Main Index Page General Ratings Page Rock Chronology Page Song Search Page New Additions Message Board


"Trash, won't pick it up, take those lights away"

Class E

Main Category: Punk/Grunge
Also applicable: Rhythm & Blues
Starting Period: The Interim Years
Also active in: --------



Disclaimer: this page is not written by from the point of view of a New York Dolls fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective New York Dolls fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

For reading convenience, please open the reader comments section in a parallel browser window.


The New York Dolls were a really interesting phenomenon. But first, let me state this: for a change, I'd like to try and write this introduction paragraph without any attempts to categorize their sound - basically every essay on the Dolls begins with, or is at least sure to include the question "So were the New York Dolls the first punks or not?", and then revolves around that question to the very end. I'll leave some of those observations to the actual reviews of the Dolls' albums.

Here, let's just say that the New York Dolls were really really important. Their recording career was exceedingly short - only two studio albums out - which is, I suppose, the main reason for my giving them such a low overall rating, because essentially the band had a lot of potential. Unfortunately, it seemed to be doing everything at the wrong time in the wrong place in the wrong way. 1973, the year when the Dolls first made their marks, was not a good year for heavy rock bands. The "ancient dinosaurs", like the Who or the Rolling Stones, had already run out of gas, or, more exactly, simply moved on to other things. The 'classic first metal generation', like Zeppelin, Sabbath, and Deep Purple, had also for their most part shot their wads, and besides, their extreme reliance on pomposity, professionalism and all kinds of mystical crap wasn't what was exactly needed for the younger generation of the time.

What so many people needed was the appearance of the 'new Stones' - a band that would resurrect the simple, accessible, and at the same time, genial grittiness of the fathers of rock'n'roll, but also make it even more gritty, since social values had changed since the mid-Sixties and the world was ready for something even more raunchy and less compromised. Not to mention, of course, that such a band could also have the great benefit of borrowing different tricks from the 'metalheads' - playing louder, gruffer and with twice as much distortion and heaviness as the Stones did ten years ago.

The New York Dolls were one of the two bands that appeared in 1973 and claimed that legacy - the other one was Aerosmith, of course. Aerosmith won in the long run, simply because the band managed to stay together and endure. But if you take only that "classic" mid-Seventies period for both bands, there's hardly any doubt that the Dolls were not only far closer to the Stones in spirit, but also far more tasteful - and moderately more talented - than Aerosmith. Moreover, the Dolls had a sense of humor: they never seemed to be taking themselves way too seriously, quite unlike the pretentious, 'epic', power-ballad-drenched 'Smiths. And, of course, the Dolls were far more daring and willing to take a risk when it came to their image.

Unfortunately, it gradually became clear that the American public wanted the bombastic power ballads and the tasteless smuttiness of Aerosmith; the New York Dolls, with all their humor and - relative - intelligence, could go to hell. Their music wasn't heavy enough for the tastes of young demented potheads, and their image, with constant cross-dressing motives (also inherited from the Stones, of course), was far less appealing than the "evil" image of Aerosmith. Today it becomes obvious that Aerosmith started the chain that eventually led to Eighties' hair metal, while the Dolls started, or were at least an essential link of, the chain that led to the CBGB scene and New Wave; but at the time, Aerosmith went on to sell gazillions of albums and endure huge international fame, while the Dolls sold a few miserable copies of their two near-classic albums and eventually fell victims of the wicked crook Malcolm McLaren.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not a huge fan of the Dolls. Both of their albums are good, displaying lots of energy, some genuine songwriting talent (mostly courtesy of Johansen and Sylvain) and that cute sense of humor I've already mentioned; but they're definitely not overloaded with unique hooks, and as far as the infamous glammy 'upgrading of Sixties' rock'n'roll for the Seventies' goes, I'd take T. Rex over the Dolls any time of day. But one cannot deny that not only were the Dolls, in fact, a good band, they were also an inspired, hard-working, goal-oriented band that dared actually defy public taste rather than conform to it. Well, I suppose they finally achieved their goal - in educated musical circles, the Dolls are revered far more than Aerosmith nowadays. And as far as I am concerned, their two albums are well worth remembering and treasuring for as long as memories of rock'n'roll are gonna stay.

