Album Analysis | New York Dolls - New York Dolls
The New York Dolls raucous and vital debut album shook up the music scene and paved the way for punk iconoclasts everywhere.
Released in July 1973, the New York Dolls eponymous debut album occupies an outsized space in the history of rock music, with its influence reverberating far and wide. It was commercially unsuccessful, only peaking at number 116 in the American Billboard Charts and failing to chart in the UK at all. Despite this snub by the record buying public, the album made an indelible mark on the musical culture of the aforementioned countries.
The eleven tracks recorded throughout eight days in April 1973 are an amalgam of rock and roll, glam rock, R&B and girl group sensibilities. It adds up to a quixotic scream against a music scene which, in the words of Doll’s lead singer David Johansen, "had become very pedantic and meandering”. Nearly five decades after its recording, it retains its edgy and affected belligerence.
Before the music has its say, the album artwork makes its own statement. Shot by Toshi Matsuo, the front cover photograph shows the band squeezed onto a white satin sofa in all their camp glory. Johansen admires himself in the mirror of a compact, while the other band members transmit varying degrees of attitude, a fitting image of the band's power dynamic. Arthur Kane wearing wig and pearls looks directly at the camera, cigarette hanging from his mouth and cocktail glass in hand looking bemused with events while Sylvain Sylvain sits wedged between Kane and Johansen. Rouged cheeked and sporting roller skates, he looks deep in contemplation. Johnny Thunders, who refused to wear drag, juts his elbows and knees outwards marking his territory and affects a disinterested sneer to communicate that he's not completely down with this shit. Jerry Nolan, despite his knee length high heeled boots and foppish scarf, holds himself with a drummer's precision. Scrawled across the top in lipstick reads “New York Dolls”, a trail of pink hanging as if a dying victim had named their murderer on a bathroom mirror.
The band’s louche image is (barely) toned down on the back cover where they pose in front of the St Mark’s and Second Avenue 24-hour store, Gem Spa, a landmark in the Doll's stomping ground of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Combined, these two photos made their statement; the New York Dolls were here to shake things up and didn’t care for any limiting conventions.
They had been doing just that since their formation in 1971, accumulating a loyal following around New York with their frenetic live shows. They had also experienced early tragedy. Touring the UK supporting The Faces in 1972, the Doll’s drummer Billy Murcia died of asphyxiation during a botched attempt to revive him following an accidental overdose. Returning to the States the band recruited Nolan to complete the bereft line up of Johansen, Thunders and Sylvain on guitars and Arthur “Killer” Kane on bass.
They were a band with rudimentary musical chops which they had sharpened into a dynamic sound during their time on the New York club scene, their reputation for drug and alcohol use preceded them and they were renowned for a relaxed attitude towards keeping a schedule. Their live shows were wild and unpredictable, their behavior notoriously unruly. It all added up to a risky proposition for the record labels and eventually Paul Nelson, A&R Executive at Mercury Records, saw the Dolls play at the Mercer Arts Center and persuaded the label bosses to take a chance on the young, hyped upstarts. It was an advocacy that cost him his job when album sales disappointed.
Entering the studio, the band had no concept of what a New York Dolls album should be; no overriding vision guided them. Instead, they picked the songs based on what had been most popular during their live shows. In charge with pulling everything together was Todd Rundgren, who had been brought in by Mercury Records to produce the album. This progressive rock leaning musician/producer and the Dolls was an unlikely combination, nevertheless, they delivered an album that bristles with the energy and attitude of the Dolls' live shows. A feat that may not have been achieved, given the combative relationship between Rundgren and the band, without the unsung contribution of engineer Jack Douglas.
The album opens with "Personality Crisis", three minutes and forty seconds of concentrated New York Dolls mayhem. Sylvain's guitar and Nolan’s cymbal crashing create a cacophony that is cut by a piano frill before Johansen howls, "yeah, yeah yeah, no, no, no. no, no, no”, breaking in and grabbing the instrumentation by the scruff of the neck and dragging it into a bopping, riotous, manic take-down of a high maintenance primadonna. Johansen walked into the mixing booth at the end of the recording and asked Rundgren if it had sounded “ludicrous” enough. It's hard to imagine Rundgren could have answered in anything but the affirmative.
