New York Dolls Too Much Too Soon

New York Dolls’ ‘Too Much Too Soon’ Lived Up to Its Title (More or Less) 

The New York Dolls didn’t just play rock and roll. They swung, achieving a groove that set them apart from other rockers at the time and since.

Too Much Too Soon
New York Dolls
10 May 1974

The New York Dolls get grouped with glam rockers of the day, such as Alice Cooper; hard rockers, including Aerosmith; and proto-punks, most prominently the Stooges. Like their contemporaries, the Dolls played stripped-down, few-frills rock that influenced the late 1970s punks: Ramones, Sex Pistols, the Damned, the Clash, and so on. But the New York Dolls embraced, absorbed, and celebrated AM-radio pop, early rock and roll, blues, raw R&B, and the tougher girl groups in a way their fellows and followers didn’t. As a result, the New York Dolls didn’t just play rock and roll. They swung, achieving a groove that set them apart from other rockers at the time and since. That’s true on their eponymous debut, from 1973, but it’s truer on Too Much Too Soon.

In the 21st century, as the internet makes available an avalanche of music, it may be hard to imagine the context in which the Dolls hammered out their sound. We now take for granted that artists draw freely from the history of music, recorded and unrecorded, that they mix and match influences, and that expensively produced products coexist with low-rent bedroom creations. We also take for granted that you can turn on the rock and roll tap and hear an eternal stream of pure noise, loudness, speed, crunching intensity, or even mayhem. For a long time, albums have rocked nonstop, but that wasn’t always the case. 

The New York Dolls’ Too Much Too Soon lived up to its title by rocking nonstop in a way that was quite unfashionable in 1974. It wasn’t exactly fashionable in 1973 either.

New York Dolls (1973)

The front cover of the Dolls’ first self-titled album gives a good sense of how the band followed its own fashion. Under the band’s name, which has been drawn carefully with pink lipstick (as identified by the tube at the end of the name), the Dolls sit or perch on an antique-looking sofa. They are bass guitarist Arthur “Killer” Kane (1949‒2004), rhythm guitarist and pianist Sylvain Sylvain (birth name: Sylvain Misrahi; 1951‒2021), singer and harmonica player David Johansen (or, as he’s billed on the cover, David Jo Hansen; born 1950; you might also know him through his post-1980s alter ego, the tuxedoed lounge lizard Buster Poindexter), lead guitarist Johnny Thunders (birth name: John Genzale; 1952‒1991), and drummer Jerry Nolan (1946‒1992).

They’re all wearing women’s platform shoes or high-heeled boots, lipstick, and enough pancake makeup that they could be Halloween zombies—or, come to think of it, China dolls. Their hair is long, ringletted, permed, or teased into a bouffant. Kane, cocktail in his hand and a cigarette dangling from his lips looks like a tough guy who happens to be wearing eye shadow, blush, a pearl necklace, and a tight top off the shoulder. Sylvain, his arm on Kane’s shoulder, has on a clownish amount of blush, plus a polka-dotted scarf and a blouse on which a cowboy aims to lasso a rearing horse. Johansen, his striped knit top open to the waist and his satiny pants exposing some leg, looks at a compact. Thunders wears a choker, a dark pantsuit, and a giant white belt. Nolan looks the most vixenish of the bunch, pulling his flouncy scarf and the embroidered lapels of his tight jacket up against his chest.

On the back cover, the outfits have changed, and the pancake makeup is off, but the hair is just as long, and the androgyny remains. Despite Johansen’s attempt to look like a flat-chested Carly Simon, with legs angled eye-catchingly, the Dolls don’t really look like they want to be women. They’re not pretending to be transgender or gay. They’re cross-dressers in an old-fashioned sense: straight men getting a kick (if not exactly their kicks) out of adopting an ultra-femme look.

Many glam rockers had worn women’s clothing, long hair, and makeup, but the Dolls took their look in a different direction. As in their music, the Dolls avoided the preciousness inherent to glam. They didn’t play at rocking; they rocked. And they weren’t wearing these attention-getting outfits for any other reason than the outfits looked weird, cool, and new on a rock and roll band made up of straight men. They’d chosen the name New York Dolls—taken from Midtown Manhattan’s for-profit New York Doll Hospital—and they were living up to the name. They were a boy band who wanted to be a girl group, a streetwise one, like the Ronettes and the Shangri-La’s.

