NEW YORK DOLLS
New York Dolls
Bursting in with a crashing wall of guitars, a cascading piano line, kick ass drums and a blood curdling, howling wolf yelp of ‘Waaaah Oooooh’ before a tantrum induced ‘yeah, yeah yeah’ volleys back with ‘no, no, no no’ summing up the confusion and hormonal rush of adolescence perfectly, the New York Dolls launch into ‘Personality Crisis’ providing one of the great-if not the greatest- intros in rock and roll. Ever!
From this enthralling outset it was clear that this was no ordinary band: Marc Bolan may have been responsible for ushering the seventies in whilst David Bowie launched them into orbit but it was the Dolls who took them by the scruff of their neck and throttled the life both into and out of them.
It is fitting, in many ways, that it took a bunch of dragged up ,drugged up and wised up street kids to finally obliterate the sixties hangover which had permeated the early seventies as the sexual ambivalence and androgyny hanging in the air crystallised in the Dolls’ ambisexual thrift store meets hooker garb and unrestrained sounds.
Already a hit in their native New York drawing the attentions of the Andy Warhol Max’s Kansas City set- Debbie Harry, Wayne/Jayne County and The Ramones were early devotees- by the time the Dolls entered the studio they had already lost original member 20 year old drummer Billy Murcia who, after a mandrax and alcohol fuelled evening, drowned in a bathtub in London only days after the band played their biggest gig to date supporting The Faces at Wembley. Following this ill fated English visit –which also saw a petulantly jealous and paranoid Lou Reed refusing to allow them onstage as his support act- Jerry Nolan was drafted in and provided some much needed musical muscle to the bands sound; demos of the band with Murcia lay testament to this as his drumming lacked both the visceral punch and technique of Nolan’s.
After this dilemma had been addressed it was time for the Dolls to enter the studio proper with the issue of finding a suitably sympathetic producer next on their agenda. From a wish list which included both David Bowie and Phil Spector eventually a fellow native New Yorker and contemporary wunderkind Todd Rundgren was selected and the Dolls-unwilling and unable to follow the rigours and diligence of recording rules- were ready to move their seven day weekend party from Max’s into the studio in one swift move. Once in the studio the chaos ensued but this is what probably still makes The New York Dolls such a thrilling experience forty years down the line.
Opening with the aforementioned ‘Personality Crisis’ the album announced its intentions from the get go. Crashing guitars provided a backdrop over which howling vocals snarled out words which simply demanded to be sung adding the icing then demolishing the cherry on the top of the cake. It was a perfect statement of intent and could hardly have failed to captivate anyone who heard it which, unfortunately in 1973, weren’t very many at all or at least nowhere near as many as should have.
The Dolls were off the starting blocks however and next track ‘Looking For A Kiss’ filched the opening line from the Shangri La’s ‘Give him a Great Big Kiss’ –‘When I say I’m in Lurve you best believe I’m In Lurve .LU.V!’- replacing their sixties innocence with seventies knowing and sleazed up intentions. ‘I need a fixin’ a kiss’ maintained vocalist David Johansen proclaiming ‘I feels baaaad’ but making it sound so good as he trawls the streets ‘haulin’ booty all night long’. Possibly the quintessential Dolls song it careens along with malicious and devious intent.
The third track is the politically conscientious ‘Vietnamese Baby’ where the Dolls momentarily put sex and drugs to the side and reconvene as avenging angels with Jerry Nolan’s rapid fire militaristic drumming adding dramatic edge to an already powerful song. ‘Lonely Planet Boy’ slows things down with acoustic guitars and a saxophone solo and is the Dolls’ big ballad number. All wistful yearning and aching melancholy it is the height of youthful romance even if it does seem to allude to heroin, ‘You bring me some from your other boys’, although at this juncture none of the band had the drug habits which later blighted their reputation and ambitions.
‘Frankenstein’ rounds off side one’s proceedings nicely-in the days of vinyl such matters were important- and it is a soaring monolithic powerhouse of a song delivered in cinemascope: hysterical melodrama, duelling guitars, intense claustrophobic heat and frantic crescendos all conspire to hit heights which perfectly depict the Manhattan skyline and the skyscrapers dominating the drama. Add to this an indomitable Spectorish wall of sound and the whole exercise emerges as the Dolls’ very own ‘River Deep Mountain High’.
The second side kicks off with little fanfare and rushes headlong into the perfection of ‘Trash’ with its aching pleas, plaintive yearning lyrics, reverberating drums, ‘ooh, ooh,’ surfing backing vocals and another girl-band swipe –‘Uh ! How you call your lover boy? – delivered at a crucial moment to maximum effect. This should have been released as a single and stormed to number one all over the universe and forty years later the question ‘why wasn’t it?’ still echoes.
‘Bad Girl’ is a more traditional Stones-like rocker- comparisons to the Stones always plagued the Dolls but at this juncture the Stones were nodding off headfirst into drug somnolence and their ‘Goats Head Soup’ whilst serving up insipidly trite but undeniably catchy numbers such as the whiney ‘Angie’- and trundles along with its own lustful intentions. ‘Subway Train’ introduces sophistication into the Dolls routine, picking up and slowing down as the song demands. Both real and ridiculous-‘Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah, I just know’- it showed off both musical skill and song writing chops in equal measure and should have silenced any non-believers who still maintained the Dolls were talent-less cross dressing charlatans..
