NEW YORK DOLLS – ” The Albums “

Posted: January 8, 2021 in ALBUMS, MUSIC
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By the early 1970s, the New York Dolls were taking Punk attitudes and music in a new direction, albeit with a healthy dose of Glam. They played their first gig in late 1971 and, having secured a support slot with Rod Stewart in London early the following year, they signed to Mercury Records before going on to become one of the most influential groups on the New York scene; the Punk Rock capital of the world at that time. The line-up that signed to Mercury was singer, David Johansen, guitarists Johnny ‘Thunders’ and Sylvain Sylvain, bass guitarist Arthur “Killer” Kane and drummer Jerry Nolan who took over from Billy Murcia who had tragically drowned under the influence of drink and drugs.

It was a rare privilege to see the New York Dolls in their glory days in February 1974. An older good friend took us to the show at Barberellas night club in Birmingham. He was very cool dude and introduced me to lots of great music. He had long hair, was into all American bands and had took me to see my second ever gig Fairport Convention at Mothers in Erdington,

The New York Dolls gig was a wonderful treat. The show was at the Barberella’s one of Eddie Fewtrells night clubs along with the now famous Rum Runner and the much smaller venue Rebecca’s. The line outside was filled with beautiful glittery young boys in drag, glam rags and glitter on their naked, hairless chests, stardust running down their cheeks. It was a patent leather paradise! There were several really attractive transvestites all glistening and lighting up the night.  I loved the Dolls’ look; so outrageous, camp and trashy in their Glam parody, but mostly because they were still just adorable mischievous boys in make-up. And can we talk about the hair? The ozone layer’s first hole appeared in the early 70’s, all to keep some really spunky, high hairdos in place. The Dolls used more hairspray than the Ronettes!

After a newsreel montage of Hitler’s army invading France, Bob Gruen’s black & white film Lipstick Killers appeared onscreen, featuring the Dolls as glam gangsters applying lipstick in preparation for their next crime. An usher told us to move aside because the band would be coming down the aisle. Soon we had the Doll boys pushing right past us as they jumped onstage!

The unmistakable pink Dolls drum set, Jerry Nolan’s machine-gun rhythms, the simplistic yet heart-wrenching guitar solos by Johnny Thunders in his tight yellow pants and gigantic teased up hair-do, and the camp, raspy vocals of David Johansen. Three encores later, we were severely transformed, and our ears rang all the way home!.

All of the members of The New York Dolls played in New York bands before they formed in late 1971. Guitarists Johnny Thunders and Rick Rivets, bassist Arthur Kane, and drummer Billy Murcia were joined by vocalist David Johansen. Early in 1972, Rivets was replaced by Syl Sylvain and the group began playing regularly in Lower Manhattan, particularly at the Mercer Arts Center. Within a few months, they had earned a dedicated cult following, but record companies were afraid of signing The Dolls because of their cross-dressing and blatant vulgarity.

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When the New York Dolls released their debut album in 1973, they managed to be named both “Best New Band” and “Worst Band” in Creem Magazine’s annual reader’s poll, and it usually takes something special to polarize an audience like that. And the Dolls were inarguably special — decades after its release, New York Dolls debut still sounds thoroughly unique, a gritty, big-city amalgam of Stones-style R&B, hard rock guitars, lyrics that merge pulp storytelling with girl group attitude, and a sloppy but brilliant attack that would inspire punk rock. Much was made of the Dolls’ sexual ambiguity in the day, but with the passage of time, it’s a misfit swagger that communicates most strongly in these songs, and David Johansen’s vocals suggest the product of an emotional melting pot who just wants to find some lovin’ before Manhattan is gone, preferably from a woman who would prefer him over a fix. If the lyrics sometimes recall Hubert Selby, Jr. if he’d had a playful side, the music is big, raucous hard rock, basic but with a strongly distinct personality

The the noisy snarl of Johnny Thunders’ lead guitar quickly became a touchstone, and if he didn’t have a lot of tricks in his arsenal, he sure knew when and how to apply them, and the way he locked in with Syl Sylvain’s rhythm work was genius — and the Dolls made their downtown decadence sound both ominous and funny at the same time. The Dolls were smart enough to know that a band needs a great drummer, and if there’s something likably clumsy about Arthur Kane’s bass work, Jerry Nolan’s superb, elemental drumming holds the pieces in place with no-nonsense precision at all times. “Lonely Planet Boy” proved the Dolls could dial down their amps and sound very much like themselves, “Pills” was a superbly chosen cover that seemed like an original once they were done with it, “Jet Boy” was downtown rock & roll masterpiece no other band could have created. And while New York Dolls clearly came from a very specific time and place, this album still sounds fresh and hasn’t dated in the least — this is one of rock’s greatest debut albums, and a raucous statement of purpose that’s still bold and thoroughly engaging.

Besides “Personality Crisis” and “Frankenstein”, “Puss In Boots” was always one of my favourite New York Dolls songs. I envisioned it being about a rhinestone cowboy in high- heeled boots because of the lines, ‘And now you’re walkin’ just like you’re ten foot tall / Don’t ‘cha know the shoes are makin’ him lame…’ Can you picture it?! A glammed up drunken cowboy tripping on his shiny platform boots while some guy shoots at him!!! , You have to love Johnny’s intoxicated, wobbly guitar solos. It sounds like he’s tipping over on his platform shoes like the cowboy in the song – as he bends the strings just out of reach of ‘in tune’! It’s so ridiculous and beautiful at once! Johnny was such a doll!, Creem Magazine’s readers voted the Dolls simultaneously as the best AND worst new band of 1973. The band proudly declared this fact in their tour advertisement!

