New York Dolls (album)

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New York Dolls
Studio album by New York Dolls
Released July 27, 1973
Recorded April 1973; The Record Plant, New York City
Genre Hard rock, protopunk
Length 42:44
Label Mercury
Producer Todd Rundgren
New York Dolls chronology
New York Dolls
(1973)
Too Much Too Soon
(1974)
Singles from New York Dolls
  1. "Trash / Personality Crisis"
    Released: July 1973
  2. "Jet Boy / Vietnamese Baby"
    Released: November 1973

New York Dolls is the debut studio album by American hard rock band the New York Dolls, released on July 27, 1973, by Mercury Records. The band formed in 1971 and developed a following while playing regularly in lower Manhattan, but were unappealing to record companies because of their vulgarity and cross-dressing attire. For shock value, they were photographed in exaggerated drag on the album cover.

After signing a two-album deal with Mercury, the New York Dolls recorded their self-titled first album at The Record Plant in New York City with producer Todd Rundgren, who was known for his sophisticated pop sound and shared a lukewarm opinion of the band. The album featured carefree rock and roll and Brill Building pop influences in both the music and lyrics, which were mostly written by lead singer David Johansen and touched on themes such as urban youth and authenticity.

Upon its release, New York Dolls received very positive reviews from music critics, but sold poorly and only charted at number 116 on the Billboard 200. The band toured the United States in promotion of the album and developed a reputation for rock-star excesses. The album has since received retrospective acclaim from critics and been viewed as a foundational and important release in punk rock.

Background[edit]

Todd Rundgren was enlisted to produce the album.

In 1971, vocalist David Johansen formed the New York Dolls with guitarists Johnny Thunders and Rick Rivets, bassist Arthur Kane, and drummer Billy Murcia; Rivets was replaced by Sylvain Sylvain in 1972.[1] According to Sylvain, they were club-going youths who had gone to New York with different career pursuits and that the band was only meant to be a temporary project: "We just said 'Hey, maybe this will get us some chicks.' That seemed like a good enough reason."[2] Sylvain and Murcia originally planned to work in the clothing business and opened a boutique on Lexington Avenue that was across the street from a toy repair shop called The New York Dolls Hospital, which gave them the idea for their name.[2] The New York Dolls soon began playing regularly in lower Manhattan and earned a cult following within a few months with their intense style of rock and roll. However, record companies were hesitant to sign them because of their cross-dressing attire and blatant vulgarity.[1] In October 1972, the New York Dolls attracted critics when they opened for English rock band The Faces at the Empire Pool in Wembley.[3] However, while on their first tour of England that year, Murcia died consuming a lethal combination of drugs and alcohol.[1] The New York Dolls enlisted Jerry Nolan as his replacement, while managers Marty Thau, Steve Leber, and David Krebs continued to struggle finding the band a recording contract.[3]

After returning to New York, the band filled out venues such as Max's Kansas City and the Mercer Arts Center in what Sylvain felt was a determined effort to "fake it until they could make it": "We had to make ourselves feel famous before we could actually become famous. We acted like we were already rock stars. Arthur even called his bass 'Excalibur' after King Arthur. It was crazy."[3] Their performance at the Mercer Arts Center was attended by journalist and Mercury Records publicity director Bud Scoppa and Paul Nelson, who was an A&R executive for the label at the time. Scoppa's initial impression of the band was that they were "a cartoon version of The Rolling Stones. They were funny but I didn't think they were very good, so I split after the first set. Paul stuck around for the second set, though, and after show he called me and said, 'You should have stayed. I think they're really special.' Then, after that, I fell in love with them anyway."[4] They ultimately received an offer from Mercury,[1] and on March 20, 1973, signed a two-album record deal with a $25,000 advance.[5] According to Sylvain, some of the band members' parents had to sign for them because they were not old enough.[4]

After the band had signed, Mercury Records wanted to find a record producer who could make the most out of the New York Dolls' sound and the hype they had received from critics and local fans.[4] At the band's first board meeting in Chicago, Johansen fell asleep in Mercury's conference room while record executives discussed potential producers, but awoke when they mentioned Todd Rundgren, a musician and producer who by 1972 had achieved rock stardom.[6] Rundgren socialized at venues such as Max's Kansas City and first saw the New York Dolls when model and then-girlfriend Bebe Buell brought him there to see them play.[3] Rundgren was known for his sophisticated pop sound,[1] and had become increasingly interested in progressive rock by the time of the album's recording, so his impression of the New York Dolls was a live act more humorous than musical and technically competent only by the standards of other unsophisticated New York bands, even though he found Johansen and Thunders to be interesting performers.[7] Johansen referred to Rundgren as "an expert on second rate rock 'n' roll",[8] but also said that "we were kind of persona non grata, at the time, with most producers. They were afraid of us, I don't know why, but Todd wasn't. We all liked him from Max's ... Todd was cool and he was a producer."[9] Sylvain, on the other hand, felt that the decision was based on availability, time, and money: "It wasn't a long list. Todd was in New York and seemed like he could handle the pace."[9]

