New York Dolls

New York Dolls
Too Much Too Soon

New York Dolls (Mercury ’73) Rating: A-
One of those “seminal” early “proto-punk” bands that hipster critics like to wax poetic about, the New York Dolls were unique for several reasons. One, they were a bunch of NYC toughs who dressed like drag queens, so they were grouped together with the glittery, androgynous likes of David Bowie and T. Rex (they had more in common with Kiss). Two, they played loud, raw rock ‘n’ roll (as opposed to rock; there is a difference) at a time when such groups were scarce, but their music was nothing really new now, was it? (listen to the Nuggets box set if you think these guys were original in any way). The band’s location played a major role in their critical acclaim, NYC being a hipsters paradise, and they also benefited from the paucity of decent local bands at the time, but if we’re going to give the Dolls credit for being the missing link between the Stones and the Sex Pistols, then shouldn’t we give them credit for similarly inspiring the less "hip" likes of Motley Crue, Hanoi Rocks, and Poison? Food for thought, but though I suppose the band were influential (though obviously I believe that their influence is overstated), none of that really matters when listening to New York Dolls today, does it? Anyway, as for the actual music, this is a very good album, even if it is a bit overrated. On the plus side, guitarists Syd Sylvain and especially Johnny Thunders (like hero Keith Richards as famous for his “habits” as for his playing) deliver raw, searing riffs throughout, and pouty lipped, sneering frontman David Johansen (well before Buster Poindexter was conceived) exudes plenty of charisma, while their sound in general could be simplified as “the Stones on steroids mixed with a healthy dosage of ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll and r&b” (the latter influence is especially evident on the album’s lone ballad, “Lonely Planet Boy,” on which Johansen’s flawed, breathy vocal fits perfectly with the sparse guitars and sax). Highlights would have to include “Personality Crisis,” with its great slashing riffs, boogie woogie piano, and absurd amounts of energy, while “Trash” is another great trashy romp that’s poppy and rocking; I dig those stop/start rhythms, and those “ooh” backing vocals hit the spot as well. A bit darker are “Vietnamese Baby” (love the drum punctuations by Jerry Nolan) and “Frankenstein” (which builds and builds), but fun is still the primary order of the day, and “Pills” (a Bo Diddley cover) is another raucous, easily singable highlight with humorous lyrics. Indeed, although these dangerously fucked up dudes obviously had a familiarity with the seedy side of the New York City nightlife, for all their snot nosed arrogance this album is above all else a fun party platter. Other amusing moments here include Johansen’s “LUV” rap at the beginning of “Looking For A Kiss” (ok, they stole it from the Shangri-Las but it's still funny) and the way they integrate “I've Been Working On The Railroad” at the end of “Subway Train.” So, as you can see, there’s lots to like about this album, which has no bad songs (though the ones I haven’t mentioned are merely good for the most part) and several great ones. Plus, Johansen and Thunders were stars, even if the public at large failed to recognize this, perhaps in part because the rest of the band was more anonymous. Produced by Todd Rundgren in a famous odd couple matchup (he tried to clean up the sound but thankfully failed), I suppose New York Dolls deserves its status as a belatedly recognized classic. Though their sound can be generic at times and the overall songwriting is generally very-good-but-not-great, the passion and energy that these guys put into these performances is difficult to deny as a pure distillation of rock 'n' roll as it oughta be.

Too Much Too Soon (Mercury ’74) Rating: B+
After their debut album bombed, the New York Dolls regrouped by bringing in legendary “girl group” producer George "Shadow" Morton and cleaning up their sound a bit while accentuating the r&b/doo-wop side of the band. “Babylon” begins the album by harking back to the recklessness of the debut, and it’s a good (not great) one, but the fact that there are four cover songs shows that inspiration was waning, and ultra campy tracks like “Puss ‘n’ Boots” and their cover of Mike Leiber/Jerry Stoller’s “Bad Detective” don’t really cut it. Other interpretations include “Stranded In The Jungle” (I’ve never heard the original), a 2-songs-in-1 (the rhythmic, highly “produced” jungle section and the campy show tune section; both sections alternate several times) track that’s nothing if not unique and is sure to polarize listeners (I like it), Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Don’t Start Me Talkin’,” which contains a scorching Thunders guitar solo and features Johansen wailing on harmonica (his harmonica also plays a prominent role on their own strong “It’s Too Late,” which is as bluesy as these guys ever got), and Gamble and Huff’s “Showdown” (originally performed by Archie Bell), my personal favorite among the covers by virtue of Johansen’s great sing along vocal and the song’s surprisingly melancholic overall tone. Elsewhere, Thunders sings “Chatterbox” (none too prettily but pretty effectively), one of the album’s edgier tracks, while the female "girl group" backing vocals that appear throughout the album are used to best effect on the excellent “Who Are The Mystery Girls?,” which also features Sylvain/Thunders’ trademark slashing riffs and Nolan’s piston-like drums. Another highlight is the hard-charging “Human Being,” which lyrically sees the Dolls almost sensitive, grooves along for a very unpunk-like 5:43, and features some stellar saxophone as the band gamely attempts to broaden their sound. Anyway, as previously mentioned, on Too Much Too Soon the Dolls tone down their hard rocking garage tendencies somewhat and get really glammed up, and Morton adds more “producer effects” than Rundgren, who simply tried to get their sloppy yet powerful sound on tape. That said, though energy, excitement, and song-wise it's not quite up to the level of the debut, Too Much Too Soon still provides plenty of raucous bar band fun just the same. It’s just, well, different, and not quite as good, though this was as good as it would get, as the album again sold poorly and the band’s subsequent short-lived "career," highlighted by epic mismanagement by future Sex Pistols svengali Malcolm McLaren, was basically a complete waste (you can ignore any later pre-comeback releases, most of which are dubious in nature). But New York Dolls and to a lesser extent Too Much Too Soon remain touchstones of their type, having influenced many a sleazy band with limited technical skills but lots of swagger, and over 30 years later these two albums can still liven up any party, any time, any place, sales figures be damned. Note: In an improbable comeback, the New York Dolls - now consisting only of Johansen and Sylvain, the only two surviving members left - released One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This (2006) and Cause I Sez So (2009). As of this writing (Summer 2010) I haven't heard either album yet, but I would recommend checking out some of their solo stuff. Yes, though most people aren't aware of it, even Sylvain did some solid solo work, albeit in a more r&b-based pop style (a la Johansen's solo work) than what the Dolls did. In Style is the album that got me into solo Johansen and is a good starting point, while Sylvain Sylvain and Syl Sylvain and the Teardrops are also worth getting.

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