Because these boys were so unrefined, though, they ended up looking like prostitutes, the kind of hookers (in the parlance of the day) who used to work New York streets. Maybe the Dolls would sell themselves to a record label, but did they have a Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” or a Shangri-La’s “Leader of the Pack” to offer?

Mercury Records had been around since 1945. By 1972, it boasted an eclectic catalog that included Jerry Lee Lewis (playing pop-country), Rod Stewart (making his early solo albums while still with his rock band Faces), and the Greek art-progressive-pop-rock band Aphrodite’s Child (best known for 666, its brilliant double concept album about the biblical Book of Revelation). When Mercury signed the Dolls, presumably, the label wanted to get into the glam rock phenomenon (in the US, better known as glitter rock). That’s what the outfits were about, right?

The band’s first self-titled album was produced by the art-pop rocker Todd Rundgren, who contributed some unobtrusive synthesizer. Rundgren filled in the gaps in the band’s sound, but he didn’t turn New York Dolls into glam, certainly not like the preciously sweet side of that subgenre.

Rather, in retrospect, some glam resembles New York Dolls. Think of the subgenre’s tougher, electric-guitar-driven songs, with less of glam’s patented combination of folkish naïveté and theatrical knowingness. Think of T. Rex’s “Metal Guru”, from 1972’s The Slider, and “20th Century Boy”, a 1973 single. Think of David Bowie’s “Suffragette City”, from 1972’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, and “Watch That Man”, from 1973’s Aladdin Sane.

Bowie’s 1973 album included a hard-charging cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together”, and that track is a tip-off. The harder edges of glam can be seen as falling on the Stones side of pop-rock’s great divide: Beatles vs. Stones. Bowie and T. Rex also owed major debts to the Beatles. The New York Dolls played rock and roll as though the Beatles had never existed. 

Just as Bowie and his band’s lead guitarist, Mick Ronson, had modeled themselves on the classic frontman-and-charismatic-musician combination of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, so did David Johansen and Johnny Thunders. In Boston, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry were working on their variation on the same theme. In all these cases, it seems like an early friendship turned into a professional partnership and, at some point, into a rivalry for attention. The friction lent creative fervor, then led to problems. Still, the fervor seemed worth it. 

The New York Dolls’ first album opens with the bang of “Personality Crisis” (“You got it while it was hot / But now frustration and heartache is what you got”), which is now a classic of its kind but no doubt seemed like junk to fans of more sophisticated fare. “Looking for a Kiss”, “Frankenstein”, “Trash”, “Bad Girl”, “Subway Train”, “Private World”, and “Jet Boy” kept up the intensity. The songs on this record aren’t necessarily connected, but they paint such a unified portrait that New York Dolls could be seen as a concept album. The songs display an acute awareness of life in a place where walking down one block or turning a corner can introduce a whole new drama.

Even now, with New York City having been transformed/transmogrified over the decades by socioeconomics, the album gives off such a stench of garbage-strewn, densely packed streets on hot, humid summer nights that the city’s Tourist Board could use this album to promote a particular kind of urban experience. Call this package “gutter realism (with a touch of fantasy).”

Frank Sinatra’s 1979 recording of “Theme from New York, New York” may be the ultimate celebration of the metropolis where making it—in the sense of realizing your professional, artistic, or existential dreams—can make you. Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’s 2009 recording of “Empire State of Mind” updated that theme. By contrast, New York Dolls is the scuzzy, low-rent depiction of making it in totally different senses: on the scene, getting a kiss or more, riding around in a car or on the subway, being cool. Even more likely, though, is a possibility hinted at in New York Dolls: that the city will break you, leaving you a lonely Frankenstein’s monster in a private world.

The album’s quieter songs lend a different kind of substance: In the quasi-sociological “Vietnamese Baby”, a “technology satellite” brings disturbing news from afar (“everything connects and that ain’t nowhere”). In the acoustic-based ballad “Lonely Planet Boy”, Johansen reveals a possibly unexpected sensitivity (maybe there’s a little Beatles in him after all). 

The one non-original, Bo Diddley’s “Pills”, is so much of a piece with the rest that it completes the picture. The song concerns a bedridden hospital patient and the “rock and roll nurse” who “went to [his] head”. The Dolls put the original’s propulsiveness into overdrive, making this comical narrative so much their own that, if you didn’t know Diddley’s version, you’d think the line “She got me kicking this junk against my will” was not his but Johansen’s, interpolated as a sly reference to many York rockers’ fondness for substances such as opiates.

