In one sense, the New York Dolls were as much of a contrived product as the Monkees before them.
They consciously chose to emulate the glam movement, taking bits of Bowie, Alice Cooper, the Rolling Stones and even a dash of Slade, rolling it into a palatable ball of guitar-driven sleaze, then unleashing it onto a suspicious public. There was a self-conscious aura to the band’s image, which hurt them with the glam crowd, while Middle America was horrified by the drag queen posturing. On release, a Cream magazine poll voted the New York Dolls as both the best and the worst new group of 1973. Back then, the album was perceived as a joke. In many ways, it still is, only now it’s an inside joke, and we are in on it.
Seen in the afterglow of a few decades, it’s much easier to appreciate the energy and humor of the New York Dolls. Cultural references abound, emphasizing the trashy, campy side of life in New York, as seen from an outsider’s perspective. This was not the Velvet Underground, singing frightening hipster tales of drugs and sex in underground NYC. Rather, it was a bunch of outer-borough kids reveling in the excitement and weirdness of the big city, like Bronx teenagers on a subway ride to Times Square.
It’s urban music that mythologizes everything it sees. “Looking for a Kiss” is told from the perspective of an innocent kid looking for love but surrounded by a sea of junkies who mystify him. “Frankenstein” seems to tell a similar tale, where the singer gets overwhelmed by the big city, and “Subway Train” is pretty much the story of a commute to a girlfriend’s house with a witty nod to “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”. As far as “Personality Crisis” is concerned, who cares what it’s about? All you need to know is Johansen’s brilliant opening couplet as he screams “yeah yeah yeah! No, no no no, no no no no!” This isn’t high art, it’s juvenile fun set to killer guitar riffs, but that doesn’t mean that it’s dumb, either. On closer analysis, “Personality Crisis” is a funny putdown of somebody who seems to think they deserve to be famous. In other words, it’s spot-on perfect self-analysis!
As for sonics, it sounds as though Todd Rundgren produced the album from a block away. Everything seems cranked up to eleven, with guitar chords rattling the walls and bashing against the drums, making David Johansen’s lyrics all but incoherent, which is fine as some of the words are little more than syllabics anyway. It’s a raucous mess with a lipstick smile painted on its face. The New York Dolls were designed to look outrageous while sounding obnoxious. Despite poor sales, they succeeded gloriously. It’s wonderful when an album made for the fun of it becomes recognized as ‘art’. Their sneering attitude and noisy wall of sound appealed to a specific breed of youth culture and the album now stands as an important progenitor of punk rock.
Featured Tracks include:
Looking for a Kiss
Loney Planet Boy
July 1973 - Billboard Charted #116