Success in rock and roll is often about being in the right place at the right time-- but sometimes it's also about adapting enough to eventually make your aesthetic matter in the ever-shifting tectonic surface of music culture. Ross Friedman, aka ROSS THE BOSS, is a Zelig-esque figure in the world of rock, in the sense that if people don't know his name, they know his influence: he not only changed punk with his way-ahead-of-their-time 70s project THE DICTATORS, but he switched to heavy metal and pushed it way way way over-the-top with 80s behemoths MANOWAR.
I caught up with Ross by phone as he sat in his studio in New York, gearing up for a tour with his new band MANITOBA that hits Church this Thursday. Manitoba isn't quite the Dictators-- it features Ross and Dictators frontman Handsome Dick Manitoba (and you can read my talk with HDM over here), but not Andy Shernoff, and you can't really call the band Dictators if Andy isn't in it. But without Shernoff, it's still quite the rock and roll detonation, especially as the band mows through their gems from the first three classic Dictators albums (Go Girl Crazy, Manifest Destiny, and Bloodbrothers). In addition to Manitoba, Ross keeps busy with his Ross The Boss solo project that is actually quite big in the European metal circuit, where the non-Dictators Ross has continued to toil since his shift to the world of Manowar in the 80s. It's kind of amazing that the same guy would have co-founded both Manowar and the Dictators,
especially knowing that in their respective heydays, punk and metal
existed in hermetically sealed worlds that never ever ever met at all.
If you feel that we live in a world where "rock" is understood to be
awesome guitar music that pulls from both the confrontational kicks of
punk and the powermad aggression of metal, you can thank, in part, the
behind-the-scenes wizardry of Mr. The Boss.So how is Manitoba going?
Well, we started in January, and we’ve just been playing and playing and playing, it’s going really good.
Are you guys working on new material, or is it all Dictators at this point?
We’re kind of picking up where we left off: Dictators songs, some really cool cover songs, and new material in the works. So we’re doing it.
What’s it like to keep switching back from the metal of your solo work and the hard rock/punk of the Dictators?
You know, listen: this was my first band, it was the band of my youth, and we all had fun together. The reason why we put Manitoba together is we don’t wanna stop. And you know, Andy and Scott aren’t in the band so we couldn’t call it Dictators, so we got two great, great guys in the band and you have Manitoba. We still have our legend and legacy to grow on.
The Dictators are interesting because you guys were so heavy-- it has always put you guys in an odd spot, I’d imagine.
Well, I know what you’re saying. The Dictators were always too heavy metal for the punk crowd and too punk for the heavy metal crowd. But now, those barriers have been totally blown away. I mean, Metallica embraced punk, heavy metal bands are fascinated by punk rock.
Why were punk and metal so divided in the past, what was that divide all about?
I know what the divide is, it’s a stylistic divide. The metal musicians thought the punk musicians were horrible musicians. On this side you have the punk ethic, which is that you should be able to just pick up a guitar-- and you should, you should be able to just pick up a guitar and just play three chords. But the attention to musical excellence and style is a metal thing more than a punk thing. And me, I’m just a guitar player, a serious, serious guitar player. I mean, when I was a teenager, instead of going out and drinking and screwing up, or doing homework, or do other shit, I would practice my guitar!
What was the music that you imagined making, and how did it become the Dictators?
What did it was the Rolling Stones, but I was totally influenced by B.B. King, the blues guys, Muddy Waters, Mike Bloomfield, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin. Eric Clapton and Cream were a gigantic influence in me, I have to say. I mean, back then, guitars ruled. These guys were such impressive musicians, and we strove to be like that, and it just knocked me out the way those guys played. That’s what I tried to do. The Dictators, we were a band that we learned from the Beach Boys, we listened to Beatles, the Stones-- and I brought in the Black Sabbath heavy thing. And that’s why the band sounded the way it sounded, it sounded like where we were coming from. And the Flamin’ Groovies and the MC5 and the Stooges were such a huge influence on us because they were right ahead of us by a year or two. I mean, Wayne Kramer and Fred Thompson were just phenomenal players, phenomenal, and they had a huge effect on us.
Right: but unlike those bands, the Dictators had a) a sense of humor and b) you guys were kind of apolitical!
Well, we were a bunch of knuckleheads. We thought that everybody was into hamburgers and cars and girls. And wrestling, that was a big influence on the band. And we thought it was the best, we thought it was the cat’s ass.
[laughs] Man, we were such a bunch of knuckleheads.
How did you then transition to the over-the-top-ness of Manowar?
From the Dictators to Manowar, I don’t know how that happened-- it’s so strange that I was in both bands at almost the same time. And with Manowar, you look at that band and you go “Oh, these guys can’t be that serious about this stuff.” One of the reasons why I’m not in Manowar anymore is that they were serious. Joey DiMaio, he was-- listen, I said “Joey, you can’t be so serious about this stuff, you have to have to have a little sense of humor!” And he pushed it further. We wanted to push it further, we wanted to be the most extreme band, but you still have to be able to laugh about yourself a little bit.
