The New York Dolls are a band that have, over time, come to be defined more by the drugs, debauchery, and deaths of various members than their actual music, although the original line-up has never been given enough credit for being good musicians, in my opinion. Much like The Sex Pistols and even The Ramones, they are always labelled as ‘influential’ in terms of style and attitude, without being given due respect for their musicianship and the songs they wrote and recorded.
Then again, the reputation they had as being hell raisers was well earned. It isn’t a widely-known fact that before they had even recorded their debut album, the band already had a member die in a drink and drugs-related incident. The young band were in London for the first time together – supporting Rod Stewart of all people – and during one particular house party, 21 year-old Colombian-American drummer Billy Murcia passed out, was placed in a bath of cold water, force-fed coffee by some well-meaning but misguided friends, and asphyxiated. Devastated, the band returned to the States and considered packing it in, before Jerry Nolan, several years older and soon-to-be drug buddy of Johnny Thunders, joined on the drum stool. Murcia was a pretty good drummer and an unfortunate loss; he can be heard on the surprisingly-good Lipstick Killers: The Mercer Street Sessions 1972 album, which showcases a young band, whilst raw and green, nevertheless already with a solid groove and plenty of that trademark venom.
My own introduction to the ‘Dolls came when I was probably seven or eight. By some fortunate oversight my mum had let me stay up late on a Friday night (she probably wanted me to be tired the next day for some reason) and the TV was on. I think it might have been BBC 2 that was showing re-runs of The Old Grey Whistle Test, and amidst the endless prog dirge that used to be on that show, there suddenly appeared what looked (to my young eyes) to be five extremely hairy aliens from outer space, making some kind of god-awful racket that was at once scary, bewitching, and damn exciting. I knew they were obviously boys/men, but seemed to be wearing girls/womens’ clothes. At one point singer David Johansen looked into the camera and spewed out the words “my bayyyybayyyyy” and I was scared to death and totally hooked at the same time. Years later I found this exact broadcast on Youtube (they were playing ‘Jet Boy’) and I had a minor flashback of the fear and exhilaration I felt all those years ago. It’s a pretty special band that can do that to you.
Arthur ‘Killer’ Kane, although the least animated of the ‘Dolls, was probably the most outrageous looking of them, as well as being an underrated bassist. Standing about fourteen feet tall in his high-heeled boots and with blonde hair down to his navel, he was an outlandish looking guy despite being a statue on stage. Johnny Thunders, my personal favourite of the Dolls members, was the ‘cool’ member of the group, and one who Sylvain Sylvain once admitted they let join so they could ‘meet more chicks’. His performance could range from fantastic to feckless depending on how he felt or what was in his bloodstream at that very moment. By many accounts he was also a despicable human being, and had more influence on music and modern culture than the rest of the Dolls put together, but that’s a whole other story. There are any books written about the man born John Anthony Genzale, Jr.
So much has been said of the ‘Dolls’ debut album over the years that it’s hard to separate fact from fiction, but one fact is indisputable: the songs still sound really good. Produced by Todd Rundgren, the album is full of tracks that the reformed band (the two-fifths of it that remains, should I say) still play, and still sound good today.
‘Personality Crisis’ is the perfect opener, and immediately has the ‘Dolls sounding like a sleazier, rawer version of the Stones (Johansen even looks like Mick Jagger to this day), while ‘Lonely Planet Boy’ is the ‘quiet’ track on the album, and was later recycled into ‘You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory’ by Thunders on his So Alone album.
‘Frankenstein’ is the longest track at six minutes and brims with Johansen’s throaty screaming and wailing guitar lines before breaking down to an almost spoken-word finish. You can see where Johnny Rotten got his influences from on this track, that’s for sure. ‘Trash’ is one of the ‘Dolls’ most well-known songs, and for good reason. It’s three minutes of pure proto-punk heaven, and includes some surprisingly impressive guitar work by Sylvain Sylvain; who is also criminally-underrated as a musician. They do a calypso version of it on 2009’s Cause I Sez So, and while some music critics called it filler, it sounds fantastic and is well worth a listen.
‘Jet Boy’ is my favourite Dolls track, probably because it was my introduction to the band, as well as being a pretty catchy and gritty track. Sylvain Sylvain once said the ‘Dolls’ debut album contained all the riffs the band could play between them and nothing else, and while it sounds romantic, probably isn’t true. Johansen and Thunders could write a pretty catchy pop tune when they set their minds to it, and ‘Jet Boy’ is the finest of examples of that.
In the end, drugs, disagreement, dodgy business decisions and Malcolm McLaren would put an end to the Dolls as a musical force, but this remains a fantastic album and no amount of myth and legend can alter that fact.