The Del-Lords: Frontier Days

DelLords_FrontierDays1984 debut from Scott Kempner’s post-Dictators rock band

After propelling The Dictators with his guitar for three albums, Scott “Top Ten” Kempner struck out on his own, forming the Del-Lords with ex-Blackhearts guitarist Eric Ambel, future Cracker drummer Frank Funaro, and bassist Manny Caitati for this 1984 debut. Kempner’s sole co-write for the Dictators (“What It Is” from Bloodbrothers) gave only a hint of what he’d offer as the Del-Lords’ primary songwriter. Intact from his days with the Dictators was the straightforward punch of electric guitar rock, but where the Dictators played fast and loud staccato rhythms that presaged punk rock, the Del-Lords struck a more classic rock ‘n’ roll vibe, with rockabilly and mid-60s guitar rock replacing the Dictators’ primal approach.

The Dictators performed songs of pop culture and adolescent joys (TV, wrestling, girls, science fiction), but the just-turned-30 Kempner had more serious things to get off his chest. The Dictators lack of commercial success left Kempner well placed to write about the struggles of the underclass. Three years into the Reagan administration, Kempner had become a musical activist, and though the Del-Lords didn’t muster the confrontational spittle of the era’s hardcore bands, neither did they shy away from the disastrous effects of the dry spout of trickle down economics. Kempner’s songs include office workers augmenting meager incomes with illicit nighttime jobs, mercenaries prowling Central American, and tough times stretching from Brooklyn to Beirut. The album’s opener is a revitalized take on the depression era “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live,” ramped up to a rocker and fleshed out with original verses.

But Kempner wasn’t completely bound to social commentary, as the joyous “I Play the Drums” anticipates Ben Vaughn’s equally contented “Rhythm Guitar” by several years. There are also straightforward rock ‘n’ roll songs of love and broken hearts, including the blue highway of “Feel Like Going Home.” Kempner describes in this reissue’s new liner notes how the Del-Lords peered with the Blasters, Jason & The Scorchers and Los Lobos, yet each grew from a unique root. The Del-Lords stuck most closely to the basic four-piece rock ‘n’ roll vibe, forsaking country, norteno or retro flavors. You could add the Flamin’ Groovies (whose “Shake Some Action” descending guitar riff is given a nod on “Double Life”) to the list of peers, but the Del-Lords didn’t carry as strong a British Invasion vibe.

Producer Lou Whitney (Morells, Skeletons) keeps to the band’s “two guitars, bass and drums, just the way God intended,” though engineer Jon Smith didn’t get the sonic weight Neil Geraldo and Gordon Fordyce captured on the band’s third album, Based on a True Story. Kempner and Ambel prove a dynamic guitar duo, and the rhythm section seems to live in the pocket. This is all the more bracing when you consider that basic rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t burning up the charts in 1984. American Beat’s CD reissue adds five bonus tracks, including four additional tunes highlighted by the passionate “Love on Fire,” and an edgier alternate take of “Shame on You.” This is a rockin’ album from a year not generally noted for its basic rock ‘n’ roll. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]

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