The Record Plant, one of New York's top pro recording studios, is located in a fairly anonymous office building just west of Eighth Avenue in a basically seedy part of Times Square. While hookers and junkie vandals do their respective things in the sunlight, rock bands busy themselves inside; recording, mixing, arguing and hanging out. Throughout much of March, two bands occupied the Plant, working in close proximity, and stopping during breaks to chew the fat in a lounge near the entrance.
"Ladies and gentlemen! In Studio B, weighing one hundred and forty pounds, hailing from Asbury Park, New Jersey, the reigning king of street rock, Bruce Springsteen. " "Over here, in Studio A, we have the Bronx Bombers, none other than New York's very own, very fine Dictators!!!" Which, in rather roundabout fashion, leads us to our story.
The occasion for our visit was fairly simple -- The Dictators, trimmed down to a fighting lineup of five, were recording their third album. Since the first two Dic' long players had about as much in common as beer and chablis, curiosity about the nature and intent of this effort had been running rampant for as long as the album's conception had been known. There were a lot of questions to ask, songs to hear, and thinking to be thought. What exactly are The Dictators up to these days? That's the question we sought to answer. But first some scene setting.
Love'em or leave'em, The Dictators began as a floating gene pool of old friends who shared a common musical outlook and a few heroes as well. With the spiritual guidance of R.Meltzer, rock writer extraordinaire, Andy Shernoff gave up a promising career doing reviews for Creem and others, left his deservedly legendary fanzine, Teenage Wasteland Gazette, to the annals of history, and chose writing and playing rock music as his life's work. Along with 'Top Ten' Kempner and Ross 'The Boss' on guitars, Andy put together a few early incarnations of the Dic's under the once-in-a-lifetime name, Beat The Meatles. With the direction and assistance of both Meltzer and the management/production team of Sandy Pearlman (another ex-journalist) and Murray Krugman, the young lads became a profesional band, and signed a deal with Epic Records (helped along not a little by the fact that Pearlman and Krugman had brought the somewhat successful Blue Oyster Cult to Epic several years earlier.)
During the long siege that preceded their signing up, the band had done some gigs in and around the New York area, and had been steadily incorporating the totally insane terror from Co-Op City, Richard Blum, as sometime lead vocalist. (On the road, Dick was roadie and chef at this stage.) Andy wrote a few songs with Dick in mind ("The Next Big Thing" and "Two Tub Man"), but the irrepressible Blum found his way onto stage during other songs as well. By the time they were ready to record an album, Blum had been inducted officially into The Dictators, given a new name, Handsome Dick Manitoba, and given a couple of new songs to sing. In the studio, Manitoba alternated verses with Shernoff on a couple, did a few numbers alone, and duetted on the touching "I Got You Babe."
Sometime around March 1975, two interesting things happened in the career of The Dictators. In chronological sequence, The Dictators Go Girl Crazy was released by Epic, and drummer Stu Boy King was released by the group. Not an auspicious way to launch a band -- in fact an inability to replace King and tour to promote the album is generally credited as one half the reason it failed to sell to anyone outside of the band's friends and relations. The other widely held belief is that, in classic r'n'r tradition, the LP was about two years ahead of its time. Full of teenaged rebellion and perfect New York punkdom, it was a grand eloquent statement of the kind it took the Ramones three albums to achive. All of the punk sentiments that were so fashionable last year (God, I wonder what those bands are doing for kicks this year) were gouged in the grooves of that record -- drugs ... violence ... television ... what could be punkier? Along with great songs (listen to that album and try and remember why they now call it power pop), the performances left very little to be desired in terms of tightness, chops or finesse. No ramalama for this band. But it didn't sell.
For all their careful planning and smartass knowitallness, The Dictators spun out with that album. Knocked for a loop on the concert circuit as well as in record sales, the band went through a dispiriting period of self-doubt and discouragement. Within a few months, the situation worsened; Epic dropped their contract, Andy left the group and Ross thought of forming a heavy metal power trio. The spirit that had bound The Dictators together had dissipated, and for a while it seemed possible that the band might cease to exist altogether.
Through some unknown force (or person), The Dictators stuck it out. A new bass player, Mark Mendoza and a drummer/singer, Richie Teeter, were chosen after weeks of auditions, and Andy eventually returned to the fold. (In the interest of historical accuracy, there was another bassist employed before Mendoza, but he was a hippie and lasted only a few weeks.) By the time the group was signed to their second contract, this one with Elektra (not exactly the most obvious candidate), there were six 'Tators, and they all had a new idea. In place of the old happy-go-lucky bunch of crazy rock fanatics, The Dictators had transmuted into a fairly cynical organization, determined not to make the same mistake twice.
Top Ten: "The idea of the second album was for us to be exactly the opposite of the first. The first was a commercial failure because it came out too early. We got really scared."
