The third band from the states that really influenced British punk had a similar career pattern to the MC5 and the Stooges. Underappreciated even derided in their lifetime they released enough material to at least have a small if slightly unsatisfactory legacy. They popped over to England for a short period to make friends and influence people and then they split up before they had let anybody down.
We are of course talking about the New York Dolls.
Formed in 1971 the Dolls were one of the first really 70’s bands. Like the Stooges I was more aware of the band in pictures rather than in sound. Quite frankly they scared me. The band looked like a cartoon version of the Stones, Singer David Johansen looked like an exaggerated version of Jagger while guitarist Johnny Thunders seemed to be about 90% hair. In addition to that there was bassist Arthur Kane who was big and hairy and scary and confusing, Drummer Jerry Nolan who was small and hairy and scary and confusing and Guitarist Sylvian Sylvain who looked a bit like Marc Bolan which made him the most normal member of the band.
So scared and confused was I by the New York Dolls (remember I was in my early teens and lived in Norfolk) that I never really wanted to check their music out. The thought of bringing their first album home (Arthur Kane appears to be wearing a dress on the cover) where my parents might see it was too frightening to contemplate.
In fact by the time the record appeared in 1972 the Dolls had already lost their first drummer to a heroin overdose while visiting London. Among the disappointed few awaiting the cancelled next day’s gig in Manchester was a young Steven Morrissey, clearly less inhibited than I was at his age.
It appeared no one knew what to do with the Dolls, not their record company, not their producers, not even the band themselves. On a trip to London the band had visited the shop of Malcolm McLaren who immediately fell in love with them. Shortly after he flew to the States to manage the band. Unfortunately he inherited a drummer and a guitarist hooked on heroin and a bass player hooked on alcohol. The addictions of Thunders and Nolan meant they were unwilling to tour too far away from their supplies which limited McLaren’s plans for world domination somewhat. Unfortunately his own plans for the band included dressing them in red leather and performing in front of a communist flag which really wasn’t going to go down well in the Midwest.
And that was pretty much the end of the Dolls, they were set to implode anyway but McLaren didn’t help.
The Dolls were another band that punks were allowed to admit they liked, they were foreign and a little exotic and although they were pretty second rate they were heroic fuck ups which made them, from a distance, look more interesting than they really were.
Musically I liked the band as much as I liked any of the punkfathers. The production on their records left something to be desired but there was a scratchiness about them that reminded me of early Pretty Things as much as the Stooges. I felt that all the American bands had been let down a little by their rhythm sections, the drummers lacked the solid thwack of A Simon Kirke or Kenney Jones but in retrospect that added to their charm. Mick Jones from the Clash liked the Dolls and that rubbed off on his bandmates in London SS. Johnny Thunders set something of the template for a new style of guitar playing which many of the better British players sought to emulate.
There was also the McLaren connection of course. The ginger tailor had had a taste of band management and was now ready to try his luck with a more malleable bunch of local lads. McLarens career is a mixture of brilliance, opportunism and good luck mingled with some enormous miscalculations. The not least of which was his decision to get the Pistols to tour mid America rather like he had done with the Dolls a couple of years later. Just like the Dolls the Pistols simply imploded when removed from their usual environment.
And finally, for those of us able to catch the Old Grey Whistle Test on its erratic late night scheduling there was the iconic appearance by the Dolls on the show. Presenter Bob Harris was a firm advocate of soft rock, country rock singer songwriter laid back hippy vibes. His band of choice were the likes of Jackson Browne, The Eagles, Bonnie Raitt on so on. To be fair the singer songwriter genre was useful because initially the studio was too small to accommodate a band playing live while a piano or acoustic guitar posed no such problems.
Anyway, the Dolls mimed Jet Boy with some aplomb and as the dust settled Harris mouthed the immortal lines
Battle lines had now been drawn, it seems trivial now but music was a lot more ideologically important in the 70’s, soon you would be asked to choose between the bearded laid back hippie vibes and new order.
Here’s that clip now.
And of course the same thing happened with the Dolls that seems to happen to every other band. They laid in wait for the gravy train to appear. Morrissey asked the band to reform for his curation of the Meltdown Festival in 2004. A full reformation was, of course impossible as Thunders and Nolan had died as a direct consequence of their lifestyle choices. Kane survived the gig but a few weeks later thinking her had flu he checked himself into hospital only to discover he had terminal leukaemia.
David Johansen and Sylvian now found themselves far more popular than they were in their heyday and have continued to tour the band with a revolving collection of rather more competent musicians. They have now produced more ‘product’ than they ever achieved in the 70’s and from what I have seen of them are still really rather good.