The New York Dolls had the style, attitude, rawness and audacity to reinterpret the notion of punk as it had existed in the ’60s (i.e., with no political sensibilities but a debt to R&B) to create a decidedly ’70s over-the-edge new reality prior to punk. Although they made only two proper albums and were a meaningless relic by the time the Sex Pistols played their first gig, the Dolls singlehandedly began the local New York scene that later spawned the Ramones, Blondie, Television, Talking Heads and others. A classic case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, the Dolls were much more than just a band. Their devoted original audience became the petri dish of a scene; they emulated their heroes and formed groups in their image. Detractors’ venom inspired countless teenage rebels. Their signing to a major label set an example of commercial feasibility; their subsequent failure to shift product turned the record industry anti-punk for years.
After building their reputation on seedy late-night New York stages, the Dolls’ awful magnetism netted them a label contract. Todd Rundgren took the production reins, and delivered a great-sounding document with all the chaos intact. A genuine rock classic, New York Dolls contains “Personality Crisis,” “Looking for a Kiss,” “Trash” and other wondrous slices of gutter poetry punctuated by David Jo Hansen’s slangy howl and Johnny Thunders’ sneering guitar. No home should be without one.
The legendary Shadow Morton produced the second album; though the results don’t match Rundgren’s, the Dolls come roaring through nonetheless. There are fewer originals, but the songs they covered have never been the same. “Stranded in the Jungle,” “Showdown,” “Bad Detective” and “Don’t Start Me Talking,” reflecting the band’s live repertoire at the time, affirm the Dolls’ R&B roots.
Thunders and (with a newly spelled surname) Johansen (and, for a while, guitarist Syl Sylvain) proceeded in opposite stylistic directions for polar but equally notable careers; bassist Artie “Killer” Kane went through various local bands before vanishing; drummer Jerry Nolan stuck with Thunders to form the Heartbreakers. In 1977, Mercury repackaged both original Dolls albums together with new artwork and liner notes by Tony Parsons.
Except for the appearance of original drummer Billy Murcia (whose death in London, noted in Bowie’s “Time,” considerably helped build the Dolls’ legend before they had recorded a note), the nine 1972 demos released as Lipstick Killers are of archival value only, underscoring the enormity of Rundgren’s subsequent accomplishment on the first record.
More archaeology: Red Patent Leather captures the fading Dolls on a New York stage in 1975 during a brief era when a pre-Pistols Malcolm McLaren managed them. The set includes a bunch of otherwise unvinylized numbers (e.g., “Daddy Rolling Stone,” “Something Else,” “Pirate Love”) but is not exactly a peak performance. Live in NYC — 1975 is an expanded reissue of the same record. Paris Le Trash is another vintage live document. Rock’n Roll is a compilation (nearly complete, but not quite) of the two original studio LPs augmented by three previously unreleased tracks.
The Johansen/Sylvain record, recorded a few months later in Tokyo on a post-breakup contractual obligations tour, is a bootleg-quality live album by the remains of the band (Thunders and Kane are absent; Tony Machine is on Nolan’s stool). Strangely, the cover design of this blue-vinyl item makes an unabashed bid to be mistaken for a David Sylvian release.
Indicative of the Dolls’ enduring relevance to young people, both English and American Mercury issued compilation albums in the ’80s. Night of the Living Dolls manages to uncover a heretofore unreleased take of Shadow Morton’s “Give Her a Great Big Kiss,” a tune the Dolls used to play. The Dolls’ side of After the Storm contains the killer ’72 demos (not the subsequent set on Lipstick Killers) that had been issued as a 1982 UK EP): “Personality Crisis,” “Looking for a Kiss, “Bad Girl” and “Subway Train.”
Thunders died in April 1991. Nolan died the following January. Kane made it to 2004, ironically expiring months after Morrissey brought what was left of the Dolls back together for the London show documented on CD and DVD later that same year. With sidemen on guitar, keyboards and drums, Johansen, Sylvain and Kane do a credible job with their old repertoire, adding a bit of Johnny’s “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” in tribute. If the mood is disconcertingly nostalgic and the guitar playing overly facile (like the countless acolytes of Keith Richards, no Thunders fan has ever gotten his sound down), the determination and pleasure of the principals is satisfyingly audible.