Referentiality comes naturally to Johansen as a brainy way to connect his music with its influences. “Personality Crisis” nods to “walk with personality / talk with personality” from Lloyd Price’s 1959 pop-R&B hit, “Personality”. “Looking for a Kiss” opens with Johansen announcing, “When I say I’m in love, you best believe I’m in love, L-U-V”, just as singer Mary Weiss does at the start of the Shangri-La’s 1964 hit “Give Him a Great Big Kiss”. In one of the all-time funniest moments in rock and roll, “Trash” stops its noise for a moment so Johansen can quote that eternal question from “Love Is Strange”, Mickey & Sylvia’s 1956 R&B hit (actually written by Bo Diddley under his wife’s name, Ethel Smith): “How do you call your lover boy?” After a beat, the band kicks in with the chorus and the answer: “Trash!”

If that’s not your idea of a good time, then New York Dolls probably isn’t for you. If a good time strikes you as less important than stellar musicianship, bear in mind that the New York Dolls wanted to play entertainingly trashy rock and roll, pure and simple. Meanwhile, Johnny Thunders could play guitar; or if he couldn’t, then not being able to play works fine in this context. He might not have known many chords or scales, but he knew the right ones. His playing, at least on the Dolls records and his early solo material, always excites and never overstays its welcome.

David Johansen shouts more than sings, with a range of one note or maybe two notes. This debut consists of catchy and memorable songs with inspired turns of phrase (“And you’re a prima ballerina on a spring afternoon / Change on into the wolfman howlin’ at the moon”), yet it is shockingly unmelodic, monotonal, even atonal. If you go looking for a sound you associate with the early-to-mid 1970s, you may be surprised.


Certain performers are seen as keeping the flame of basic rock and roll during a period in which much attention went to softer forms, such as pop and singer-songwriter, and more complicated ones, such as art rock and its cousin progressive rock. In 1973, the New York Dolls were among the keepers of the flame. By 1974, they basically stood alone in something like the mainstream.

A few years earlier, the Flamin’ Groovies, a San Francisco band, released ferocious, unfashionable albums in what would become the spirit of the Dolls. In 1974, however, the Flamin’ Groovies released only a single.

That same year, the original incarnation of Detroit’s Stooges broke up, having released their third dose of unhinged proto-punk, Raw Power, in 1973. The original incarnation of their Detroit compatriots, the MC5, had broken up in 1972, having released their final album of unhinged protopunk the year before.

Big Star kept the flame of rock and roll, but their 1974 album—their second, Radio City, like their first, #1 Record—drew on influences found nowhere in the Dolls’ music: Beatles, Byrds, Led Zeppelin. Even their soul stylings have a cleanness alien to the Dolls.

By 1974, England’s T. Rex and David Bowie had moved beyond glam, the former into the funk and R&B of Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow and the latter into the conceptual art-pop of Diamond Dogs.

English tax exiles the Rolling Stones extended the luxuriations of 1973’s Goats Head Soup into 1974’s It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll, where “only” somehow stretched to include soul, country, funk, and ballads. Their straightforward rock wasn’t categorically different from the Dolls’, and it’s interesting to contemplate what those New Yorkers might have done with “Silver Train”, from Goats Head Soup, or “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll”. Still, the Stones were stadium-fillers, and as such, they’d begun to traffic in generalizations, whereas the Dolls remained committed to details. Plus, the Stones’ slackness could grow boring, which the Dolls never were. 

By 1975, England would foster rock and roll revivalists, such as Dr. Feelgood and the Count Bishops. At the same time, rock became increasingly an umbrella term as the genre moved further from rock and roll, absorbing non-rock influences and spawning subgenres. When you look at the hard rockers of 1974 and play the game of “if you like this, it’s possible you’ll like that”, a few recordings may strike your fancy if you like the straightforwardness of the Dolls. However, you may also be left cold by some aspects of these more complicated recordings.