Lineup: David Johansen (aka 'The Unknown Twin Brother Of Mick Jagger') - vocals; Johnny Thunders - lead guitar; Sylvain Sylvain - rhythm guitar; Arthur Kane Jr. - bass; Bill Murcia - drums. Murcia died of drug abuse before the first album was released in 1973, replaced by Jerry Nolan. Thunders and Nolan both quit in 1975 over the band's endless commercial failures and drugs (drugs, drugs, drugs... Both of them died of drug overdoses years later), and the band collapsed soon afterwards, never releasing anything new. Of this core lineup, Johansen and Thunders were certainly the band's main attraction - the former's wild vocal exercises and the latter's atmospheric, yet frantic early-metal guitar playing really were what counted.



Year Of Release: 1973
Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 11

Brash, loud, funny and aggressive - too bad the songwriting doesn't always live up to the adrenaline level.


Track listing: 1) Personality Crisis; 2) Looking For A Kiss; 3) Vietnamese Baby; 4) Lonely Planet Boy; 5) Frankenstein; 6) Trash; 7) Bad Girl; 8) Subway Train; 9) Pills; 10) Private World; 11) Jet Boy.

It's hard to actually define the genre characteristics of this record. It certainly isn't "punk", because musically, it is nowhere near the classic Ramones/Pistols/Clash sound, and lyrically, the Dolls are anything but 'punk'. Yet it's way too hard-rocking and uncompromised for 'classic rock'n'roll' as well: those that claim the New York Dolls rocked harder than the Stones are absolutely and undeniably right (except that it's just an objective statement that doesn't place the New York Dolls above the Rolling Stones like some hotheads have suggested). Don't forget "glam" - it's loud, brash and self-exposing just like any T. Rex or Slade album of the period would have sounded. But then again, it's not exactly standard for a glam record to sound so raw, unpolished and sloppy - glam is usually slick and sweet (and Sweet!), and this album is anything but slick, even if it was produced by Todd Rundgren.

It is, therefore, best to think of New York Dolls as an important transition element in rock's evolution, an element which takes the boogie punch of the Stones, the wildness of the Stooges and the MC5, the brashness of Marc Bolan and the weirdness of David Bowie, and fuses all of that in an exciting mould which would later influence everybody from AC/DC to the Ramones to Kiss. In other words, the album's tremendous historic importance can't be overlooked: before the Dolls, nobody ever tried making such an interesting fusion of the "wild" essence (Stooges-like) and dress it into the accessible, conventional form of a classic rocker. In other words, where the Stooges could never really be appreciated by a lot of people due to their uncompromised position, the Dolls improved on that formula (or maybe "profanated" it, if you're a purist).

The main question, then, is: outside of the historic importance, is the album still listenable today? Hmm. Difficult question. Yes, the Dolls' approach was fresh and exciting, but was the band's songwriting up to par? My answer is: more or less. Actually, in terms of penning melodies they are only a couple notches above Kiss, but this couple of notches is that crucial couple which marks the transgression from "tasteless" to "acceptable". Throw in a more diverse approach to instrumentation, with pianos and occasional saxes and vocal harmonies and all; Dave Johansen's Jagger-imitating scowl, which is far more subtle and involving than Paul Stanley's relentless sexist roar; and, most important, cute little Stonesey lyric lines that display a sense of humour and playful lightweightness and lack disgusting cliches, and the picture is complete.

Not that the melodies are all memorable. Too often the Dolls just get on through the vibe alone: the lengthy 'Frankenstein' is a typical example, just an ultra-loud never ending punkish rave-up that holds up due to two factors - Johansen's theatrical vocal delivery and Johnny Thunders' masterful guitarwork. Overdubbing all that guitarwork probably took lots of effort... but isn't that an ominous synthesizer pattern I hear in the background? Or just more guitars? In any case, whatever it is, don't forget to listen to the song until the last second and suck in all of that fabulous crescendo.

