Go Girl Crazy! (Epic ’75) Rating: A-
Among the obnoxious first words you hear are “this is just a hobby for me, nothing ya hear, a hobby!,” which immediately lets us know not to take these brash New Yorkers too seriously. A critic/cult favorite and allegedly an early punk influence/cornerstone (though sound-wise they're really more hard rock), Go Girl Crazy! is still a gas. For whatever the guys lack in musical talent (technically speaking) and originality they make up for in attitude; check out the cocky, hard rocking album opener, "The Next Big Thing," for example (though wasn’t punk supposed to be anti-rock star?). More importantly, their songs get high marks for raw energy, hooks, and hummability. Plus, they have a wonderfully skewed sense of humor, irreverently wrecking “I Got You Babe” (the album’s obvious weak link, unfortunately) and “California Sun” (much better), and unleashing ironic, politically incorrect songs such as “Back To Africa” and “Master Race Rock.” The tough latter tune is definitely among the album highlights; after all, who can resist a lyric like “My favorite part of growing up is when I’m sick and throwing up?” If you’re thinking the answer is you, then this album may not be for you, but you should still give it a try. After all, politically incorrect joke bands get old in a hurry, but these guys also sport several catchy shout along choruses and unleash some cool guitar solos (usually supplied by Ross "The Boss" Friedman, later of Manowar) within a more varied musical attack than you'd expect (mock reggae, doo wop, bubblegum pop, girl groups, and the Beach Boys all surface as influences, while they in turn influenced the Ramones among others). You can just tell that these horny junk culture loving "Teengenerate”s were all about the “Weekend,” with the boys themselves declaring “(I Live For) Cars and Girls.” And wrestling, it should be added - check out the intro homage on the heavy “Two Tub Man” - led image-wise by Handsome Dick Manitoba, the self-proclaimed “Handsomest Man In Rock ‘n Roll” (p.s. it should be noted that Manitoba only sings on a small minority of these songs and that at this point he wasn’t even considered an official band member; band mascot is more like it). Nothing else about this band or album is even remotely handsome (come to think of it, Manitoba isn't especially handsome, either, which might explain why his gimmick never took off), but rock n' roll needn’t be clean-shaven so long as it’s fun, funny, and rocking, which this album most assuredly is. And if nothing else, Go Girl Crazy! sports a hilariously over-the-top album cover, with Handsome Dick in full wrestling regalia.
Manifest Destiny (Asylum ’77, Wounded Bird '04) Rating: B+
After Go Girl Crazy! bombed commercially, , main singer-songwriter Andy "Adny" Shernoff left the band. Mark "The Animal" Mendoza (later of Twisted Sister) replaced him on bass, but Shernoff returned on keyboards/vocals (though he sings less on this album) for Manifest Destiny, which largely lacked the laugh out loud humor and vibrant energy of the debut. It's still a good album, but the rough edges have been smoothed over for a blatant attempt at an artsier, more pop oriented and commercially viable arena rock sound. Again, it's still a good album, but let’s face it The Dictators weren’t meant to do ballads, and though "Sleepin' With The T.V. On" and "Hey Boys," (both sung by new drummer Ritchie Teeter who had replaced Stu Boy King) are harmless enough, I’d much rather hear these guys rocking out. Other tracks such as "Heartache" and "Steppin' Out" are likewise overly slick and poppy, though both are quite catchy and fun. Right from the start it's clear that something's different this time, as "Exposed" is catchy power pop, not punk or metal. It’s still a very good tune, and there are other really strong songs here as well, including "Disease," on which Manitoba's amusing rap intro leads into some big menacing riffs. Perhaps this song and "Steppin' Out" run a little long, but it's a clear album highlight nevertheless. As for the rest of the standout tracks, they all come at the end of the album, which could be better sequenced. Then again, given the band's focus, I suppose it's not surprising that the album's three least commercial, hardest rocking songs (aside from “Disease”) are all tacked onto the end. Still, "Science Gone Too Far" and "Young, Fast, Scientific" are fast-paced, hard-driving rock n' roll songs that bring back the furious fun of Girls Go Crazy!, and their fierce cover of The Stooges' "Search and Destroy" does indeed destroy all in its path (p.s. all three songs and “Disease” are sung by Manitoba, foreshadowing Bloodbrothers). So, as you can see, this too-safe, at times misguided follow-up is still a fine album, so to call it a "failed sellout" would be overly harsh, and I for one am glad to see Manifest Destiny back in print after many years of being unavailable.
