New York Dolls – ‘Personality Crisis: Live Recordings & Studio Demos 1972-1975’

❉ A five-disc record of the rise and fall of the lipstick killers. So, strap on yer platforms, cake on some slap and let’s get into it….

I’ve been a fan of the New York Dolls for a long time. I was introduced to them by the other members of my first “proper” band and the first song we played on stage was Who Are The Mystery Girls?. This was over a quarter of a century ago, so in retrospect it’s a bit odd that I’ve never really explored their released output away from their two official albums. Their early demos and live recordings have been widely available in various permutations for many years, but as far as I know this mammoth box set is the first time they’ve ever been collected in a single release. What we have here is a five disc collection featuring three studio sessions and six different live shows, including two recorded for radio broadcast, along with a highly informative and picture-packed 28-page booklet, giving a potted history of their particular blend of hard-as-nails rock ‘n’ roll and stage transvestism. So, strap on yer platforms, cake on some slap and let’s get into it….

Discs one and two are the studio-bound portion of the collection, previously issued as Private World: The Complete Early Studio Demos 1972-73. The first nine tracks comprise the Dolls’ first official session, at NYC’s Blue Rock Studios in June ’72. For someone familiar with the albums, the first thing that strikes you about these tracks is how slow they seem. Because of the restrained velocity there’s a dirty, bump ‘n’ grind R&B groove to these embryonic attempts which exposes a different sort of character to the familiar kick-ass rock ‘n’ roll mayhem. The sound quality is remarkably clear and powerful for an early 70s demo sesh, and the seven original tracks herein would make it to the debut album (the two covers make interesting listening as a pointer towards their influences – Otis Redding’s Don’t Mess With Cupid and Sonny Boy Williamson’s Don’t Start Me Talking, which later surfaced on their second album Too Much Too Soon).

In late ’72, the Dolls were invited to London to support The Faces at Wembley’s Empire Pool. The show was considered a mixed success (the audience were generally enthusiastic, but the press hated them), but the band took to the London scene with great enthusiasm and extended their visit to play more shows and record at Escape Studios in rural Kent. The four songs recorded, including the newly penned “Subway Train”, sound much more purposeful and confident than the Blue Rock session and boded well for the future. Unfortunately, in November their London tenure ended in tragedy when drummer Billy Murcia ODed at a party; attempts to revive him by pouring coffee down his throat resulted in him choking instead. The broken Dolls returned home to regroup.

After a whirlwind round of auditions, the Dolls recruited Jerry Nolan, who had formerly worked with the likes of Wayne County, Suzi Quatro and Billy Squier, over competition like Peter Criss and Marc Bell (later to become respectively, The Catman in Kiss and Marky Ramone) and in March 1973 signed to Mercury Records. Just before they signed though, they committed a massive twenty-two songs – almost their entire repertoire – to tape at NYC’s Planet Studios. Many people have said that these recordings represent the real Dolls better than their albums; that is possible, but that doesn’t necessarily make them better. The raw energy present in these tracks is certainly enthralling, but in places the songs sound unfinished (vocalist David Johansen’s commentary on the false-start version of It’s Too Late suggests that the song was new enough to have not even been officially titled yet), the arrangements less disciplined and the playing less confident than even the notoriously rickety album versions. This session is a “live in the studio” demonstration session, recorded ‘as is’ with everyone in the same room, no multi tracking, no overdubs, and occasional songs just grinding to a premature halt.

There are several songs here that never made it to the albums, including many of the cover versions (including Chuck Berry’s Back In The USA, which had been definitively disembowelled some time earlier by the MC5, Willie Dixon’s slow-grinding Hoochie Coochie Man and the Shangri-Las’ camp classic Great Big Kiss) as well as Endless Party, which finally surfaced in 1982 on one of guitarist Johnny Thunders’s solo albums. Overall, an intriguing look behind the curtain (and given the presence of pretty much the entirety of both studio albums, an indicator that they were less than productive on the writing side once they were signed – only Stranded In The Jungle, Puss ‘N’ Boots and Chatterbox do not appear in this box in demo form), and the banter between the band members, particularly from the ever-talkative Johansen, is hugely entertaining.

So much for the studio work – how about the live segments? The three discs bearing the half dozen live shows have been previously collected under the title From Here To Eternity. Taking the shows in order….

PARIS, DEC 1973 – Three tracks bootlegged from the legendary Bataclan Theatre – a rowdy run-through of Trash, The Milk Man (an embryonic version of Thunders’ Chatterbox”) and and early appearance of Puss ‘N’ Boots. Recording quality is bootleg-good, a bit crackly but remarkably clear and direct.

