Classic Album: New York Dolls-New York Dolls.

No other group epitomises the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle like the New York Dolls. Drink, drugs and death touched the New York Dolls. Despite this, the Dolls continued to court controversy, with a  disaster always just a heartbeat away. Just like a game of daring do, they egged each other to fly close to the sun. This was all part of the myth that surrounds the New York Dolls. Here was another case of flawed genius, a firecracker combination of talents and personalities, who together, could’ve and should’ve, been one of the biggest bands in musical history. Fuelled by a diet of alcohol, pills and powders, the New York Dolls first two albums were the best they ever recorded. 

Their 1973 eponymous debut album New York Dolls was a swaggering, strutting introduction to the New York Dolls. A year later, came their sophomore album, Too Much Too Soon. A fuelled up Dolls, courted controversy and chaos, continued to strut and swagger their way through life. On both of these albums, the New York Dolls out-rocked the opposition. Other bands, including the Rolling Stones, enviously looked on. Here was a band who were the real thing. They were living the rock ‘n’ lifestyle and living it hard. With what seemed like an appetite for destruction, somehow the New York Dolls recorded  two classic albums within the space of a year. The first of these was their debut album New York Dolls, which nowadays, is regarded as a classic.

Although the New York Dolls were formed in 1971, the bands origins can be traced to 1967. That’s when Sylvain Sylvain and Billy Murcia, two school friends, started playing in a band called The Pox. Then when the lead singer left, the band split up. To make ends meet, Sylvain and Billy worked various dead end jobs. 

First of all, the pair started a clothes shop called Truth and Soul. After that, Billy worked in another clothes shop, A Different Drummer. Situated across from the New York Dolls’ hospital, rumour has it, that this is how their future band got its name. Then in 1970, after a couple of years working dead end jobs, Sylvain and Billy decided it was time they formed a new band. They’d eventually, become members of the New York Dolls. 

Formed in 1971, the New York Dolls arose, like a Phoenix from the ashes out of Actress. Four members of Actress, guitarist Johnny Thunders and Rick Rivets, drummer Billy Murcia and bassist Arthur Kane would form the backbone of the New York Dolls. Johnny Thunders was originally the lead singer, but soon decided he wasn’t cut out to be a frontman. David Johansen was. So, he joined the band and Johnny originally a bassist, was converted into a guitarist. Then when Rick Rivets quit the band, Sylvain Sylvain replaced him. Before the Dolls had made their debut they’d been through several lineups. While this isn’t unusual in a band’s early days, the Dolls lineup was constantly changing. This was essentially Mk. 1 of the New York Dolls.

Having settled with vocalist David Johansen, guitarists Johnny Thunders, bassist Arthur Kane, drummer Billy Murcia and Sylvain Sylvain on guitar, bass and piano, the Dolls were ready to make their debut. They made their live debut on Christmas Eve 1971, at one of the most unlikely music venues. This was the Endicott Hotel, a homeless centre in New York. After that, the New York Dolls got themselves a manager, Soon, word was spreading of their unique swaggering sound and style. 

Word got as far as Rod Stewart, who decided the Dolls were the perfect group to open for him in London. This looked like the perfect start to the New York Dolls’ career. Opening for Rod Stewart increased the New York Dolls profile. They were making inroads into the American and British markets. Then disaster struck. 

Not long after the Dolls opened for Rod Stewart, drummer Billy Murcia tragically drowned during their UK tour. High on drink and drugs, he passed out and accidentally drowned. This was devastating news for the Dolls. They had lost the man who gave the group its heartbeat. Despite the loss of a key member, the show had to go on. Drummers were auditioned and eventually, Jerry Nolan was selected as Billy’s replacement. Not long after that, Mercury Records signed the New York Dolls and work began on their eponymous debut album.

For what became New York Dolls, the Dolls’ debut album, David Johansen wrote Vietnamese Baby and formed a successful partnership with Johnny Thunders. They cowrote Personality Crisis, Looking For A Kiss, Lonely Planet Boy, Bad Girl, Subway Train and Jet Boy. David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain penned Frankenstein and Trash, while David and Arthur Kane contributed Private World. The other track was a cover of Bo Diddley’s Pills. These eleven tracks became New York Dolls.

