I read about the New York Dolls for the first time in the August 1974 issue of Hit Parader magazine when the band was mentioned in a piece about the nascent New York punk scene, as a pioneer of the then current New York scene. The piece mentioned that David Johansen had a new project and that Johnny Thunders, the Dolls’ lead guitarist, and Richard Hell, from Television, had joined to form The Heartbreakers.
This piece was also my introduction to these names and bands such Television, the Ramones, Blondie and Talking Heads, all of whom became well-known and successful.
It was only from 1977, when I became a regular reader of the New Musical Express (NME), that I learnt more about the Dolls. Hit Parader had regularly mentioned David Johansen and his solo career (and influenced me to buy the records when I saw them) but by then the Dolls were history and Hit Parader was all about what was currently hip and fashionable.
The first two significant facts I learnt about the New York Dolls was that the band played tough, Stonesy rock and roll and that the band members, way before British glam rock, dressed up in women’s clothes, not as trannies, but as accessories to their streetwear, for a bit of old fashioned, rock and roll glamour. According to the NME, the Dolls were part of a trilogy, with the MC5 and The Stooges, of influences on the UK punk bands of the late seventies, in that they were rebellious, outrageous, and played stripped down, loud, fast rock and roll, the antithesis of prog rock and heavy bands of the mid-Seventies.
During 1975 Malcolm McLaren, soon to be the manager of the Sex Pistols, managed the last incarnation of the Dolls and made them wear red leather, and no longer the funky feathers, satin and tat of their early years, to suggest something far more radical and dangerous. McLaren’s ideas and guidance failed to revive or sustain the Dolls’ career.
The original band released two albums, New York Dolls(1973) and Too Much Too Soon(1974) and neither of them ever made it to the one Stellenbosch record store at the time. I did however buy the first three David Johansen solo albums but probably only from about 1984 when they were floating around in bargain bins.
It was more than 40 years after the Dolls’ albums were released, that I started hearing tracks from them, starting with “Trash” on a compilation of songs that influenced UK punk, and then “Personality Crisis” and “Looking for a Kiss,” presumably three of the band’s best known and most loved songs, but it wasn’t until I joined the streaming service Apple Music that I had ready access to the New York Dolls entire output, as well as that of Johnny Thunders, solo and with The Heartbreakers, and Johansen again. There were also videos of performances by the Dolls and the David Johansen Group on YouTube.
The bounty, and irony, of services like Apple Music and YouTube is that, at the age of 60, I can finally listen to music that was contemporary when I was a teenager but not commercially popular enough to receive airplay on South African rock radio or to be available in record stores, yet became legendary far beyond its time and commercial impact. So, instead of investing time in keeping up with contemporary music, I spend more time seeking out and listening to music of the past, and no longer so much the important acts of the Sixties, but the Seventies bands that played the kind of hard, fast rock I enjoyed then, and still do. These bands were active when I was a spotty teenager and yet I was completely ignorant of their existence. Today I want to explore the musical landscape of my youth, that was closed to me at the time, partly because I was living in Stellenbosch, a conservative backwater even as a university town, and partly because the bands were obscure to everyone but the cognoscenti and rock critics who had no impact on commercial success despite their continuous praise.
Johansen is a good, witty lyricist with a marked New York sensibility and the music has tunes, power and groove, and the proverbial Stones-ian swagger that’s so often held up as the hallmark of a great rock and roll group. I suppose Johansen and Thunders could have been presented as the Jagger and Richards of the Dolls, if less legendary, though they weren’t the exclusive song writing partnership in the band.
It’s fun to listen to the Dolls because the music isn’t just dumb fun, though it is tremendous fun, exhilarating and tuneful, and has the same pop savvy that the later punk bands, both US and UK incarnations, had. If they rebelled against the status quo, it was a young person’s rebellion against the establishment with the aim, however vague, to replace that establishment with a new approach to music and fashion that would also achieve commercial success.
First you want to write songs to perform, then you want to record the tunes for posterity and then you want an audience for your gigs and who’ll buy your records. Bands like the New York Dolls don’t set out to be cult successes and influences on later, more successful bands; they don’t just want to sound like the Stones, they want to be as wildly successful too. sometimes it just doesn’t happen though.
The Dolls had long hair like the hippies but didn’t wear tie dye and natural fabrics. They didn’t live on the farm or in a rural commune. They probably preferred amphetamines, cocaine and, ultimately for some, heroin to weed. As young, hormonal, horny urban guys with a bohemian streak, they dared to brighten up their look with fashion items previously associated with women, a fashion statement presumably as a poke in the eye of the more conservative, straight, older generation, even the older rock generation, and having fun with the English concept of effete heterosexuality, and androgyny. It’s a basic tenet of showbiz that you have to get the attention of the people who can shape your career and of the people you want to persuade to pay hard earned money to attend your gigs and buy your records and merchandise, and that the best way to do this, is to be outrageous and dangerous-looking. Image and attitude is everything when you start out; when you can back that up with decent music, you should be a winner.
The New York Dolls never made a popular breakthrough, not in the USA and not in the rest of the world, for various reasons. Some of it’s down to the drug troubles within the band. Their first drummer, Billy Murcia, died of a drug overdose, and Johnny Thunders and bassist Arthur Kane had their issues. Failure to launch might also be due to inept management, poor record company support and the lack of hit singles.
It’s sad for the Dolls that the first version of the band only managed two albums, in the same way we have only three MC5 albums and two Stooges albums, but it’s great for us that we have at least that and the best part is: not only are these albums are good to excellent, but the musical snapshots are frozen in time with no lengthy discography of albums over a forty year career, with evermore diminishing returns as time goes by, as is the case (for example) with the Rolling Stones.
The Dolls (only Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain) did reunite in the 21stcentury and released three more studio albums but those will not be the records and songs for which the New York Dolls will be remembered. There is also a slew of live releases of gigs and collections of demo recordings from the Seventies, that are historically important for completist fans, but hardly vital or necessary. If, with The Dictators, you only need Go Girl Crazy!, with New York Dolls, you need only the first two albums. That’s all she wrote.