Email The Capn Reader Comment Guidelines The Capn's Log: News

New York Dolls

Gobbling Pills in your Red Patent Leather while standing on the Chinese Rock can get pretty Hot Hot Hot

New York Dolls
In Too Much Too Soon
Live NYC 1975: Red Patent Leather

Lineup Card (1972-1975)

David Johansen (vocals) also Buster Poindexter

Johnny Thunders (guitar) also of the Heartbreakers

Jerry Nolan (bass) also of the Heartbreakers

Sylvain Sylvain (guitars)

Bill Murcia (drums)

Arthur Kane, Jr. (bass) 1972

The Dolls were one of a handful of bands, along with the Modern Lovers and the reformed Stooges, that persisted for a short time during that weird rock twilight after the death of garage rock in the late '60's and before punk rock exploded into vogue in 1975-6 that fiercely refused to really fit in with any of the current trends. They played rough, short songs with minimal polish or pretense, expressing far more anger and aggression than anybody in the mainstream.  When their debut came out in 1973, the Dolls were lumped in as a glam band because they worse women's garter belts and shitloads of makeup and played some dirty guitar, but the glam fans were primarily 13-year old girls with stickers on their foreheads who probably thought the Dolls looked like their pothead older brothers in drag.  They were summarily rejected by the trendies and died a quick death fuelled by their unfortunate relationships with heroin and their even more unfortunate relationship acting as rock band management guinea pigs for certified English fop and future Swindle-r Malcom McLaren.  The Dolls story is short, sordid enough to be worshipped by wussy no-future punk nihilists, and pathetically bungled enough for aging rock color commentators to hand-wring over being one of the last 'true' rock 'n' roll bands. I'm not a member of either one of those groups, and generally don't feel the Dolls' near-mythic status is justified considering the entire Detroit scene had been playing this hard since 1968.  The most important part of the Dolls name turns out not to be the Dolls part (signifying sluttiness, disposability, and gender-tweaking), but the New York one...this band gets all the marks because they sprung up in the rock press's backyard and, made them feel justified in touting New York as still the 'birthplace of cool' instead of a complete waste of time as a music scene. Listen, here's a group of assholes who'd been hanging around New York dictating to everyone what was cool and what wasn't, all the while not being able to point to a single decent rock act to come out of their fair city since the Velvet Underground six years before. The New York Dolls was just the white stallion the critics needed to hem and haw over, to prop up as the torch-bearers of rock 'n' roll and to justify their existence in the time when El Lay soft tissue and British dinosaur rock ruled the roost.

Indeed, the Dolls are interesting, even thirty years later when the majority of them are dead and gone.  For one thing, categorizing their sound is damned difficult - they're definitely closer to being a glam band than say, a metal band or whatever, but their approach was unique for the genre. Instead of being fey and mannered, singing songs about going to Mars on a rocket fueled by glitter and tears, they were ugly and violent, wrote songs about riding the subway, feeling horny and strung out, and taking drugs, and they played their guitars like Ron Wood crossed with Fred 'Sonic' Smith. People often point to the Dolls' connection to the Rolling Stones, made obvious because of singer David Johansen's facial and gymnastic resemblances to Mick and Johnny Thunders' obvious Keith darkhaired junkie ghost style, and the similarties don't end there.  Thunders is just as slashing as Keith at his live-punk best (Keith on record is much more controlled than Thunders or Keith live) and Johansen barks his jive-boy snot with very Mick-like panache, plus that tenor range voice and wailing harmonica comes a lot closer to the source than many other Jagger comparisons flying around the same time.

