Graded on a Curve:
The Dictators,
Go Girl Crazy!

Celebrating Handsome Dick Manitoba on his 67th birthday.Ed.

You can’t judge a book by its cover, but LPs? A whole different story. One glance at the cover of The Dictators’ 1975 debut Go Girl Crazy!—which features roadie turned singer and “Secret Weapon” Handsome Dick Manitoba hamming it up in a wrestling outfit and a 200-watt smile, resplendent in Jewfro and dark sunglasses, an outrageous red glitter jacket bearing his name hanging from a gym locker nearby—and you know you’re in the presence of something truly outrageous and great.

Oh, how I love The Dictators. The New Yawk proto-punkers may have produced only one brilliant LP, namely Go Girl Crazy! (which sold like shit), but talk about influential; you can draw a direct line between it to The Ramones and straight to The Beastie Boys. All three bands have the same smartass “fight for your right to party” punk attitude; they all deliver tons of snotty and hilarious one-liners; and they all use great guitar riffs to deliver the goods. If The Ramones (who later did a version of “California Sun” off Go Girl Crazy!) and The Beastie Boys didn’t cop their entire shtick from The Dictators’ debut, I’m Michael Bolton, mulleted version.

But to be honest I don’t give a shit whether Go Girl Crazy! was the Sgt. Pepper of proto-punk and the Rosetta Stone for hundreds of bands that came later. All that matters to me is that Go Girl Crazy! is one of the rockingest, funniest, and most gleeful albums ever made. And it’s good-natured, too. I used the word “snotty” above, but The Dictators are a friendly lot, and as a result get away with a lot. You would expect songs like “Master Race Rock” and “Back to Africa” to be prime examples of the deliberate punk outrage, but both turn out to be just the opposite of what they appear to be, namely funny and friendly. Why, these guys don’t even swear; co-lead vocalist Andy “Adny” Shernoff says “heck!”

Go Girl Crazy! was produced by Blue Öyster Cult associates Sandy Pearlman and Murray Krugman and featured the “classic” Dictators’ line-up: Adny Shernoff sang, played bass, and wrote the band’s songs; Ross “The Boss” Funicello (later of, erk, Manowar) played guitar and provided backing vocals; Scott “Pacemaker Guitar” Kempner played rhythm guitar; Stu Boy King played percussion and drums; and Handsome Dick Manitoba provided comedic bluster and shared lead vocal duties with Shernoff. Also listed as contributors on the band’s credits are the band’s barber (Johnny Deluxe) and “Joey the Bartender,” who is quoted as saying, “God bless The Dictators and all they stand for.”

Dick “I am the handsomest man in rock’n’roll” Manitoba, a wild child about whom Shernoff probably wasn’t joking when he wrote the lyric, “Give me an hour/And I’ll destroy your house,” garnered some small amount of infamy when he drunkenly heckled Wayne County from the audience at CBGB; County promptly responded by whacking Manitoba with a microphone stand, and I say good for you, Wayne. (My band played CBGB once. Nobody heckled us, but nobody applauded either.) Ironically, the contretemps actually helped The Dictators score a deal with Asylum Records for their second LP, 1977’s Manifest Destiny, and Manitoba and County later kissed and made up and even collaborated on a duet of “California Sun.”

Go Girl Crazy! is an odd bird; seven originals varying from good time, old school rock’n’roll with a twist (“Teengenerate” and “(I Live For) Cars and Girls”); a couple of hard rockers (“The Next Big Thing,” “Master Race Rock,” and “Two Tub Man”); an indefinable mishmash of hard rock and Caribbean music and pop (“Back To Africa”); and a brilliant proto-punk ditty (“Weekend”). To say nothing of fantastic covers, of Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” and the fabulous 1961 Henry Glover-Morris Levy song “California Sun,” which Annette Funicello covered and the Rivieras took to #5 in 1964.

The thing about The Dictators is this; while I would never describe their music as proto-punk, their attitude towards their music and their lyrics are. I can no more put a label on this album than I can tell you why Handsome Dick keeps talking about Sopor on “Weekend” when every single person I’ve ever known calls them Quaaludes. (Stuck a forkful of beans in my forehead trying to eat on ‘ludes once. Great drug!) Must be a New York state of mindlessness.

I could spout on about The Dictators all the livelong day, nattering about how they’re the band (forget the Beatles, Stones, and Velvets—no laffs) I’d have most liked to have seen in their heyday, and wondering why it is they were unable to recapture the magic of their debut on subsequent LPs, and asking why in God’s name is Adny Shernoff pictured in his bedroom in the photo on the inner sleeve with three TVs, including one on his lap, but I want to get to how The Dictators were probably cracking wise when they called themselves “The Next Big Thing,” but maybe weren’t.

Because LP opener “The Next Big Thing” is one great piece of (probably tongue in cheek) bravado, and opens with some canned applause and Handsome Dick delivering a monologue in his faux bellicose bellow that must be reprinted in full: “I don’t have to be here, you know. I didn’t have to show up here. With my vast financial holdings I could have been basking in the sun in Florida. This is just a hobby for me! Nothin’, ya hear? A hobby!”