Bloodbrothers (Asylum ’78, Wounded Bird '05) Rating: A
After Manifest Destiny also flopped, Mendoza left the band and Shernoff resumed bass duties while Manitoba was elevated to primary vocalist (he sings lead on every song here), a position previously occupied primarily by Shernoff. This third and final (for many years, anyway) studio effort is remembered by some (Rolling Stone, Robert Christgau) as a forgettable last gasp (in contrast to metal maven Martin Popoff who counts this album among his all-time favorites). The reason for this is probably due to the band's zesty embrace of hard rock; elements of songs such as "I Stand Tall" and "Borneo Jimmy" (a fun, catchy tune about writer and band friend Richard Meltzer) were precursors to cheesy fist pumping '80s hair metal (again, let's not forget that the band had future members of Twisted Sister and Manowar!), as opposed to the far more respectable (to critics, anyway) punk flag that Go Girl Crazy! had erroneously been put under. Yet the energy of these grooves, the rawness of the guitars, and the catchiness of these choruses (almost all penned by Shernoff) are something that any punk or metal band would be proud of. Though by and large they've toned down the stoopid political incorrectness of Go Girl Crazy! for a more straightforward hard rock attack (remember, Murray Krugman and Sandy Pearlman were their producers, and more than the first two albums this one is influenced by early Blue Oyster Cult), The Dictators are still basically the same group of regular guys, only they're more confident and assured, are better musicians, and have penned a set of songs that are vastly superior to Manifest Destiny and are more consistent than Go Girl Crazy! (which was sometimes undermined by the "joke" factor). Few songs have ever more effectively stolen the riff from "Louie Louie" than "Baby Let's Twist" (about a misfit girl), while prime Van Halen (as in the Diamond Dave era) comes easily to mind when singing along to "No Tomorrow" (about a misfit guy). After all, it has a catchy sing along chorus similar to what Van Halen would become known for, and as is often the case with that band, my favorite part is the guitar solo, which flawlessly builds and builds; the drums kick in at just the right times, both instruments pick up a full head of steam together, and then the seriously underrated Ross The Boss unleashes some ultra-melodic high pitched squeals that perfectly lead into another chorus that again you just can’t help but sing along to. It may not be overwhelming from a technical standpoint, but its perfect construction makes it one of my all-time favorite guitar solos, and the rest of the song is damn stellar too. If you don't sing along to that one or the fast-paced and arguably even catchier "Stay With Me" then my guess is that you simply don't like melodic, hard driving rock n' roll, and these songs and others (“Faster and Louder," "The Minnesota Strip," and their terrific, highly metallic take on The Flamin’ Groovies' "Slow Death") are so superlative that I can easily forgive the album's few lesser but still quite listenable moments (like “I Stand Tall” and “What It Is”). Alas, for whatever reason The Dictators never had any commercial success, despite arguably being superior to another New York band who took a similar brand of simplicity to unprecedented levels of success (and fan exploitation; they just released their 37th Greatest Hits album). Still, for my money Bloodbrothers is not only the best Dictators album but is better than anything that KISS (who I like) ever did in the studio, and it deserves far more acclaim and recognition than it has thus far received. Note: Other notable post Dictators offshoots included rhythm guitarist Scott “Top Ten” Kempner's band the Del-Lords and Manitoba's Wild Kingdom, while a Dictators reunion tour occurred in 1991 and a new studio album called D.F.F.D. (which I haven’t heard yet but definitely want to) even surfaced in 2001.