Music Features

Overlooked Albums #35: The Dictators - Go Girl Crazy!

Punk attitude came attached to rock ‘n’ roll, but it was in short supply in the late sixties when so many groups caught the messianic-complex bug. The Dictators refashioned it for the seventies, bridging the gap between proto-punk bands like The Stooges and The Dolls and their twisted CBGB progeny. That irreverent, wise-ass spirit didn’t come ready-made with the Ramones. It first made its sonic debut on Go Girl Crazy!

The group’s main man was Andy “Adny” Shernoff, who had started his rock ‘n’ roll career as a fanzine editor and contributor to Creem Magazine. At the time, the public’s taste for pretentious techno-flash groups like ELP and Yes, always favored on readers’ polls, was disquieting. The music scene was cutting away the roots that made its very existence possible: sex, rebellion, noise, fun. Rock scribes were on a crusade to save the music’s soul, and this concern informs Shernoff’s lyrics. Take, for instance, Master Race Rock, which reads like a punk manifesto: “Hippies are squares with long hair and they don’t wear no underwear / Country rock is on the wane / I don’t want music, I want pain.”

With Shernoff as bassist, vocalist and songwriter, the vehicle seemed to be complete, but one essential part was conceptual, and it came in the shape of Handsome Dick Manitoba. The ad copy for the album describes him as “the secret weapon of The Dictators”, and that’s him on the cover, posing proudly in wrestler regalia. Manitoba began as the band’s roadie and cook, but this cyclone of a man gradually became a stage presence, a noble savage that handled occasional vocals and cheered crowds. He would eventually become the band’s main singer, but here he serves as an idealized figure, the cloak of American junk culture resting on his broad shoulders. 

The Next Big Thing opens the album with a Manitoba bluster: “I don’t have to be here, you know? This is just a hobby for me, you hear? A hobby!” The band launches into the song with portentous chords, the guitars by Stu-Boy King and Ross The Boss soaring and swooping as Shernoff poses as a rock-star douchebag, with lines like, “I knocked ‘em dead in Dallas / They didn’t know we were Jews”. Maybe in England the band would’ve laughed all the way to the bank, but in seventies America fans loved their clay-footed heroes and had no radar for satire. The band’s choice for second track was equally bewildering, but defying boogie-rock clichés was the point. Their version of Sonny and Cher’s I Got You Babe is surprisingly good, with band dynamics that make you forget the last time someone tried to sing this in a karaoke bar.

Back To Africa tackles the touchy issue of an interracial affair with clever lyrics, though fault is found is in the production, which lacks the kick and grit demanded by the material. Master Race Rock is sonically better, and here is where the band laid down blueprints for punk and thrash metal groups with hard-edged chords and nimble guitar fingering. Teegenerate starts with a cheesy organ phrase before switching to mock girl-group crush with the line, “Who’s the boy with the sandwich in his hand?”

You’ve probably heard The Ramones’ cover of California Sun. The Dictators’ trumps their version with a two-guitar attack and good harmonies. The next track has Manitoba sounding like Bender from Futurama; Two Tub Man no doubt helped build the foundations for the punk scene. It’s loud, fast and joyously aggressive – a My Generation for busy hooligans.

The album ends with two catchy cruising songs. Weekend tilts to Shernoff’s pop side, a teenage-wasteland anthem made for an imaginary radio station, one that would play Dictators music. (I Live For) Cars And Girls is a Beach Boys homage that sums up the basic pursuits of the American Dream. 

Epic Records, not knowing what to do with the group, did a botched job of promoting and distributing the album. The label isn’t entirely to blame because the American heartland wasn’t ready for The Dictators; it was ready for bands like Styx and Kansas, which helps to explain the tough road ahead for punk and hardcore bands, whose impact on the charts wouldn’t be heard until the nineties with the emergence of Nirvana. 

I will spare you the band’s long history and involvements with acts like Manowar, The Del-Lords, Twisted Sister and the Ramones, which would take a book in itself. What’s remarkable is that they’re still at it. With two solo EPs under his belt, Shernoff thrives as an irreverent force; Manitoba and Ross The Boss are now touring, sans Shernoff, as The Dictators NYC. 

It’s time to recognize the band’s breadth of influence on our musical history. There’s a catalog of fine albums waiting to be rediscovered, and Go Girl Crazy! is the place to start.