Easiest to place in the “left cold” category are the hard rockers whose music, despite its goofier aspects, doesn’t have a laugh-out-loud sense of humor. I’m reminded of a letter to the editor that once appeared in Rolling Stone. The writer was objecting to Van Halen (formed in 1973) being called heavy metal. Heavy metal, he argued, was rooted in the blues—in other words, serious music. Van Halen was rooted in “garbage”. He didn’t define “garbage” or offer examples. Presumably he meant garbage (!) such as Roy Orbison, Martha and the Vandellas, and the Kinks, all of whom Van Halen covered gleefully. 

The New York Dolls were also rooted in garbage like that—and worse! They loved trash. But they were also rooted in the blues. They just didn’t differentiate because it was all good, all bad, good-bad, not evil. Mix it up, play it fast and loud, and you’ve got a rock and roll party.

At its fastest and heaviest, Blue Öyster Cult’s Secret Treaties comes close to the Dolls’ sound, but overall, the album has a leisurely pacing, extended soloing, and very un-Johansen-like operatic vocals that put it more in the metal camp. The same may be said for Deep Purple’s Burn, Judas Priest’s Rocka Rolla, and two albums by Uriah Heep, among the Dolls’ label mates on Mercury: The Magician’s Birthday and Sweet Freedom, both of which exemplify the arty progressive cul de sac into which rock had driven itself. Some of Metallica’s non-punk and non-alternative roots extend here, as do Spinal Tap’s, but the Dolls would have seen themselves as the antidote to much of this. The Dolls did not do instrumental passages, shimmering textures, sci-fi scenarios, or songs about magicians in forests (even the first album’s “Frankenstein” isn’t really horror but sociology).

Aerosmith and the Dolls intersected theoretically when the former covered the Shangri-La’s’ “Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand)”, but that didn’t happen until 1979. In 1974, Aerosmith’s Get Your Wings presented the band as serious, professional, and in it for the long haul, whereas the Dolls wanted to mainly trash the place before going the way of all flesh. If the Dolls had covered Johnny Burnette’s rockabilly version of “Train Kept a-Rollin’”, as Aerosmith did, the Dolls’ take would have rocked similarly but more recklessly.

Queen’s Queen II and Sheer Heart Attack have a sense of humor, but they also have one foot in hard rock, one foot in glam, and a third foot in arty prog. Similarly, Alice Cooper’s Muscle of Love—the last album by the original band before the singer changed his name to Alice Cooper and became a solo artist, released in late 1973—comes pretty close to the Dolls’ attack, especially on the title song and “Working Up a Sweat”. But it also sports a theatrical art-rock pomp—with prominent keyboards (and keyboard solos), strings, horns, Pink Floyd-ish atmospherics, and Leon Russell-ish boogie—that the Dolls never approached.

Kiss—New Yorkers whose drummer, Peter Criss, once auditioned for the Dolls—released both its self-titled debut album and Hotter than Hell. Both records combine essentially the same elements as the Dolls’ music: bluesy riffs turned into bargain-basement rock with a sometimes shakey rhythm section and nods toward pop and metal. So why does the Dolls’ music get some people’s hearts racing and minds working overtime while Kiss’ music feels like the clock is ticking while life is passing? The difference may lie in personality. Compare Kiss’s use of makeup, which always seemed like a comic-book gimmick to wow the kids, with the Dolls’, which seemed to reflect a way of life. Compare Johansen’s inspired delivery, his delight in the lyrics and scenarios, with Kiss members’ perfunctory singing. Compare Thunders’ explosive solos, as though so much depended on those moments of expression (because when Thunder took off, he was free from the constraints of society and humdrum daily life), with Ace Frehley’s standard-issue string-strangling. Kiss just sounds ordinary, which the Dolls never were.

The sense of fun and rock as energy release runs throughout Sweet’s Desolation Boulevard, and fast songs such as “Ballroom Blitz” and “A.C.D.C.” achieve a Dolls-like intensity. However, the band presents glam pop-rock and bubblegum as much as hard rock and roll. Apart from some extended instrumental passages and metallic operatics, Sweet predicts the Ramones more than it mines Dolls’ territory.

Likewise, Slades’ two 1974 albums, In Flame and Old New Borrowed and Blue (also known as Stomp Your Hands, Clap Your Feet), share the Dolls’ sense of fun and keep the flame with hard-edged glam. Yet Slade’s versatility took them to places the Dolls never ventured: piano-based ballads, music-hall/cabaret pop, acoustic power pop, and so on. Rather than sounding proto-punk, Slade predicted new wave and pop-punk, and generally, wailing vocals made them forerunners of AC/DC (formed 1973; first album, 1975) and Quiet Riot (who in 1983‒84 scored hits with two—two!—Slade covers). 