Recording and production[edit]

I think he was actually quite taken that we obviously derived our talent from the streets. We may not have been professionally trained, but we could still write three minutes worth of magic. He probably played with other well-seasoned players who may have graduated from Julliard [sic] or worked with the orchestra pit, but could they write a damn good fucking tune? Todd knew we were writing tunes for our generation.

Sylvain Sylvain, on Todd Rundgren's attitude towards the band[10]

Mercury booked the New York Dolls at The Record Plant in New York City,[9] where they recorded their self-titled debut album in April 1973.[11] Rundgren was originally concerned that they had taken "the worst sounding studio in the city at that time" because it was the only one available to them with the short time given to record and release the album. However, he later said expectations for the band and the festive atmosphere of the recording sessions proved to be more of a problem: "The Dolls were critics' darlings and the press had kind of adopted them. Plus, there were lots of extra people around, socializing, which made it hard to concentrate."[9] The band dressed in their usual flashy clothes while at the studio. Rundgren, who did not approve of their raucous sound, yelled at them during the sessions to "get the glitter out of your asses and play".[11] Sylvain recalled Rundgren inviting Buell and their Chihuahua to the sessions and putting the latter atop an expensive mixing console, while Johansen acknowledged that his recollections of the sessions have since been distorted by what he has read about them: "It was like the 1920s, with palm tree décor and stuff. Well, that's how I remember it, anyway."[9] Johansen also admitted that Rundgren directed them from the control room with engineer Jack Douglas and hardly spoke to the band during the sessions.[10]

Although Sylvain said he was not an interfering producer, Rundgren occasionally asserted himself with the band to improve a take. Sylvain recalled moments when Rundgren went into the isolation booth with Murcia when he struggled keeping a beat and drummed out beats on a cowbell for him to use as a click track. During a session, Rundgren stopped a take and walked out of the control room to plug in Kane's bass cabinet.[10] Scoppa, who paid afternoon visits to the studio, overheard Rundgren say, "Yeah, that's all you needed. Okay, let's try it again!", and ultimately found the exchange funny and indicative of Rundgren's opinion of the band: "Todd was such a 'musician' while they were just getting by on attitude and energy. But as disdainful as he appeared to be at some points he got the job done really well."[10] Rundgren liked how Johansen's wild vocals could articulate cultural references on a song like "Personality Crisis", even though he felt his singing often sounded screamed or drunken. While recording the song's lead vocals, Johansen walked back into the control room and asked Rundgren if his singing was "ludicrous enough?"[10]

The songs chosen to be recorded for the album were based on how well they had been received at the band's live shows.[4] Because they had little money, the band used the austerely designed and affordable Gibson Les Paul Junior guitars. To amplify their guitars, they ran a Marshall Plexi standalone amplifier through the speaker cabinets of a Fender Dual Showman, and occasionally used a Fender Twin Reverb.[10] On some songs, the band's live sound was embellished with additional instruments, including Buddy Bowser's brassy saxophone on "Lonely Planet Boy".[12] Johansen also sang into distorted guitar pickups for additional vocals and overdubbed them into the song. He also played an Asian gong for "Vietnamese Baby" and harmonica on "Pills". For "Personality Crisis", Sylvain originally played on The Record Plant's Yamaha grand piano before Rundgren added his own piano flourishes to both that song and "Private World".[13] Rundgren also contributed to the background vocals heard on "Trash" and played synthesizers on "Vietnamese Baby" and "Frankenstein (Orig.)", which Sylvain recalled: "I remember him getting those weird sounds from this beautiful old Moog synthesizer he brought in. He said it was a model that only he and The Beatles had."[13]

Mixing[edit]

