Andy Shernoff was always the main creative force behind one of New York’s best bands ever, the Dictators. He wrote the material and sang the leads. In the royal line of succession for NYC bands in the ’70s, they came along right after the birth of the New York Dolls. Every bit as raw, noisy and in-your-face as the Dolls, there was one thing the Dictators didn’t share with David Johansen and Co.: their sense of fashion. Rather than climb on the glam bandwagon, the Dictators dressed in leather jackets, jeans and T-shirts and paved the way for the punk revolution of 1977. Shernoff is doing the solo thing these days, with a new single called “Are You Ready To Rapture?” He’ll also be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week. We recently caught up with him via phone.
“Are You Ready To Rapture?” (download):
MAGNET: I found out about the Dictators in a roundabout way. I subscribed to Alan Betrock’s magazine The Rock Marketplace. Then when Alan started The New York Rocker, I found out about the Dictators along with all the young bands coming on the scene: the Ramones, Blondie, Television, the Heartbreakers.
Shernoff: I come from the same neighborhood as Alan Betrock, actually. Here’s a little trivia. Alan Betrock went to Newtown High School in Jackson Heights, Queens, also attended by Johnny Thunders, Sylvain Sylvain and Gene Simmons. I went to elementary school with Johnny Thunders. Then my parents moved a few miles down the road to Whitestone, Queens, where I went to Flushing High School.
So, the Dictators must have been the first of those New York bands from the ’70s, even pre-dating the New York Dolls.
We did not pre-date the Dolls. The Dolls were happening when we were forming. We formed in ’73, and the Dolls were already together.
What was it like seeing the Dolls at Mercer Arts in those early days?
Mercer Arts Center was a place where they did plays. It was really avant-garde. The cool thing about when the New York Dolls played was everybody got dressed up. It was a real scene. The room the Dolls played in, I think it was the Oscar Wilde Room, maybe they got 300 people in there. It was a lot of fun. You gotta remember, rock ‘n’ roll was only 20 years old at the time. It was a more naive time, less pretentious, less corporate. It was great stuff.
Tell me about your relationship with the Ramones. One of my all-time favorite bands, and I assume yours, too.
Absolutely, the Ramones. I think the first four Ramones records are genius. I don’t think there’s a bad song on ’em. Those four records changed the world and formed a million bands. I first met Joey when he used to come see the Dictators in the glam-rock days at a club on Queens Boulevard called The Coventry. And all the bands were imitating the New York Dolls, who were the kings of the scene. But we didn’t look so good in the glam clothing, so we wore the jeans and leather jackets. And Joey Ramone used to come and see us play all the time, and he was wearing glam clothing. It was quite a sight, I must tell you. Platform shoes.
Which he really didn’t need. He was a pretty tall dude, as I recall.
You never would have thought this guy was gonna end up being an important rock star. He looked like a guy that people beat up in high school. And we used to play with them. We were big fans of the Ramones, and the Ramones were mostly fans of us, but there may have been some jealousy there. Obviously, we did “California Sun” before they did. We framed “Let’s go” on “Master Race Rock.” We were doing leather jackets, jeans and T-shirts. But I gotta hand it to them: They took it and ran with it and made it great. Joey became a really good friend. We were collaborators. We wrote some songs together. I played on some Ramones records and all of Joey’s side projects over the last 15 years of his life. He would do benefits, and I was always the bass player for that kind of stuff. At the end, he wasn’t really happy in the Ramones for many reasons.
He and Johnny were butting heads, weren’t they?
Yeah, they didn’t even talk. Joey was always looking for outside activity to bounce things off. I had a great relationship with him.
Even with all the problems they had when Phil Spector produced End Of The Century, I thought Joey was a perfect fit for Phil’s thing.
That was a great record. Johnny, obviously, had problems. He had problems with everybody. He was mentally ill. One day he likes you, next day he hates you.
As the saying goes, he was a nice bunch of guys.
[Laughs] That’s true. I’ve never heard that. I might steal that phrase from you.
Hey, I stole it from my pal Freddie in Texas. It’s the rock ‘n’ roll way, don’t you think?
Absolutely. Actually, amateurs steal, professionals borrow.
Something I’ve always wanted to ask. In your version of the Rivieras’ “California Sun,” why did you put “Santa Rosa girls are really the most.” Did you have an uncle in Santa Rosa?
Completely improvised. You know what, in those days I was much more spontaneous. I would just come up with an idea and run with it. Now I have to think about it.
Santa Rosa was the home of Luther Burbank, did you know?
I did not know that. You learn something new every day.
Oh, and I did an interview in Santa Rosa at the apartment of Norman Greenbaum, the guy who wrote “Spirit In The Sky.” I have so much stuff to ask you. How are you for time?