Famous for choosing and delivering suitable cover versions in their live act the only non-original on the album is ‘Pills’ which, although written by Bo Diddley, the Dolls moulded it to their sound and needs so perfectly it is now considered theirs in all but name. ‘’Private World’ is a rumbling bass driven ‘Louie Louie’ type number and the solitary song writing contribution by giant haystack and the only living statue in rock and roll- a term coined affectionately for him by Johansen- Arthur ‘Killer’ Kane . ‘
‘Jet Boy’ brings the album to a close in a maelstrom of handclaps, unforgettable hooks and a middle section which sees guitarists Johnny Thunders and Sylvain Sylvain perform aerodynamics against the New York sky with no landing strip in sight. It is a truly cacophonous piece of wonderment and rounds things off perfectly.
By the time the album was released the Dolls had already received sufficient amounts of good and bad press and although the album received generally favourable reception it was still not enough for the public to buy it in sufficient numbers. A major stumbling block-particularly in America where glam was not such big news- was the cover which saw the band each in varying stages of fucked up drag and androgyny arranged artfully on a couch daring or inviting you to enter their world. It was a cover which promised so much but required a certain amount of bravery to actually get past as even in the year Bowie was at his most outrageous glam peak it was as far from the mainstream as you could get.
A visit to London shortly after culminated in two successful shows at Biba’s and a legendary TV appearance on the Old Grey Whistle Test which many of those watching-Joe Strummer , a couple of Sex Pistols and, most notably, future uber fan Morrissey among them- claimed fired the starting pistol for punk.
Malcolm McLaren fell in love with them as soon as they stumbled into his shop on the Kings Road; an infatuation which saw him eventually managing them then misguidedly dress them in red patent leather and adopt Communist manifestos. By this time the band was in disrepair and virtually unmanageable but he already had the blue print for his own ideas which eventually became the Sex Pistols.
Their influence was already being absorbed however and Bowie’s ‘Aladdin Sane’ album of that year was rife with Dolls references: ‘Watch That Man’ is about a night on the tiles with Johansen and girlfriend Cyrinda Foxe-who also served as inspirational muse for ‘The Jean Genie’ and appeared in the promo video- ‘Time’ mentions recently deceased drummer Murcia (Billy Dolls) and there is an –almost- name check for Sylvain Sylvain in ‘Drive in Saturday’.
Despite all this cracks were already beginning to show in the Dolls retinue and were only compounded by divisions between the two self appointed leaders Johansen and Thunders. Matters were further exacerbated by Thunders and Nolan’s descent into heroin addiction whilst Johansen and Sylvain tried to keep things afloat. Poor bassist Arthur Kane was stuck in the middle and seeking solace in the bottle ended up so incapacitated he was sent to rehab several times to dry out although each time met with less success than the time before.
By the time it came to recording their second album nine months after their debut the juggernaut was already running out of steam. Presciently titled Too Much Too Soon the album was not the unmitigated disaster it was decried as at the time. Still housing a few classic tracks – ‘Babylon’, ‘Chatterbox’ , ‘Puss ‘n’ Boots’ and ‘Human Being’ among them as well as a great cover of the Cadets novelty number ‘Stranded in the Jungle’- it was clear in the playing, shabby production and inclusion of four cover versions that this was a band not progressing but actually falling apart, even if it was beautifully so.
The record company was also obviously running scared as the debacle surrounding the cover art of the first album had raised such a fuss that the follow up had a relatively tame live shot of the band where most of their faces were obscured from view. It was only a short matter of time before things collapsed completely and by mid 1975 it was all effectively over for the Dolls.
When punk peaked in 1977 the Dolls and their debut album started to receive the attention and respect they had deserved all along. Unfortunately their image was so stuck in the glam era that this worked against them in the stripped back deconstruction of punk.
By this time bands such as Aerosmith and Kiss had taken the visual and musical credentials of the Dolls and turned them into something less threatening and more commercially viable. In the case of Kiss any threat of the visual appeal of the Dolls had been transformed into a cartoon with all of the sexual aspect of pushing at gender boundaries removed. They went onto mega stardom and bringing in millions whilst the Dolls languished in obscurity and debt.
Following the Dolls, Thunders and Nolan formed the Heartbreakers and released the classic ‘L.A.M.F’ but internal drug problems beset them once again and another opportunity was missed. Thunders went onto live out his own personal rock and roll dream/nightmare, eventually succumbing to a mysterious death in 1991 with Nolan not far behind him, checking out a mere eight months later.
Johansen made a couple of solid albums before re-inventing himself as Buster Poindexter and gaining commercial success in the eighties and later on some artistic rehabilitation with the Harry Smiths at the turn of the century.
Sylvain and Kane fared less well and did little of any note until Morrissey reconvened the remaining Dolls for his meltdown show of 2004. Unfortunately for Kane this was his swansong and sadly he died only a matter of weeks later. The build up to this show is clearly documented in Greg Whiteley’s film ‘New York Doll’ which shows the former hell raiser as a shuffling middle aged man working in a Mormon facility centre clinging onto his memories of youth and the hope he might relive those times yet again. The fact he did is extremely touching and the film is sad, heart wrenching but still strangely inspiring.
The main problem which always thwarted and blighted the Dolls however was summed up in the title of their castigated second album Too Much Too Soon as this is what they always promised and in that debut album it was also what they also delivered. However what they did deliver in that classic album clapped like thunder and hit like lightning. Perhaps once was more than enough!