New York Dolls was mixed in less than half a day.[8] Rundgren felt that the band seemed distracted and disinterested at that point, and he tried unsuccessfully to ban them from the mixing session.[13] For the final mix, he minimized the sound of Nolan's drumming.[11] In retrospect, Rundgren felt that the quality of the mix was poor because the band had hurried and questioned him at the session: "It's too easy for it to become a free-for-all, with every musician only hearing their own part and not the whole. They all had other places to be, so rather than split, they rushed the thing and if that wasn't enough they took it to the crappy mastering lab that Mercury had put them in."[13]

Thunders famously complained to a journalist that Rundgren "fucked up the mix" on the album, which added to stories that the two had clashed during the album's recording.[12] Both Johansen and Scoppa later said that they did not see any conflict between the two and that Thunders' typically foolish behavior was misinterpreted, although Scoppa said he could understand how the band's carefree lifestyle may have conflicted with Rundgren's professional work ethic and schedule: "He doesn't put up with bullshit. I mean, [the band] rarely started their live sets before midnight, so who knows? Todd was very much in charge in the studio, however, and I got the impression that everybody was looking to him."[12] Johansen later praised Rundgren for how he enhanced and equalized each instrument, while Sylvain said that his mix "made it sound exactly like a band on a stage. He put Johnny Thunders on the right side and me on the left side. You know, the kids have talked about that for years. That thing that became The Ramones and The Sex Pistols and that whole punk thing."[13]

Music and lyrics[edit]

The punky pop rock song features Johansen's bratty singing and ambiguous lyrics about love.

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New York Dolls features 10 original songs and 1 cover song—the 1963 Bo Diddley song "Pills".[8] Johansen described the album as "a little jewel of urban folk art".[11] Rundgren, on the other hand, took note of the carefree rock and roll and Brill Building pop influences in the band's music and lyrics: "The Dolls were actually from Long Island, so there was a distinctly different sensibility from the urban New York thing. Their musical influences were things like The Shangri-Las, and the subject matter of their songs, as punky as they were, usually had a lot to do with the same old boy-girl thing but in a much more inebriated way."[4] Music critic Robert Christgau remarked that, because many of Manhattan's white youths are wealthy and somewhat artsy, only ill-behaved young people from New York City's outer boroughs can "capture the oppressive excitement Manhattan holds for a half-formed human being ... they seek love l-u-v from trash and bad girls. They go looking for a kiss among the personality crises. And they wonder whether you could make it with Frankenstein."[14] Stephen Thomas Erlewine characterized the album as "hard rock with a self-conscious wit, a celebration of camp and kitsch that retains a menacing, malevolent edge."[15]

"Personality Crisis" has boogie-woogie piano and raunchy dual guitar playing, while "Trash" is a punky pop rock song with bratty singing.[16] On "Looking for a Kiss", Johansen opens the song by quoting the line "You'd best believe I'm in love L-U-V" from the Shangri-Las' 1964 song "Give Him a Great Big Kiss".[17] "Vietnamese Baby" deals with the impact of the Vietnam War at the time on everyday activities, whose fun is undermined by thoughts of collective guilt.[18] According to Johnansen, "Frankenstein (Orig.)" is a song about "how kids come to Manhattan from all over, they're kind of like whipped dogs, they're very repressed. Their bodies and brains are disoriented from each other ... it's a love song."[19] Sylvain said that it was titled with a qualifier because rock musician Edgar Winter had released his 1973 song of the same name before they could record their own: "Our song 'Frankenstien' was a big hit in our live show ... Now, his thing didn't sound at all like ours, but I'm sure he stole our title. That's why we decided to call our song 'Frankenstein (Original)'".[4]

According to Christgau, Johansen's morally superior lyrics are imbued with humor and a sense of human limits in songs whose fundamental theme is authenticity, which can be expressed as a story about lost youths on "Subway Train" or as a specific subject—the "schizy imagemonger" on "Personality Crisis".[20] He argued that beneath the band's decadent and campy surface were lyrics about "the modern world ... one nuclear bomb could blow it all away. Pills and personality crises weren't evils—easy, necessary, or whatever. They were strategies and tropisms and positive pleasures".[20] On songs such as "Subway Train" and "Trash", Johansen used ambiguity as a lyrical mode. In the latter song, the lyric "Please don't you ask me if I love you" is followed by "If you don't know what I do", and later by "'Cause I don't know why I do". The phrase "life" in "Don't take my life away" is replaced by "knife", "night", and "lights" when Johansen sings the lyric at different times throughout the song.[21] According to Christgau, "in 'Trash,' when he wonders whether his 'lover's leap' will land him in 'fairyland,' he belittles his own proud (if ambiguous) pansexuality."[20]

Release and promotion[edit]

The New York Dolls performing on TopPop in 1973.

