As co-founder of The Dictators, guitarist Scott Kempner helped make rock ’n’ roll dangerous again at a time when flaccid disco was king and arty pretension was killing music’s soul.
One of the finest proto-punk outfits ever assembled, The Dictators, who formed in 1974 with ex-wrestler Handsome Dick Manitoba as frontman and at one time counted Twisted Sister’s Mark Mendoza among its ranks, blazed a trail of uncompromising loud rock ’n’ roll that inspired the rise of New York City’s punk scene.
Despite being backed by the Epic label and having rock critic extraordinaire Richard Meltzer leading the cheers for them, the band’s uproariously funny 1975 debut The Dictators Go Girl Crazy! — which combined punk explosiveness, goofy humor and the heavy metal soloing of guitarist Ross “The Boss” Funichello — bombed commercially. It was a defeat from which the band never quite recovered.
Let go by their label, the Dictators landed with Elektra and toned it down for 1977’s Manifest Destiny. The gambit didn’t work, and they went back to the basics for the go-for-the-throat brilliance of 1978’s Bloodbrothers. But the Dictators were tired of fighting to be heard in the marketplace, and though they never actually split up — they’re still playing today, in fact — they did go their separate ways for a bit.
Kempner would go on to form the Del-Lords, a group featuring guitarist Eric Ambel from Joan Jett’s Blackhearts, current Cracker drummer Frank Funero and bassist Manny Caiati. Many have credited The Del-Lords’ roots rock with not only reviving the spirit of old-school American rock ’n’ roll but also kickstarting the Americana movement.
The Del-Lords’ first three albums — 1984’s Frontier Days, 1986’s Johnny Comes Marching Home (produced by Pat Benatar’s guitarist/producer/husband Neil Geraldo) and 1988’s Based On A True Story — were reissued by American Beat May 26. And in 2008, Kempner brought forth his first solo album in 16 years, Saving Grace.
Here is Part 1 of this two-part interview, conducted around the time of Saving Grace’s release:
With The Dictators, you got the nickname “Top Ten.” How did that moniker come about??
SK: Oh boy, the story ... I’ll tell you the story if you want to hear it. You know, it’s your dime. You’re paying for the call. If you want to hear it, I’ll tell you, but I will have to warn you up front it’s not nearly as good as the name itself. So, if you want to leave it that air of mystery, you know ... what was that John Ford movie? “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance?” “When legend meets fact, or legend becomes fact, print the legend.” (laughs)
It basically had to do with you being a vinyl collector.
SK: Yeah, I don’t know if I knew the word “obsession” at that early an age, you know, but I was sure living it. I mean, records, anything revolving around rock ’n’ roll in the slightest way that could come into my orbit meant I had to have it immediately.
The record-collecting thing ... it started immediately. It started with my very first record, which was Meet The Beatles. My dad bought it for me, and I was just off to the races after that. It was like in that Tom Hanks movie “That Thing You Do” ... my first records, I used to buy all of them at an appliance store that sold records.
It was like a promotion thing. And it was really cool because they had a honeycomb kind of a shelving for the 45s, so you could look and see which ones h