Backstage Pass: Scott Kempner Part 2: The rise of the Del-Lords

The Dictators were going nowhere fast. 1978’s Bloodbrothers, a blazing blast furnace of rock ’n’ roll fury, did not catch on with the public, and sales languished.

Disillusioned and discouraged, despite churning out fiery, and funny, proto-punk that critics like Richard Meltzer lapped up, The Dictators dispersed — but never did break up.

By the mid-1980s, guitarist Scott Kempner was looking for a vehicle for his songwriting, which was nothing like what was going on around him at the time. He found allies in his fight to revive real rock ’n’ roll, which was fast becoming a lost art.

Kempner gathered together co-conspirators Eric Ambel of Joan Jett And The Blackhearts, drummer Frank Funero (now with Cracker) and bassist Manny Caiati and set out as The Del-Lords. In a sea of synth-driven bands and programmed music, the Del-Lords were a throwback. Just four strong singers, two rip-roaring guitars, a bass and drums — that was all they needed. And right from the start, everything clicked into place, as the band tore into a new arrangement of Johnny Cash’s “Fulsom Prison Blues” with relish as its first order of business.

Together, they plowed through five albums of tight-fisted, driving rock ’n’ roll that had hooks aplenty, a punk attitude and a street toughness ingrained in them from living in New York City. And they had another trick up their sleeves — that being enough guitar twang to forge a whole new strain of Americana. Again, however, sales were not strong.

In May, American Beat, through Collectors’ Choice Music, reissued the first three Del-Lords records: 1984’s Frontier Days, the Neil Geraldo-produced Johnny Comes Marching Home and 1988’s Based On A True Story. The last two Del-Lords LPs, Lovers Who Wander and Howlin’ at the Halloween Moon, will be reissued later this year. In Part II of our interview with Kempner, he looks back on The Dictators’ demise and what the Del-Lords accomplished.

Let’s go back to when The Dictators were formed. Talk about what the city of New York was like back then and what the scene was like. Did you guys feel like you were like kind of the saviors of rock and roll?

Scott Kempner: Oh, we knew we were the saviors of rock ’n’ roll. The only problem was nobody was listening to rock ‘n’ roll anymore. It was like singer/songwriter rock; it was Southern rock, it was The Eagles, it was the early days of disco. We were so lost.

It was like ’72. Exile On Main Street was like the last Stones record I liked. Who’s Next was the last Who record I cared about, which was like ’71, I think. The bands left who were still doing it … The Who were doing it live, and then all the other bands that I liked were these marginalized bands like the MC5 and The Stooges, the Flamin’ Groovies or the Velvet Underground, but there was no big, strong, central figures in rock ’n’ roll at that point. And so it sort of caved in.

It’s like, without a Beatles, it’s like it would have been a really big drop-off if the next best band, whoever you might want to think it is, was to be the No. 1 band. And everybody moved up a notch. But that’s what it was like. There was no center.

But there was this sensibility out there that was being carried by those bands, who were having an effect. But it was like there weren’t enough people who were being affected that you all could be aware of each other. So there was Creem magazine back when Dave Marsh and Lester Bangs were there and Greil Marcus and all these really, really great imaginative, colorful writers, and that was where the spirit was kind of

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