Sure, you can claim that Boston's Aerosmith were doing the same thing as the Dolls at roughly the same time, with the blazing Stones rock, the big-mouthed makeup-wearing singer and the copius booze and pills and powders, but the while there's definite similarities between the respective bands' rockers, these are two bands diametrically opposed. Aerosmith look back to the young days of psychedelic hard rock for their influences, your Yardbirds and Creams, and take their dark-mystical image directly from the supernaturally obsessed young acid-eaters of the '67-68 London scene. Tyler and Perry played the hyperactive singer/mysterious guitarist role closer to Plant/Page than Jagger/Richards, and outside of a few tracks there's not a person alive that would claim Aerosmith spoke for the young street like the Dolls did. The Dolls, whatever can be said, do not play blues rock. They don't even riff, fer Chrissakes! They play 50's derived rock 'n' roll in three variations, all magnificently loud and driving, but probably taking between thirty seconds and a minute each to compose.  If it weren't for the Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee Lewis song catalogs, the Dolls wouldn't have had anything to play at all. Plus, the Dolls were weird. They dressed like 42nd Street whores, talked (and sang) like Brooklyn dockworkers, and looked like they'd been beaten to shit by uptown thugs. They were ambiguous...what they hell did they signify?  Was there a statement being made, or were they just Noo Yawk toughs on too many drugs and Bettie Page movies? In comparison, Aerosmith were about as ambiguous as a garden rake.  Aerosmith was safe for poxy young longhairs with machismo issues and a love/hate relationship towards those darned devil wimmens...the Dolls were, well, something else. Too rough for limp-wristed Bowie queens (not to mention Lou Reed fans), not big-chest poseur enough for the metal crowd.  So who did the Dolls appeal to at the time, anyway? Not too many folks, apparently, or their albums would've sold more.

Anyway, the Dolls image and sound was about as influential and important to what came after as any band in the last thirty-odd years, but less can be said of their actual songs.  This is a band for whom getting the sound loud, rocking, and uncompromising was good enough, and apparently it's enough for their fans, too.  Their albums are chock full with nothin' but groovin' hard rockers, sometimes funny, sometimes dark, sometimes just loud, but always rocking. It's a charge, especially their first one, but it's also quickly numbing.... numbing in a way that the first several Ramones albums, to take the next logical example, absolutely were not. The problem I have with really enjoying their music is that the Dolls simply never make their guitar buzz consist of much more than the same boogie lick that black R&B piano players have been punding out since the 1800's.  They don't riff like the Pistols, Clash, AC/DC, or Stooges, break their songs into as many interesting pieces as the MC5, or hit those melodies like the good ol' Ramones.  Instead, they flail, chug, and crank through pretty much the same small lunchbox of licks over and over throughout two albums, and never attempt to add a second, hidden level behind their songs like the Stones were always able to do.  Even the band themselves seemed to notice by the time the second album rolled around, pulling out some suitably cheeky cover songs to add a bit of shakeup to the mix. I also blame the 5-watt rhythm section, one of the least powerful, intelligent, or swinging of the proto-punk era.  The end result is that New York Dolls is numbing and Too Much Too Soon kinda over-cute, and while they had some great hooklines ('Personality Crisis!', 'Lockheed was my bay-bay!'), none of their songs is particularly memorable by itself.  Can you hum 'Frankenstein'? Fuck no, and neither can I. Hell, neither can David Johansen.  Of course, that said, their ability to crank it effortlessly veritably kicked the ever-loving shit out of Kiss (a shameless ripoff of the Dolls for some time), Sweet, and most other 'rough' rock bands of their era, but I'll not go into that right now. I guess my New York Dolls reviews will show that I'm not such an addict of convincing, heavy rock that I'll award an A to anything that comes down the pike, like I did with AC/DC.  Hell, what can I say? AC/DC has all the humor and power of the Dolls plus an encyclopedia of memorable riffs...and it's only your fault you think they're idiotic cheese.

New York Dolls - Mercury 1973

Loud. Rocking. Blazing fast. Provocative. Sure, sure. But also too goddamn long.  Wait, the quintessential proto punk document? The blueprint for Ramones and Never Mind the Selling Out and Blank Generation and Close to You, boring? I'll tell ya, never once have I listened to the Dolls debut without thinking that it drags like a motherfucker and would definitely benefit from one or two tracks being lopped right off.  Which ones, you so smart-assedly ask? Well, I'd have to choose 'Bad Girl' for sure...and the second? Hrmm...I'll probably get my ass kicked for saying this (how? Probably by my headbanging little 2-year old, who loves rock 'n' roll like this), but it'd also probably toss 'Frankenstein', too.  Jesus, this song is just a fucking coda for six minutes! Okay, so Johansen roars like an F-4 Thunderbolt when he's riled up, but can we maybe shave off two or three minutes of 'FRANKENSTOYYYYYNNNN!!!' and pull out another tempo-shift classic like 'Trash' instead? And while we're at it, if I never hear the boring 'Subway Train' power ballad again, I'll be able to forget the pain of trying to learn to love it in the first place.

