Too Much Too Soon
The New York Dolls
Mercury SRM 1706
Released: June 1974
Chart Peak: #167
Weeks Charted: 5
The New York Dolls' first album expanded their cult from Manhattan to the rest of hardcore, hard-rock America. As a result, Too Much Too Soon is less specifically rooted in Manhattan, though its bluster and swagger are no less urban. Rather than the specifically New York City "Subway Train" of their first LP, there's "Babylon," the town on Long Island, the Philadelphia soul of "There's Gonna Be a Showdown," and the Chinese accents of "Bad Detective," Too Much Too Soon is plainly about moving a lot and not going anywhere. "All dressed up/got nowhere to go," sings lead guitarist Johnny Thunders and he is aching for release.
Just as lead singer David Johansen's taunting "Do you think you could make it with Frankenstein?" encapsulated the first album, Thunder's "C'mon, gimme some lips" becomes the motif of this one. The Dolls have never lacked arrogance, which has earned them often invidious comparisons to the Rolling Stones. But now their self-confidence seems matter of fact. "Frankenstein" defended their eccentricity -- bassist Arthur Kane's chemise, Thunder's feathery hair, and Johansen's New York accents. "I'm a Human Being" isn't a taunt but a statement of complicity: The Dolls have discovered that they really aren't that different.
Onstage the Dolls' dynamism covers their rough edges. But their records work as well. Too Much Too Soon owes much to producer Shadow Morton, who has shown the Dolls how to make those edges stand in relief against the group's natural and undeniable talent.
Consequently, even their nerviest attempts turn out successes. For instance, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff's "There's Gonna Be a Showdown" is of interest not just because it is built on Jerry Nolan's drumming. Nolan is the one Doll who approximates the standard definition of musical competence. Critics usually ignore the issue of competence with groups like the Dolls -- but musical competence simply has a different meaning to the Dolls than it has for most groups. They are searching for effects and it is to their credit that we only hear the best of them.
To that end, Too Much Too Soon makes it clear that the Dolls are not just David Johansen's backing band. Both Nolan and Thunders emerge as powerful forces. Thunder's "Chatterbox," which he wrote and sings, is a classic -- his guitar work is as inventive as the most underrated of all metal guitarists, the MC5's Fred Smith. Meanwhile, Johansen is a talented showman, with an amazing ability to bring characters to life as a lyricist.
Ultimately, the Dolls remind me not of a rock band, but of a baseball team. Like the Mets, they are rising from depreciation to become champs. I think they're the best hard-rock band in America right now. As they say, "I can hold my head so high, 'cause I'm a human, a riff-raff human being."
- Dave Marsh, Rolling Stone, 6-20-74.
Almost everyone I know who really likes the Dolls attributes it to their attitude,and I would have to agree. I like their attitude too; I just wish I liked their music a little bit more. This new album doesn't answer any of the questions posed by their debut disc (like can they write? sing? play?), and the production by New York legend and schlock-meister Shadow Morton doesn't help clarify the situationally. The guitars don't roar the way Todd Rundgren allowed them last time out, although the backup chicks he's added on some of the numbers are a nice touch, providing a much more effective background for lead singer David JoHansen's sort of, uh, limited vocals. More tellingly, however, the originals are simply more of the same; there's been absolutely no growth since "Personality Crisis."
All that aside, I have to admit that the moldy oldies the boys have dredged up here are absolutely fantastic. "Stranded in the Jungle," in particularly, on of the oldest rock songs extant, is done to perfection, with lots of exotic percussion á la Martin Denny and Johnny Weismuller, and sung by JoHansen in a hilariously accurate re-creation of the early-Fifties New York black vocal style; "Bad Detective," with the guitars playing "Chinatown" and a J. Arthur Rank gong coming in at the finale, is one of the funniest rock tracks I've heard in quite some time.
So what can you say about the Dolls? I have no idea whether they're any good at all, but they're entertaining as hell, and if JoHansen ever decides to stop imitating himself, he might just turn out to be an interesting singer. Against my better judgement, I sort of like this record. A lot, in fact.
- Steve Simels, Stereo Review, 7/74.
No one has ever made the mistake of claiming that the New York Dolls are a good band (after all, they barely know how to play their instruments), but what just about everybody has been forced to admit is that they're usually an entertaining group. Hence, any album by these lads has to be approached from two directions.
On the one hand there's the question asked of every record: "What's its musical worth?" In this case the answer is one big fat zero. The Dolls aren't very talented by any stretch of the imagination. Their instrumental capacity is limited to the most basic bar chords and elementary one-position solos. Yet on their debut album they were able to dodge this problem, primarily on the immense production talents of Todd Rundgren. His mastery of the boards enabled the band to constantly project the image that something was happening, even if it was essentially the same things on every song.
Well, Rundgren didn't produce this one. A gent by the name of Shadow Morton was accorded the honor, and he's failed miserably at duplicating the Runt's feat. Where Rundgren's production tended to detract from the Dolls' weaknesses, Morton's tends to make them all the more obvious, constantly reminding the listener that the Dolls are as repetitive as a scratched record and roughly half as interesting.
Then there's the entertainment angle, a tact with which Too Much Too Soon comes out much better. All the songs hereon are relatively lively, fast-paced, ridiculous enough to be considered funny, and, well, damn vapid but enjoyably so. The Dolls like it that way, and are obviously enjoying themselves from start to finish on this disc. The enjoyment is contagious.
Oh, well, as I once told Jon Landau on the subject of this very same band, "a little rock 'n roll never hurt anybody." Sure, they're awful, but if everybody's having fun -- why not?
- Gordon Fletcher, Circus Raves, 9/74.
Some people criticize the Dolls for setting the music scene back ten years. Personally, I can't find a better argument in their favor. What was so bad about 1964? Is the future all that much more attractive than the past? Producer Shadow Morton makes the Dolls sound like a band that was ahead of their time in 1964, and if David J. & the boys weren't so goddamn trendy-oriented I might even believe them.
- Jon Tiven, Circus Raves, 9/74.
Like so many cocky songwriters, David Johansen overloaded his debut with originals and then found that record promotion wasn't a life activity that inspired new ones. But his stock of golden oldies is so private -- Leiber & Stoller's "Bad Detective" could have been written to order, and he steals "Showdown" from Archie Bell -- that this expresses his innermost self and locates him in history simultaneously. It also avoids such mundane follow-up perils as excess ambition, minimal material, and instant tedium. Follow-up producer Shadow Morton has psyched him into recutting the vocals until his full talents as an impersonator shine through. He's also added gongs, gunshots, and girlie choruses to Johansen's usual slew of sound effects. Greatest sound effect: Johnny Thunder's buzzsaw, destined to vie with heavy-metal fuzz in the hearts of rock and rollers everywhere. Greatest non-Johansen song: Johnny Thunder's mewling "Chatterbox." A+
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
Their second (and last) album mixes well-chosen soul/R&B covers with a slew of striking Johnny Thunders-David Johansen originals. It's good enough to make their early demise even more regrettable. * * * * *
- John Floyd, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
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