Closest to the New York Dolls in spirit and execution was Mott the Hoople’s The Hoople. While the latter bears an English theatricality, ambition, even grandiosity—in its stitching together of interludes, as strings and horns and piano wrap around singer Ian Hunter’s rough-hewn sensitive-guy poetry—Mott the Hoople’s music can be ferocious. If you like the Dolls, there’s a good chance you’ll like Mott’s “The Golden Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll”, “Crash Street Kids”, and “Born Late ’58”. Elsewhere, the interplay of voices, the glam hangover, and the balladry is very much not the Dolls. The Dolls liked old stuff just as much as Mott did, but they never sounded nostalgic, never waxed melancholy about changing times. On this album’s closer, “Roll Away the Stone”, Mott achieved an apotheosis of celebrating the past (“a rockabilly party” in 1974?) and making what they loved sound gloriously new. What might the Dolls have done with that one?

Too Much Too Soon (1974)

Had the New York Dolls wanted to pursue an artier direction on their second album, they might have retained Todd Rundgren as producer. Instead, they made what must have seemed to them like a dream choice: hiring George “Shadow” Morton, forever best-known as producer of the Shangri-La’s and writer of hits such as “Give Him a Great Big Kiss”, “Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand)”, and “Leader of the Pack”.

Shadow Morton wasn’t going to guide the Dolls on a neopsychedelic journey to the center of existence. He wasn’t going to encourage them to use jazzy chords, add literary references, draw from exotic genres, or get clever. He was going to help them make loud, fast music the old-fashioned way.

The cover of Too Much Too Soon dovetails with this shift. Instead of the first album’s black-and-white shot of posed Dolls, a full-color photo shows the band in action, rocking out onstage, Johansen doing his best Mick Jagger in a black jumpsuit. Two delicious details make this image even more interesting: the baby doll being gripped by Johnny Thunders in the hand that’s not holding the neck of his guitar and the styling of the album title as




as though they’re the stars of a tawdry B-movie. That kind of sly humor represents a very pop-culturally aware New York City.

On the back cover, the New York Dolls look a bit more glitzed up, with Johansen especially femme in a see-through blouse, shiny skin-tight purple pants, and high heels. The album is dedicated to Diana Barrymore, a New York actress who published her autobiography Too Much, Too Soon in 1957, three years before she died of unknown causes at age 38.

But don’t go to the Dolls’ Too Much Too Soon for storytelling, tragedy, or a great deal of insight. Although Johansen delivers dramatic performances, they’re all comedic—variations on the hapless goofball in the first album’s Bo Diddley cover, “Pills”. This second album includes no observations like “Vietnamese Baby” or meditations like “Lonely Planet Boy”. It doesn’t do melancholy. Instead, it captures the sound of a bona-fide, somewhat seasoned rock and roll band playing full tilt.

At the start of the first song, Johansen/Thunders’ “Babylon”, the singer whistles, then shouts, “Come on, boys!” The band kick in, and in retrospect, the result sounds like Louis Armstrong fronting a combination of the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, and the Cramps. The guitars sound like a train. The recording seems less layered, more live in the studio, than on the first album, and that’s really saying something because the first album wasn’t exactly a multitrack sonic extravaganza. It was sonically dense, however, where this album pumps in some air.

In “Babylon”, the singer is hemmed in by reality (looking in the mirror, getting hassled by cops, having a relationship with an “exotic dancer” who works in a massage parlor) and needs to get away to the place of the title. Johansen reportedly wrote the song in tribute to suburbanites who took part in the city’s nightlife and then headed home, but the yearned-for locale is presumably not the town of that name on Long Island. It is, as Webster’s puts it, “a city devoted to materialism and sensual pleasure”. 

We don’t learn from the song whether the singer’s desperate striving yields results, but presumably it doesn’t, because the next song isn’t “Happily in Babylon” (there is no such song) but “Stranded in the Jungle”. The song’s skimpy narrative involves a man whose plane goes down in an area inhabited by cannibals, while “meanwhile, back in the States”, an interloper woos the man’s female companion. Written by Ernestine Smith, James Johnson, and Al Curry, this doo-wop song was first recorded by the Jayhawks (which included Johnson) in 1956 and a bit more uptempo by the Cadets that same year. The Dolls do the Cadets’ version, amping it up further and adding sweet-voiced female backup singers.