The debate about who inspired punk rock rages on, but the Dolls must have unwittingly been mainly partly responsible. After all, Malcolm McLaren literally molded the Sex Pistols after the New York Dolls. And the world wasn’t ready for the Pistols either! Todd Rundgren’s production of the Dolls’ debut LP gave it a slightly polished garage sound. It was exactly like John Lennon described Glam Rock; “It’s Rock n’ roll with lipstick on!”

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Their follow-up, “Too Much Too Soon”, in May 1974. It was not as well-received as their debut and the band broke up in 1975 having been dropped by Mercury Records. Do not be put off, give it a listen and you will hear they were a lot more Punk than Glam. After the clatter of their first album failed to bring them a wide audience, the New York Dolls second album produced by the legendary girl group producer George “Shadow” Morton. Although the sound of the record was relatively streamlined, “Too Much Too Soon”. The differences are apparent right from the start of the ferocious opener, “Babylon.” Not only are the guitars cleaner, but the mix is dominated by waves of studio sound effects and female backing vocals. Ironically, instead of making the Dolls sound safer, all the added frills emphasize their gleeful sleaziness and reckless sound. The Dolls sound on the verge of falling apart throughout the album, as Johnny Thunders and Syl Sylvain relentlessly trade buzz-saw riffs while David Johansen sings, shouts, and sashays on top of the racket. Band originals — including the bluesy raver “It’s Too Late,” the noisy girl-group pop of “Puss N’ Boots,” and the Thunders showcase “Chatterbox” — are rounded out by obscure R&B and rock & roll covers tailor-made for the group. Johansen vamps throughout Leiber & Stoller’s “Bad Detective,” Archie Bell’s “(There’s Gonna Be A) Showdown,” the Cadets “Stranded in the Jungle,” and Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Don’t Start Me Talkin’,” yet it’s with grit and affection  he really means it, man! The whole record collapses with the scathing “Human Being” on which a bunch of cross-dressing misfits defiantly declare that it’s OK that they want too many things, ’cause they’re human beings, just like you and me. Three years later, the Sex Pistols failed to come up with anything as musically visceral and dangerous. Perhaps that’s why the Dolls never found their audience in the early ’70s: Not only were they punk rock before punk rock was cool, but they remained weirder and more idiosyncratic than any of the bands that followed. And they rocked harder, too.

The New York Dolls created punk rock before there was a term for it. Building on the Rolling Stones‘ dirty rock & roll, Mick Jagger’s androgyny, girl-group pop, the Stooges’ anarchic noise, and the glam rock of David Bowie and T. Rex, The New York Dolls created a new form of hard rock that presaged both punk rock and heavy metal. Their drug-fuelled, shambolic performances influenced a generation of musicians in New York and London, who all went on to form punk bands. And although they self-destructed quickly, the band’s first two albums remain among the most popular cult records in rock & roll history.

It’s a shame that the band only made two studio albums. Their red patent leather Commie look was stunning, and a controversial third Dolls album would have been red-hot!. By the middle of 1975, Thunders and Nolan left the Dolls. The remaining members, Johansen and Sylvain, assembled a new line-up of the band. For the next two years, the duo led a variety of different incarnations of the band, to no success. In 1977, Johansen and Sylvain decided to break up the band permanently. Over the next two decades, various outtakes collections, live albums, and compilations were released by a variety of labels and The New York Dolls’ two original studio albums never went out of print. Johnny Thunders formed the Heartbreakers with Jerry Nolan after they left the group in 1975. Over the next decade, the Heartbreakers would perform sporadically and Thunders would record an occasional solo album. On April 23rd, 1991, Thunders — who was one of the more notorious drug abusers in rock & roll history died of a heroin overdose. Nolan performed at a tribute concert for Thunders later in 1991; a few months later, he died of a stroke at the age of 40.

In 2004, former Smiths vocalist Morrissey who was once the president of a British New York Dolls fan club — invited the surviving members of The New York Dolls to perform at the 2004 Meltdown Festival, a music and cultural festival that was being curated that year by the singer. To the surprise of many, David Johansen, Syl Sylvain, and Arthur Kane agreed to the gig, with Steve Conte (from Johansen’s solo band) standing in for Thunders and Gary Powell from the Libertines sitting in on drums. The group’s set was well-received by critics and fans (and was recorded for release on DVD and compact disc), which led to offers for other festival appearances, but only a few weeks after the Meltdown show, Kane checked himself into a Los Angeles hospital with what he thought was a severe case of the flu. Kane’s ailment was soon diagnosed as leukaemia, and he died only a few hours later, on July 13th, 2004, at age 55.

How wonderful that the New York Dolls re-united in June of 2004 for Morrissey’s Meltdown Festival in London. Thirty years on, and only three remaining original members, but it was still a blast. They performed “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory” for their lost comrades, not knowing that another would be gone in only a few weeks.

On his Aladdin Sane album, David Bowie sang: “Time, in quaaludes and red wine, demanding Billy Dolls and other friends of mine. Take your time…” Billy Murcia was the first to go. Then Johnny, Jerry, and Arthur (Killer) Kane. Die young, stay pretty.

It’s amazing that Johnny had nine lives and lived as long as he did, but when he died in April, 1991 at age 38 it was still a tragic shock. There was a multitude of guitar-shaped floral arrangements, banners which read, “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory” (a song Johnny co-wrote with Ralph Kramden). Poor Johnny had survived New York City and London, but met his fate in New Orleans.

The New York Dolls can be reunited every night, whenever you need to hear them, wearing tight shiny pants and boots that’s etched into my mind forever. Rock on David and Sylvain! Rest in peace Billy, Johnny, Jerry and Arthur. Take good care of each other.


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