I’m OK. I’m just starting out on being a solo performer, which is a new thing for me. Did you hear my new single?
They were supposed to send me one, but I haven’t heard it yet. The online version didn’t work.
I have this song about the rapture with animation accompanying it. I took it off line, because the animation will be finished in a week or two. A vinyl single, and the b-side is an unreleased Joey Ramone song called “Make Me Tremble.”
Hey, I have to tell you, these ’73 demos you made before the first Dictators album, the ones that came out on Norton. They sound even better than the tracks on the first album on Epic.
They do sound better. For one thing, we had a better drummer. That was the very first time I was ever in the studio, actually the whole band. This was the main studio for Columbia Records, where they used to record symphony orchestras and Broadway shows, all the top Columbia acts. But they never really brought rock ‘n’ roll bands in there. So everybody in there was, like, wearing white lab coats. They were older than my father. It was the weirdest scene. Our version of “California Sun” was used last year for the Major League Baseball All-Star Game on Fox.
Tell me something about your mag, Teenage Wasteland Gazette. I never saw a copy, but I sure heard a lot about it from people like Greg Shaw.
I was in college and wanted to be a rock writer, not a rock musician. And my way of getting into it was starting my own magazine. The difference between my magazine and every other one is that I made up every article. I made up everything. It was all complete lies. It was fiction.
Well, good for you. Most of that stuff isn’t true anyway.
True, we were more honest in a way.
You had Lester Bangs writing for you, speaking of great fiction writers. He did that great made-up article on all these albums that were never really put out by the Count Five.
Well, I knew Richard Meltzer and Nick Tosches, and they liked my magazine, got a copy to Lester. Lester asked me to write for Creem magazine. Lester was an interesting character, definitely a very talented writer, also. I did about five issues, then I got bored and started the band.
What do you remember about Alan Betrock?
He publicized all the early bands in New York Rocker. He produced the early demos for Blondie. He produced a Richard Hell record, a Ronnie Spector record. What else did he do? Marshall Crenshaw. He supported the Ramones, the Dolls. An early instigator. He discovered all these bands. He was an archivist, a musicologist with a fantastic ear. Unfortunately, he died way too young.
Those first issues of New York Rocker from early ’75 were an eye-opener for me.
In the days before the internet, to find out about bands you had to work. I run across some band I never heard of in a blog and can hear their entire catalog 30 seconds later.
Yep, kids nowadays have no excuse for not knowing about anything in the world. I had to go to the library, like I told my old man.
A lot of people have told me they bought the first Dictators record because of its cover.
Any funny stories about the early days when you were pretty raw?
Our first gig ever was ’74, and we didn’t have a record out. We formed the band, and we get a gig at Prince George Community College, opened up for the Raw Power Stooges. It would be a great story if I told you that they hated us. But the truth is we were so bad, our first gig, they pretty much ignored us. This was before the days of CBGB, so we’d open up for Billy Preston, for Rush. Oh, here’s a great story. We’re going from Holland to Berlin in 1977, our first European tour. We played the Paradisio in Amsterdam and we have an overnight drive to Berlin. We had long, scraggly hair and Dutch money. And I look out the window and see this roadblock up ahead. There are 10 guys with machine guns surrounding our van and a helicopter in the sky. They thought we were part of the Baader-Meinhof gang, these West German terrorists, raining havoc throughout Europe at the time. They take us into the police station and see out truck full of music gear, and they call the promoter. It was a scary experience, having a machine gun pointed at your face.
You got off lucky. If it had been the Third Reich, they’d have taken you into the woods and shot everybody. Any chance of getting the original Dictators back together?
I’m not really interested in being an oldies band. I have a lot of new material, a lot of ideas. I really have a lot of fun doing what I’m doing right now. I feel it’s a little more age-appropriate. I’m a little more comfortable doing this than playing songs I wrote when I was a teenager.
Well, I guess you can’t always do your “homework in a bar.”
No. That’s a good line.
Come on, that’s a damn good line. You can’t deny it.
I love that line, but as a 55-year-old man, I dunno, man.
OK, the last thing I wanted to ask you, just in case you got pissed off and hung up the phone. What was the deal with intentionally typo-ing your first name as “Adny” when you did record reviews? [Shernoff laughs] That’s good. You’re laughing.
It was a joke in college. I was signing up for a class in college, and this girl asks, “What’s your name?” I go “Andy Shernoff.” And she says, “How do you spell that?” So I tell her, “A-D-N-Y” and everybody laughs. When I was writing for Creem magazine and figured this was how I could get a little more notice, moving the spelling of my first name around. And that’s it.
[Laughing] I never met you, and I always figured you were from Russia, and your real first name was something like “Adnarisov.”
That’s a good one. Maybe I’ll use that story next time. I got two things from you today.
That’s two more than most people get.