[25 July 2006]
When David Johansen sings about being “excommunicated then canonized” on the first new collection of songs by the New York Dolls in over 30 years, he could be referring to the group itself. Here is a band that got very little recognition (and certainly not the tangible rewards of rock celebrity) at the time of its original run, but has since been widely credited with influencing a generation of musicians and jump-starting the phenomenon called punk. The Dolls’ history has been recounted many times, but it’s worth a quick review in order to decide whether their new album is a triumph over adversity or a sad cash grab.
Formed in 1971 in New York City, by the following year the Dolls’ lineup had solidified into Johansen, Johnny Thunders (lead guitar), Sylvain Sylvain (rhythm guitar), Arthur Kane (bass), and Billy Murcia (drums). With its blend of outrageous glam looks and high-energy, bluesy rock, the band quickly landed a management deal, press attention, and a gig opening for Rod Stewart in England. But just as things were heating up, the first of several tragedies struck: During the trip to England, Billy Murcia drowned in a bathtub after a night of pills and booze. The incident was not only a personal tragedy, but earned a band that was already regarded as flamboyant a reputation as drug addicts. Still, after recruiting Jerry Nolan as Murcia’s replacement, the Dolls picked up the pieces and managed to land a recording deal with Mercury Records. When both the band’s albums, New York Dolls (1973) and Too Much Too Soon (1974), failed to crack the top 100, however, Mercury dropped the Dolls.
Meanwhile, as their band hit hard times, Thunders and Nolan were fighting heroin habits, while Kane sank into alcoholism. Malcolm McLaren, who would go on to manage the Sex Pistols, belatedly tried to revive the group, but things fell apart during an East Coast tour in 1975, and Thunders and Nolan quit. Although Johansen and Sylvain would continue using the group’s name for a couple more years, that was effectively the end of the New York Dolls. Thunders and Nolan spent a few years in the Heartbreakers, but their careers spiraled into disarray as their drug habits continued. Thunders’ erratic career ended with his drug-related death in 1991; Nolan died of a stroke early the next year. Oddly, it was Johansen’s lounge crooner alter ego Buster Poindexter who achieved the most commercial success of any solo Doll. But while the individual members of the New York Dolls mostly faded into obscurity, the band’s legend solidified. They are largely credited as forefathers of punk, and for better or worse, their androgynous look and Thunders’ ear-shredding guitar style clearly influenced countless members of ‘80s hair-metal bands.
The second chapter of the Dolls’ story begins in 2004, when avid fan Morrissey successfully corralled the surviving members of the group into reforming for London’s Meltdown Festival, of which he was curator. Their triumphant reunion would take on a bittersweet flavor, however, when Arthur Kane died of leukemia just a few weeks after the show. Instead of letting that be the end of the Dolls’ story, Johansen and Sylvain decided to soldier on under the New York Dolls banner, completing a tour and now, an album of original material, with new recruits Steve Conte (guitar), Sami Yaffa (bass), Brian Delaney (drums), and Brian Koonin (keyboards). The resulting album, One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This, is an odd little number perched somewhere between being embarrassing Dolls-by-numbers and true to the original band’s memory.
The main complaint leveled against the Dolls’ two previous studio albums was that they failed to capture the band’s raw energy, and with the recent DVD release of the documentary All Dolled Up, it’s possible for those who never saw the band live to see what everyone was talking about. The Dolls were a fierce live band, and had their magic been better captured on tape, their fate might have been different. What this boils down to is that production, an important element to any band’s recordings, is the key with the Dolls. For their new effort, Johansen and Sylvain recruited Jack Douglas, a veteran producer who helmed a number of notable releases by John Lennon, Aerosmith, and others, and whose punk credentials include producing Patti Smith’s Radio Ethiopia and engineering the Dolls’ debut. While Douglas certainly knows where the Dolls are coming from and seems sympathetic to their style, his work here is a bit intrusive and overly polished. There’s a telling scene in the accompanying “making of” DVD when Sylvain returns to the studio to find one of his compositions, the bonus track “Seventeen”, has been finished in his absence. Although he seems more bemused than displeased by the barely recognizable result, he nonetheless exclaims, albeit in a good-natured way, “What the fuck is that shit?”
While the production is at times overbearing, the songwriting is the real head-scratcher. Johansen says on the DVD that he wrote differently for the group than he would have for himself, and in some cases it sounds like the lyrics were written within the confines of what would be appropriately “Dollsy”. “We’re All in Love” is the story of an unapologetically unorthodox relationship, “Gimme Luv & Turn on the Light” (with Iggy Pop) mines “Looking for a Kiss” territory, and “Fishnets & Cigarettes”—well, that’s obvious enough. While several of the songs are true duds (the standard blues rehash “Runnin’ Around” has to be the worst), a few work well, including the ‘60s bubblegum of “Rainbow Store” and the energetic “Dance Like a Monkey”. Amidst these attempts to make music that sounds like the old Dolls, however, is the oddly sedate “Dancing on the Lip of a Volcano”, complete with earnest backing vocals from Michael Stipe. The best moments come when the Dolls drop the pretense and deliver mid-tempo, classic-pop-influenced numbers (“Plenty of Music”, “Maimed Happiness”, “Take a Good Look at My Good Looks”).
What the newer Dolls bring to the table here is hard to say. Sami Yaffa is a logical fit, having played with Thunders and Nolan and in the Dolls-influenced Hanoi Rocks. He and the others are competent musicians but just don’t add much musical personality to the proceedings even though they contributed to the songwriting. And if there’s one thing the original lineup of the Dolls had in abundance, it was personality. There’s a poignant moment on the DVD when Johansen is asked what his ambitions for the group were in 1972, and he admits that Thunders was the most ambitious Doll at that time. This brings to light the crux of the problem: The New York Dolls is just as much Thunders’, Nolan’s, and Kane’s group as Sylvain’s or Johansen’s. Try as those two might to recapture the essence of the Dolls, their time has passed. Certainly, there’s no shame in performing the band’s old songs for appreciative crowds, many of whom didn’t see the band the first time around, and it’s hard to criticize Sylvain and Johansen for belatedly reaping some financial reward for their work. As for the new album, though, a band that is only one-third New York Dolls—no matter how good their intentions—still sounds like it.