Still, now and then you'll be rewarded by a catchy chorus, as in the case of 'Trash', a fast joyful ode to... to nothing, with echoey background vocals and a cool nonchalant, no-bull atmosphere about it. Or the more laid back boogie of 'Subway Train', a strangely introspective and philosophic tune dressed up as unpretentious barroom rock - with a little more slickness, this one could have been a hit for Lynyrd Skynyrd. Or the chaotic mess of 'Lookin' For A Kiss' which starts out as a bad Velvet Underground rip-off but then veers off into Stonesy territory with a nice melody twist that brings us to the glorious chorus conclusion - 'uh I'm just lookin for a kiss...'. Or 'Jet Boy', Dave Johansen's frantic cry of anger and frustration and jealousy that closes the album - any respectable headbanger will have to learn that one by heart. 'Jet Boys fly, Jet Boys gone, Jet Boys stole my baby...'.

Only on 'Frankenstein' and particularly 'Vietnamese Baby' do the Dolls show us that they took the cue not only from the 'Bitch' side of the Stones, but also from their 'Gimmie Shelter' side. The latter takes my vote for best song on the album, as it's melodically equal to most of the good stuff on here, but the lyrics and Johnny Thunders' wailing apocalyptic guitar give it a special edge which is missing elsewhere - heck, it's almost goth in atmosphere. And it has good riffs, too, imagine that. Good riffs on a New York Dolls record? Lawdy!

The usual complaint, of course, would be that the record is so mercilessly un-diverse - rocker after rocker, with the lone exception of the acoustic 'Lonely Planet Boy' where Johansen muffles down his voice and ends up sounding even more like a Jagger clone than elsewhere. Not a bad song, but don't ask me if I've heard better ones. You know the answer. And mark this, too: good as some of this stuff is, apart from maybe 'Vietnamese Baby', not a single song on here is absolutely mind-blowing. It's just basic rock'n'roll, after all, even if it's delivered so hot. Some blame Todd Rundgren for toning down the band's energy and failing to milk them for their whole potential, but the problem's not with Todd, the problem is that the band is clearly more concerned with image and style than with the little four letter concept that we the pathetic mainstream worms call S-O-N-G. Ever heard that word? In today's postmodernistic society there's an actual chance that you haven't.



Year Of Release: 1974
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 10

The Dolls add theater elements - and the show becomes more diverse, too. Stagnation? Or artistic growth?


Track listing: 1) Babylon; 2) Stranded In The Jungle; 3) Who Are The Mystery Girls; 4) (There's Gonna Be A) Showdown; 5) It's Too Late; 6) Puss 'N' Boots; 7) Chatterbox; 8) Bad Detective; 9) Don't Start Me Talkin'; 10) Human Beings.

Sometimes considered a letdown from the debut, mainly because the boys 'get off the track' a little and become slower, flashier and even grow themselves some ambitions. However, I actually think that the main difference here is that New York Dolls hits you from the beginning, and this record just takes a few listens to grow on you: objectively, it ain't any less (or more) interesting than its predecessor.

The Dolls switch on to a new producer here, but I don't think that anybody but the Dolls themselves are actually responsible for the sound shift. Maybe their debut could have been called 'proto-punk' with certain reservations; this stuff here is flashy glam-rock, pure and simple, with everything that trademark glam requires, like a solid brass section, female backup vocals, cheesy crowd-pleasing "dance numbers" and a total negligence towards "taste" - resulting in an ironic, tongue-in-cheek approach that's characteristic of good glam albums. Slade used to make records like these, in large numbers.