Andy Shernoff: "As far as we were concerned, when we started to work on Manifest Destiny, all our original ideas were wrong -- they had been proven wrong because we were a failure. It affects you."
Top Ten: The second album was an attempt to make it very easy for people to understand The Dictators. We thought that trying to force anything more subtle than Kiss on an audience was unfair, because they weren't ready to accept it. All the really successful bands at the time (late 1976) had lyrics that weren't as highbrow as Kiss's. We thought that to be as esoteric as we were on that first record was asking too much from the audience."That period between the first and second albums was one in which everyone in this band attained the lowest point in their personal lives. Guys in the band were fighting; Andy was out of the group; Handsome Dick and I were handing out leaflets on the street in Brooklyn so that no one would recognize us. Then we got a chance to make the second record."
For The Dictators, the way to avoid the frustration failure of their debut was to follow bands like Kiss into the arena -- playing simplified heavy metal for teenagers that found nothing at all funny about songs like "Teengenerate." They hoped to produce a technically perfect, guitar virtuoso album of songs that could be played to twenty thousand Deep Purple fanatics. They've since reconsidered the notion, but have some interesting thoughts about it nonetheless.
Andy: "We thought that was the state and the future of rock, but the bands that play arenas aren't providing the best sound or the best atmosphere for rock'n roll. Anyone who plays in a bad atmosphere doesn't give a shit about the music. They care about making money."
Top Ten: "We didn't know there was an alternative to going out and doing the Kiss circuit. You can't play too fast in arenas because the sound gets too dissipated by the echo. It sounds like five vacuum cleaners on full blast. At the time of our second album, our live show was every bit as mainstream as we could possibly be with Handsome Dick in the band. Aside from Dick, we were pretty mainstream, except we played faster."P>Andy: "It was ridiculous. You get into the mentality of that audience -- 'Y'wanna Rock and Roll? Let me hear you say boogie!' Lame stuff like that."
Some observers of The Dictators at the time felt that the group was, to use common rock'n roll jargon, selling out. Top Ten and Andy found some room to disagree on the subject:
Andy: I think we were selling out. My attitude is that we started out to do something and we deviate from it. When I was on the road and I was meeting kids who told me that I was their hero, that they lived by the first album, that they formed a band or started a magazine after hearing the first album, I felt bad, 'cause I knew Manifest Destiny didn't affect people the same way. I thought that one good thing about The Dictators was that the first album was sensitive -- it affected people. I wanted to appeal to sensitive people, but the second album didn't hit me on that level. There was no real personality behind the second record."
Top Ten: I never saw it as selling out. To me, the idea of making it easy for the mass audience to understand is not selling out. At the time I really believed that it was our duty as rock'n rollers to make music that everyone could understand."
Andy: "We were wrong. We didn't believe in ourselves. I was uncomfortable in that situation. Touring that album, promoting it, playing it just wasn't right."
With the distance of time, and the honesty of experience, Top Ten summed up Manifest Destiny for us in a few sentences:
"I think the songs are good and so are the performances, but there are a lot of things I don't like about it. I know what some of the songs could have been if they were approached differently." Despite the conscious effort to reach a mass audience, the album failed commercially. However, it served one invaluable function (at least) -- it got The Dictators to tour England, an experience that affected a lot more than the group's holiday plans. In somewhat reverential tones, Andy told us the shocking truth of the importance of that trip. "England changed my life. Not while we were there, but after we'd been home a few weeks. I wasn't really a new wave fan when I went to England -- we didn't want to be associated with new wave or punk rock. My first night in England we went to the Marquee to see Sham 69, who I'd never heard of. The atmosphere was really violent -- three hundred skinheads jumping up and down to this band playing what sounded like Ramones music. I didn't understand it at the time, but I wish I could see Sham now. Meeting musicians and seeing their dedication and meeting the kids showed me that things I stood for and believed in five years ago are the attitudes of those kids now. When we got back it began to really affect me."
Top Ten chimed in with a few personal observations and tales of wonder: "We became aware that this thing wasn't as alien as it looked at first. It brought us back to where we started as a band.
"Meeting Mick Jones (of The Clash) was great. He and Joe Strummer came to see us and he was really drunk and into talking. At that point I could really have left the new wave behind and back to the states and open up gigs for Kiss, but after meeting him I was really impressed by his dedication as a musician. The guy is just so cool ...
"My main thing in life, period, right now is to break as many new wave bands as possible and take over. I no longer want to say (adopts pompous record exec voice) 'Well, we're not new wave and we're old wave -- we've got our own bag.' I really want to be a part of this thing."
Andy: "They're not artists making conceptual statements, which is what I thought punk rock was, they're rock'n roll fans who wants to become rock'n roll stars and want to relate to the kids. I respect them and admire them."
