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The New York Dolls
Mercury 675
Released: August 1973
Chart Peak: #116
Weeks Charted: 12

Jerry NolanArthur KaneJohnny ThundersSylvain SylvainDavid_JohansenThe album cover hits with a stark black and white photo, side scrawled in lipstick red across the top. The boys appear on a white satin couch with a strange combination of high pop-star drag and ruthless street arrogance. There's lipstick, eye shadow and platform boots, but there's also some sinister slipstream flowing here. Remember the earliest Stones's publicity photos? What was scruffy and outrageous then looks so commonplace now - -in ten years will this photo seem as quaint?

But the Dolls are a lot more than just another visually weird band. In much the same way that the Stones and the Who began as symbols of and for their club audiences, the Dolls, in their series of legendary gigs at the Mercer Arts Center came to be the forefront of a new creature/clan. Somebody once described them as "the mutant children of the hydrogen age": boys and girls of indeterminate gender, males with earrings and flashing orange hair, females with ducktails and black leather, interchangeable clothes, make-ups and postures, maybe gay, maybe not -- and what's it to ya, mothafuckah? (Wistful lost children with battery acid veins and goldbrick road dreams...how hard it is to be outrageous these days...).

The New York Dolls - The New York Dolls
Original album advertising art.
Click image for larger view.
Interesting sociologically, but it could get pretty deadly on a music level, if it weren't for the Dolls's street sense. They don't take their movie any more seriously than they take anyone else's, and they play it with a refreshing and sardonic sense of humor.

In fall of last year the Dolls toured England, where their first drummer died of chemical complications. They returned to the US and added friend Jerry Nolan, who seemed to spark a tightening-up and surprising musical growth. The band attracted a lot of record company interest, but most executives went away mumbling and snarling - -with the exception of Paul Nelson, who kept coming back. In time a contract was signed and work began, with whiz-kid producer Todd Rundgren at the board. At first the combination seemed not only bizarre but unworkable: Todd, ace of complex board work and over-dubbing sessions versus the driving but basic dead-end kids of the Seventies. But strangely enough, the compromise between live raunch and studio cleanness and complexity seems to work about 90% of the time.

Generally, the Dolls's live sound is the traditional two-guitar, bass and drums, with occasional harmonies behind lead vocals, and for the most part, it is maintained here. As is often the case with first albums, the group got too hung up with the toys of the studio -- a few lead lines are all but buried in overdubs, some vocal choruses are just a bit too rich -- but on the whole, it's mostly straightforward power rock.

Lead singer David Johansen wrote most of the lyrics, and his keen sense of the absurd comes through on the opening cut, "Personality Crisis," a driving rocker. "With all the cards of fate mother nature sends, you mirror's always jammed up with all your friends...You got so much personality, you're flashing on a friend of a friend..." The cut is a jumping companion piece to classics like "20th Century Fox" and "Cool Calm and Collected." After finishing the screaming end of the take David sauntered into the control booth at the Record Plant. "Was that ludicrous enough?" he asked earnestly.

Looking for a Kiss" is many people's favorite Dolls song. It's another full-power rocker with contemporary slice-of-urban-life lyrics: "I did not come here lookin' for no fix -- ah, uh-uh, no! -- I been out all night in the rain babe -- just looking for a kiss." Guitarists Johnny Thunders and Sylvain Sylvain (he's the one with the roller skates and clown rouge on the cover shot) lay down a suitably harmonic-cacophonic city sound behind David's sincere plea -- "I mean a fix ain't a kiss!"

"Vietnamese Baby" is a love song, and Todd's magic fingers turn the drums into occasional bursts of machine gun fire. "Now that it's over baby -- whatcha gonna do?" "Lonely Planet Boy" is a comparatively acoustic ballad with a great late-night smoggy city feel, as close as the Dolls get to being ethereal. David's voice is almost a whisper over the Ice Dog saxophone of Buddy Bowser. Although just a taste too busy, the cut has a mood of drifting solitude that's just right at the end of a strange sad night when the manholes have been trying to bite you.

"Frankenstein (Orig.)" -- it was written before Edgar Winter's -- is the album's "bad acid" song. It builds an air of oppressive and droning inevitability, helped along by Todd's drooging on the Moog. In an interview David explained, "The song is about how kids come to Manhattan from all over, they're kind of like whipped dogs, they're very repressed. Their bodies and brains are disoriented from each other...it's a love song."