Not that the Dolls abandon their punchy approach; after all, a punchy approach is also a necessity for good glam. 'Babylon' struts along in all of its geek glory, as some kind of mid-tempo switchboard in between the Stones, with Johansen sounding more and more like Jagger, and AC/DC, who seem to have appropriated that song for ninety percent of their early bluesy anthems, just slightly perfecting and sharpening out the riffage. 'Who Are The Mystery Girls' and 'It's Too Late' are in the same style, moderately catchy rockers that aren't tremendously interesting but are all saved by Mr Johnny Thunders who really goes to show who was the leading force in reckless sloppy hard rock in 1974. And while the number that ends the record, the lengthy 'Human Beings' is way too noisy and messy melody-wise to be appreciated as a true song rather than a way of expression (essentially, it's just Johansen trying to establish a Mick Jagger-style rave-up which works as a rave-up but the Stones used to be more than just rave-ups), it does at least one super-important thing: introducing the 'chainsaw buzz' of the guitar that was two years later patented by the Ramones as the number one attribute of the newly emerging punk rock. Of course, Johnny Thunders is no Johnny Ramone when it comes around to speedy chops, but the fact remains - so far, this is the earliest 'chainsaw buzz' that I have managed to witness. Still isn't enough to call the band the first 'punks' or whatever, but is sure noteworthy. So take that note!

But wait! What's that I hear! Bo Diddley beats? It's 'Stranded In The Jungle', a cover of the hilarious Jayhawks' 'multi-part suite' whose original I never heard, but the cover is excellent. The Dolls pull off the 'intricate' production excellently, and the shift between the "spooky jungle section" and the "doo-woppy New York section" will certainly enthrall you if you're enthrallable at all. If not, at least let yourself be enthralled by Johansen's vocal antics. More covers follow: Archie Bell's '(There's Gonna Be A) Showdown' is a wall-of-sound-way-of-life-you-get-the-drift-all-out-pop anthem that does nothing for me but possibly does something for you (that's the way my life goes), 'Bad Detective' is hilarious and Sonny Boy Williamson's 'Don't Start Me Talkin' is the band's take on the Stones' classic early blues approach: fast, but not too fast, harmonicas and riffs that are supposed to be driving, and an exaggerated sexy vocal delivery. The big difference is that the Dolls have too much stuff going on at once, with a poor mix that doesn't let the instruments shine on their own, whereas the Stones always took care of their members' individual sound. Still, it gives the Dolls an aggressive and powerful attack that the Stones could be said to lack...

As for the rest of the originals, like the funny 'Chatterbox', they all display that glammy tint which some find tasteless but really, is there a problem with female backup vocals if they're used in an original way? Guess not. In fact, with the release of this album, the Dolls were really hanging on to something cool: one or two more solid records and they could have forever washed off the 'secondary Stones' tag. Unfortunately, nature judged that that issue was not to be, and Too Much Too Soon turned out to be the band's second and last proper record, ensuring them their eternal place in the 'proto-punk heroes' pantheon but clearly wiping them off the list of "most famous bands of the Seventies". Then again, if you support the view that nothing in nature happens by accident, maybe it was a good thing that no further studio albums ensued from the Dolls. Because, come to think of it, they might have progressed, but they might also have stagnated... Oh well, at least the Dolls always had a nice and fresh sense of humour, so they probably wouldn't have metamorphosed into Kiss.

Yet the Dolls actually pressed on... led and directed by Malcolm McLaren, they entered the final stage of their short and twisted career which not too many people know about. Hey there, New York Dolls fans! Where are you?



Year Of Release: 1984
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 8

Horrible sound quality, half-assed originals, inferior covers. But you can still hear a great band.


Track listing: 1) Red Patent Leather; 2) On Fire; 3) Something Else; 4) Daddy Rolling Stone; 5) Ain't Got No Home/Dizzy Miss Lizzie; 6) Girls Girls Girls; 7) Down Down Downtown; 8) Pirate Love; 9) Pills; 10) Teenage News; 11) Personality Crisis/Looking For A Kiss; 12) Stranded In The Jungle; 13) Trash; 14) Chatterbox; 15) Puss 'N' Boots.

Actually, this is an archive release; it wasn't made public until 1984, when the Dolls' fan club released it as Red Patent Leather, and a fully official edition with the subtitle Live In NYC '75 followed six years later. Historically speaking, this is a priceless document, as it witnesses the Dolls at the final stage of their career, when they were managed by Malcolm McLaren, who'd go on to manufacture the Sex Pistols just a year later. The title itself has to do with flashy red costumes that the Dolls wore on stage at McLaren's request - together with a huge USSR flag, they were supposed to mark the Dolls' mockery of society. In retrospect, that proved to be one of Mr McLaren's worst marketing moves ever: the Dolls only alienated a lot of fans that way, and, well, it didn't gain them any Russian fans either...

