The New York Dolls gave the five-year countdown to punk’s much-vaunted 1976 Year Zero. Hailed as the missing link between the Stones and the Sex Pistols, they railed against overblown rock tedium and, most vitally, were teenagers representing the punk ethic that anyone could form a band. Their naturally outrageous image combined gutter glamour with pimped-up hood. The Dolls were like explorers with no map, plotting no strategies, just pursuing their passions to an unreachable Promised Land.
After exploding out of New York to much acclaim in 1972, the Dolls faced a music business and public which simply wasn’t yet ready to handle their noise, image or rowdy gang mentality. The group went on to dissipate and self-destruct, leaving others to clean up. After the Dolls had gone, the raucous, screaming sperm they had ejaculated into an unprepared world kick started the punk revolution. Meanwhile, some of the Dolls paid a higher price than anyone could have dreamed as Billy Murcia, Johnny Thunders, Jerry Nolan and Arthur Kane all passed away over the years.
By the time they reformed in 2004, the New York Dolls were being hailed as originators, trailblazers and even martyrs of punk rock. But the world that the Dolls re-entered is different from the one they left in 1975. Punk rock is now feted by the media and a fixture in posh department stores. Its original shock has devalued over time but its reverberations are felt everywhere. This time, the Dolls have nothing to prove but they are about to unleash a startlingly great new album called ‘One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This’. A magnificent rock ‘n’ roll record, the like of which hasn’t been seen for years. Who’d have thought it?
When Syl leaves the room, David Johansen, Staten Island rooster of cool, leans over to the recorder and says, “I love that guy.”
The future New York Dolls came together around 1971 when school friends Sylvain Sylvain, Johnny Thunders and Billy Murcia started jamming together in the latter’s parents’ basement in Queens, New York. Arthur Kane was recruited after Thunders spotted him and early guitarist Rick Rivets trying to steal a Harley Davidson on Bleeker Street. David Johansen came in as charismatic frontman, playing mean blues harmonica and writing vivid ‘screeds’ of lyrics.
In early ’72, the Dolls moved to a Lower East Side loft, worked up songs like ‘Personality Crisis’ and ‘Frankenstein’, threw wild rent parties, then secured a residency at the Mercer Arts Centre, which exploded into a seismic trash-culture melting pot. They became darlings of the Warhol crowd, got Bowie taking notes and were described as “cute” by Lou Reed. In the early 70s, such raucous guitar-based rock ‘n’ roll went against the grain of interminable soloing and stadium extravaganzas. The Dolls got lumped in with the glitter movement spearheaded by T. Rex and David Bowie, albeit whacked through a turbulent New York street blender, which had absorbed everything from The Stooges to The Shangri-Las.
Alongside Johansen’s starlet caterwauling, living hair explosion Johnny Thunders careered through his bastard mutation of Page and Cochran licks, while corkscrew-locked Sylvain churned out riffs and cooked up the crowd. Arthur Kane was the quintessential ‘living statue’ bassist sporting his unique combinations of sparkly pantyhose and ballet tutus, while Jerry Nolan whipped up a pile-driving synthesis of Gene Krupa and Animal from the Muppets. “It’s what we all brought individually which really made the band,” says Sylvain. “Each person brought something totally unique.”
After being taken under the wing of managers Marty Thau and his business partners, the Dolls found they scared off US record companies. Their ill-fated first trip to the UK to support The Faces at a Wembley Arena charity gig ended in tragedy when drummer Billy Murcia died at a party after being force-fed coffee to revive his downered-out form. The Dolls already had a rock ‘n’ roll death to their name but former Phantom Lord Jerry Nolan – the only Doll to have run seriously with a New York gang – joined and, finally, a deal was clinched with Mercury Records. Pomp-rock prodigy Todd Rundgren produced their first album, providing a neutered version of their live set, but it still pissed over the competition for sass, attitude and expansively-belting tunes. ‘The New York Dolls’ is now hailed as one of the classic debuts, but when it appeared in mid-1973, it didn’t stand a chance in straight mainstream America, who couldn’t get past the dragged up cover. But teen classics like ‘Looking For A Kiss’ and ‘Jet Boy’ still managed to catch ears and change lives, especially in the UK, where it was eagerly gobbled up by the likes of Mick Jones and Morrissey.
The Dolls hit the UK at the end of that year and mortified somnambulant host Bob Harris on The Old Grey Whistle Test, while stirring the kind of furore which would later greet the Pistols on the Bill Grundy Show. I saw them play the Rainbow Room restaurant of London’s Biba department store in December 1973 and was knocked sideways by the sonic splendour and spangled spectacle. It was like everything you wanted from a rock ‘n’ roll band, blown up into a gloriously chaotic cartoon.
After the marauding European tour, the smack began to take over with Thunders and Nolan, while Kane saw the world through the bottom of a bottle. The second album was produced by George ‘Shadow’ Morton, mastermind behind the Shangri-Las, but was pole-axed by his limp mix. ‘Too Much Too Soon’ did nothing to elevate the Dolls’ status and, as they carved a trail of excess and unreliability around the US, they found themselves cast onto the eternal bar circuit.
