Monday, November 05, 2007

New York Dolls, "New York Dolls" and "New York Dolls in Too Much Too Soon"

This is the second in my series of the records of my life. I previously wrote about Stevie Wonder's Innervisions. Today it's The New York Dolls.

I am discussing two records in this article, which is the complete original discography of the New York Dolls, before they broke-up (or were broken up) while being managed by rookie-svengali Malcolm McLaren.

The roots of punk music are firmly planted in glam rock, and these are two of the key records that led to the birth of the New York punk scene of the mid-1970s. Both have production pedigree that bands of the time could not hope for: New York Dolls was produced by a barely-known Todd Rundgren, and in Too Much Too Soon was produced by the amazing Shadow Morton.

New York Dolls

When a music aficionado wants to insist that punk music originated in England, you need to ask them if they have ever heard of the New York Dolls. Many British punks (including some founding members of the Sex Pistols) will refer to David Bowie and Roxy Music as the roots of their experience as punks, it is important to know that David Bowie was referencing the New York Dolls, whom he met in England and during his first tour of the United States, while Johnny Lydon was attending secondary school. So, as David Bowie is often referred to as the godfather of punk, he owes a wealth of that reputation to the Dolls. Then ask these pro-British punk-roots aficionados if they have listed to the two Dolls records followed by Never Mind The Bollocks. . . . If they have listened to all three records in one sitting, they will admit that many of the cuts on the seminal British punk record are direct copies of Dolls songs. For starters, just compare the Pistols' Liar to the Dolls' Puss 'n' Boots, then get back to me.

As big cheeses on the New York music scene that centered around Max's Kansas City (where they were the house band), the Dolls were the darlings of record executives and producers, fashion icons in their own right, and IN Andy Warhol's social circle.

So, when time came for a New York Dolls record to be produced, it seemed obvious that somebody from the New York scene, especially the Max's circle, would produce the effort.

Known as the singer of a couple of top forty pop hits and the boyfriend of then-little-known poet Patti Smith, the eccentric, immensely talented and future production genius, Todd Rundgren was tapped as producer. His first ever effort at producing. The groundwork was lain for the eponymous Dolls release.

The album cover was the perfect blend of glam and punk with the guys all dolled-up in drag, or gender-fuck as it was sometimes referred to in the seventies, with a can of Schlitz beer on the floor near Johnny Thunders' platform shoes. The album cover still works and the songs still work.

The screaming, rocking "Personality Crisis," a send-up of rock poseurs crippled by narcissism-induced schizophrenia, opens the record. You can hear a keyboard that might have a pretty sophisticated line trying to "sing" along with Johnny Thunders' fantastic lead guitar but straining to be heard through the cymbals. Sadly, the piano is buried deep, deep down at the bottom of the muddled recording.

Your mirror gets jammed-up with all your friends.
With personality everything is starting to blend.
When your mind starts to bend.
Your personality's
Pressing on a friend, of a friend, of a friend, of a friend, of a friend.
Aw personality
Wondering how celebrities ever met.
(Looking fine on television)"

The song is an excellent kick-off to an album that peaks early and has no low points!

Johnny Thunders was a girl-groups aficionado and a tribute to the Shangri-Las' hit single Give Him A Great Big Kiss is the second cut. "Looking For A Kiss" is a hard-ass drug-addled sexy-punk answer to the Shangri-Las bad girl anthem (with which it was often coupled in concert). The song celebrates the marriage of sex and drugs that defined the seventies, and opens with the Shangri-Las classic spoken line: "When I say I'm in love, you best believe I mean love L-U-V!"
When everyone's going to your house to shoot up in your room
Most of them are beautiful, but so obsessed with gloom.
I aint gonna be here, when they all get home
They're always looking at me, they wont leave me alone!
I didnt come here, lookin for no fix (uh-uh no).
I been prowling the streets all night in the rain baby
Just looking for a kiss

"Vietnamese Baby" (which was my buddy Chuck's fave cut) seems to be an attempt at a political statement, or a celebration of rock's often apolitical lifestyle. It opens with faux-Chinese chords that are repeated more successfully on the Doll's second album. Again the music sounds like it should really rock, but is so poorly produced that all you hear is a thrashing grind of garage musicianship with Johnny's amazing lead guitar work underneath David's shouted lyrics:
what's wrong today is what's wrong with you

Love song "Lonely Planet Boy" is a crooners delight. Sung in breathy tones atop a cock-rock lead guitar and my favorite song on the record. Listen to it often!

