One of my fondest memories of university life is walking back from a tiny club called Riffs through a fucking rough part of Leeds at 2am some winter morning, having had all my overtures to the fairer sex thoroughly rebuffed, freezing cold, drenched in sweat, singing ‘Personality Crisis’ by the New York Dolls at the top of my lungs with two mates, doing all the whistles and theatrical asides too. I can remember the energy of being young right there and then and all the mist being so thick that you couldn’t see the first four or five floors of the tower blocks, just the odd illuminated rectangle seemingly perched high up in the big nothing above you.
When everyone goes to your house, they shoot up in your room
Most of them are beautiful, but so obsessed with gloom
I ain’t gonna be here, when they all get home
They’re always lookin’ at me, they won’t leave me alone
So how did it come to that? Back in February ’89 after I’d bought a couple of Hanoi Rocks LPs and Wake Me When It’s Over, the owner of Back Street Records asked me if I’d ever heard the New York Dolls because he knew I’d really like them. funnily enough I had heard of them because they were ranked high on my 1988 (?) Kerrang! 100 best LPs ever list, so I risked a chunk of my dish-washing money on a 2LP set that packaged New York Dolls with Too Much Too Soon*.
First impressions: There were some really ugly chicks sat on that couch and the cover of Too Much Too Soon was possibly the coolest live photo I’d ever seen – I think it still is actually, from Johnny Thunders about to hurl that doll into the crowd with a snarl, to Syl Sylvain’s alarming nipple-revealing flared dungarees with matching leopard print platforms and bow tie combo** the energy just streams out from that image. I wanted in.
I loved New York Dolls right from the first listen, I don’t know whether it was because I could hear them as the disreputable grandfathers to all my favourite bands, or whether it was just the fizz and theatricality of the songs themselves, although I found the heavy vibes of ‘Vietnamese baby’ and the unrelenting buzz saw of ‘Jet Boy’ a bit too much at the time. I fell for that sloppy, glitzy raunch of ‘Personality Crisis’ right from day one. I loved the fact that beneath all that glamour there was a real sense that any one of the Dolls would knock you cold if you took the piss out of the fact they just happened to be dressed in drag.
It is a gloriously relentless album too, the hits keep on coming, lurching towards you on high heels ‘Looking For A Kiss’, the frighteningly tough ‘Frankenstein (orig)’*^ and on and on and on and on. There are some great changes of pace with the tender ‘Lonely Planet Boy’ and the raunchy-as-anything cover of ‘Pills’ which on the right day can be my favourite New York Dolls cut. Listening to ‘Jet Boy’ again tonight it does astonish me that this was pressed in 1973, there just wasn’t any real context for it then – punk was an age away yet. Damn Johnny Thunders could play though, forget all the mythological junkie chic, the man could really, really play – reputedly the fastest right hand in NYC at the time.
I read Will Hermes’ brilliant book on the 70’s New York music scene recently, Love Goes To Building On Fire and the way he describes the New York Dolls at their peak … they just provided the juice that everyone else hooked up on and ran with. Unfortunately, they were always an unstable mix, often chemically and destined to have a short life as a band but while they burned, they burned like magnesium. What they did though was take their love of and belief in the transformative power of rock and roll and channel it through the energy of their own scuzzy near-bankrupt city. Anyone who doesn’t thrill to David Johansen’s (mis)appropriation of the Shangri-La’s ‘When I say I’m in love, you best believe I’m in love, L-U-V’ ^at the beginning of ‘Looking For A Kiss’, surely has never thrilled to all those fabulous 60s girl groups, had a bad case of the Saturday night tingles and/or simply has no soul.
Let’s face it no-one bought New York Dolls, or next to no-one but all the right folks seemed to hear it / see them and they lit their own touch-paper from the band – Springsteen and KISS amongst them, the album set up a strong ripple effect that is still expanding outwards today. The myth has it that they then burned out, made a crap follow-up LP and the wreckage got picked over by Malcolm McLaren and dressed in red patent leather, Blackie Lawless included at one point. The myth is wrong, well in one respect at least.
Too Much Too Soon, produced by a ‘proper commercial producer’ Shadow Morton was supposed to be their big breakout, rather than their big break-up. I played it all of about four times in the late 80’s and wrote it off as crap. Well I have news for y’all^^ getting to know Too Much Too Soon this weekend has been an unalloyed pleasure – what was I on when I wrote this off?! In a lot of ways this is a more conventional album, the Dolls are mostly on their best behaviour, the instruments all nice and distinct from one another and this LP veers straight into rock and roll vaudeville, David Johansen’s actor tendencies really surfacing on vamps such as ‘Stranded In the Jungle’ and ‘(There’s Gonna Be A) Showdown’; hell they even essay some sub-Beach Boys harmonies on ‘Puss N’ Boots’. Maybe this is what put me off back then, right now I love it.
But for every ‘Bad Detective’ with its wacky noises and sound effects, there’s a real burner like ‘Who Are The Mystery Girls?’ where you can hear Thunders and Sylvain churning away in the depths, under the backing vocals. My own two favourites are the bluesy ‘It’s Too Late’ where Johansen blows a mean harp and the astonishing ‘Human Being’. There’s a damn good case to be made for this being their best ever track. Just listen to that astonishing pure raw punk guitar sawing followed by a ‘1-2-3-4’, Johnny Ramone was certainly listening! Add in some fairly random sax skronking and other rhythm guitar plinky-plonks and Johansen snarling over the top and you have 1974 punk rock.
Well if you don’t like it
Go ahead, find yourself a saint
Go ahead now
Try to find a boy
Who’s gonna be what I ain’t
This is pure bottled cacophony and for once Morton sounds like he just gave up trying to produce this deliriously, gloriously fucked-up mess and let the band run the tape down. It’s a real sound out of time, out of context, out of control and out on its’ own. ‘Human Being’ makes me ecstatic to be alive, in the face of this chaotic, shambling, random hill of beans we call life, that’s no mean feat. Thank you Dolls!
I could go on and on ’til the break of dawn, but I’ll finish up, put a stake through its’ heart and press ‘publish’ right here. Now take it away and pucker up guys:
I need a fix and a kiss
I need a fix and a kiss
I need a fix and a kiss
…I’m a looking for a kiss
*Was there ever a more aptly titled LP?
**just imagine if he’d committed the faux pas of wearing zebra-skin boots (shudders theatrically).
*^so titled to distinguish it from the Edgar Winter track of the same name from the same year.
^They were bad girls, B-A-D;
^^that’s how we folk from Carmarthen speak, yee-haw!