What made you want to form a band that pushed things to that degree?
After the Dictators, I was on tour with Black Sabbath, and I couldn’t have been opening for a better band that Sabbath with Ronnie James Dio, it was unbelievable. And Ronnie introduced me to Joey, so Ronnie Dio was responsible for Manowar. Joey was there on the crew working with our future equipment tech. We wanted to put together a band that would surpass anything that had ever been done on the planet: the loudest, the hardest, the heaviest, the fastest, the slowest, the most epic. Which I think we did! We wanted to go over the top, which I think we did. That’s what we wanted to do.
You have always been a metal-ish guy, but what was your transition to the world of metal all about?
On the second Dictators record we got Mark Mendoza on bass, from Twisted Sister. He was just this big hulking guy and he didn’t want anything to do with punk. And we went out on tour with every band in the world: Blue Oyster Cult, ZZ Top, Kiss, Black Sabbath, REO Speedwagon, every smashup you could possibly come out with. You couldn’t ask for a worse match-up. And we were out there, and as a matter of fact, we wanted to play clubs, we didn’t really want to play these big arenas, but it happened. But we just wanted to do our thing, and that’s why we wound up stripping it down again for the Bloodbrothers album. But you know, by the time Shakin’ Street was opening for Black Sabbath, playing arenas and festivals, I kind of got more into it. And so the transition to Manowar wasn’t that big a deal by then. At that point, I wanted to be in a heavy metal band.
I didn’t even call it heavy metal in my mind, though, I just called it rock and roll or rock. And now of course it’s all into categories. Like did you see that VH1 thing, Metal Evolution? Cause I’m in it, the Power Metal episode. I’m totally into it. But at the same time I can play with my band and then tomorrow night go play with Manitoba. I mean, it’s all the same thing-- one may be heavier and louder, but I’m the same guy in both bands.
Your solo band is, aside from you, comprised entirely of Germans. What is up with Germany and metal?
Heavy metal became more popular than it ever was in the States; although when Iron Maiden and Judas Priest tour they play stadiums. But the culture of heavy metal is so much bigger in Europe, and Manowar is partly responsible for that, because we really did it. And with power metal, I dunno, Scorpions were really really influential on the scene. And it’s embraced. But it’s not just Germany, it’s all of Europe. And Eastern Europe now is huge for metal-- last summer we played Masters of Rock in the Czech Republic and we played to 25,000 people.
Wow-- and that’s your solo project!
It’s interesting: lots of artists who’ve been around as long as you have get to a point where they say “Why don’t people appreciate my legacy?”-- but you’ve really persevered and kept it going with interesting twists and turns, you’re always doing something interesting.
Thank you very much, but all I know is that I’m not quitting and I love playing guitar. I’m the most happy when I strap on a guitar, whether I’m playing to twenty people or twenty thousand people. You know, I’m very level-headed: I don’t get too up, I don’t get too down. It’s just an honor to play and be able to make something from it. I’m a busy guy, I do a lot of things. I’ve got a third Ross The boss album, and Manitoba, and I’m playing a few songs on the new Shakin’ Street, and I’m playing on this Joey Ramone tribute album.
What was it all about when Handsome Dick transformed into the Dictators’ lead singer?
The thing with that is that we were going along and Andy was the lead singer. And it was alright, he was good, but it wasn’t really the band that could really galvanize a room, really destroy a room. And the night that Richard came up, he was our roadie and chef, and the night he came up on stage and sang “Wild Thing”, it was just-- everyone was like “Who is this guy, what the fuck?” It was just amazing. And that kind of energy, we never had. And I said “This guy, he should be singing the whole set.” I mean, let Andy sing a couple songs but this guy should be the main thing, because people can really relate to him. And he’s really honed it into being such a great performer.
It just kind of happened and it really changed the focus of the band, we had a weapon as a lead singer. People either loved him or hated him, but at least we got that reaction. There’s nothing worse than not getting a reaction from people, we wanted a reaction and we got it. Some fucking people hated it! I remember we were playing some gig with James Gang or something like that and some guy got so enraged that he grabbed a chair and ran onstage with it, and one of our crew had to kick him out. And that’s great, we wanted that, we wanted to challenge the audience, and they were challenged! We were pretty antagonistic back then.
Viewed from a certain angle, the dictators seem very anti-punk; but from a different angle, you guys were totally punk.
Totally punk! More punk than them. These bands thought that just because they got up on stage with ripped clothes and spiked hair and all that, that they were more punk than us? Nah, I don’t think so, bro! Stand in line and get a lesson!
MANITOBA + RULE | CHURCH OF BOSTON | 69 Kilmarnock Street, Boston | 21+ | $15 | www.churchofboston.com