"Frankenstein" is not the same song as the Top 40 hit by the Edgar Winter Group of the same era. This Frankenstein is social commentary about love with someone who may not be the loveliest specimen. Clocking-in at a lengthy six minutes, the song chases like a horror film that keeps you on the edge of your seat. It always seems to be just about to take off, then as it ends you realize you have been rocked the entire length of the movie. The lyrics display a sensitivity that Johansen often hides behind songs about drugs and sex.
I'm asking you as a person
Is it a crime, is it a crime
For you to fall in love in with Frankenstein"

"Trash" could be a pop cult hit if the music was discernible and didn't sound like a pool of mud upon which Johansen's lyrics rest uneasily. Infused with Sylvain Sylvain's pop sensibility, it should sound as pure and clean as a Carpenters' single. This simple song might be the clearest example of Rundgren's failed production efforts.

Often at his baddest best when singing raunchy songs in a raunchy tone, "Bad Girl" is Johansen's ode to a New York hooker. Replete with lyrics about "twenty dollar bills and you can keep the change" and "all you gotta do is get down in my range," Bad Girl is a celebration of that side of New York City that none of the powerful admit they miss: the Times Square of the 1970s, the burlesque of the 1920s, the edginess that made New York different from every other city in America. That New York is gone, of course, but it lives on in rock 'n' roll!

I love when pop culture references itself. "Subway Train" is a song about a railroad (the New York City subway system) as an alternative to driving ("All of your friends are feeling-up my car). There are two pop culture references:

"You're so busy reading Suzy Sez that you can't look down" is a reference to the New York gossip columnist; and "Ya can hear the captain shouting" and "Dinah blow your horn, etc." are direct lifts from the song "I've Been Working On The Railroad." Both references work perfectly, and somehow the song really sounds like a song about a railroad. A punk anthem to sing all the live-long day!

Subway Train is probably the best-produced song on the record. You can hear each instrument and the vocal mixing sounds as though an actual professional was hired to record an actual song!

"Pills" is the only remake on the record. Originally recorded by Bo Diddley, the Dolls pay homage by playing a straight fifties rock number with a howling harmonica, lead guitar and strong drums. Rundgren's failed production tricks are abandoned or easily-ignored, and this homage to a sexy nurse administering intravenous drugs bops along.

The opening bass and guitar riffs of "Private World" are infectious. Johansen's vocal style really works here. The guitars continue to shine and Rundgren manages to give us a hint of percussion and piano.

"Jet Boy" is a Johnny Thunders song that he continued to perform as a solo artist before his death in New Orleans. I think Thunders should have done the vocal on this recording, but he was the guitar player, not the singer. The song pops and bops and includes hand-claps along with a hard-rocking guitar, it epitomizes the Dolls' blending and clashing of masculine thrashing and feminine sensibility. The lyrics are sensitive, almost pleading. On the one hand the song says that "Jet Boy stole my pretty baby," and then "Jet Boy's flying around New York City so high like he was my baby." So is Jet Boy the love interest or is he the heartbreaker who stole the love interest? It's never clear and it is successful in its ambiguity, like so many hard-rock songs of that era.

The songs are great, but the production is so bad that it is difficult to discern the brilliance of the individual musicians, and only the vocals stand-out (for better or worse).

Yes, this is a classic rock record, but I always understand when someone tells me it is unlistenable. As much as I am a fan of Todd Rundgren, it is his production of this record that fails the listener, the band, the record company, and rock history.

New York Dolls statistics:

Track List:
"Personality Crisis" (Johansen, Thunders) – 3:43
"Looking for a Kiss" (Johansen, Thunders) – 3:20
"Vietnamese Baby" (Johansen) – 3:39
"Lonely Planet Boy" (Johansen, Thunders) – 4:10
"Frankenstein" (Johansen, Sylvain) – 6:00
"Trash" (Johansen, Sylvain) – 3:09
"Bad Girl" (Johansen, Thunders) – 3:05
"Subway Train" (Johansen, Thunders) – 4:22
"Pills" (Bo Diddley) – 2:49
"Private World" (Johansen, Arthur Kane) – 3:40
"Jet Boy" (Johansen, Thunders) – 4:40

Total Playing Time: 42:44

Produced by Todd Rundgren

Date of release: November 30, 1972

Label: Mercury

David Johansen – harmonica, gong, vocals
Sylvain Sylvain – rhythm guitar, piano, vocals
Killer Kane – bass
Jerry Nolan – drums
Johnny Thunders – guitar, vocals
Todd Rundgren – piano, keyboards, Moog synthesizer
Buddy Bowser – saxophone
Alex Spyropoulos – piano

Dick Mac Recommends:

New York Dolls
New York Dolls

New York Dolls In Too Much Too Soon

Titled like a movie, the prescient title did nothing to help the band avoid their pending self-destruction. One might argue that once they wound-up in the hands of Malcolm McLaren there was no stopping the inevitable implosion.

