Back in 88 or 89, I remember sitting around a table at the now dead and gone Y-Not Grill. It was about 3 in the morning and the five of us at the table were either a little drunk or giddy from lack of sleep and countless cups of coffee. In our state of mind the subject of this our own Algonquin Round table turned to music. The subject at hand, was what were the 10 or 20 records that made a difference in the period leading up to punk and caused punk. Was it the Velvet Underground and Nico? Was it the Modern Lovers first record? Was it one of them Beatles records? Was it the MC5 Kick Out the Jams? Was it the Stooges Fun House? Or was it David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust? This caused much heated discussion, insults being thrown and much pounding on the table but the thing that soundly seemed to be agreed upon was the first New York Dolls record.
You can't talk about the Dolls without bring up tragedy and talk about just how far head of they were from everyone else. The history of the Dolls reads as a hand book of what not to do to succeed in music. Especially if you are breaking new ground. Formed in 1971 in the gutter of New York City by Aurthur “Killer”Kane, Johnny Thunders, David Johansen, Billy Murcia and Rick Rivets. Early on Rivets was replaced by Slyvain Sylvain and the Dolls took over New York with there driving blues based rock and roll and there trashy, ugly drag queen style. In a time where spit and polish dominated the mainstream the Dolls gave a peep show view into the seedy dark side of the urban American expeirence. They spoke to those on the fringe of society and told their story. With little attention outside of basic word of mouth they began to build a fan base around sold out shows at Mercer art Center. Becoming
the NYC's hipsters band to see. Playing to crowds that ran from Junkies and prositutes to the who's who of the entertainment industry and the social scene out slumming in Downtown New York City. Fame came their way with an invite from Small Faces Rod Stewart to open a show at London's Wembley Auditorium in October of 72. Taking the Dolls from playing 350 seats to 13,000 seats for the first time. The show caused overnight a bidding war between labels wanting to sign the band. A complete
turning around from what they had been going throw in the US, where labels felt they wouldn't sell in the fly-over states. While their then manager Marty Thau was in fact on the phone taking bids on a deal, he received a phone call telling him that Billy Murcia was dead. The cause of death was he had passed out at a party after drinking too much and taking some pills. To keep him from over dosing, a couple of groupies poured coffee down his throat and it resulted in him drowning. If left to sleep it off he may still be with us. The result is most of the record companies withdrew their offers and the band went on hold until Jerry Noland sat down on the drum stool.
In late 72 they were signed to Mercy Records and in a short two weeks recorded their the self tittled record and it was released in July of 73. The front cover shot of the members in Drag did nothing to gain the following of middle America which wrote them off as gay. They toured the US with limited success but in England and Urban areas the impact was felt. Regardless of the amount of influence they were gaining and would see in later years, the band itself was barely making enough money to survive. Substance abuse began to rear it's head in the form of Kane's Alcohol use(many times a roadie having to fill in at shows) and in Thunders and Noland's heroin use. By the time the second record 'Too Much Too Soon' had come out most of the heart was driven out of the band. They had gone from playing stadiums with tons of press coverage, especially in Europe to returning to the smaller clubs. After the poor sells of 'Too Much Too Soon' Mercy dropped the band. Leaving the door open for the enter Malcolm Mclaren and his ideas of trading in the drag for Communist Red. If drag made people run away in terror, the dirty C word caused them to lock themselves in the bomb shelter. No one got it not even the fans.
The Dolls came to an end in Florida in a Trailer Park in mid 75 when Thunders and Noland left for home to score some Chinese Rocks. After a short 4 years it was all over and music would be the same cause by then too many people had heard them and they were all starting bands of their own.
Thunders and Nolan joined with Richard Hell and formed the Heartbreakers while the rest struggled on for a short time. The Heartbreaks became a huge influence on the growing punk scene of the mid/late 70s. Even though Thunders had all the makings of greatness and could went on create a larger impact, he instead seemed have made a career out of being a junkie. Not say that he didn't in fact create some great music but he gave people on easy out to dismiss him as a joke until he's death by over dose in 91. Which was shortly followed by that of Jerry Noland. Aurthur Kane went on from project to project trying to recreate the magic that was there with the Dolls. Growing increasing bitter about the success of those that followed in the Dolls footsteps he continued deeper into alcohol and drug abuse until hitting rock bottom, rehab, finding God and then working in the LDS(yes, that's right I meant Latter Day Saints) temple in Los Angels. Johansen gained fame with both acting and the success of Buster Poindexter. Sylvain Sylvain continued playing and touring. Living mostly off the fame gained by his years with the Dolls.
In 2004 the remaining three living members reunited for a one off show in London for the Meltdown Fest. The show began a renewed interest in the band which lead to a record contract with Roadrunner. However, there wasn't to be a happy ending, Aurthur Kane, the man that had waited 30 years for his band to reunite died shortly after the reunion show. The Dolls recently released a record on Roadrunner Record which to the date of this review, I have heard but a few songs. What I have heard is good but doesn't seem to fit into the Dolls of old but then again should it?
There has over the years been so much written about this record it's hard to say anything new. This record not only launch a 1000 punk bands but was a diffident influence of the 80s glam “metal” bands. So it's fitting that the first track is called Personality Crisis. Through out the record you can hear the basic back to the roots that would shape the punk rock to come. The lyrics paint a picture of the urban teenage life of the mid 70s. Yes it is kind of simple and yes it is kind of campy but to get a clear understanding you have to look at what a sorry state pop music had became at that point. This is the point where the musician became the “Artist” and they were let loose to write 15 minute songs that were in short, lacking the energy of earlier bands. It went from writing a good song to experimenting and finding your artistic voice. So, along comes the Dolls with their striped down, back to the root and straight to the point rock n roll. It was a breath of fresh air to 1000 of kids that would rather dance then sit and listen to some artist masturbate 20 minute songs. For a lot of bands this was like a slap in the mouth and a wake up call. When you consider that those that shaped the music of the late 70s and early 80s took their cue from the Dolls. The list is long but a few examples are Kiss, Talking Heads, Blondie, Ramones, Gun & Roses, Motley Crue, Sex Pistols, the Clash and on and on.
The highlights for me well always be 'Thrash' with it's almost too caughty chorus, 'Jet Boy' which has one of the great starts you'll lucky enough to ever hear, 'Personality Crisis' for it pure excitement, Subway Train for it's sweetness, 'Looking for a Kiss' for the pure theme song feel of it, 'Pills' for it's cheesiness and Bad Girl.