Interview with Andy Shernoff: Masterplan From The Dictators

Queens-born Andy Shernoff grew up yearning to be a rock star just like fellow Kings County natives Johnny Thunders, Gene Simmons, Joey Ramone, the Fleshtones, and New York Dolls’ Syl Sylvain must’ve done. Founding the Dictators in the early ‘70s, he gradually became a key figure in the rudimentary development of primordial protopunk perspicacity. A well-rounded composing musician who wrote for Creem magazine at its height, the revolutionary rapscallion prefigured punk’s bratty juvenilia, hell-bent resolution, and tacky fashion sense. Aligned with screaming henchman, Handsome Dick Montana, searing lead guitarist Ross The Boss, rhythm guitar ace Scott Kempner and rumbling drummer Stu Boy King, the Dictators proved to be the immaturely premature archetypes of rock and roll’s second-to-last great explosion (followed by grunge).

On muscle-bound ’74 debut, Go Girl Crazy, Shernoff’s reckless crew connect the straight-up hard rock demolition of the MC5 to the exuberant adolescence and amateur three-chord whimsy of the Ramones, Sex Pistols and the Damned. Gang-chanted rallying cry “The Next Big Thing” and super-charged jungle-beaten rant “Back To Africa” scurry alongside rampaging party jam “Weekend” and euphoric Beach Boys-harmonized shout-out “I Live For Cars And Girls.”

While 1977’s commercial sidestep Manifest Destiny and 1978’s Brit-punk-inspired Bloodbrothers found a home with the defiantly unprepossessing punk subculture they inadvertently helped create, the Dictators disbanded soon after due to haphazard major label idiocy. But Shernoff, Manitoba and Ross the Boss would return stronger than ever.

As Manitoba’s Wild Kingdom, they’d retain all the bawdily unbridled enthusiasm and stinging guitar riffage of yore on 1990’s triumphant resurgence And You? Carousing opener “The Party Starts Now” procures the rowdy bohemian spirit of the Beastie Boys’ “Fight For Your Right To Party” and the scorching metal venom hardening “Haircut & Attitude” is totally palpable. “Fired Up” chugs along like Mötörhead and the exasperated “New York, New York” raises the roof.

Shernoff then hooked up with high school pal Keith Streng (and fellow Fleshtones member Bill Milheizer) plus Waxing Poetics’ Paul Johnson as the Master Plan for 2003’s retro-rock rendezvous Colossus Of Destiny. Its eclectic array of hook-filled energizers got bettered on 2010’s Maximum Respect, a non-stop funfest garage rockers will eat up like amphetamines.

Leading the troupe on nifty handclapped shuffle “14th Street” and stinging guitar-driven rampage “Get Over Yourself,” Shernoff shares the spotlight evenly on Maximum Respect. Streng screams raggedly through the “Good Lovin’” groove of “BBQ,” then shimmies across bustling cave-stomper “I Wanna Feel Something New” and rip roaring encore “Just A Little Bit.” Johnson takes charge on scathing blues jam “Long Drive Home” and metronomic scamper “Are You Crazy.” Guest Dave Faulkner (of Hoodoo Gurus) handles vocals on elated psych-tinged romp “Feels Good To Feel.”

At Manhattan’s cozily snug East Village pub, the Lakeside Lounge, Shernoff’s musical partners are not available this November eve so he performs alone, making a distinct impression as a lone troubadour. After breaking out the Dictators’ anthemic “Who Will Save Rock And Roll,” he bookends the solo acoustic set with one ruthlessly absurd and one truly sublime religious apparition. The wacky picture-sleeved new single, “Are You Ready For The Rapture,” awaits the return of the ‘zombie Jew,’ provoking righteous indignation from misguided pundits unfamiliar detecting sarcasm. Conversely, touching testimonial closer, “When Jesus Comes,” succeeds as a first rate Gospel original, even if the double entendre lyrics spurt out a malevolent ‘get down on your knees and let Jesus come.’ Clearly, the decadent Shenoff hasn’t lost his edginess.

Who were your early influences?

My first favorite band was the Four Seasons, then the Beach Boys, Beatles, Rolling Stones and Kinks. I was a rabid music fan buying records and reviewer copies for 50 cents at an appliance store. Once, my friend brought Beatles wigs to school in fifth grade and we started miming the Beatles on the Victrola and all the girls started screaming. Our teacher freaked out. That’s when I knew what being a bad boy rock star was like. Girls loved it but the teacher yelled at us. Then I got into the San Francisco scene, especially Quicksilver Messenger Service. Jefferson Airplane I dug, but not so much the Grateful Dead. Then the Stooges and MC5 records came out in ’69. That turned me around. There hadn’t been a lot of high-energy stuff except The Who.

Before punk exploded, the Dictators and New York Dolls were obvious precursors. Did you find yourself infatuated by the MC5 and Iggy Pop?

The second MC5 record was the template I was going for on the Dictators debut. I was into songwriters like Brian Wilson, Ray Davies and Lieber & Stoller. I loved their song structures and lyrical hooks intertwined with music that makes magic. When we started in New York, glam was king. But there weren’t many clubs to play. We shun glam clothes for leather jackets, jeans and sneakers. We played the Coventry in Queens, where a young Joey Ramone, whom you couldn’t miss in the audience, was wearing glam platforms with bad posture. In ’74, we toured Winnipeg, a two-day drive, to be told by headliners Nazareth to fuck off. We got kicked off tour and went home with tails between legs. Every street in Manhattan’s East Village was dangerous then. 2nd Avenue had prostitutes and you were taking your life in your hands unless you were scoring drugs.

You got signed by Sandy Pearlman, Blue Oyster Cult and Black Sabbath’s ex-manager, who got the Dictators a major label deal.

The Dictators were signed before playing a gig. Pearlman saw us, came to our rehearsal and understood what we were doing. Engineers wore lab coats back then. Now, there’s guys with tattoos, doing cocaine manning boards.

How did Manifest Destiny and Bloodbrothers build upon the Dictators reputation?

Our first record, Go Girl Crazy, was influenced by MC5 garage rock and the Nuggets collection. The second album was a garage-pop-metal mishmash. We got dropped quickly. Within months, CBGB popped up and the punks knew our records. We didn’t wanna fuck it up so we made a commercial record. Production’s mushy on Manifest Destiny and it doesn’t jump out of the speakers. We toured England with the Stranglers, the biggest band there. I got energized by Brit punk’s audience interaction. The scene included art, fashion and politics. So I stripped down the third record and those songs made up most of my live set for 20 years.

You met some hotshot Brit punks back then.

Billy Idol and The Clash were fun, but Sid Vicious was a loser, not to be idolized. He was a non-musician looking for attention. He was a follower who’d cut himself onstage. He wasn’t a sweet guy and his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, I knew from New York. She goes to England and six months later has a fake British accent. Rock was a life force in England. They weren’t contributors. The right reason to make music isn’t to get famous and it’s getting back to that nowadays. Rock started in ’55. I started in ’73 when the style was 18 years old. Back then, you could make impact and a statement. The Ramones revolutionized rock in ’77, but by then rock was 22. Rock is three chords and a backbeat. How many permutations could you make? That’s why we did “Who Will Save Rock & Roll?” Mainstream rebellious kids taking drugs have a DJ scene now.


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