Hell, am I being picky, or what? Taken individually, pretty much all the rest of these songs are great basic, loud rock songs.  I certainly get off on the opening trio - the banging pianny on 'Personality Crisis' and the sneaky-Pete motorcycle spritz dare of 'Lookin' For A Kiss' and the Blue Oyster Cult-y machine violence of 'Vietnamese Baby',   but over the course of the next several songs, the additive effects of too much hyperfast electric twisting and bash-bash rhythm playing just drive me into a near hatred of both the Thunders slash and the Johansen bark.  It simply sounds like that's all they can do, though that's not really the case. They mix it up with some acoustic guitars, saxophones, and cymbal crashes on 'Lonely Planet Boy', do a reasonable Doll deconstruction of a Stones-y blues rocker on 'Pills', and never get darker than they do on 'Vietnamese Baby' (and its Siamese twin 'Frankenstein'), but that is about it for throwing junk. Everything else is smoke right down the middle of the plate, as if you can overpower everyone who comes in contact with you. Without riffs, planned out leads, or better hooks, it's just messy rock 'n' roll, and if I want messy rock 'n' roll, I'll go to Seals and Crofts like a sane individual would.

They don't even make this endless parade of crunch sound big or atmospheric, because rather than strumming huge skyscraper chords, Johnny Thunders plays endless leads way up on the neck where the air gets thin and so does the guitar tones, and the rhythm section never leads anything anywhere. Johansen is left to save it with his trashy hook-phrases and nearly parodic Noo Yawk over-enunciation. (I guess when your mouth is as big as David's is, it's tempting to turn every 'you' into 'yeeaaawwwooo' just to feel how your lips smack against your chin).  He's never angrier and more thuggish than on this record, and the near-endless stream of vitriol unfortunately get just as tiresome as the rhythm section's Big Jim the 2/4 Man act by the time the idiotic, formulaic 'Bad Girl' gets around. The only truly notable thing about 'Bad Girl' is that it's probably the loudest thing on the record (though it is, in fact, damned difficult to tell), but it also shows us that without the little concessions - a background vocal here, some acoustic guitar there, the Dolls are a formidably moronic band. Take 'Jet Boy'...the handclaps might impress the ironic side of your snootily contrarian art-school brother in law, but I hear the goddamn Blue Oyster Cult again, except the Blue Oyster Cult played fast like this without having their rhythm section turn into a quivering ball of tapioca pudding (or require handclaps to keep the tempo up).

For all the undeniable ferocity of this lengthy bastard of a record, I'm just not moved enough by it to give much more of a damn about it than I would any other album packed to bursting with near-metallic fast rockers.  Perhaps I feel I need more mixing up, like the acoustic interludes on Black Sabbath albums, or maybe I just like my songs with more than one goddamn idea each. Whatever it is, for all the good rockin', New York Dolls still makes me feel really old by the time I'm done with it. Geez...can you imagine what this album would be like if Johansen didn't have his goofy sense of humor? The words 'Dead Boys' come to mind.

Capn's Final Word: You think Gene Vincent done it this way? They could stand to tighten down a bit.

 Click Here to Fill Out the Handy Dandy Reader Comment Form

Nathan Harper    Your Rating: B+
Any Short Comments?: Don't worry, I actually agree with you about 'Frankenstein.' It's long, boring, ugly, and it has no melody! Probably the worst thing on here, if ya ask me. The first two songs are great though, and 'Pills' is probably my favorite on here. It's just a really fun song! So, despite the problems you mentioned, it's still a pretty enjoyable record, just overrated.


In Too Much Too Soon - Mercury 1974

'Im totally bummed out.  Why didn't New York Dolls make us a big hit with the kids? We played fucking loud, man. Isn't that what kids want? To hear loud rock 'n' roll? They like Humble Pie and BTO and shit like that, why not us?', asked one Mr. David Johansen, sometime in the Spring of 1974.

 'It must be because you're not exploring your ironic Gay campy Fifties doo-wop side to it's fullest potential, David', said the horde of Big Wormy Apple rock writers, 'it's the sign of any good rock 'n' roller nowadays that they act like a big, stupid, fucked up transvestite clown onstage, just like Lou Reed! You know we luuuuve Lou Reed and his faaaa-bulous dyed blonde hair, and his onstage smack injection, and his songs about tucking your cock and balls between your legs to look more girlie! We just can't get enough of him now that he's stopped being so darn dark and started paining on his Day-Glo eat-shit smiley face. Lookit where it got him, too...that's right, right to the top of the charts, and with a cheesy-butt doo-wop jazz-soul sendup, too. And anyway, doncha watch television?'

