Having escaped a magnificently sordid reputation as the decadent voice and face of the New York Dolls, David Johansen managed to earn himself a place in mainstream rock circles (and beyond). While keeping a firm grip on the musical values that originally inspired the Dolls, Johansen crafted a uniquely urban style that suits his rough-throated singing as well as his Lower East Side personality.
David Jo’s solo debut was a very successful launch, containing most of the songs for which he came to be known. “Funky but Chic,” “Donna,” “Frenchette” and “Cool Metro” (three of which were co-written by ex-bandmate Syl Sylvain) are played in grand post-CBGB fashion by some of the Bowery’s best vets. Better than bar-band but decidedly unslick, David Johansen perfectly transforms an insolent punk into a rock’n’roll adult.
Without destroying his urban soul, In Style makes an effort to clean and dress up Johansen’s sound. Adding synthesized strings and horns, attempting overambitious stylistic experiments and relying on decidedly sophomore-slump material, In Style‘s two good tracks (“She” and “Melody”) are lost in the morass. The failure of In Style undoubtedly inspired the misdirected Here Comes the Night, an ill-conceived stab at making Johansen simultaneously into a heavy metal shouter and a sensitive, poetic artist. A lot of very talented people had their hands in this project, but weak songs and the lack of cohesion make it a disaster.
Fortunately, Live It Up put Johansen’s career right back on course. With his longstanding reputation as a great performer and empirical evidence of a well-received live promotional-only record made for radio in 1978 (and finally given commercial release in 1993), it was a judicious tactic to cut a live album for regular release. Benefiting from carefully chosen classic tunes and Johansen’s extraordinary skill as a song interpreter, Live It Up is a great party record by a great singer. Johansen comes alive!
Relieved of his CBS-affiliated record contract, Johansen concentrated on performing (appearing regularly in New York as his suave alter-ego, Buster Poindexter) for over a year before returning to the vinyl jungle with Sweet Revenge. Sharing the bulk of the songwriting and production with keyboard player Joe Delia and joined in a half-dozen studios by a large collection of sidemen, Johansen disconnects from the R&B rootsiness that, to some extent at least, had always characterized his work, replacing it with strong, synth-heavy rock that would be regrettable were it not for distinctive vocals and witty songwriting. Some of the record flops, but “Heard the News,” complete with ersatz Spanish newscaster, blends Latin American political commentary with one of the catchiest melodies of his career. “King of Babylon” is a clever novelty item.
Crucial Music is a well-chosen (if skimpy) ten-track sampler drawn from the Blue Sky albums, with an unsurprising focus: six songs come off the first LP, although several are actually from the live record.
Johansen finally hit the big time when he allowed his part-time persona, adult jazz/blues smoothie Buster Poindexter (also the longtime name of his music publishing company), to take over his career. Aided by a New York club residency and regular television appearances (on Saturday Night Live), Buster’s debut album with the horn-heavy non-rock Banshees of Blue (led by Joe Delia) did the trick. The generally lighthearted romp through cabaret and swing styles of the ’30s and ’40s recalls both Spike Jones and Cab Calloway, blending sweet nostalgia with gruff crooning. Given the inconsistent, scattershot program (a schmaltzy ballad, one terrible rocker, another cover of “House of the Rising Sun” done as a torch song, a few other misdirected duds), the choice of a sprightly pre-Lambada soca number, “Hot Hot Hot,” as a single was a stroke of genius: it did the chart trick and guaranteed Buster’s continued existence.
Buster Goes Berserk more or less repeats its predecessor’s formula, but with less quirkiness and more party-animal posturing. On the album’s only two original tunes, Johansen attempts to bridge the gap between the Buster persona and his “real” self, but not enough to keep the album from sounding amiably redundant.
When David Johansen first crawled off Staten Island to terrorize the free world in the early 1970s as the snarling, cross-dressing frontman of the New York Dolls, who would have dreamed he would someday be the subject of a 20-year-career retrospective? Stardom was the Dolls’ willed invention, a mocking delusion shared with the cult of devoted fans who would trek out to see them night after night. Live performance was Johansen’s first and abiding love; acting in movies became his second. Seven of the albums he made with the Dolls, in his solo career and and as Buster Poindexter are represented in From Pumps to Pompadour. With level-headed song choices and two live cuts adding spice to the platter, this concise summary of his three-step program from “Trash” to “Frenchette” to “Hot Hot Hot” tells the David Jo story with personality to spare.