When recording of New York Dolls began at the Record Plant in April 1973, New York, Todd Rungren was chosen as producer. For many people, this was a strange choice of producer. Here, was a brash, innovative group. They were the future, with their intensity, energy and showmanship. Todd Rungren was the ghost of rock’s past. Formerly a member of Nazz, even the band didn’t seem impressed. He was used to a slicker, more sophisticated sound. The rawness and energy of the Dolls was the antithesis of everything Todd Rungren believed in. It seemed this was the case of the wrong producer for the wrong album? David Johansen disparagingly referred to Todd Rundgren as: “an expert in second rate rock ‘n’ roll.” As for Todd Rundgren’s approach to production, he mixed the album in half a day. In doing so, some felt that the edge was taken of Jerry Nolan’s drums. Did this mean that rather than trying to capture the band’s energy and intensity, part of the New York Dolls trademark sound was lost? 

Personality Crisis explodes into being, opening New York Dolls in style. Fiery, machine gun guitars, flourishes of boogie woogie piano and a driving rhythm section set the scene for David’s proto punk vocal. Raw and edgy, describes his vocal, while behind him, the Dolls manage to be both tight and sloppy simultaneously. The Dolls are better musicians than many people give them credit for. They provided the template for the Rolling Stones and Primal Scream, amongst a thousand other impersonators. An intense explosion of energy, this is timeless good time rock ‘n’ roll, what a way to introduce the Dolls.

Drawing on inspiration from Eddie Cochran, David every inch the charismatic frontman, struts his way through Looking For A Kiss. Low slung guitars trade licks, while the rhythm section provide the pulsating heartbeat. As for David, feisty, sassy and oozing an air of danger, describes his performance as proto punk, glam rock and rock ‘n’ rock unite majestically.

A gong chimes, before the New York Dolls throw launch into the rocky Vietnamese Baby, an ant-Vietnam War song. Driven along by scorching, searing guitars, drums pound and David’s vocal seems to have matured. This is much more like how he sounds on their sophomore album Too Much Too Soon. It’s as if he’s enjoying the role of frontman. There’s a swagger in his vocal. He spurs the band on. They trade glistening guitar licks, playing with a freedom and swagger, as if realising that this it what they were born to do.

Lonely Planet Boy has much more understated sound. Just guitars and thoughtful rhythm section accompany David’s whispery, theatrical vocal. Bursts of jazzy horns drift above the arrangement, as the Dolls look to the past for inspiration. Drawing inspiration from sixties R&B, jazz, pop and doo wop harmonies, we hear another side to the New York Dolls, one which I’d like to have heard more of.

Three years after New York Dolls released their debut album, and punk was born, tracks like Frankenstein provided the template for this new musical genre. You can hear where Johnny Rotten comes from. Having said that, the Dolls were ten times the musicians than the Sex Pistols ever were. They were hype, the Dolls were the real thing. Here, a snarling, angry vocal is accompanied by a raw, raucous arrangement. Key to that are the driving rhythm section and  machine gun guitars. Combined this explosion of energy, intensity and raw power, resulted in a thousand impersonators, none of which came close.

Trash is a combination of garage, grunge, proto-punk and rock. It’s as if the Dolls are hyperactive and Trash is an outpouring of energy. Like a five Duracell bunnies, the Dolls become an explosive unit. They play as if their lives depended on it. Playing with power and passion, they never miss a beat. Neither does David. His vocal is an outpouring of frustration, while cooing harmonies provide a contrast.

Bad Girl sees a no frills approach from the Dolls. It’s as if the producer just called a wrap, warts and all. This gives a taste of what the New York Dolls live were like. Jackhammer guitars join drums which aren’t so much played, but punished. Then there’s David’s vocal. He roars, as if this is cathartic. Surely, he must have been hoarse by the time he’d laid down this vocal? As for the guitars, they’re mesmeric. Chiming, soaring, searing, their crystalline sound, feedback and all, plays a huge part in the Dolls at their best.

Subway Train sees the New York Dolls play within themselves. They’re much more restrained. Rather than an explosion of energy and intensity, they produce a much more laid-back performance. David’s vocal is more restrained, but just as effective. He’s not roaring, his delivery drawling and languid. Guitars riff, scream and screech, trading licks. Like a musical shoot out between guitar gunslingers. At the end, everyone’s left standing. The Dolls swagger into the sunset, catching a Subway Train everyone needs to catch a ride on, once in their life.