Both the Jayhawks and the Cadets were Black and intended this little tale as good-natured entertainment. For the Dolls, the scenario was more loaded, though not nearly as loaded as it would be today. They probably found the song funny, and it seemed cool to resurrect a song that was so obscure and unfashionable in 1974 when knowing an oldie like this would have meant not going to YouTube but finding the seven-inch 45-rpm single.

The lyrics to Johansen/Thunders’ “Who Are the Mystery Girls?” present mysteries. The singer’s confused, but he really, really wants to know about the titular females. The band hammers away, making clear why they became a model for the Sex Pistols, although the latter wouldn’t have employed the sweetly chirping backup singers.

Next up is Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s “(There’s Gonna Be a) Showdown”, a 1969 Philadelphia soul number by Archie Bell and the Drells, though you could mistake it for a Shangri-La’s vignette. The Dolls replace Bell and the Drells’ “Market St.” with “14th St.”, their breeziness with intensity. As in the original, there’s a breakdown where the singer interacts with the drummer, coaxing out drum shots and, finally, a fill. But whereas the Drells’ drummer coolly executes his hits, something’s really at stake in the Dolls’ hands. Despite Johansen’s spirited commands, it’s not guaranteed that Nolan will deliver. After his moment on the spotlighted highwire, he ends the proceedings with a pounding roll.

Side 1 ends with Johansen/Thunders’ “It’s Too Late”, where the singer’s romantic troubles seem unfixable. The Dolls open with their version of funk, the parts failing to cohere and the band then settling for something it can execute, which is a hard boogie, a bit T. Rex-like but grittier. As on the first album, it’s shocking how unmelodic and monotonal the band wanted to be. Here, the bass and drums emerge from the squall as they don’t often do, the bass in particular supplying a kind of catchiness.

Side two opens with Johansen/Thunders’ “Puss ‘n’ Boots”, a twisted anthem with the Dolls’ trademark swagger. The singer addresses someone who has acquired fancy footwear and is “walkin’ like you’re ten feet tall”, but that someone may be headed for a fall. “I hope you don’t get shot for tryin’”, Johansen shouts. In those days, on New York City streets, there was no doubt there was real danger in donning the wrong attire plus displaying the wrong attitude. Given the weapons and mental illness in the city these days and the left vs. right cultural divides everywhere, “Puss ‘n’ Boots” may be back in fashion.

Thunders’ “Chatterbox”, his one lead vocal on a Dolls record, makes it on sound and attitude. The singer is trying to put the moves on the squawker of the title (“c’mon, gimme some lips”), and he achieves a winning combination of piercing guitar lines and squeaky, quite non-thunderless voice. Thunders would deploy that combination throughout a checkered solo career.  

Keni St. Lewis’s “Bad Detective”, recorded by the Coasters in 1964, is one of the album’s bits of comical R&B. The nonsensical story involves a “bad” yet effective detective who gets called Charlie Chan, a reference to a fictional Chinese-Hawaiian police investigator created in 1925, who was once viewed as countering racial stereotypes and is now generally viewed as reinforcing them. Like the Coasters, the Dolls sound like they’re having a party. And as with “Stranded in the Jungle”, the Dolls were probably most interested in rescuing an oldie from obscurity. The cultural politics would have amused them and seemed beside the point. “If they can’t take a joke,” as the saying goes.

Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Don’t Start Me Talkin’” was originally on Chess Records and has the hard-edged attack of the best Chess blues. The Dolls rock it up further, pretty much as they did with “Pills”, except that “Pills” was less serious.

The album ends with Johansen/Thunders’ “Human Being”, a rave-up that is also the album’s most substantial original song. The singer addresses a potential companion, asking for his due: “a sip… a drag on that cigarette… something that I will never forget”. The addressee is looking for “a sain… a plastic doll… something I ain’t.” So the singer is “acting like a king” precisely because he is “an unknown human being… a riff-raff human being”—in other words, a real person. He stands outside society, finding it “obscene” and “appalling” because it is so phony. Through this scenario, the song comments on the power of dreaming, of shaping one’s reality, but also on being, regardless of what goes on in the surroundings, a flesh-and-blood individual with needs. 

