The New York Dolls' cross-gender look and flashy, outrageous clothes got them typed as a glam band, but these guys sure didn't look androgynous. Even with lipstick and rouge slathered on, plus the odd wig and women's clothing item here or there, these were some rough-hewn guys. And their music was even rougher. Although the greatness of the first album remains powerfully evident three decades after its 1973 release, it has to be hard for first-time listeners to hear it the way it sounded to people at the time. In 1973, punk wasn't in people's ears yet. In many ways, it was invented by the Dolls, who formed in 1971 and distilled the Rolling Stones, the Velvet Underground, and the Stooges into one dirty, confrontational, deliberately unsophisticated sound.
Some rock critics immediately championed the Dolls, but their first two studio albums were commercial failures and their label, Mercury, dropped the band. But 33 years (yup, a third of a century) later, plenty of groups sound like this (the Strokes' "Hard to Explain" might not exist without the Dolls' "Trash"), though not always as good or perceptive. Their influence started with Malcolm McLaren, who appreciated their thrift-store costumes and gritty song topics. He managed them for a few months in 1975 until they disintegrated, then went back to England and formed the Sex Pistols, even cruder and more aggressive.
But in 1973, amid the quiet introspection of the ascendant singer-songwriter movement and the mellowness of the hippies, the growls and yowls of lead singer David JoHansen (as he styled himself back then) on New York Dolls, not to mention his acerbic lyrics with their lowlife focus, were scary (even if in a cartoonish way). And during the peak of progressive-rock virtuosity, the average person's impression was that the Dolls could barely play their instruments, although that was really only true of bassist Arthur Kane; still, the simple uptempo pounding of drummer Jerry Nolan and the slashing, aggressive riffs of guitarist Johnny Thunders certainly weren't pretty. One can only imagine what it all would have sounded like if studio wizard Todd Rundgren hadn't produced it.
Sensitivity appears on "Lonely Planet Boy," complete with acoustic guitar, but it's ramshackle and alienated. And whatever degree of touchy-feely introspection it generates is counteracted by the provocatively ugly "Frankenstein," the following song, which closes with JoHansen asking, "Do you think that you could make it with Frankenstein?" "Vietnamese Baby" looks at another topic most would prefer to avert their eyes and ears from, and one of the catchiest songs, "Trash," is an anthem to degradation. When the feel-good oldies cover on an album is Bo Diddley's "Pills," then yes, it might take a decade or two for that record to be considered a classic by acclamation. But eventually the audience of disillusioned and disenfranchised youth burgeoned and sought out heroes, or anti-heroes, and though the Dolls didn't last that long, their debut, and the bands it inspired, were ready and waiting. It still sounds great. And now the Dolls' reunion has yielded their third studio album, which I'll be reviewing any day now. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer. He has just finished recording his original soundtrack to Bystander, a documentary film by John Reilly.