The New York Dolls

I'm a Human Being / Red Patent Leather / Seven Day Weekend

by Michael Stephens

10 September 2001


"The New York Dolls" is a shoulda-coulda-woulda story. They shoulda been as big as the Sex Pistols if Jerry Nolan and Johnny Thunders hadn't bailed on the Dolls' 1975 tour and flown back to New York (to score -- how feeble is that?). They coulda been contenders if they hadn't OD'd on alcohol (Billy Murcia) and drugs (Johnny Thunders, Jerry Nolan). They woulda had a great first album if Todd Rundgren had been able to capture their elusive "sound". They shoulda been recognized as prime movers in the New York punk scene, if only they had showed up in 1976 instead of 1973.

The truth? The New York Dolls had an outrageous image but nothing going on musically. They were a great idea for a band that never became a great band. Beyond the cachet of obscurity, rock and roll cult heroes must have something on the ball musically to deserve their status. Take away Robert Johnson’s deal with the devil and there are still the eerie recordings. Take away Iggy’s wild-man act and The Stooges still kill. Take away Gram Parsons’ cowboy junkie myth and his solo albums still deserve the description “cosmic American music”. Take away the New York Dolls’ makeup and drag and you have a mediocre bar band doing Chuck Berry covers and some eminently forgettable originals.

The Seven Day Weekend blurb describes the Dolls as “one of the most influential bands of all time”, but nothing on these three tacky, over-priced CDs suggests that the Dolls influenced anything more significant than Cinderella’s hair. Johnny Thunders was, according to the I’m a Human Being (Live) blurb, “the Keith Richards of punk”. Wasn’t that Mick Jones? Anyway, wasn’t punk about not trying to be Keith Richards? In the Dolls’ music we supposedly find, “the roots of punk”. Wasn’t that The Velvet Underground and The Stooges? The Dolls were influenced by, “the trashiness of The Stones”. Wasn’t that Aerosmith? So what was so influential about the Dolls?

cover art

The New York Dolls

I'm a Human Being / Red Patent Leather / Seven Day Weekend

US: 11 Sep 2001

Musically, the idea that the Dolls were ahead-of-their-time originators of the New York punk scene is only plausible if every lame blues-rock band living in New York in the early ‘70s is given the same credit. Throughout their career the Dolls performed Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man” and Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Don’t Start Me Talking”, using sloppy, Stones-derived harmonica and guitar arrangements. In these post-RL Burnside/Jon Spencer/Laughing Hyenas years, it has become critically valid to connect punk and blues. But according to the ‘70s punk mind-set, blues was a totally un-hip genre associated with Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton and the Stones: the dinosaurs the punks came to replace. How many blues songs did The Ramones and the Pistols have in their sets? Now listen to the Dolls trudging through “Hoochie Coochie Man” on both Seven Day Weekend and I’m a Human Being (Live) and tell me that this is innovative, proto-punk music.

The Dolls’ other major musical influence was ‘50s rock and roll. Songs like, “Dizzy Miss Lizzy”, “Back in the USA”, “Don’t Mess with Cupid”, “Ain’t Got No Home”, and “Something Else” are spread all over these Trojan CDs. The Sex Pistols also covered Eddie Cochran’s “Something Else” but with a precise sense of how rockabilly fit the punk aesthetic. The number and haphazard mixture of old rock and roll and blues songs in the Dolls’ repertoire suggests two things: a lack of original material and a bar band’s reliance on familiar crowd pleasers. The ‘50s rock standards mix indigestibly with the blues covers to produce a stodgy, style-less, leftover stew. From these uninspired and inadequately synthesized influences, the Dolls concocted their musical personality and developed originals like “Personality Crisis”, “Jet Boy” and “Girls, Girls, Girls”: clumsy, C-grade songs that might have been created by any minor ‘70s glitter band.

In terms of image, the Dolls had their own take on the glam rock look, and ‘80s glam metal bands like Poison and Cinderella owe them major credit in terms of fashion pointers if that’s worth bragging about, but there was nothing unprecedented about the Dolls’ image. Roxy Music, Sweet, Gary Glitter and Marc Bolan were all doing variations on the same campy, trashy, gender-bending fashion riff. So why does the blurb on I’m a Human Being (Live) tell us that the Dolls “pretty much patented the punk aesthetic”? What is punk about platform boots, long hair and makeup? The Dolls were not aesthetic pioneers. They were a small time glam rock band, very much rooted in their own time (1971-1975).

The New York connection, the drugginess, the sloppiness and the campiness allowed critics to situate the Dolls in the middle of a fictional path from the Velvets to the Ramones, but the Dolls have never merited a place in that kind of musical company. These three CDs are dreadful. I listened to all three all the way through and I don’t remember a thing. Two are live recordings. One consists of early demos, recorded live in the studio. Don’t waste your money. If you want to hear a great ‘70s punk album that you have never heard before, I highly recommend Johnny Moped’s Basically.

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