At the end of 1974, Malcolm McLaren, who’d fallen in love with the group during the ’72 visit, offered his services for a career resuscitation. He helped them out and, at the band’s request, knocked up red patent leather threads. The Dolls were having a laugh, but McLaren homed in on the red angle and they started performing in front of the Communist flag while Johansen read Mao’s manifesto. If America had a problem with the drag, it was positively mortified by the new red makeover. But the controversy it sparked acted as a useful dry run for the group McLaren was putting together back in London. His stint with the Dolls gave him the impetus to ram the nascent Pistols up the British public’s nose to become the most reviled and persecuted group since the Rolling Stones.
In April ’75, while the Dolls were touring dives in Florida, the pressure cooker blew when Johnny and Jerry’s smack supply dried up. After a major row, they split back to New York and formed the Heartbreakers. Although David and Syl assembled another line-up to gig sporadically, the New York Dolls as America’s latest teen sensation were over. By now a Bowery bar called CBGB’s was playing host to Dolls-influenced groups like The Ramones. Six months later, the Sex Pistols would make their live debut. The former Dolls members took off on solo outings with varying success, sometimes crossing paths, until Johnny Thunders died in April ’91 in New Orleans. Evidence points to robbery and murder. His grieving soulmate Jerry Nolan succumbed to bacterial meningitis and pneumonia the following year.
It took old fan Morrissey to stir the Dolls into reforming. Curating the 2004 Meltdown festival, he phoned Johansen and persuaded him to get the group back together. Sylvain jumped at the chance, declaring, “The Dolls left me, but I never left the Dolls!” Arthur had never got over the split and lived for the day the group would reform. He had converted to the Mormon faith after quitting booze in ’91 and took leave from his job at the Mormon Family History Centre on Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles, to come to London.
The unenviable Thunders position went to New York guitarist Steve Conte. When Johansen asked advice from guitar players he knew, they all said Conte. “He’s a feeling person, not a guitar dick. That’s important.” David’s long-time collaborator Brian Koonin took keyboards, while Libertines/Dirty Pretty Things drummer Gary Powell joined up in London.
June 16 – the first New York Dolls gig in nearly 30 years – was one of those magical nights. The years hadn’t taken away any of Johansen’s camp blues-man charisma or Syl’s full-tilt enthusiasm, while Arthur just stood basking in the realisation of his lifelong dream. They played a blinder and the warm emotion of the night led to a second show and festivals.
Triumph turned to tragedy on July 15 when Arthur unexpectedly died. While the others stayed in England for a festival appearance, he had returned to Los Angeles, saying he felt unwell. He arranged a medical check-up and was diagnosed with leukaemia. Two hours later he was dead.
Arthur had been accompanied on the UK trip by filmmaker Greg Whiteley, who turned the footage into a poignant epitaph called New York Doll. “When you see that movie you can see that for his whole life, Arthur was waiting for the New York Dolls to get back together again,” says Sylvain. “He was so sick, poor thing. It was like mind over matter.”
David and Sylvain were faced with the decision of whether to continue. They decided to go for it while they continued to have fun. Former Hanoi Rocks bassist Sam Yaffa joined up, while Brian Delaney, who’d drummed at the first Meltdown rehearsals in New York, replaced Powell. As the new Dolls played the US, David and Syl started planning an album.
“It’s a great fucking band,” David enthuses. “We were in the Dolls first, which was like a democracy where everybody had an equal say. Syl and I then went on to have bands where we said, “Well, here’s what you’re gonna play”. That’s all different now. It’s a BAND and you have camaraderie and all that kind of stuff. The most important thing really is how a band fits together and gets along, y’know? It’s been a long time so it’s important that the people all have an affection for one another that’s natural. Everybody’s bringing something to the table. You never know what’s gonna happen. It’s always great but it’s always different. It’s exciting like that. We’ve carried that right into the studio on our new album.”
“We’re natural beasts in having to play live,” says Syl. “We could’ve lived on without even making a new record but David insisted. He said, “Sylvain go back, try and write a couple of new songs.”” The group signed with Roadrunner Records and started recording in January with Jack Douglas, who’d engineered the first Dolls album. Backing tracks were recorded live and the new group found itself combusting gloriously. This time, the production caught everything with crystal clarity and the Dolls finally made the album of their dreams.
In true Dolls style, nothing was planned. “It happened very organically,” said Johansen. “Most of the stuff that we do, it comes up and we just do it. It’s not like we go, [strokes chin] “What if we put on a dress?” It’s like, “Hey, this’ll be a laugh, let’s do this!” and it happens instantaneously. We’re not really planners. But then I think other people look for cues and grab ideas from people who are spontaneous. The majority of people are very self-conscious and don’t really have that much spontaneity.”
There is no denying that Thunders, Kane and Nolan are irreplaceable, larger-than-life characters. Some can’t even entertain the idea of the Dolls without them. This has to be looked upon as a new group keeping the original Dolls’ spirit alive. It warms the soul to see the two surviving members laughing and swapping jokes in the knowledge that they have finally made that killer record. The album steers quite ecstatically through widescreen girl group pop and reflective ballads to the expected gung-ho rockers.
“That’s where we made our only mistake – We made a rock ‘n’ roll record!” sniggers Syl.
When Syl leaves the room, David Johansen, Staten Island rooster of cool, leans over to the recorder and says, “I love that guy.” Later, I ask Syl how he feels about David. “The one thing about David is how fucking funny he is. I have such a good time with him. I missed that through the years when we didn’t work together. I lost my best friend and my funniest friend. There’s more than just music between me and him. It’s much more than that.”
In 2006, the New York Dolls are more than just a memory again. One day it will please us to remember even this? Do it now!