One of the endearing qualities of the Dolls was while they came from the streets of hard scrabble 1970’s New York, they had a musical foot in the rock and roll of the fifties and sixties. This infused their music with a sense of the beat and exuberance of those break out years for youth culture, combining this with their soft spot for the girl groups of the previous decade. It's apparent on "Looking For A Kiss" as Johansen vamps “When I say I’m in love, you best believe I’m in love, L.U.V” in tribute to the Shangri-La's before the song diverts to the contemplation of a late night search for a kiss when finding a fix is the easier task.
The parenthesis of “Frankenstein (Orig.)” was to distinguish from Edgar Winter’s track of the same name and to let it be known that this was written first— a snarling put down of the suburbanites who wandered into the world of the city looking for some kind of redemption or inspiration. Johansen would later say, “The song is about how kids come to Manhattan from all over, they’re kind of like whipped dogs, they’re very repressed. Their bodies and brains are disoriented from each other… it’s a love song.” Sylvain and Thunder’s guitars, Todd Rundgren’s Moog Synthesizer and Johansen's crazed vocals don’t impart much affection so maybe we should take that with a (monster-sized) pinch of salt.
"Trash" is an incoherent tale of youthful fumbling romance, probing the outcast existence while humanizing the unkempt affection of the disenfranchised. A lover’s lament with a catchy riff and no conclusion,
“And please don't you ask me if I love you
'Cause I don't know if I do
I want to wipe it out here with you
And take a lover's sleep with you
Similarly "Subway Train" is a song anchored in the distinctively New York experience of the band. Sylvain’s guitar propels it as Thunders' dramatic riffs introduce a metallic rail hum befitting of the songs title. The lyrics are a boy chasing a girl but she is having none of it and Johansen's deflated wanna be lover is not having a good time,
Why my life's been cursed, poisoned, condemned
When I been tryin' every night
To hold ya near me
Elsewhere a lyrical ambiguity prevails on "Vietnamese Baby" and "Lonely Planet Boy" with their guarded references to collective societal guilt and the succour of drugs. "Bad Girl", "Jet Boy" and "Private World" are Johansen channelling the teenage emotions he had barely outgrown, in three songs of skewed love, the trials of and solutions to a variety of close encounters laid bare. On "Pills", a Bo Diddley cover, the band show their love for the R&B tradition and blues harp, and their obvious determination to have a good time in the studio.
The album is often referred to as proto-punk and the relatively unsophisticated musicianship and thrashing guitar sound lends itself to that conclusion but there is more here than just that. It is a statement of the times and of an attitude that came out of the specific circumstances of a bedraggled downtown New York that was a petri dish of artistic and musical experimentation. The Dolls broke down the rules about what was considered necessary to get a recording contract and this achievement was of equal importance to the music in blasting the doors wide open for what was to follow.
As the Dolls were making things seem possible for those who came next, they were also aware of those who had preceded them. Johansen put it into this context, “this form of music kind of represents the next generation. The under-21 kind of people relate to this music, it's their own music. The basic difference is that as far as our self-liberation is concerned we had a lot less trouble to go to because a lot of things that people had to go through to liberate themselves or to liberate the masses had been done and we just picked up on it. And we saved a lot of trouble like that".
The New York Dolls weren’t the first to adopt an androgynous look to put glam into rock. They were not the first to play high octane rock and roll with an attitude and a charismatic lead singer. They were definitely not the first to live a drug and alcohol fueled nocturnal existence. They were, however, the first to combine all of those things into one irrepressible, outlandish package with some great songwriting supplementing the mix. That remains their legacy and is all distilled into this album.
When considering the Dolls it is well to remember that David Johansen was an acolyte of Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theater Company whose manifesto reads; “This is farce, not Sunday school. Illustrate hedonistic calculus. Test out a dangerous idea, a theme that threatens to destroy one's whole value system. Treat the material in a madly farcical manner without losing the seriousness of the theme. Show how paradoxes arrest the mind. Scare yourself a bit along the way.” Explains a lot.