This month of March marks the 9th anniversary of The New York Dolls’ most recent album release—and subsequent disbandment. After a lineup change of over 20 members, controversial conceptual moves under the management of Malcolm McLaren, and devastating struggles with drugs, the proto-punk icons called it quits following the release of their fifth album, Dancing Backward in High Heels. Their unexpected reunion in 2004 (after initially splitting in ‘76) was in part fueled by The Dolls’ trailblazing activities for the punk movement and glam rock genre, inspiring an entire generation of mold-breaking musicians.
Emerging on the underground New York rock scene in 1971, The New York Dolls quickly gained momentum due to their rowdy performances, unusually short guitar-heavy songs, and most notably their shocking drag-like fashion. According to rhythm guitarist Sylvain Sylvain, punk fashion mogul Vivienne Westwood told them, “You boys look so much better in women’s clothing.” Thus began The Dolls’ early legacy of trendsetting: the heavy makeup, platform shoes, wild hair… The Dolls were ahead of their time, and vastly underappreciated by the music industry during their early years. This overt femininity would have influence far beyond punk, and into the hair band and heavy metal movements. And not only in fashion—guitarist Johnny Thunder’s rugged playing style became a model for many future punk influencers. Their ‘73 stand-out appearance on the UK show “Old Grey Whistle Test” was said to captivate these aspiring musicians, including The Clash, The Sex Pistols, Tony James, and of course, The Smith’s frontman Steven Morrissey (more on that later).
From the beginning, The Dolls were not aiming to be a traditional group. Vocalist David Johansen explained, “We wanted to make each song like little explosions, not these long laborious affairs” which was the norm. Their “rule-breaking” is what elevated The Dolls to legendary status, and perfectly set the scene for groups of subsequent years. In some ways, they could be considered ancestors of punk. They certainly had the attitude for it, consistently and artfully breaking conventions of the existing NYC rock scene while indulging in the drug-fueled rockstar life. On top of McLaren’s risky management strategies, it was drug use that ultimately led to the group’s downfall in 1976. Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan left to join The Heartbreakers, splitting the group and pursuing a wilder path that they couldn’t get out of The Dolls.
Not many groups can say they’ve been active decades after punk’s “golden age”. However, it was The Dolls’ far-reaching appeal that had Morrissey, an avid fan of The Dolls and leader of their UK fan club in the 70s, insist that they hold a reunion performance at his 2004 Meltdown Festival, creating a second coming of The Dolls. Against all odds (30 years of inactivity and the members losing contact and moving on to other endeavors), this reunion of the remaining three members was captured in Greg Whiteley’s 2005 documentary New York Doll, stepping inside the mind of bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane, who had by 2004 assumed a radically different life in the Church of Latter Day Saints. That would unfortunately be Kane’s final performance, passing from leukemia just one month later. The two surviving members, Sylvain and vocalist David Johansen, enlisted the help of a frequently-changing cast of notable musicians in order to pump out three more albums together.
How could an older rock group possibly release something that would hold up today? The punk mantra of “Too fast to live, too young to die” followed punk groups’ careers as well, and The Dolls are no exception; despite being a proto-punk band, their career only lasted five whirlwind years before their first dissolution. Music itself has changed a lot since then. Yet somehow (and to the shock of critics), despite only two of the original members surviving and operating under a completely different musical climate, The Dolls’ post-reunion albums remained true to their ‘70s sound. Unintentionally—Johansen said in an interview regarding their first post-comeback album: “We’re not trying to recapture old stuff, it’s literally what happens at the moment.” So the “recapturing” must happen naturally, then; some of that grit has mellowed over time, but Johansen’s blunt, spirited lyrics remain. From their latest 2011 album, the bluesy and punchy track “I’m so Fabulous”: “Don’t come around here making new rules for us; I don’t need them, I’m already fabulous”. Forty years after their start, and this encompassing line sticks out as a summary of The Dolls’ legacy. Despite all their struggles as a group, The Dolls have always maintained their rebellious nature. As Sylvain said during their second run together: “The New York Dolls were always a surprise back then. And I hope we still are.”
Morrissey with his long-standing fan mentality perfectly describes why people became so attached to this loud group from New York: From their very first album they were “wild and visionary, and obviously it sent a shock through the blood of so many people”. Fans continue in outrage over The Dolls being snubbed from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Musicians continue to be influenced by their sound, style, and no-rules attitude—whether directly, or by proxy. So it’s been nine years to the month since The Dolls, but perhaps it’s time to take a look back and consider the title of their first post-reunion album: “One day it will please us to remember even this.”