On “Human Being”, the New York Dolls deliver total noise. The rhythm section stays submerged as the blaring guitar, the honking sax, and the singer’s bark merge, then happily elbow each other out of the spotlight. In the final moments, everything drops out, but some sax that works from Coltrane riffs into a soulful coda. 

This powerful original helps Too Much Too Soon bear the weight of all the album’s non-originals. We could see those cover versions as harkening back to the days before the rock era, when recording artists weren’t expected to write their own material but performed songs composed by professional songwriters. However, the slimness of the New York Dolls’ own songs here contrasts with the solidity of their debut, indicating that the covers weren’t a reflection of music history or an aesthetic choice as much as a necessity. If Too Much Too Soon is the lesser of the two albums, even a bit of a letdown, it nonetheless captures an important, loveable band looking backward while pointing toward the future.

At the time, it proved too little, too late, and Mercury dropped them. The mystery is that Mercury signed them in the first place.


In 1974, the second New York Dolls album might have met an ignominious commercial end, but the New York rock scene was gathering energy. Patti Smith released her first single, a cover of “Hey Joe” that, without a rhythm section, smolders rather than rocks but is proto-punk or maybe proto-post-punk in its take-no-prisoners intensity. That same year, the Ramones played their first concert, then later their first show at CBGB’s.

New York’s Dictators—kindred spirits to the Dolls and the Ramones, but more satiric and on the metal side—released their first album in 1975. That same year, the all-female  Runaways formed (or were formed by the rock impresario Kim Fowley) in California.

By 1975, Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan had quit the Dolls and formed a new band, the Heartbreakers. They were not Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers. They originally included Richard Hell and have always been considered a punk band. They played rock and roll in the style of the Dolls. Indeed, one of their songs, “Milk Me”, is simply a retitled version of Thunders’ “Chatterbox”, from Too Much Too Soon.

The Late 1970s and Beyond

So were the Dolls playing punk rock before that style had a name? In 1975, in England, the Sex Pistols formed (or were formed by the rock impresario Malcolm McClaren, who had been the Dolls’ manager). A year later, the Ramones toured England and helped energize that country’s punk scene. A year after that, the Heartbreakers embarked on an ill-fated tour as openers for the Sex Pistols.

Perhaps because the New York Dolls had been drawn on as a model for the Sex Pistols, Johnny Rotten, ever determined to place himself as the sui generis ne plus ultra, wrote his band’s “New York” (1977). This put-down categorizes “an imitation from New York” as “just a pile of shit” and a “poor little faggot”. In explaining the song’s meaning, Rotten extrapolated it beyond the Dolls to the entire New York underground rock scene, which he found privileged and not hardscrabble enough.

Johnny Thunders replied to “New York” with “London” (1978): “You talk about faggots / You little mama’s boy… You poor little puppet… And I’ve been a-climbing / Just a face to the wall / Too much too soon / Do you recall?” But he, too, extrapolated from one person to a whole scene: “You’re little London boys… And I’m talkin’ about the whole lot of ya!” (it’s not “And I’m talkin’ about the whole audience!” as one lyrics website has it).

But even if you’re looking back from the perspective of the New York Dolls’ descendants, such as the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, you may still need to retune your ears to appreciate the charms of the Dolls’ music. As the years go on, the Dolls’ two studio albums come to seem more and more prescient, but they never lose their rough edges. If that’s not punk, I don’t know what is.

“Born to Lose” was a Johnny Thunders solo song. The Dolls weren’t born to lose, exactly, but they were “born too loose” (as one variation of the song puts it). They weren’t built to last but to burn briefly and brightly.

After Thunders’ and Nolan’s departure, Johansen and Sylvain recruited new members and performed live as the New York Dolls until 1978. The band then went dormant until 2004, when Johansen and Sylvain again revived it for concerts and recordings. That version of the Dolls lasted until 2016.

By 1976 and beyond, the original Dolls’ legacy lived on through garbage-collecting rock and roll bands who would have been inconceivable or at least highly improbable in 1974, such as New York’s Cramps and A-Bones and Detroit’s White Stripes.

In the 1980s, the New York Dolls’ brand of androgynous masculinity or masculine androgyny, plus their generally trashy aesthetic, helped inspire the so-called hair-metal, glam-metal, and pop-metal bands, such as Hanoi Rocks and Mötley Crüe. At different points, these groups received a mysterious message: “The New York Dolls called. They want their look back.”