“I don’t really like to sit around the house listening to my own records. They’re not that good”. One reads David Johansen’s speech and thinks ‘what a curious proclamation’. Was he simply espousing the truth about a band whose discography received wholesale rejection by the corporate establishment? Or yet more wily sass from Staten Island’s greatest musical antagonist? I would plump for the latter. For the Dolls’ debut is unique in the canon of contemporary pop and, like Johansen’s statement, filled with contrarianism. Glamorous yet filthy; feminine yet masculine; a type of proto-punk wholly relatable yet so foreign to the modern ear. A sonic niche that only one record continues to fill.
In ’71, Johansen (joined by guitarists Johnny Thunders & Sylvain Sylvain, bassist Arthur ‘Killer’ Kane & drummer Billy Murcia) formed the Dolls, adopting their name from the ‘New York Doll Hospital’, a toy repair shop opposite the male clothing boutique where Sylvain worked. The Dolls took inspiration from the androgyny of mid-60s Stones, fusing it with the primitive musicality of their NYC contemporaries, most obviously The Velvet Underground & The Stooges. By early ’72, the Dolls were peddling their wares around the Manhattan club scene, most notably a quasi-residency at the Mercer Arts Centre and several headline slots at Max’s Kansas City. Throughout the year, the Dolls attracted considerable attention, most notably from The Face’s frontman Rod Stewart who invited them to open up his upcoming London gig. Yet tragedy struck, with Murcia dying of heroin-induced asphyxiation at the post-show party. New drummer Jerry Nolan was swiftly recruited and upon their return to the States a record deal beckoned. Mercury Records’ A&R man Paul Nelson offered a two-album deal and a substantial $25,000 advance which was snapped up gleefully. Contracts were signed (in some cases by the Dolls’ mothers; some of them were too young to sign) and they decamped to The Record Plant on West 44th Street with producer Todd Rundgren in tow. Consisting of the most hedonistic and debauched sessions in Record Plant’s history, the record that followed was to wind up as one of the most influential in rock history.
The needle hits the groove and one is met with the snarling tub thumper ‘Personality Crisis’, an instant hit which sets the tone of urban street filth mixed with ambiguous sexual tropism. Themes range from political comment (‘Vietnamese Baby’), licentious healthcare professionals (a cover of Bo Diddley’s ‘Pills’) and deviant hangers-on (‘Trash’). The musicality is a distinct hodgepodge of Fats Domino-esque blues mixed with melodies adapted from Spector-era girl groups. In terms of production, simplicity is key, with Rundgren pursuing a no-intervention policy and Thunders & Sylvain opting for the simple one tone Les Paul Juniors. But what ties the album so succinctly together is its androgyny and ambiguity. The cover artwork of five testosterone fuelled boys in latex, stilettos and lipstick has a shock value like no other, causing the listener to constantly question the lyrical motivations. But style never won over substance. For there is one salient quality of the record that few groups achieve; that underestimated element lacking from vast swathes of twentieth century ear piss — humour. Can the listener really keep a straight face when, in his Marlboro-induced howl, Johansen shrieks “Is it a crime for you to fall in love with Frankenstein … My name is Frankenstein!”? The quality of not taking oneself seriously is constantly overlooked in the music business but the Dolls evidently garner its value and embrace it with distinct aplomb.
Yet not everything is perfect. The one major qualm I have with the album’s audio aesthetic is the drum production. It’s abysmal. One can only assume that Rundgren was so hopped up on illicit panacea that he didn’t realise the drums sound as if they were recorded in a Pringles tube. A shame because Nolan was a truly talented percussionist and formed a tight rhythm section with Killer Kane. But over time I’ve forgiven this engineering transgression; after all, mixing a record with five coked-up egotists is an unenviable task.
Sadly, what followed wasn’t rosy. Within four years of recording New York Dolls, the group were stoned and dethroned. After recording the aptly named Too Much Too Soon in ’74, relationships had been strained by drug-induced animosity and the Dolls split at the end of ’76. Johansen continued with a successful solo career, adopting the persona of ‘Buster Poindexter’ and scoring a hit with a cover of Alphonsus Cassell’s ‘Hot Hot Hot’. Tragically, other band members continued succumbing to their addictions. The indulgence in narcotics which led to Billy Murcia’s untimely demise in ’72 continued, with Thunders (despite his success with The Heartbreakers) dying of an opioid and amphetamine overdose in ’91, whilst Killer Kane received brain damage as a result of an alcohol-related accident.
But is the story a New York tragedy? Barely. To cut a record with such raw yet effeminate viscerality takes enormous ingenuity, especially at a time when the corporate crap fest of prog rock was ruling the musical roost. Not to mention the years of arrests and beatings the Dolls endured for simply dressing as Barbie demi-monde. But it’s the influence of New York Dolls which continues to astound me. Punk is ground zero for modern music and the Dolls not only created but predated it by several years. Put simply, they were the influencers for the most influential bands. Rotten & Vicious payed homage; Morrissey was the president of their UK fan club; even Bowie was a regular gig attendee. High praise indeed.
The Dolls were once described as so bad that they were great. Listen to the record and make up your own mind. Perhaps you’ll start wearing polka dot blouses and grow a bloated coiffure. Or maybe, like Johansen, you just won’t see the hype.
New York Dolls was recorded in April 1973 at The Record Plant, New York City. Released July 27th, 1973 on Mercury Records.
Track Choice: ‘Personality Crisis’
Word Choice: “When everyone goes to your house, they shoot up in your room; Most of them are beautiful, but so obsessed with gloom; I ain’t gonna be here, when they all get home; They’re always looking at me, they won’t leave me alone”.