Fricke's Picks: The Dictators, The Pretty Things and The Wildbirds - Rolling Stone
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Fricke’s Picks: The Dictators, The Pretty Things and The Wildbirds

Weekend Warriors
In August 1973, the Ramones were a year away from their first gigs, sitting around in Queens, looking for something to do, when Bronx-bred bombers the Dictators went into a Columbia Records studio to make the five-song demo that opens Every Day Is Saturday (Norton). It’s a rock-city set of work tapes and outtakes, mostly from the band’s first decade, that doubles as iron-fist proof that the Dictators were punk even before CBGB. The founding triad of singer-bassist Andy Shernoff and guitarists Ross the Boss and Scott “Top Ten” Kempner was deeply glam, too — and truly heavy — in its hooks, slash and crush. With Shernoff’s smart, acerbic songwriting, the Dictators were also arguably America’s funniest and most fearless (if not famous) explorers of the American teenage wasteland. “Sleepin’ With the TV On,” “Faster and Louder,” “Baby Let’s Twist” and “I Stand Tall,” all here in rough, exuberant blueprints of later LP versions, are the equal and more of Killer-era Alice Cooper — atomic pop about fast food, warm beer and salvation noise, sealed with the subway-soul bravado of microphone bruiser Handsome Dick Manitoba. Ironically, the Dictators, who have made only four studio albums since those ’73 demos, outlived the Ramones, still popping up on singles and stages. “The joke’s on you!” Manitoba crows in “Laughing Out Loud,” cut in 1999. Save your bread for Saturday, and know why he’s right. Also note the radio ad here for the Dictators’ 1977 stand at the Whisky A Go Go in Los Angeles: You could get in for a buck, and some lucky folks got a free copy of the band’s Bloodbrothers album. Those were the days.

The Long View
For longevity and sheer bloody-mindedness, even the Dictators can’t compete with the Pretty Things, founded in London in 1963 by singer Phil May and guitarist Dick Taylor, an early Rolling Stone. Originally more notorious for their hair and lunacy, on and offstage, than for the electric-R&B and psychedelic fury of their records, the Pretty Things have never done anything nice and easy (to quote Ike and Tina Turner). Balboa Island (Zoho Roots), the band’s first studio album in almost a decade, is no exception: cut with analog gear, often in live first takes, which suits the endurance-record pride and pub-brawl romp of “The Beat Goes On” and “Pretty Beat.” There are strains of the group’s early-Seventies albums Parachute and Freeway Madness in the vocal harmonies and a surprising emphasis on acoustic guitars. But when Taylor fires up his slide guitar behind May’s growl in “Feel Like Goin’ Home,” it’s easy to imagine yourself at the very birth of British electric blues. Because they were there.

Ready for Takeoff
This is dedication: When the Wildbirds played in New York recently at one of Little Steven’s live Underground Garage nights, they drove to the show all the way from their digs in deepest Wisconsin, bringing a big bag of howl and twin-guitar clatter that sounded like a shotgun wedding of the Band and the New York Dolls. If you think I’m hallucinating about the former, you should have heard the cover of “The Shape I’m In.” It’s not on the Wildbirds’ debut album, Golden Daze (Pat’s Record Company), but everything else that made the gig an unexpected highlight of my ’07 (in a month when I also saw Led Zeppelin and Neil Young) is present and nasty. There is a little Kings of Leon in guitarist Nicholas Stuart’s raised-by-wolves yelp. But there is far more home-cooked excitement in the choruses and drive of songs such as “421 (Everybody Loves You)” and “Slow Down” — which, of course, doesn’t.


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