Bluesy harmonica and an explosion of searing guitars open Pills, an old Bo Diddley song. It had never been played liked this before. Given the Dolls background, this should’ve been their theme tune. They seem to realize this, seamlessly mixing blues, glam rock and rock ‘n’ roll. In between blowing his blues harp, David struts his way through the lyrics. Accompanied by a wall of guitars, thunderous rhythm section and harmonies, rock ‘n’ roll’s hardest living band deliver a paean to hedonism.

A probing bass opens Private World, before the rest of the New York Dolls kick loose. Veering between gloriously sloppy and tight, the were the envy of rock ‘n’ roll rivals and pretenders. They’re in the tightest of grooves, a stomping beat, percussion and dueling guitars providing a raucous, good time backdrop. Stabs and flourishes of piano add to the good time sound. David vamps his way through the track. He revels in being the frontman for a group as good as the Dolls, who in 1973, were rock ‘n’ roll royalty.

Jet Boy closes New York Dolls. Does it close the album on a high? From the opening bars, the Dolls unleash their machine gun guitars, cooing harmonies and pounding rhythm section. Soon, rock, proto-punk and glam rock have been combined. The Dolls are at their hard rocking best. David’s struts and swaggers, while harmonies and handclaps accompany him. Then there’s the guitars, which include some of the best playing on the album. That’s saying something. Riffing, dueling and feeding off each other, the New York Dolls guitar heroes ensure that New York Dolls ends on an explosive high.

Released in 1973 on Mercury, New York Dolls divided opinion. Some critics hailed New York Dolls as a stonewall classic, others deemed it a parody of a rock album. It certainly took the world by storm, spawning a million imitators. Strangely, on its release, sales of New York Dolls were disappointing. It only reached number 167 in the US Billboard 200. Mercury had hoped that the album would be one of their big sellers of 1973. It certainly captured the attention of critics and music lovers, it was voted both the best and worst album of 1973. It seems that New York Dolls was an enigmatic album and one that divided opinion. Forty years later, history has been rewritten.

Ironically, during the forty years since its release, critics who called New York Dolls “mock rock” have changed their mind. These lisping rock critics have now changed their mind about the New York Dolls. Nowadays, New York Dolls is now perceived as a classic album. The New York Dolls fusion of glam rock, proto-punk and hard rock is perceived as innovative and ahead of the musical curve. The New York Dolls are credited as one of the founding fathers of punk rock. Since then, many groups have imitated the New York Dolls swaggering brand of good time music. Nobody comes close. No ifs, no buts. Having released a career defining album, the New York Dolls never bettered. If ever there’s a case of a band peaking to soon, this was it. 

Raw, intense and full or energy describes New York Dolls. It’s as close you’ll get to hearing what the New York Dolls sounded like live. This was a no frills album. Sleazy, sassy and raunchy, New York Dolls is lo-fi, good time music. It’s no wonder Todd Rundgren only spent half a day mixing New York Dolls. Although he was a strange choice for the Dolls, he harnesses their energy and enthusiasm. Maybe the Dolls should’ve called the album Raw Power? Apart from a few occasions where Todd Rundgren’s overdubbing goes too far, he strikes the right balance for a debut album. He doesn’t overproduce New York Dolls. Having said that, he was the wrong man for Too Much Too Soon.

That’s where Shadow Morton came in. He produced Too Much Too Soon, a much more polished album. Too Much Too Soon, the New York Dolls’ sophomore album, is an iconic, innovative album. Ironically, Too Much Too Soon almost passed unnoticed. It hardly troubled the American charts. After its release, Mercury sent the New York Dolls on an American tour. It proved chaotic and almost broke the band. On their return from the ill-fated tour, Mercury dropped the Dolls. Later in 1975, they split up, against a backdrop of rancour, drug abuse and hedonism. The hardest living party band were no more.

Despite reforming, the New York Dolls never reached the same heights. New York Dolls and Too Much Too Soon are the best albums the New York Dolls ever released. Nothing else comes close to these two iconic albums, which  provided the template for punk and spawned a thousand impersonators. However, not one comes close to the New York Dolls which is a classic album. 

Classic Album: New York Dolls-New York Dolls.



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