New York Dolls was released on July 27, 1973, in the United States and on October 19 in the United Kingdom. Its controversial cover featured the band dressed in exaggerated drag, including high wigs, messy make-up, high heels, and garters.[8] The photo was used for shock value, and on the back of the album, the band is photographed in their usual stage wear.[22] The album was not a success with consumers and only charted at number 116 on the Billboard 200.[1] Two double A-sided, 7" singles were released—"Trash / Personality Crisis" in July and "Jet Boy / Vietnamese Baby" in November 1973; neither charted.[23] New York Dolls ultimately sold less than 500,000 copies.[24]

After the album's release, the New York Dolls toured the US as a supporting act for English rock band Mott the Hoople. Reviews complimented Thunders and Sylvain's guitar interplay, the band's songwriting, and noted their campy fashion and the resemblance of Johansen and Thunders to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. However, some critics panned them as an unserious group of amateurs who could not play or sing.[25] During their appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test in England, the show's host Bob Harris dismissed the band's music as "mock rock" in his on-air comments.[26] Creem magazine's Ben Edmonds wrote that the New York Dolls became "the most walked-out-on band in the history of show business."[27] The band also developed a reputation for rock-star excesses while on tour, including drugs, groupies, trashed hotel rooms, and public disturbances.[26]

Critical reception[edit]

New York Dolls received very positive reviews from music critics.[1] In a contemporary review for NME magazine, Nick Kent wrote that the band's raunchy style of rock and roll is vividly recorded by Rundgren on an album that, besides Iggy and the Stooges' Raw Power (1973), is "the only album so far to fully define just exactly where 1970s rock should be coming from."[28] Trouser Press founder and editor Ira Robbins viewed New York Dolls as an innovative album and found the band's music brilliantly chaotic and well produced by Rundgren.[28] Robert Christgau, writing for Newsday, hailed the New York Dolls as "the best hard rock band in the country and maybe the world right now", and said that their "special genius is a mixture of early-60s pop-song savvy with late-60s heavy-metal anarchism." He felt that the music's frenzied approach, various emotions, and wild noise convey Manhattan's harsh, deviant thrill better than the Velvet Underground.[29]

In a less enthusiastic review, Rolling Stone magazine's Tony Glover wrote that the band's impressive live sound is mostly preserved on the album, but was slightly critical of production flourishes and overdubs he felt made some lyrics incomprehensible and some choruses too sonorous. Glover was surprised that Rundgren's production works well with the band's raunchy sound most of the time, but ultimately asked "if the record alone will impress as much as seeing them live (they're a highly watchable group)."[19] In a decade-end list for The Village Voice, Christgau named New York Dolls the fifteenth best album of the 1970s.[30]

Legacy[edit]

Professional ratings
Retrospective reviews
Review scores
Source Rating
AllMusic 5/5 stars[15]
Chicago Sun-Times 4/4 stars[31]
Robert Christgau A+[14]
Los Angeles Times 3/4 stars[32]
Q 5/5 stars[33]
Rolling Stone 4/5 stars[34]
The Rolling Stone Album Guide 5/5 stars[35]
Sputnikmusic 4.5/5[36]

According to Jon Matsumoto of the Los Angeles Times, New York Dolls is frequently cited as one of the "building blocks of the late '70s punk movement."[37] In a review upon the album's 1987 CD reissue, the newspaper's Robert Hilburn felt that Johansen's singing and the music's sass were a lesser version of the Rolling Stones, but "the attitude was classic and several songs [on the album] still stand as colorful, if exaggerated, expressions of teen alienation."[32] AllMusic's Stephen Thomas Erlewine called it "a noisy, reckless album that rocks and rolls with a vengeance" and cited it as "the definitive proto-punk album, even more than anything the Stooges released. It plunders history while celebrating it, creating a sleazy urban mythology along the way."[15] According to The Mojo Collection, the album "lit the fuse to punk, and contains enough attitude, enthusiasm and excess to incite more revolutions in the future."[11] Q magazine included it in its list of the 100 best punk albums and hailed it as "a lurid clarion call to the musically disaffected".[33] Mojo magazine ranked it as the 13th best punk album in a 2003 list and wrote that it has aged well since its 1973 release.[38] Rundgren was amused by how the album became considered a precursor to the punk rock movement:[28]

