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It’s frequently not the most successful bands that have the most lasting impact. Case in point, the New York Dolls. They were a crucial act in the development of both punk and glam rock, and planted the seed for the New York scene that a few years later would produce bands like Television, the Ramones, and Blondie.
Formed in 1971, the Dolls’ sound built on doo-wop, the R&B-inspired flavor of the British Invasion, and ’60s girl groups. Indeed, clad in lipstick, dresses, and all manner of odd garb, they looked a little like a girl group — dragged through a Manhattan gutter, kicked a few times, and handed a big satchel of drugs. They sang about “Pills,” “Trash,” and offered their scathing, cockeyed take on a “Personality Crisis.” It’s no surprise then that their scandalously decadent sense of irreverence inspired acts ranging from the Sex Pistols to Mötley Crüe.
From the beginning it was about expressing an unbridled individuality and excising boredom. “We were like the Little Rascals and had their approach to show business,” explains guitarist Sylvain Sylvain. “We were so bored with what was going on we said, ‘Hey man, let’s put on our own show.’ What had sucked about it was that our heroes from the British Invasion and stuff like that were now singing rock operas. For us, rock had lost its pizzazz and sex appeal.”
Their outrageous sense of style came naturally to them, though Sylvain and founding drummer Billy Murcia were actually connected to the fashion industry as well. They’d started a knitwear company called, naturally enough, Truth and Soul. Indeed, Sylvain’s family had long been associated with the garment business in New York. It was actually at a New York fashion trade show that they met Malcolm McLaren, who would not only manage them (and later, the Sex Pistols) but provide some of their stage wear.
Their guitarist, Johnny Thunders, would become an enormous punk icon influencing the playing style of countless acts to follow. The oft-addled junkie had a very direct, unpretentious but aggressive playing style that meshed well with the spirit of punk.
“His greatest gift was his simplicity,” Sylvain explains. “Not that he even appreciated that, because he wanted to be Jeff Beck. He was a wonderful writer. His phrasing, the way he sat in the song too. And his songs all came from a true life story, not homework. I’m a purist when it comes down to it. It’s got to be from the heart and the fucking balls. It’s got to be about your life and shit.”
Sadly, the band imploded in ’75, just as punk got going. Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan (who’d replaced Billy Murcia after his drug-induced death while touring London in ’72) left to form the Heartbreakers. The Dolls forged on for another year with David Johansen and Sylvain, but called it quits in ’76. They would all go their own separate ways, to varying degrees of success.
Through the ’80s and ’90s the New York Dolls were justly feted as one of the immediate forerunners of punk, but despite the increased regard they failed to reunite. That is until Morrissey, a former New York Dolls fan club president in England, convinced Johansen to reunite the remaining band for a 2004 festival date. They forged on with Johansen, Sylvain, bassist Arthur Kane (who would die from leukemia months later), and some solid sidemen. Things went so well, they just kept going.
“In a way I think it’s a miracle that it actually ever even happened, and even having said that I always knew deep down that one day it was going to happen,” says Sylvain. “It was a stone gas to get up there and shake our old bottoms again and do those songs. Of course, the musicians that we are, we had a longing to keep on writing and hence we’ve made three albums since our reunion, which is actually more than the first time out.”
Their latest, Dancing Backward in High Heels, is Sylvain’s favorite of their post-reunion releases. Though it lacks the gristle and rumble of their first two classic albums, it reaches back to the ’60s pop and soul that initially inspired them.
“It was like really going back to being the street kids that we were. And the songs have a purpose and a reason,” Sylvain says. “Not that the other ones didn’t, but some of them were a little more out of this other bag. I thought the first album put too much emphasis on being successful instead of being true to our art, which is where the New York Dolls’ success comes from — when we sought out to have no success whatsoever.”
For Sylvain it’s truly been a labor of love. “I never made a lot of money. All I got was fame, if you can call underground being famous,” he says. “But if love is the only thing I get paid with, then that’s what I want to focus on, because it’s the only thing I got.”
Luckily, the Dolls get the love in spades.
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