It’s only rock & roll, but we like it

By Sergio Ariza

The New York Dolls' first album is often considered a direct antecedent to punk, but this is pure rock & roll, a direct heir to Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Bo Diddley, an adrenaline rush that reminds us that the best thing about this music is its simplicity and ferocity. The New York Dolls were something like the Rolling Stones crossed with the Shangri-La's. They were a band who dressed like 42nd Street whores and achieved a "lewd, nasty, rough, raw and wild" sound; it’s rock & roll, baby!  

There were Chuck Berry-style guitars, a singer who sounded like a Mick Jagger on amphetamines (and looked like his first cousin), and some choruses that sounded like early '60s girl bands. The best example is found in the first few seconds of the album; it offers some basic chords played in the manner of Chuck Berry but with a wall of distortion and a howling singer possessed by the spirit of Little Richard. Personality Crisis welcomes you to the world of the Dolls and, with no time to catch your breath, David Johansen nods at the Shangri-La's and breaks into Looking For A Kiss in which
Johnny Thunders and Sylvain Sylvain's guitars (a yellow Les Paul Jr in the case of the former and a Les Paul Custom in the case of the latter, although he also uses a White Falcon) gel perfectly, fitting like a glove with the band's amphetamine-driven music and catchy songs.


Lonely Planet Boy
slows things down, by replacing electric guitars with acoustic, but the saxophone in the background and Johansen's singing, still sound dirty, like sex in an alley. However it's the only quiet moment on a record that otherwise sounds like an out-of-control rock'n'roll orgy. This becomes clear again on Frankenstein, the song that closes the first side. Thunders' style as a soloist is schematic and stripped back to its basic essence: alternating riffs, licks and trenchant solos that are totally at the service of the song. His influence on later groups such as Aerosmith, Kiss, Sex Pistols and Guns 'N Roses would be enormous.


excellently opens the B side with the most 'poppie' moment of the album, with some wonderful backup vocals taken from the Brill Building genre and an irresistible melody; although we doubt very much that the Ronettes would dare to sing things like "Trash, won’t pick it up, don’t take my knife away". Pills is a huge cover by another of rock's founding fathers, Bo Diddley. The author of Who Do You Love wrote it criticizing the crazy use of pills by the American private medical system, but the Dolls sound like they're happy to try any and all prescription pills. Todd Rundgren's production manages to faithfully reproduce the band's live sound.

The rest of the second side is dominated by several Johnny Thunders’ songs like Bad Girl, Subway Train and, the wonder that closes the album, Jet Boy. Thunders' solo on Subway Train sounds appropriately like a train, but one that has gone off the rails and is about to crash into a wall at full speed.


Jet Boy
made Bob Harris, the presenter of the Old Grey Whistle Test, derogatorily refer to the band as "mock rock". Maybe it had something to do with Johansen telling him at the start of the show that he had "bunny teeth". Whatever the reason the Dolls and their first album produced truly visceral reactions; their androgynous and effeminate look meant that they didn't sell a single album in deep America, a place where if someone had shown up wearing the photo on the cover of that album they would have been beaten up. But those who fell in love with their sound would do so forever; and there were Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, Joe Strummer of the Clash and Morrissey of the Smiths (who would become the president of their fan club in England) to testify to that. At the end of 1973 Creem magazine published its annual survey of the best and worst bands of the year, and the New York Dolls managed to top both...

The mark of the Rolling Stones is evident on the New York Dolls and their music, but in their case the blues has been replaced with the sound of girl groups, and they have added a little more dirt and distortion. In a way the New York Dolls are the New York version of their Satanic Majesties, but the ‘punkiest version’. It's only rock & roll, but we like it.