The irony is that I wound up producing the seminal punk album, but I was never really thought of as a punk producer, and I never got called by punk acts. They probably thought I was too expensive for what they were going for. But the Dolls didn't really consider themselves punk.[28]

In 2003, Rolling Stone ranked New York Dolls number 213 on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.[24] "Personality Crisis" was ranked number 271 on the magazine's list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.[39] The magazine wrote that New York Dolls "captures both the glory and sorrow of glam, the high jinx and wasted youth, with electric photorealism".[34] Joe Gross, writing in The Rolling Stone Album Guide (2004), called it "absolutely essential" and "epic sleaze, the sound of five young men shaping the big city in their own scuzzy image."[40] In his list for The Quietus in 2010, English recording artist Morrissey named New York Dolls as his favorite album.[41] According to writer Paul Myers, the album "struck such a chord with Morrissey that he was not only moved to form his own influential group, The Smiths ... but would eventually convince the surviving Dolls to reunite [in 2004]".[2]

Track listing[edit]

Side one
No. Title Writer(s) Length
1. "Personality Crisis"   David Johansen, Johnny Thunders 3:43
2. "Looking for a Kiss"   Johansen 3:20
3. "Vietnamese Baby"   Johansen 3:39
4. "Lonely Planet Boy"   Johansen 4:10
5. "Frankenstein (Orig.)"   Johansen, Sylvain Sylvain 6:00
Side two
No. Title Writer(s) Length
6. "Trash"   Johansen, Sylvain 3:09
7. "Bad Girl"   Johansen, Thunders 3:05
8. "Subway Train"   Johansen, Thunders 4:22
9. "Pills"   Bo Diddley 2:49
10. "Private World"   Johansen, Arthur Kane 3:40
11. "Jet Boy"   Johansen, Thunders 4:40

Personnel[edit]

Credits are adapted from the album's liner notes.[42]

New York Dolls
Additional personnel
  • Buddy Bowser – saxophone
  • Jack Douglas – engineer
  • David Krebs – executive producer
  • Steve Leber – executive producer
  • Paul Nelson – executive producer
  • Dave O'Grady – makeup
  • Todd Rundgren – additional piano, Moog synthesizer, producer
  • Ed Sprigg – engineer
  • Alex Spyropoulos – piano
  • Marty Thau – executive producer
  • Toshi – photography

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g Erlewine n.d.(a).
  2. ^ a b c Myers 2010, p. 83.
  3. ^ a b c d Myers 2010, p. 84.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Myers 2010, p. 85.
  5. ^ Hermes 2012, p. 18.
  6. ^ Myers 2010, pp. 84–6.
  7. ^ Myers 2010, pp. 84-5.
  8. ^ a b c d Gimarc 2005, p. 7.
  9. ^ a b c d e Myers 2010, p. 86.
  10. ^ a b c d e f Myers 2010, p. 87.
  11. ^ a b c d e Agarwal et al. 2007, p. 316.
  12. ^ a b c Myers 2010, p. 88.
  13. ^ a b c d e Myers 2010, p. 89.
  14. ^ a b Christgau 1981, p. 279.
  15. ^ a b c Erlewine n.d.(b).
  16. ^ Matsumoto 1994.
  17. ^ Reynolds 2011, p. 245.
  18. ^ Taylor 2006, p. 163.
  19. ^ a b Glover 1973.
  20. ^ a b c Christgau 1998, p. 198.
  21. ^ Christgau 1998, p. 197.
  22. ^ Gimarc 2005, p. 8.
  23. ^ Strong 2002, p. 126.
  24. ^ a b Anon. 2003a.
  25. ^ Pilchak 2005, p. 105.
  26. ^ a b Pilchak 2005, p. 106.
  27. ^ Pilchak 2005, pp. 105–6.
  28. ^ a b c d Myers 2010, p. 90.
  29. ^ Christgau 1973.
  30. ^ Christgau 1979.
  31. ^ McLeese 1987, p. 52.
  32. ^ a b Hilburn 1987.
  33. ^ a b Anon. 2002, p. 139.
  34. ^ a b Anon. 2000, p. 74.
  35. ^ Gross 2004, p. 583.
  36. ^ de Sylvia n.d..
  37. ^ Matsmumoto 1994.
  38. ^ Anon. 2003b, p. 76.
  39. ^ Anon. 2004.
  40. ^ Gross 2004, p. 584.
  41. ^ Robb 2010.
  42. ^ Anon. 1973.

Bibliography[edit]

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]