There’s some poetry in the fact that the Dictators formed around 1973, the same year that Hilly Kristal opened CBGB. Max’s Kansas City, meanwhile, was still a year away from losing the Warhol crowd. See, every yin needs a yang. In retrospect, it’s difficult to imagine a world populated by David Byrne and Patti Smith and Joey Ramone and Deborah Harry and Tom Verlaine and Jayne County (etc, etc) would also include former wrestler “Handsome Dick” Manitoba. And yet that gloriously storied New York (proto) punk scene was anything but homogenized.
It helps that the Dictators were a tremendous band. They released three great albums in the ‘70s, plus another two over the years until now. PLUS another one with the core lineup recording as Manitoba’s Wild Kingdom. But the key ingredient, the one consistent, has been the songwriting of Andy Shernoff.
Reunions are a part of rock & roll’s tapestry. If the Doors, Queen, the New York Dolls, Thin Lizzy, the Dead Boys, and more have proven anything, it’s that not even death can stop a band from getting back together when they want to. In the case of the Dictators, it’s a little more complicated than that. Classic-era drummers Stu Boy King and Ritchie Teeter are sadly no longer with us, but everybody else is.
When Shernoff plus guitarists Ross “the Boss” Friedman and Scott Kempner decided to reform the band a year ago, it was off the back of some wranglings with Manitoba. So they simply didn’t include him.
“We want to make music and we need a healthy, creative environment,” Shernoff says. “You inject Manitoba into that, and it changes the dynamics in a very, very bad way. We just couldn’t do it. Plus, he did some legal things that were beyond the pale. So we just couldn’t deal with him.”
Fair enough. Shernoff provided most of the lead vocals on the classic debut album Go Girl Crazy! anyway. More tragic is the fact that Kempner can no longer be involved.
“Scott was diagnosed last year with early-stage dementia,” says Shernoff. “He’s not been able to partake in as much as we’d hoped. We have what we think is a replacement. With Scott, his father had the same disease. He’s ok, he’s well taken care of and he’s reasonably happy. He gets confused about things, as you’d expect, but he can’t be in the band. It’s a damn shame. It’s ironic, because I wouldn’t have done it without Scott’s enthusiasm. It really eats me up.”
Kempner will be there in spirit, but his position will be filled by an as yet unnamed rhythm guitarist. Meanwhile, the drum stool will be occupied by Blue Öyster Cult founding member Albert Bouchard, continuing a perhaps unlikely long-term relationship between the two bands (the Dictators’ debut album was produced by Sandy Pearlman and Murray Krugman, best known for their work with BOC).
If it all sounds messy, Shernoff is very calm in conversion. This is the way it is, the way the chips have fallen, and these are the best people for the job.
“To be honest, it’s the last thing I ever thought I’d be doing,” he says. “I thought I was way beyond the Dictators, and I was having a pretty happy life. I evolved with a lot of musical projects. But some Dictators business came up, and it brought me, Scott, and Ross together. This went on for a few months. Me, Scott, and Ross were in constant contact. Once that business was settled, Ross goes ‘Hey, let’s play together again.’”
That was the end of 2019. By January 2020 plans were well and truly afoot, but then the pandemic hit. Shernoff says that he’s glad he had new Dictators business to keep him busy and sane over the past year and a half. The first two songs that this lineup of the band has released have been extremely positive signs. “God Damn New York” and “Let’s Get the Band Back Together” are in many ways classic Dictators — cynical, hilarious lyrics, punk ‘tude but lashing of glitter stomp.
“We just wanted to start recording songs to get stuff out, to let people know we exist as a band,” Shernoff says. “Where we’re gonna go with the new guy, if he’s the new guy, we’ll see. It’s exciting. Things just clicked right away. Everybody is in a good place in their lives. Me and Ross, and Scott also, and Albert — we love making music. Albert had his gold records. Ross and I have been in a dozen bands each. We do it because every day you make music is a good day. That’s just the way we live our lives.”
It’s a sound way to live. And God knows, after the year we’ve just had, some gloriously catchy, fun and gonzo punk & roll is just what the doctor ordered.
“The goal was always to maintain the Dictators’ aggressive sound, sarcastic lyrics, not too serious, put a smile on your face,” Shernoff says. “When the song ends, when you leave a Dictators concert, you’ve got a smile on your face. That’s kinda been the MO.”
Pretty much. Friedman can be pretty vocal with some seriously right-wing opinions and theories online (this writer has had some minor run-ins), but a conversation with Shernoff convinced him to curb the trolling.
“Me and Ross sat down, maybe at that very first meeting,” he says. “I said, ‘Ross, people when they listen to the Dictators, they want to have a good time. We give out good vibes. We’re not trying to alienate people. Maybe just not troll people, or bring it up in social media. It really goes against what the band is.’ He agreed, totally. As far as I know, he’s kept to his word. I’ll tell you something else about Ross. I’ve known the guy for 50 years, and he’s never been a political person until the last four years. I think he likes pissing people off a bit. He wants to maintain that hard rock, manly metal thing.”
Looking ahead, Shernoff doesn’t expect to be able to bring this new Dictators lineup to stages until 2022, so more recorded music is where the focus lies.
“First we want to solidify the new guy,” he says. “Then we want to get a song out in July, and around that time we want to go back in the studio to do a little more recording — two more songs. We have a song we want to put out for the holidays — November or December. A song about Festivus. Then we’ll keep on finishing songs. Put another one out in February, March. By then, I think we’ll have a better picture of when and where we can play. We’ll see.” ❖
Andy Shernoff gets the Dictators Back Together: The singles “Let’s get the Band Back Together” and “God Damn New York” are out now.
Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting the Village Voice and our advertisers.