Then some very Mott the Hoople guitars come in followed by some big power chords, and Shernoff commences singing in his unique and very adenoidal voice about how he’s a “fuel-injected legend” who won’t be happy until his face is on the cover of TV Guide, and how he “Knocked ‘em dead in Dallas/And I didn’t pay my dues/Yeah I knocked ‘em dead in Dallas/They didn’t know we were Jews.” Funicello’s guitar solo is tres BÖC and the chorus is great; Shernoff sings “I sock ‘em everywhere that I sing/Cause you know baby,” at which point which Manitoba crows, “I’m the next big thing!” Few bands have announced their arrival with such ironic self-aggrandizement and humorous panache.

“I Got You Babe” has Shernoff dueting with Manitoba, and isn’t speeded up or punked out, just delivered with sweet humor and good feelings, and some heavier-than-the-original power chords. Shernoff really throws himself into the thing, while Manitoba delivers such lines as “I got flowers in the spring/I got you to wear to my ring” with tongue planted firmly in cheek. I love it when Manitoba sings, “Then put your little hand in mine” and when Shernoff sings, “Aww, don’t let them say our hair’s too long/I don’t care with you I can’t go wrong.” The song comes to a great climax with the boys talking their lines, at which point King’s drums come in (almost like an explosion!). Manitoba and Shernoff then go out singing, “I got you babe” with Funicello’s guitar and King’s drums roaring along in accompaniment.

“Back To Africa” is a fast-paced number about Shernoff’s love for an African woman who dumps him to return to her homeland, and how he wants to go back and get her. It opens with some jungle drums followed by power chords, then Shernoff sings in a Caribbean-inflected voice, “Oh, she runs through the jungle on a panther’s back, now/Darker than a chocolate cake now/She wants to be a singer in America/I told her I could give her a break.” He does, but she soon falls in with her black sisters, and now “She doesn’t take the white man’s flack.”

Meanwhile the guitars roar, the song kicks along at almost-punk speeds, Funicello conjures up a great solo, and Shernoff sings plaintively, “I never oppressed her/For race or for sex,” and then launches into “I wanna go back/To Africa” repeated four times, while some backing vocalists sing, “Oogashugga, oogashugga” over and over in what is the song’s only dubious (but funny) touch. “Sometimes I wish I were black,” concludes Shernoff, heartbroken, and what you’ve got is one of the stranger heartbreak songs ever written outside of, say, Randy Newman.

“Master Race Rock” is a bravado performance, and opens with some megaton 10 guitar riffs and titanic drum crash before it takes off and Shernoff delivers the wonderful lines, “Hippies are squares with long hair/And they don’t wear no underwear,” followed by the promise, “You don’t know us/But you will!” After which the band sings the “TV Party”-style chorus (“We’re the masters of the master race/We don’t judge you by your face/First we check to see what you eat/Then we bend down and smell your feet”) (huh?). Then Ross “The Boss” does some extraordinary things with the guitar and Shernoff sings, “We’ve reached a higher spiritual plane/That is so high, I can’t explain/We tell jokes to make you laugh/We play sports so we don’t get fat” (huh? again) after which comes the chorus, a brief bass solo, and a Ross “The Boss” solo so incandescently fabulous it makes me want to do the Monkey and the Shitaboobah (I’ll explain later). Then Shernoff sings, “My favorite part of growing up/Is when I’m sick and throwing up!” After which somebody cries, “Come on guys!” and the whole band repeats, “Let’s go!” as Funicello shreds until the fadeout.

“Teengenerate” opens with some funeral home organ, then the drums kick in Ronettes’ style and Funicello follows suit. “Teengenerate” is not the hard and fast song the title would lead you to think it would be, but more of an old school pop confection complete with backing “Oooohs” and some tinkling piano.

“Who’s that boy with the sandwich in his hand?” sings Shernoff about a guy who “could make a dead dog laugh” (to which Manitoba responds, “And watch me kick my mother/On her ass!”) and who’s no longer a boy but not yet a man. Funicello—a wonderful guitarist who to quote Bob Dylan on Robbie Robertson “does not offend my intestinal nervousness with his rear guard sound”—lets rip with another great solo, after which Manitoba sings, “I’m the most outrageous,” which Shernoff follows with, “Hope it’s not contagious!/All the world’s got a one-way ticket to heck”/(Manitoba: “To heck?”)/To heck!” This is one catchy song, as catchy as “California Sun” and almost as catchy as “Weekend,” and it shows The Dictators uncanny ability to honor rock’s past while simultaneously creating its future.

“California Sun” is one of the most infectious songs you’ll ever hear, speeding along like the Beach Boys’ 409, all pounding West Coast drums, hotrod guitar, and great vocals. The Dictators take the original and chop it the way you would a Harley, until it’s sleek and fast and has big handlebars of hilarity, thanks largely to Shernoff’s pure enthusiasm as he sings about the dances he’ll do once he hits the beach.