"Trash" has an infectious rhythm riff, and uses Stones and Beach Boys quotes as well as old R&B lines: "How you call you loverboy? Trash!" It's a nonsensical, good-rocking ass-shaker. Probably the most easily accessible song here is "Bad Girl" ("A new bad girl moved on my block/I gave her my keys, said don't bother to knock"). The guitar break by Johnny is short, catchy and effective. Nobody takes any long solos anywhere; what counts is the song, words and music and the arrangements are lean and mean, put together with craftsmen's ears.

"Subway Train" is a personal favorite. The charging guitar phrase that keeps running throughout has all the metal banshee mania of the Seventh Avenue IRT, and the riff is equally relentless. "I seen enough drama just riding on a subway train," David sings, and if you've ever been there you know just what he means.

"Private World" is another favorite, about your own fantasy retreat from it all ("Shut the door!") -- with an oddly familiar and infectious riff, and nice honky-tonked piano by Todd and Syl. The album closes with "Jet Boy," mostly words on a swooping riff; Marvel Comics meets the Lower East Side. Throughout, the rhythm of drummer Jerry Nolan and bassist bad Arthur Kane is solid an pulsing, the guitars fast and slashing, the structures simple but effective.

The only question I have is if the record alone will impress as much as seeing them live (they're a highly watchable group). They're definitely a band to keep both eyes and ears on. In different ways, and for widely different reasons, I'm as excited about the Dolls as I was when I first heard the Allman Brothers. I guess it has to do with being real, and caring enough to get it right.

There are a lot of approaches to reality now, the Dolls is one you can dance to. You can love them or hate them, but they're not gonna go away. I'm waiting for their next album.

- Tony Glover, Rolling Stone, 9/13/73.

Bonus Reviews!

One of the best solid rock sets to come along in a long time, featuring raunchy lead vocals, tight harmony backup and excellent instrumental skills. The Dolls obviously have a gimmick (their appearance, of course), but more important they have the resources to back up the gimmicks. The material is original and is the kind of wall-shattering sound that so few bands can achieve successfully. Besides the fast material which makes up most of the set, the band also does well on several slow numbers. After a year or so of playing the New York City area, the band has a following, and this set helps explain why. Credit must also go to the excellent production work of Todd Rundgren, who also fills out the backing with piano and moog. Best cuts: "Looking for a Kiss," "Lonely Planet Boy," "Frankenstein (Orig.)," "Bad Girl."

- Billboard, 1973.

Sixties respect meets Seventies disrespect -- or vice versa. True godfathers of punk, the Dolls provided the initial ammunition for the Sex Pistols, et al. No last gasps of an older tradition, David Johansen and Johnny Thunders were Mick and Keith in defiant and comedic fuck-me shoes, but the early Seventies simply weren't ready for such anarchy in the U.S.

- Paul Nelson, Rolling Stone, 12/15/77.

At least half the white kids who grow up in Manhattan are well off and moderately arty, like Carly Simon and John Paul Hammond. It takes from the outer boroughs to capture the oppressive excitement Manhattan holds for a half-formed human being the way these guys do. The careening screech of their music was first heard in Cooper Union station the Lexington IRT, and they don't stop there. Mixing early-'60s popsong savvy with late-'60s fast-metal anarchy, they seek love l-u-v from trash and bad girls. They go looking for a kiss among the personality crises. And they wonder whether you could make it with Frankenstein. A+

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

Their debut suffers from Todd Rundgren's murky production, but "Personality Crisis," "Pills," and "Frankenstein" manage to break through the clutter. * * * * *

- John Floyd, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

Producer Todd Rundgren perfectly captures the group's tongue-in-cheek mix of glam guitar swagger and bleak NYC realism. * * * 1/2

- Todd Wicks, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

In the early 1970s, pop was either plodding prog rock or idiot teenyfodder. One group with a foot in each camp -- and camp was the word -- were the New York Dolls, a gang of overpainted, high-heeled trendies and student drop-outs, who came from nowhere to produce one of the finest rock albums of the decade. Anglophile New Yorkers, the Dolls had formed in 1972 to create disposable glam with a jagged edge. Johansen's Jagger poses, Thunders' swastika armband and the use of hard drugs kept major labels at bay, but the fuss over the fatal O.D. of original member Billy "Doll" Murcia, and residencies at Max's Kansas City, led to a record deal -- and an L.P. that failed to chart. This was a pity since the "Louie Louie" update "Private World," the stomping "Jet Boy" and the epic, hiccupping "Trash" -- which took the backing vocals of The Herd's "From the Underworld" and sent them into orbit -- were bona fide pre-punk classics. Thunders' guitar and Johansen's hoarse bluesy voice -- as well as his tight three-minute songs -- were stand-outs that captured their live excitement. Ahead lay Malcolm McLaren, the short-lived glory of The Heartbreakers and the premature death that comes to most junkies. But with their debut album, the Dolls flashed their trash.