Back in Gotham, Dictators' home base, after the tour things began to shift. While part of the band started rethinking their whole conception of Dictatordom, others found little or nothing in the new wave to get excited about. As per schedule, the group began rehearsing songs that would go on their third album, and the differences began surfacing, irritated by the fact the songs weren't jelling.
Top Ten: "Andy was playing keyboards, so he was only writing songs that would work well on keyboards, which meant that keyboards became a central instrument. Nothing could be less like The Dictators than that. We had reached a total dead end. Everybody was misrable."
And for differing reasons. "When Mark heard that we thought new wave was fantastic he couldn't relate. He likes superoverdrive music." The new songs didn't appeal to him, and with much unhappiness all around, he parted ways with the band. As a result, Andy switched from keyboards to bass. Although no one inside the band or out will argue that Andy is in Mendoza's league technically, the five man lineup as the expression goes, just what the doctor ordered. "We did one rehearsal as a five-piece after Mark left, and the band had never sounded better. When Mark left, we had been working for about a month, but when Andy switched to bass the album came together in about a week. It was ridiculous."
With new-found enthusiasm, and free of the mainstream arena consciousness that had mired them, they decided to head right into the studio to get the excitement down on tape. To achieve the intricate arrangements of Manifest Destiny, the group had spent more than six months in the studio, and they were determined not to do that again. After extensive rehearsals, two quick demos to discern problems and possible refinements, the band lumbered into the Record Plant with producer Murray Krugman, and recording the backing tracks for the entire album 'live in the studio.' (Everybody playing together until nobody does anything wrong. Since record producers discovered that you build a track instrument by instrument with overdubbing, very few rock recordings are done by the group playing together as a unit anymore.) Except most of Manitoba's vocals, Andy's overdubbed keyboards on some songs (kind of tough to play bass and piano at the same time), and some polishing, the album was done inside a week.
We asked Shernoff, the group's principal songwriter, about material on the record. "I wrote 'I Stand Tall' right after we got back from England. Being away made me proud to be an American. 'What It Is' and 'Baby Let's Twist' were written before we went into the studio to rehearse, and 'Borneo Jimmy' was written while we were rehearsing. That one's about R.Meltzer -- our inspiration.
"I wrote four songs the week Mark left: 'Stay With Me,' 'Faster and Louder,' 'No Tomorrow' and 'Minnesota Strip.' When he left, I decided I had to write some new material, so I went and dug out all my old riffs. 'Minnesota Strip' comes from an old song called 'For Pete's Sake.'" (Which, if memory serves me, was going to be on the first LP. I remember Manitoba showing me the lyrics in the studio one night during the sessions.) "It had a million chord changes but it was good. It was ambitious for the time. It was a tribute to Pete Townshend, but it never fell together, so I threw it out. The new lyrics are about the section of Eighth Avenue that is populated by hookers that funnel in from the Midwest."
In inimitable Dictators' style, the cover version chosen at the last minute for inclusion was 'Slow Death,' a 1972 single by the Flamin' Groovies. The Beach Boys' 'Dance Dance Dance' almost made it, but 'Slow Death' was felt to fit in better with the mood of the record.
The album's named Bloodbrothers for what ought to be obvious reasons. However, the title came, not from discussions, but from a novel of the same name by Richard Price, author of another book called "The Wanderer." The band had become fans of Price's, especially since his books are set in neighborhoods where the band grew up. Gang life in the Bronx is about as rock'n rolly a subject as a novel can have, so the band decided to appropriate the name. At last contact, the back cover photo was to be taken in the exact playground where one of Price's books is set.
What the public response will be to The Dictators the third time 'round is, from a double burn on the subject, hard to predict. If one was making book, the fact that the group is enjoying recording and seems more in control of the studio that vice versa would be good for a few points. The added experience of recent touring and the ever-growing technical incomparability of lead guitraist Ross The Boss weigh in their favor as well. The impact of the new wave in America may mean that time have caught up with The Dictators and the world won't totally misunderstand what they're about musically or culturally. All in all, a good shot at public acceptance. Letting Top Ten sum up the band's current upbeat philosophy, "I think our album is going to make a lot of inroads. People who are potential new wave fans, like the standard hard rock audience in America, might see a lot of what they like in music in us and then discover that the Ramones or somebody else might not sound so alien to them anymore. After that, maybe The Clash won't sound so alien to them."
Well that's it America -- the report from ringside. Studio A. Record Plant, West 44th Street in New York. The Dictators are making their play for new wave stardom, and from early rushes, they're doing it up right. Spirit and polish are their trademarks, and they're tight. The decision needs to be made -- in record stores and in radio stations. This is the one the Dics are banking on. Don't keep them in suspense too long.