He’ll jerk, he’ll monkey, he’ll shake and he’ll skate, and he’ll groove, and he’ll do the “boogaloo-ooo-ooo.” But the song’s most glorious moment occurs when Shernoff sings, backup singers echoing his every line, “And I’d mouse/And I’d robot/And I’d twist/And I’d shitaboobah” at which point the backup singers sing, “And I’d whaaat?” Throw in a totally frenetic Funicello solo, and you have a song that is pure uncut joy, and if the Dictators had never cut anything else, “California Sun” would still make them great in my eyes.

I’ve never been able to figure out what the “two tubs” in “Two Tub Man” refer to: I had the chance backstage at The Black Cat years ago to ask Handsome Dick, but he was literally unable to speak, having shot his voice during their set. As for Shernoff, he was cryptic, so I still don’t know jackshit. That said “Two Tub Man” is an unrepentant rocker, with some opening words by Handsome Dick about championship wrestlers (both real and imaginary, including “Haystack Balloon” and BÖC’s Eric Bloom!?) and how they’re “all going under the thunder of Manitoba!”

Then Kempner’s ringing guitar comes in, followed by King’s drums, and Manitoba sings, “I’m just a clown walking down the street/I think Loud Reed is a creep!” while the backup singers go, “I, I, I! I! I!” Manitoba delivers some great lines, such as, “I drink Coca Cola for breakfast/Got Jackie Onassis in my pants/I’m never gonna watch Channel 13/Edumacation ain’t for me/I’m so drunk I can barely see!” Then somebody shouts “It’s feeding time!” and Manitoba brags about having never “gradeated” high school and crows, “I don’t mind if I gotta kick your ass!” before the song ends in a brief guitar caterwaul.

“Weekend” is the album’s highlight and, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest songs about the wasted wonders of adolescence ever written. It has a supercatchy melody, and opens with a big guitar riff that jumps out and mugs you, then Shernoff is off and singing, “Oh, weekend/Benny took downs in class/The principal found his stash/His mother’s gonna get his ass!” The chorus is great (Shernoff sings, “Set me free/I might know better when I older/But til then,” at which point Manitoba jumps in and shouts, “Just give me a Sopor/For the weekend!”)

The song picks up speed after another fabulous Funicello solo, then comes this Inspirational Lyric: “Oh, weekend/Of flashing rock and roll guitars/I’m cruising in my daddy’s car/I’m doing my homework in the bar!” Finally Funicello plays a cool riff and Shernoff repeats “Weekend” with increasing intensity while the backup sings go “La la la la” until the song comes to a close.

Album closer “(I Live For) Cars and Girls” is my least favorite song on Go Girl Crazy!, by which I mean that instead of loving it with all my heart and soul I merely like it a whole lot. A Beach Boys parody with lots of backing “Woo ah oohs,” and a supercharged tempo, it lacks the great one-liners I love so much. That said it’s catchy as hell, and I love it when Shernoff sings, “There’s nothing else in this crazy world/But cars and gu-gu-gu-gurls!”

I also like it when the song stops, Shernoff comes back accompanied by an acoustic guitar, and the whole thing starts over again. Finally the song slows, and Shernoff repeats “I wanna drive the fastest car,” then in a voice straight out of West Side Story intones, “Cars, girls, surf, and beer/Nothin’ else matters here” before closing things down singing, “There’s nothing else in this crazy world/Except for cars and gu-gu-gu-gudbye.” And that’s it, The Dictators’ goodbye to you, dear reader, and back in 1975 the band’s few listeners probably couldn’t wait for them to say hello again.

Go Girl Crazy! is one of those most audacious and exciting debut LPs ever. And then, and then—The Dictators lost the thread. By the time they released 1977’s Manifest Destiny both the guitars and the songs were tougher, much tougher, and just like that The Dictators were a hard-rock/punk band. And not a particularly unique one at that. Manitoba took over most vocal duties and they lost something thereby, and they covered The Stooges’ “Search and Destroy” but it wasn’t nearly as cool a move as covering a song recorded by Annette Funicello. But far worse the laughs had gone MIA, along with the infectious vocal swapping and the debut’s simultaneously backwards and forwards looking songs.

Manifest Destiny and 1978’s Bloodbrothers included a few cool songs (the very pretty “Sleepin’ With The TV On” and “Young Fast Scientific” off Manifest Destiny, and the razor-edged punker “Faster and Louder” and “Stay With Me”—not to be confused with the Faces’ song—off Bloodbrothers), but the wacky, joyous, smart-aleck spirit of Go Girl Crazy! was gone, never to return. It’s heartbreaking is what it is. The Dictators have broken up and reformed and reunited ad infinitum and you can still see them, and they’re definitely worth the $15 bucks or whatever. But I listen to their debut and it makes sad to think what might have been. And just as Orson Welles mutters, “Rosebud!” at the end of Citizen Kane, I can’t listen to Go Girl Crazy! without wailing “Shitaboobah!”

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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