There’s no denying New York was the cultural capital of the world in 1976. The history of hip-hop, disco, and punk all began with pioneering bands and artists cutting their teeth in the city’s live music venues during that time, and the beating heart of the city’s alternative rock‘n’roll scene was an old biker bar and hangout spot for winos and junkies situated in the East Village: the now defunct CBGB. It was in this famed music venue that The Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, Television and Patti Smith laid the foundations of what would soon become known as punk.
The connection between punk music and New York can be traced back even further, to the band that arguably started the entire alternative rock movement, the Velvet Underground. The development of the genre relates not just to NYC but also the Motor City of Detroit, where protopunk legends the MC5 and The Stooges hailed from, and Cleveland, Ohio, which gave birth to the influential Rocket From The Tombs, and the two renowned punk bands that rose from their ashes: Pere Ubu and The Dead Boys.
But in terms in New York, and the illustrious CBGB punk scene that indisputably changed the face of twentieth century rock‘n’roll, two key groups had a direct influence on the bands beginning to infiltrate the city’s clubs during the mid-Seventies. The first was the widely praised New York Dolls, whose self-titled debut album (released in 1973) is commonly acknowledged as a proto-punk classic. The other was The Dictators, and their role in the development of the genre has been criminally disregarded. Their first full-length studio album (1975) was equally as important, forming the main bridge between bands like the New York Dolls and the first wave of punk bands that came through CBGB from 1976 onwards.
Fabulously titled Go Girl Crazy!, the songs were succinct, fast, tight, funny, cartoonish and aggressive — a blueprint for the Ramones — while the look was a more toned-down, streetwise take on the glam-inspired sleaze developed by the Dolls. The record was a rampant celebration of New York’s junk culture, dating back to the beatniks who inhabited the city during the first youth movement of the Fifties, and its subject matter is the true embodiment of unruly rock‘n’roll: juvenile delinquency.
According to frontman Handsome Dick Manitoba, inspiration for the songs came from “kinda like, uh, everything.” Duh! That included, “British Invasion, Surf music, Detroit rock, the blues, some metal, American roots rock ‘n’ roll, and Girl Groups.” You can clearly hear the album’s roots in Sixties rock and pop music, from the two kitsch covers – I Got You Babe (Sonny & Cher) and California Sun (The Riverias) – to the Beach Boys-inspired (I Live For) Cars and Girls, the proto-metal tinged Two Tub Man and Teengenerate, which sounds like a snotty reimagining of something Pete Townsend might have written for The Who. Put all those ingredients in a blender, serve them straight with no bullshit, and you’ve got The Dictators Go Girl Crazy!, whose teen-inspired, hilariously hard-rocking songs would inspire every New York act from the Ramones to the Beastie Boys and beyond.
Manitoba’s memories of New York and its cultural landscape at the time of making the record are ones of pure nostalgia. “The whole city had a different feel back then”, he wistfully reflects. “It was like the Wild Wild East, rather than the relatively tame gentrification that has taken over. NYC was NYC back then. It had its totally own identity and great artistic, musical, bohemian history - at least in my neighbourhood. It’s now melded into just another part, with some exceptions, of America.”
His recollections of recording the album are buoyant. “I had a ball”, the singer pronounces. “I was a drunk, stoned, fuck-up and I came into the studio one night and sprayed the entire recording console with a fire extinguisher. Everyone thought the entire album’s recording was gone. But the good lord saved it!” Drinking and partying aside, the fact that The Dictators were signed to a major record label earned them serious respect around the city. “To all our friends in the Bronx we wuz big shots”, Manitoba confirms. “Recording a major label LP with the producer & the manager of Blue Oyster Cult (Murray Krugman), we were the coolest guys in the world – or so we thought.”
The problem was that Go Girl Crazy! was completely out of step with the arena-rock that dominated the radio airwaves in the spring of 1975, making the band unmarketable. The record begins in gloriously snotty fashion with The Next Big Thing, in which main songwriter and bassist Andy Shernoff cockily declares, “I won’t be happy / ‘Til I’m known far and wide / With my face on the cover / Of the TV guide / I sock ‘em everywhere that I sing / ‘Cause you know baby / I’m the next big thing.” Unfortunately, those dreams of fortune and fame never came true. “The album was an abysmal economic failure”, Manitoba confesses, and The Dictators were dropped by Epic just as quickly as they were picked up.
As is often the case in rock‘n’roll, the band that kicked open the doors failed to reap the rewards, whilst the slew of acts that followed – Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads – claimed the glory and recognition for themselves. Those iconic bands deserve every accolade bestowed on them, but if it wasn’t for The Dictators the modern day music scene would look and sound very different. They created the blueprint for bratty, loud, obnoxious rock‘n’roll, and you can hear their influence in bands as far-ranging as Suicidal Tendencies, The Wildhearts, The Offspring, and many, many more. They might not have become The Next Thing as they hoped, but they’ve survived long enough to see their musical statement and artistic expression finally acknowledged in the way that it deserves.
“I am glad, unlike many other ‘artists’ who produced work, and never lived long enough to see it appreciated, that I did. That all these years later, this abject failure by all business standards, has become thought of as influential, respected and adored. By the way, I am a bit self-conscious about calling myself an artist - I’m a Singer/performer. It’s kinda like movies: I watch MOVIES, not films!”
If you’re one of those people who prefers movies to films, The Dictators’ Go Girl Crazy! is definitely an album for you.