Whatever our attitude to drugs was in the 70’s there was a general consensus that heroin was a bridge too far. We knew it killed people, Janis Joplin, Tim Buckley, the lead singer/guitarist of our favourite local band Meals had been found dead of an overdose. There was a kind of expectation that heroin would inevitable kill you and LSD would make you mad. It wasn’t exactly the truth but if it killed famous people it was likely to finish off us plebs.
There wasn’t a whole lot of older role models to suggest that heroin could be a long term thing and just one look at a dried up junkie like William Burroughs was enough to act as a deterrent.
One the other hand I have always had a weakness for Junkie music. It started with the Velvet Underground through to the Only Ones, even extending as far as the opiated cocoon of Spaceman 3. I don’t know what it is about heroin music that I like, perhaps it’s the constant underachievement that renders Junkie bands relatively unmarketable. You just know that at any point it could just fall apart. It makes there music kind of genuine.
And so it was probably no surprise that in 1978 I became the owner of So Alone, the first and best LP by Johnny Thunders.
Despite his best intentions Thunders had become punk royalty. He was old enough (26) to have been part of a different generation which had given him a bit of a head start, learning to play guitar in time to join the New York Dolls. This was probably very fortunate as by 1973 Thunders had developed about as far musically as he ever would.
A very significant reason for this was the death in London of the bands first drummer Billy Murcia. Portentously Murcia died when friends asphyxiated him trying to help him recover from an overdose. It was a death that was probably totally avoidable, these were naïve times. Murcia’s replacement was Jerry Nolan, a significantly older guy who became a father figure to Thunders. Unfortunately new dad was an enthusiastic heroin user and very soon Thunders was also hooked.
Unable to fully integrate their interests into the Dolls Nolan and Thunders were first to leave and eventually settled on their own band the Heartbreakers. The band landed in Britain at the end of 1976 like a bunch of latter day GIs. Underpaid under sexed and over here. Instead of nylons and chewing gum they had brought heroin, and Nancy Spurgeon. These were to have catastrophic consequences. Ever since Charlie Parker there has been a confusion between lifestyle and talent. Parker was talented because he had practised a phenomenal amount of hours but there were plenty of lesser players who thought that by copying Parker’s heroin habit rather than his practice regime they would attain his skills. In 70’s Britain New York was as exotic as Mars, these new creatures had landed with their strange ways. Certainly post 76 Heroin started to make its presence felt, certainly among the new generation of musicians in London.
The Heartbreakers managed to shoot themselves in the foot fairly quickly by failing to translate the power of their live performances to vinyl. Quite whose fault it was that their LP LAMF was such a muddy damp squib still rages (it was Nolan !) but one can’t help but feel that if they had all been a bit more together it might have turned out a bit better.
And so, the Heartbreakers were no more but Thunders was still a contender hence his solo record So Alone. And there’s Junkie John on the cover looking all alone and vulnerable bless. The irony being that a Junkie never have to be alone because around the corner there’s a whole lot of potential mates just like them. Thunders has accumulated a load of ‘heavy’ friends many of whom were unaccountably between jobs. Steve Jones, post pistols had been dabbling in the strong stuff, his old mate Paul Cook was along for the ride as was their new best friend Phil Lynott from Thin Lizzy. The three of them would soon be recording an uninspired Christmas Single before the year was out, there was a feeling they were coasting a bit, a suspicion that would continue for the next decade or so. Steve Marriott was also present post half arsed reformation attempt of the Small Faces and he was joined by a couple of the Heartbreakers similarly at a loose end. The only people who potentially had a bright future were Peter Perrett and Mike Kellie from the Only Ones; let’s just say they were there for a reason.
Musically it was a mixed bag, Thunders tastes are strictly retro, he hadn’t exactly been burning the midnight oil on the songwriting front but he had come up with something, namely ‘You Can’t Put Your Arms Round a Memory’, possibly his best song, poor Johnny, he’s so alone. In fact, Thunders had another song ‘Leave me Alone’ at the end of side 1, there’s a theme developing here! Thunder’s other new contributions were ‘London Boys’ a ranty put down of Johnny Rotten, written in Heartbreaker days , ‘Downtown’ a bluesy groove and ‘Ask Me no Questions which sounds like it took more than 10 minutes to put together thanks to Peter Perrett’s contribution. Finally, there was (She’s So) Untouchable. The sort of song the Stones would start to write in the 80’s which is enlivened to Baker Street proportions by the sax of John “Irish” Earle (who was to do the same thing on ‘Dancing In the Moonlight’ by the aforementioned Lizzy).
With a fairly slim selection of songs there’s space for some covers which actually are the most fun. ‘Give Her a Great Big Kiss’ is the old (i.e. about 15 years previously) Shangri La’s Number. ‘Daddy Rollin Stone’ is a similar pub standard which is great until Steve Marriott starts showing off and ‘Subway Train’ is a recut of a Dolls song complete with sloppy out of tune guitar and Chrissie Hynde on backing vocals.
It sounds like a mess, and it is but I still have a soft spot for the record. Thunders wasn’t a great guitarist or singer but he was great at being Johnny Thunders. The opening track is the instrumental ‘Pipeline’ a tune so simple even I can play it but in the hands of Thunders and the Sex Pistol boys it is a pretty exhilarating noise. On ‘Daddy Rollin Stone’ his whiney sneer completely obliterates Marriott’s soul stylings (Lynott is effortlessly cool on the middle verse). It’s on the covers that you feel that thunders can relax and enjoy himself, there’s more joy on show than you would expect from a bunch of smacked up punks. Producer Steve Lillywhite deserves a lot of credit for shaping what must have been chaotic sessions into a coherent record.
This was the high-water mark for Thunder’s career, he had created a character from which he couldn’t escape. For the rest of his life he would be surrounded by people who wanted to take drugs with him or sell him drugs or use his drugs or watch him OD on stage. There was no way out,its impossible to write anything about Thunders for long without using the word Junkie, his musical legacy is a thin one.
Culturally his impact was more significant, I’m sure the likes of Marriott and Lynott had discovered heroin entirely independently of Thunders but ‘So Alone’ marked a coming together and a coming out of the London community of heroin using musicians. Inevitably it would have it’s consequences, the deaths of Lynott and Marriott, the wilderness years of Perrett and Steve Jones even more tragic was the fate of Heartbreaker’s guitarist Walter Lure who eventually became a stock broker. Heroin doesn’t have to be a life sentence but it certainly screws you up.