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-fueled, 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.
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.
Late in 1972, the Dolls embarked on their first tour of England. During the tour, drummer Murcia died after mixing drugs and alcohol. He was replaced by Jerry Nolan. After Nolan joined the band, the Dolls finally secured a record contract with Mercury Records. Todd Rundgren -- whose sophisticated pop seemed at odds with the band's crash-and-burn rock & roll -- produced the band's debut New York Dolls, which appeared in the summer of 1973. The record received overwhelmingly positive reviews, but it didn't stir the interest of the general public; the album peaked at number 116 on the U.S. charts. The band's follow-up, Too Much Too Soon, was produced by the legendary girl group producer George "Shadow" Morton. Although the sound of the record was relatively streamlined, the album was another commercial failure, only reaching number 167 upon its early summer 1974 release.
Following the disappointing sales of the Dolls' two albums, Mercury Records dropped the band. No other record labels were interested in the group, so the Dolls decided to hire a new manager, the Brit Malcolm McLaren, who would soon become famous for managing the Sex Pistols. With the Dolls, McLaren began developing his skill for turning shock into invaluable publicity. Although he made it work for the Pistols just a year later, all of his strategies backfired for the Dolls. McLaren made the band dress completely in red leather and perform in front of the U.S.S.R.'s flag, all of which meant to symbolize the Dolls' alleged communist allegiance. The new approach only made record labels more reluctant to sign the band and members soon began leaving the group.
By the middle of 1975, Thunders and Nolan left the Dolls. The remaining members, Johansen and Sylvain, fired McLaren and assembled a new lineup 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.
Upon the Dolls' breakup, David Johansen began a solo career that would eventually metamorphose into his lounge-singing alter ego, Buster Poindexter, in the mid-'80s. Syl Sylvain played with Johansen for two years before he left to pursue his own solo career. 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 23, 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 Meltown 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 leukemia, and he died only a few hours later, on July 13, 2004, at age 55.
There are hints of girl group pop and more than a hint of the Stones, but The New York Dolls doesn't really sound like anything that came before it. It's hard rock with a self-conscious wit, a celebration of camp and kitsch that retains a menacing, malevolent edge. The New York Dolls play as if they can barely keep the music from falling apart and David Johansen sings and screams like a man possessed.
The New York Dolls is a noisy, reckless album that rocks and rolls with a vengeance. The Dolls rework old Chuck Berry and Stones riffs, playing them with a sloppy, violent glee. "Personality Crisis," "Looking for a Kiss," and "Trash" strut with confidence, while "Vietnamese Baby" and "Frankenstein" sound otherworldly, working the same frightening drone over and over again. The New York Dolls is the definitive proto-punk album, even more than anything the Stooges released. It plunders history while celebrating it, creating a sleazy urban mythology along the way.
Words - Stephen Thomas Erlewine
After the clatter of their first album failed to bring them a wide audience, the New York Dolls hired producer Shadow Morton to work on the follow-up, 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.
Words - Stephen Thomas Erlewine
This volume of the 20th Century Masters series attempts to be a good, low-priced introduction to the New York Dolls. The collection culls five songs from each of the Dolls' two (early) studio albums and adds the non-LP track "Lone Star Queen." The selections are solid: From the first album, "Personality Crisis," "Looking for a Kiss," "Trash," "Pills," and "Jet Boy" were chosen. One could argue that it would have been nice to include "Lonely Planet Boy," one of the great punk ballads, to show off the bruised romantic heart of the band, but it isn't a criminal omission. The picks from Too Much Too Soon are "Babylon," "Stranded in the Jungle," "Puss 'N' Boots," "Don't Start Me Talkin'," and "(There's Gonna Be A) Showdown" -- great songs, one and all.
Words - Tim Sendra
Reunion shows by bands with a major creative legacy are always a problematic matter, and when Morrissey persuaded the surviving members of the New York Dolls to play a set at the 2004 Meltdown Festival in London (which he curated), lots of fans wondered aloud if David Johansen, Sylvain Sylvain and Arthur Kane had any real business calling this band the Dolls without the presence of deceased guitar hero Johnny Thunders (and to a lesser extent, without similarly absent drummer Jerry Nolan).
Of course, audience sentiment is a fickle thing, and since the Meltdown gig turned out to be one of the last public appearances for Arthur Kane -- who, with typical bad luck, died due to undiagnosed leukemia a few weeks after the show preserved on this album -- this recording now stands as a tribute to the fallen bassist, who desperately wanted a gig like this to happen many years before it finally became a reality. So it's appropriate that while this doesn't quite sound like the New York Dolls, it does sound like the best Dolls tribute band you could ever ask for.
While Sylvain and Kane doubtless added a lot in terms of vibe and esprit de corps, what really makes the difference sonically is Johansen; since he became a solo artist, he's displayed a certain ennui towards the Dolls' legacy, occasionally visiting their songs out of seeming obligation rather than enthusiasm, but here he sings his old songbook with real passion, commitment and force, and if his voice is deeper and less supple than it was in 1972, it's his juice that really brings this gig to life -- if this doesn't sound like the band that tottered on outsized platforms at the Mercer Arts Center, Johansen's performance suggest those days are still clear in his mind, and he's determined to reclaim their spirit in this show.
Guitarist Steve Conte lacks Thunders' otherworldly snazz, but then again he doesn't make as many mistakes as Johnny did in his latter days, and drummer Gary Powell and keyboardist Brian Koonin fill their spots with aplomb; they're pros who obviously love this music and attack it with the affection it deserves. So, no, this isn't really the New York Dolls, but you'd have to be a great curmudgeon to fault the participants for use of the name, and this band of veterans and pretenders certainly did right by their mighty legacy on the evening these tapes rolled. Bye bye, Arthur.
Words - Mark Deming