The Great Dictators

Finding High Fidelity

My punk-rock years were unexpected. I grew up an hour away from Manhattan and decades away from the mid-seventies, and there was a time when these circumstances seemed the greatest tragedy of my life. That was when I spent all of my money on records and CDs, when I spent days listening to Patti Smith and Richard Hell, when there was a thrilling sense of danger in the band names “Dead Boys” and “Sex Pistols.”

Punk was about disaffection, but I loved it with unfettered and unironic enthusiasm. Every band had something distinctive to listen to, and every band was amazing for it. It was during this manic stage of exploration that I discovered the Dictators, a short-lived group of Noo Yawk punks who cheerfully endorsed hamburgers, cheesy pop hits, and the suburban lifestyle. Fourteen years after they broke up, I was born, and fourteen years after that I discovered and soon fell in love with their debut album, “Go Girl Crazy.”

I had purchased the record on vinyl during my freshman year, which meant I could only listen to it in my family’s living room, where my mother’s record player was permanently installed. It was not the finest of arrangements. I didn’t mind. I loved the Dictators.

Though their sound was less up-tempo than most contemporary punk rock, it was blunt, spare, and muscular. Most importantly, their songs were defiantly catchy. “(I Live For) Cars and Girls” seemed to have as many hooks as any of the Beach Boys songs whose lyrics it parodied. “The Next Big Thing” featured their most propulsive riff, a hard-rocking gem that backed up the song’s exaggerated air of confidence.  “Weekend,” via one of the most anthemic choruses in all of punk rock, managed to encapsulate every teenager’s desire, including mine, for it to be a lazy Saturday afternoon.

That sounds hyperbolic now, but I recall that the sound of the Dictators blew me away from the very first listen. A great deal of this effect had to do with the abundance of hooks, which meant that the Dictators didn’t come across as a self-consciously confrontational group. For me, “Go Girl Crazy” exemplified an extraordinarily friendly sort of music. Listening in my living room, I considered it an appealing ideal.

If that welcoming nature was hinted at by the record’s catchy punk sound, it was wholly evident in the humor and the personality contained within its grooves. The Dictators had two lead singers, the smart-alecky Andy Shernoff and the force of nature Handsome Dick Manitoba. Between the two of them, the band had enough charisma to make silly songs like “The Next Big Thing” and “(I Live For) Cars and Girls” into what I considered stone-cold classics.

Shernoff had a knack for sounding simultaneously chipper and sarcastic. “Who’s that boy with the sandwich in his hand?” he asks at the beginning of “Teengenerate,” singing in a way that both mocked and praised his adolescent subject. Manitoba was simply overwhelming, delivering absurd lyrics with self-assured bombast. It was impossible for me to listen to the album’s highlight, “Two Tub Man,” without chuckling at Manitoba’s self-mythologizing outbursts. My personal favorite was the immortal couplet, “I drink Coca-Cola for breakfast / I’ve got Jackie Onassis in my pants.”

This is juvenile stuff, to be sure. But stupid humor has its place, and “Go Girl Crazy” is exactly that place. I was able to laugh when I listened to the Dictators, which was crucial: punk rock made me feel elated, but it also elicited occasional feelings of inadequacy. I wanted to mosh when I listened to Black Flag, to riot when I blasted the Clash, to pogo when I heard the Ramones. In those days, I didn’t really have people who might have gone along with that, which was part of why the punk era seemed so much more attractive. But I could laugh with the Dictators in my living room, alone but in stitches.

My punk rock days are over. I no longer listen to the Dictators obsessively, but I cherish “Go Girl Crazy.” There is no vast significance in a bunch of songs about cars, girls, and television, but there is some in an old friend. Legs McNeil, founder of the epochal Punk Magazine, said that he created the publication so that he could hang out with the Dictators. That sort of desire, I suppose, was why I listened to them.

­—Staff writer Petey E. Menz can be reached at menz@college.harvard.edu.

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