Where the production values of their first record made it possibly the worst-produced major-label record of the decade, Shadow Morton (a veteran of New York's Brill Building music revolution) took the rag-tag transvestite punks into the studios and made a big rock record. The problem with this sequence of events is that the band's best songs and rawest enthusiasm had been spent on the first record, and Morton was left with the rest of their now-dwindling catalog and an abundance of cover versions.

Four remakes are included, two of which are early-rock-era gimmick songs that should have been treated as throwaways to fill a live performance: Stranded In The Jungle and Bad Detective are both concept songs that fit perfectly in the notion of a rock album packaged as a movie soundtrack. The pickaninny racism and chop-suey xenophobia of these songs, however, may have been amusing in the early-1960s, but they really had no place on a rock record in 1973. Only Morton's superb production and Johansen's showmanship save these from being offensive displays of corporate ignorance. Classic R&B standards "Showdown" and "Don't Start Me Talkin'" are much more worthy of being re-made, and the band pays homage to all four tracks with a reverence that I wouldn't expect from a punk band; which proves how good these guys really were.

The professionalism and skills of the band really show on this record, and if anyone understood the future historic significance of the first record, they would have had Morton re-record it and release both as a double album.

"Babylon" is a roller coaster of a song that Johansen continued performing in his soon-to-be successful solo career. There's a great live version of The David Johansen Group (which incluced Syl Sylvain) doing it live at The Bottom Line with Johnny Thunders as a guest performer on lead guitar.

Originally recorded by The Jayhawks and a hit single for The Cadets in 1956 (as well as a cover by Frank Zappa a few years later), "Stranded in the Jungle" is the story of a man losing his love in two locations: the jungles of Africa and the jungles of urban America. The vocal effects and sound effects Morton weaves in and out of the song make it sound like the big Hollywood movie the Dolls always deserved and never received. Morton and Johansen should have continued collaborating.

"Who Are the Mystery Girls?" defined the punk movement for many girls I knew in the late 70s and early 80s. Like David Bowie's "Rebel Rebel" of the same era, you can find many who will argue passionately if it is a song about boys or girls. Like English singers of the era, it's almost impossible to discern Johansen's lyrics. You can find various versions of the lyrics on the web; but who will ever know what is real and what is imaginary.

I remember two women in Boston who had a rock gossip radio show titled "The Mystery Girls" on WERS during the punk era. They were girls, and they kept the song in the soptlight by using it as the show's theme.

"(There's Gonna Be A) Showdown" is a song about dance competition, in the vein of The Capitols' Cool Jerk, that I remembered as a song by Archie Bell & The Drells.
I've got ten notches on my shoes
When it comes to dancing, I just can't lose
They call me the top cat in this man's town
So I want you to meet me before the sun goes down
There's gonna be a showdown

Shadow Morton uses his classic sixties production skills to create a perfect celebration of this R&B hit. It's crystal clear and easy to listen to.

"It's Too Late" might be the most sophisticated example of Johansen using a circular pop-culture reference, a song whose underlying reference simply feeds off itself.
Cause I saw you last night darling
On that midnight flight to the stars
But you spent most your time in the powder room
Where you chit-chat with Diana Dors

Diana Dors was a glamorous English blonde-bombshell singer-actress who never quite made it to the top of the heap. Singing about Dors keeps the band's glam posture intact. The circular reference is to her 1964 single titled "It's Too Late." So the singer sings a song about a singer who had a song of the same name.

Shadow Morton produces with crystal-clear precision, and with a real punk sensibility, as if The Ramones were recorded by Sir George Martin at DisneyWorld.

As I mentioned earlier, "Puss 'N' Boots" is the song the Sex Pistols copied to make their song "Liar." The lyrics remind me of Johansen's "Funky But Chic" which was to be on the third Dolls album that was never made. In the later song, Johansen sings about 'a pair of jeans that somebody gave him, his mother thinks he looks pretty fruity, but in the jeans he feels rocking.' In Puss 'N' Boots, the protagonist has a pair of boots that he loves, but nobody else likes them and they are keeping him out of the running and out of the action:
. . . all the boys and girls think
you're too easy game.
Don't you know the shoes
are making him lame.
"Shine them up, boys, and keep the change."
Just like Puss 'n' Boots
I hope you don't get shot for trying.

