and The Brandos and stepped outside of the large shadow cast by his brothers in The Dictators to become a respected and critically lauded musician in his own right.
“Handsome” Dick Manitoba drove a cab for while, but after driving other people around the city that used to tremble at the mere mention of his name, he returned to the world of rock and roll, and formed The Wild Kingdom, a raucous rock and roll band that picked up where The Dictators had left off.
When he wasn’t on the road, he owned and ran the world-famous nightclub, Manitoba’s that was staffed by various luminaries from the New York Hardcore Scene, including Paul Bearer from Sheer Terror.
After his club eventually closed, Manitoba became an author and a disc jockey before finally returning to the one thing he loves to do the most, playing rock and roll.
Ross Friedman, “The Boss”, did the unexpected and actually became a rock star. Along with former Black Sabbath roadie Joey DiMaio and Broadway star Eric Adams, Friedman formed Manowar and played on their first six albums before leaving what had become one of the biggest selling, and most popular heavy metal bands of all time.
In two thousand and eight, he released his first solo album New Metal Leader, and to date has also recorded and released three other solo albums, Hailstorm, By Blood Sworn, and Born of Fire.
While they’ve occasionally reformed and have played shows here and there for the last quarter of a century, apart from the odd compilation album of Dictators material, such as two thousand and seven’s Every Day Is Saturday and a couple of live albums, most notably Viva Dictators in two thousand and five, things have been incredibly quiet on The Dictators front. Or rather, they were until last year.
In two thousand and twenty, Ross Friedman and Andy Shernoff decided to get the band back together.
For reasons best known to themselves they didn’t invite Handsome Dick to return to their ranks (which may or may not be due to, depending on who you listen to, a desire to return to the bands original line-up), and while he briefly joined his former brothers, Scott Kempner was forced to leave, and retire from active service as a Dictator due to health issues.
With their new lineup completed by former Blue Oyster Cult drummer Albert Bouchard, The Dictators have gone back to doing what they do best, playing street-scorching rock and roll.
They may be older, but they’re no wiser and with a new album in the works, it looks like it might finally be time for The Dictators to become the band, and the rock stars, they were always meant to be.