- Collins Gem Classic Albums, 1999.

Dressed like thrift-shop tarts, armed to the teeth with Stonesy spunk, the New York Dolls enjoyed but a moment's glory: from mid-1972, when they were the toast of Manhattan, to late '73, when their debut LP hit a brick wall of mainstream apathy. But New York Dolls is glitter rock's hottest, only honest vinyl artifact. David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust opera was pop art in spandex; Marc Bolan wrapped Chuck Berry licks in elfin rhyme. But the Dolls -- singer David Johansen, guitarists Johnny Thunders and Sylvain Sylvain, bassist Arthur Kane and drummer Jerry Nolan -- captured both the glory and sorrow of glam, the high jinks and wasted youth, with electric photorealism.

Made in eight days under battle conditions -- producer Todd Rundgren's severe professionalism vs. the band's endless-party aesthetic -- New York Dolls is a triumph of compelling disorder. Johansen's scalded-Jagger bark turns melody into scar tissue; guitars lurch and bellow like wounded bears. "Personality Crisis" opens with a volley of punchy riffing and cathouse piano that sounds like the Dolls are trying to play "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Great Balls of Fire" at the same time.

Then again, "Personality Crisis" is about identity meltdown. The dolls lived what they sang -- original drummer Billy Murcia died of chemical misadventures in late '72; Thunders became one of rock's junkie icons -- and New York Dolls packs the dark wallop of documentary. Johansen's howl in "Looking for a Kiss" has a sharp reportorial edge: "Everyone's gone to your house to shoot up in your room/Most of them are beautiful and so obsessed with gloom." And you can clearly hear the sad truth of glam -- a subculture of homely monsters addicted to makeup and emotional denial -- in the nightmare-guitar sprawl of "Frankenstein" (not the Edgar Winter hit).

Beneath the rouge, the Dolls were saucy pop scholars. Bo Diddley's "Pills" becomes a high-speed, anti-drug blues; Johansen caps the butch-Shirelles effect of the wooos in "Trash" with a sly paraphrase from Mickey and Sylvia's "Love Is Strange" ("How do you call your lover boy? Trash!").




Further reading on
Super Seventies RockSite!:

Album Review:
Too Much Too Soon

New York Dolls Lyrics

New York Dolls Videos

David Johansen Mugshots

The Dolls, like Glam itself, were a crash landing waiting to happen. They ultimately dissolved in a fog of drugs and dysfunction after one more studio album. But New York Dolls remains definitive glitter, the perfect eulogy for a short, spangled era. Next to it, everything else is just glitz.

- David Fricke, Rolling Stone, 4/27/00.

Glammed-out punkers the New York Dolls didn't last long enough to top their debut. Produced by Todd Rundgren, songs such as "Personality Crisis" and "Bad Girl" drip with sleaze and style. The band snatches riffs from Chuck Berry and Fats Domino and fattens them with loads of attitude and reverb.

The New York Dolls was chosen as the 213th greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.

- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.

Pilloried by the press as merely drag impersonators of The Rolling Stones, the New York Dolls were in fact a tight and well-rehearsed band who loved Fifties R&B and Sixties girl groups. In New York they paid their dues at a theater called the Mercer Arts Center, where they were adopted by Andy Warhol's Arts Factory entourage. Convinced they were the next big thing, Marty Thau, who was associated with Aerosmith's management team, struck a record deal. The Dolls' hard-boiled insights into Manhattan's day-to-day decadence and chronicles of underground despair were set to keep The Velvet Underground's flame alive.

Not without some opposition from the Dolls, producer Todd Rundgren transformed the band's basement dynamics with a cinematic sound spectrum. Johnny Thunders' stormy, Chuck Berry-like guitar-playing collided with David Johansen's drunken howl at a wild recording session that yielded an explosive set of songs. The Dolls' streetwise rock 'n' roll majesty (and sharp wit) fueled such gutter classics as "Frankenstein," "Human Being," the joyous romp "Personality Crisis," and "Trash" -- articulating cheap romance and urban alienation within a grotesque but beautiful soundscape.

Trailblazers of New York's early Seventies proto-punk scene, the Dolls were in the middle of an acrimonious breakup by 1975, partly brought about by their self-destructive tendencies. Their achievements had not gone unnoticed in London, though -- in that same year, Malcolm McLaren (who managed the Dolls briefly toward the end of their career) stole their concept and formed a new band, the Sex Pistols.

- Jaime Gonzalo, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.

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