Johnny Thunders sometimes referred to "Chatterbox" as "Milkman" for a reason I will never know, and he continued to perform the song in his solo performances. This is the only cut on the record not sung by David Johansen. Clocking-in at less than two-and-a-half minutes, Chatterbox is a real punk song from the New York school defined by the Dolls.

"Bad Detective" is a Coasters song about 1940s film character Charlie Chan, recorded in 1963. Shadow Morton gives the Dolls' version a faux-Manchu sound with gongs and guitar licks. It is beautifully produced and has a real Hollywood feel, which keeps the soundtrack notion alive as the album draws near its end.

Sonny Boy Williamson's "Don't Start Me Talkin'" is the final re-make on the record. Like "Showdown," it is done in a classic R&B style. No frills, no silliness, and Morton's production might be almost too good for the song's own good. Johansen's vocal style readily lends itself to R&B songs and he does a superb job on this cut.

"Human Being" is the final cut on the album and is one of the Dolls' greatest songs. It's a song about getting dumped, and I've always wondered if it (along with Johansen's solo masterpiece "Flamingo Road") is about the end of his relationship with Cyrinda Foxe, who left him for Steven Tyler, of Aerosmith.

Now is as good a time as any to talk about my gossip-y theory of that triumvirate. Cyrinda Foxe helped the Dolls dress-up as drag queens for their act. When the Dolls were losing their gloss, Foxe and Tyler began an affair. Suddenly, Aerosmith was dressing-up onstage. They were not in drag, per se, but they certainly were not dressing like "men," either. I have always believed that it was Foxe's influence, the same sensibility that influenced Johansen, Thunders & the rest of the Dolls, that gave Tyler & Co their rock 'n' roll personae. And there is, of course, another Steven Tyler connection in this story. Cyrinda Foxe's friend, Bebe Buell dated Tyler before she hooked-up with Todd Rundgren. Buell discovered she was pregnant and Rundgren stepped-up as a decent man would, supporting his new family and never keeping it a secret from their child that her father was Steven Tyler. So, the seventies rock scene centered in New York City was rather small and incestuous.

Back to Human Being . . .

Another roller coaster of a song, the album ends with Human Being the same way as it began with Babylon. Human Being leaves the station at break-neck speed and never slows. Another anti-love song, it is riddled with hostile lyrics second only to Elvis Costello's later diatribes against girls:
Now what you need is
A plastic doll with a fresh coat of paint,
Who's gonna sit through the madness
And always acts so quaint,
Saying yeah yeah yeah!
With your new friend
You're really making a scene
And I see you bouncing around
From machine to machine

The band is joined halfway through by a very convincing uncredited saxophone. It could be Buddy Bowser, who is credited with saxophone on the first album. The production harkens back to the muddiness of the earlier Rundgren work, which makes me suspect that it might actually be a remixed out-take from those original sessions; but I don't really know.

This is one of the Dolls' best ever songs. I have included it on many mixed tapes, including as the opening cut on a break-up tape. Next time you're dumped by a girl, play Human Being at maximum volume.

Remember that if I am acting like a queen, well, I'm a human being!

The New York Dolls in Too Much Too Soon statistics:

Track List:
"Babylon" (Johansen, Thunders) – 3:31
"Stranded in the Jungle" (James Johnson, Ernestine Smith) – 3:49
"Who Are the Mystery Girls?" (Johansen, Thunders) – 3:07
"(There's Gonna Be A) Showdown" (Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff) – 3:37
"It's Too Late" (Johansen, Thunders) – 4:35
"Puss 'N' Boots" (Johansen, Sylvain) – 3:06
"Chatterbox" (Thunders) – 2:26
"Bad Detective" (K. Lewis) – 3:37
"Don't Start Me Talkin'" (Sonny Boy Williamson II) – 3:12
"Human Being" (Johansen, Thunders) – 5:44

Total Playing Time 36:44

Produced by Shadow Morton

Date of release 1974

Label: Mercury

David Johansen – gong, vocals
Arthur "Killer" Kane – bass
Jerry Nolan – drums, percussion
Sylvain Sylvain – bass, guitar, piano
Johnny Thunders – guitar, vocals
Peter Jordan – bass
Alex Spyropoulos – piano

Dick Mac Recommends:

The New York Dolls
In Too Much Too Soon

Or Download the MP3s:

New York Dolls
New York Dolls

Or Download the MP3s:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


I know caps are taboo, but here, it's warrented.

Just awesome! The allegation of Human Being as having started out as a throwaway from the Rundgren sessions is spot on. As soon as I read that, I said to myself,"Yeah, I know what you mean" Thank you so much for writing this.
- Jack from New Yawk