DETROIT, DEC 1973 – a radio broadcast from the Michigan Palace on New Year’s Eve, the octane level here is significantly higher than the Paris show earlier that month and the energy barely dips from the opening salvo of Personality Crisis, Bad Girl and the ferocious Who Are The Mystery Girls?, with Thunders’s distinctive lead wail screaming over everything. The sound quality could be better, it’s a little woolly, but the performance more than makes up for it, and the presence of the never-recorded Lone Star Queen is a nice bonus.

LONG ISLAND, APRIL 1974 – another good one, a widely-bootlegged radio-broadcast show from My Father’s Place with excellent sonic quality and a deliciously swaggering performance. The Dolls at their most confident, even when delivering the likes of the max-camp doo-wop standard Stranded In The Jungle, replete with animal impersonations from guitarist Sylvain Sylvain. Glorious stuff.

VANCOUVER, JUNE/JULY 1974 – this one’s a bit of a mystery, as nobody seems to know the exact date or venue of this show. It’s a particularly covers-heavy selection here – Hoochie Coochie Man, Great Big Kiss, Don’t Mess With Cupid and (There’s Gonna Be A) Showdown all appear. Another blinding performance, and the best recording quality so far. Shows like this really slap down the notion that the Dolls couldn’t play; they weren’t virtuosos, but they were a staggeringly potent rock ‘n’ roll band, and when they were “on” they were as tight and powerful as any band on the circuit.

DALLAS, SEPT 1974 – Opening with the Courageous Cat Theme (from the Batman-spoofing early 60s cartoon) segueing into Personality Crisis, this audience bootleg is a slightly more sloppy but still exhilarating listen, if a little redundant in the light of the previously featured sets.

NEW YORK, MARCH 1975 – By this point, the Dolls were suffering badly from a variety of elements – drug problems, particularly in the case of Thunders and Nolan, bassist Arthur Kane’s chronic alcoholism, and the inevitable overfamiliarity that audiences had come to feel towards the act. They had after all been toting the same material about for a two or three years by now. In early ’75 the band accepted a management offer from a London-based clothes-shop manager and small-time music biz hustler named Malcolm McLaren, who promised to shake up and reinvent the band. This he did by replacing the band’s previous quasi-drag aesthetic with a vaguely fetishistic and nominally Communist image, featuring lots of red leather and PVC as well as a hammer and sickle flag backdrop in an attempt to reintroduce a shock factor to the shows. At the same time, the band began to assemble some new material and a fresh batch of cover versions.

This show, from Manhattan’s Little Hippodrome club (also previously issued as a stand-alone release titled Red Patent Leather) featured an almost all-new set, including such titles as Teenage News, Down Down Downtown, Girls Girls Girls and Pirate Love (later to re-emerge with Thunders and Nolan’s next project, the Heartbreakers), is an interesting document as the sound of a once-great band on its last legs. The performance is workmanlike but utterly lacking in the fire that made them great in the first place, the covers uninspired and the new material mostly pretty weak.

What happened after this is rock ‘n’ roll folklore. McLaren took the band on tour to Florida, where McLaren’s camp Communist aesthetic met with down-South redneck conservatism and came off decidedly badly. Thunders bailed when his narcotic preferences couldn’t be sated away from NY, with the band finishing the tour with local pickup guitarist Blackie Goozeman (who later changed his surname to Lawless and popped up in LA in the 80s fronting shock-metal legends W.A.S.P.). The band disintegrated, and McLaren slunk back to London clutching Sylvain’s white Les Paul to try out his shock-tactic ideas on a bunch of reprobates who had taken to hanging around his shop. David Johansen reinvented himself as lounge-lizard crooner Buster Poindexter. Thunders and Nolan formed the Heartbreakers and dove headfirst into the nascent punk rock scene. Arthur Kane formed the short-lived Killer Kane with Blackie Goozeman, before moving to Salt Lake City and converting to Mormonism. Sylvain Sylvain became a taxi driver.

As a box set, this is a remarkably complete record of the rise and fall of one of rock’s most important and divisive bands. Few bands could be said to have helped inspire two separate musical movements (the punk wave of the late 70s and the glam-metal explosion of the mid 80s both owe their DNA largely to the Dolls’ blend of decibels, over-dressing and straight-ahead RAWK), and this is the compelling back story to how they did it, and how they frustratingly failed to capitalise on their notoriety.


❉ New York Dolls – ‘Personality Crisis: Live Recordings & Studio Demos 1972-1975’ is out now from Cherry Red Records, RRP £21.99.

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