The New York Dolls: I'm a Human Being / Red Patent Leather / Seven Day Weekend

Michael Stephens

The New York Dolls

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

Label: Trojan
US Release Date: 2001-09-11

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?

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.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.