The problem here is that the sound quality is incredibly lousy... well, I suppose that could be expected from an obviously bootleg-quality recording that wasn't originally intended for release. But an even huger problem is that the band itself hardly sounds inspired, even when you make your way through all the muck. Sure, Johansen's raunchy voice never really fails him, but I can hardly hear Johnny Thunders at all, and I don't blame it on sound quality. If this is the band renowned for their wild live performances, Live In NYC simply doesn't capture them at one of their best nights, that's all.

The setlist looks pretty weird too. There are very few originals at all; in fact, most of these - 'Trash', 'Chatterbox', 'Puss 'n' Boots' - are appended at the end of the album as bonus tracks, taken from a different live performance (also in horrendous quality). And while they're nice and funny, they hardly add anything to the punch of the studio originals. As for the New York show itself, most of the songs are covers of old rockabilly and blues classics, ranging from 'Something Else' to 'Dizzy Miss Lizzie' to 'Daddy Rolling Stone'. The few new originals hardly demonstrate the Dolls on a roll, either: the title track, for instance, has exactly the same melody as Clapton's 'Tulsa Time', except that it's rockier. Both were certainly just ripped off of a generic country number.

Hey, I'm really at a loss. This isn't a bad album, you know: they're certainly entertaining enough, and when they kick ass, they do kick ass ('Personality Crisis' and a few others rock just as hard as anything you'll ever hear). But on the slower numbers, the unavoidable Rolling Stones comparison emerges again, and Johansen plays his harmonica in the exact same way as Mick Jagger used to play it a few years before. And in that comparison, the New York Dolls can't help but lose (again!!!), what with the guitar being lazy and the sound being crappy and the band, well, just not being sharp enough. Of course, you could always say that the Stones live sounded pretty messy themselves, especially if you throw in that abysmal sound quality. The main difference is, the Dolls sound live exactly in the same way they sound in the studio - the trick would be to make the live and studio sounds deviate from each other, and if you got a band like the Dolls whose point is to transfer their live sound to the studio, what the hell do you need a live Dolls album for?

Oh well, enough quibbling. By the way, you will find at least one new excellent Johansen/Sylvain original on here, the chuggin'-ravin' 'On Fire'. And much as I liked 'Stranded In The Jungle' when they played it in the studio, the live version is at least twice as hilarious, with the band imitating all those "jungle sounds" by means I just can't understand. Synthesizers? Wildly distorted guitars? Or just vocal efforts? In any case, the audiences must have been thrilled.

Apart from that, you'll also get a good share of funny harmless Johansen banter (what a better way to spice up an uninspired performance than with some inspired stage banter? And what's a good live album without banter, anyway? What good was Live At Leeds before they reinstated the banter on the re-issued version? No good at all, I tell you!). As for the three appended tracks, they seem to have been recorded at some French show, because David keeps making remarks in French, introducing themselves as "Les poupees de New York" and even making an attempt to gallicize the name of Johnny Thunders (but ultimately failing, because few things can be more painful for a non-native French speaker than having to relocate the accents on proper names to the last syllable. I know how it feels - I fell victim to that many times...). 'Ze fantastic Zhonny Tandee-e-e-rs', indeed.

Regardless, though, this album is only recommendable for New York Dolls historians and New York Dolls diehards. Oh, and New York Dolls reviewers, of course! (If I didn't insert that last remark, you could call me a hypocrite). Still, it really feels good to have this disc around, if only to know that something at least was left behind after the Dolls' last three or four years of existence without a single studio album. It's also sad to realize that maybe if the Dolls hadn't been so viciously and mindlessly exploited by Mr McLaren, they could have gone on to a more stabilized and successful existence. Then again, maybe not. They were always self-destructible. Let's hope they'll be remembered not only through their image - really, they penned some great songs. Not as great as Limp Bizkit, of course, but well now, we can't all have talent boiling inside and bursting us apart, now can we?


Return to the main index page