 'Only monster movies, mostly. I don’t think Thunders even knows how to turn it on. Why'dya ask?', inquired Johansen.

 'Take a look sometime...them Fifties are hotter than Ann-Margaret in a policewoman's uniform nowadays.  You can't turn around without knocking into an American Graffiti or a Happy Days or a Laverne and Shirley.  It's a goldmine! Sheeit, they gave Sha-Na-Na their own primetime TV show, and they're even stupider looking than you guys! Just a bunch of fags in leather and wife-beater t-shirts, jumping around onstage, combing their hair all the time like they've got headlice. If those idiots can make it work, why not the Critical Darlings of All Of New York? Just give the Fifties thing more of chance, that's all were sayin'.'

 'I dunno.  I'd do it, but Johnny and Jerry like the Stones too much, you know.  You sure we need to play more like a Fifties band?'

 'Well, don't go putting pomade in your hair, Dave, but yeah, just boogie it up some.  I mean, doncha think you could do some songs that, you know, sound like the Shangri-Las, but with Marshall stacks? Record some fahhhbulous covers of cheeseball old stuff, we'll guarantee you a Village Voice blowjob piece that the kids'll go bonkers for, saying how you're So New You're Old Again and the Rebirth of Rock 'n' Roll and all that jazz. Just have a bunch of tracks that make your vocals sound like a cross between Louis Armstrong and that guy from the Troogs, and we'll do the rest. You can even throw a couple of your old-style Stooges rockers on there if you need to placate Thunders...we'll let it go.  But just make sure it's cute and cuddly most of the way so people can see what nice guys you all are.  Just maybe go watch West Side Story if you need some inspiration. We just don’t need this 'dangerous rock 'n' roll rebel' image anymore...we sold out of all that back in the mid-Sixties.  Nowadays we want Arthur Fonzarelli rock stars. You know, guys who wear the leather and are always called 'cool' by everyone, but never actually kick anyone's ass. That's what we envision for you guys...just consider your ass-kicking days over.  Anyway, we all know you guys really just go home and play Scrabble after your concerts. It's all a big put on anyhow.'  

'Yeah, I suppose.  I mean, Thunders has been bugging me to start a fucking softball team to play against those Kiss fuckers. *Sigh...* Alright, I guess we can camp it up if you promise we'll be on Don Kirschner's Rock Concert before a couple of months are out. We want the kids out there telling themselves how revolutionary we are for melding this Fifties shit and a bunch of stupid distortion.  Mostly, we're tired of being called 'punks'! We're just a bunch of Brooklynites who like to put on dresses and act like the Gay Stones, is that so wrong? Yeah, that's cool. I'll run down to the record store on the way home and pick up a copy of that Scotty Moore solo album for Sylvain and Johnny to brush up on.  Shit, Thunders is halfway to that Sha-Na-Na shit anyway. Give him a haircut and a bath and he's Squiggy, fer Chrissakes. He's already worn out his copy of Eddie Cochran's Greatest Hits, if you can believe that. It won't even play's got grooves the size of Debbie Harry's snatch. I tell the guy to learn some goddamn chords already, but all he keeps telling me is that 'If it was good enough for Duane Eddy, it's good enough for me.''

 'Cool, baby.  You're in the bank already.  Just remember - backup singers and call-and-response tunes like Al Jolson used to sing...them's the ticket, baby! Oh, and don't forget Lou Reed! Gay is the way! Number One, Baby! Number One!'

Capn's Final Word: Straight to the top!

 Click Here to Fill Out the Handy Dandy Reader Comment Form

Mike     Your Rating: C+
Any Short Comments?: Best review you've ever written, no question.


Live In NYC 1975: Red Patent Leather - Fan Club 1984

It turns out my MP3 copy of this live album is scratched up worse than Mary Kate Olsen's tonsils, so I'll have to nail down another copy before I listen to it once, give it a B-, decry the shitty sound quality, and say something derogatory about how all the New York Dolls songs sound like  Cab Calloway fronting Bill Haley's playing through a bank of cranked Marshalls.  Mark it down on your calendars, boys!

 Click Here to Fill Out the Handy Dandy Reader Comment Form

Back to the Index