Ok so it’s time for # 2. There’s lots of great bands to write about but what hasn’t been written about them already? All’s I can do is tell you whatever I know and hope it inspires y’all to check these old bands out because most of the stuff you hear these days owes some sort of kudos to these bands who did it waaaay before anyone, usually waaaaay better and waaaaaaay before it became popular.
So, I guess this will be part one of what will be a two part column on the New York Dolls and The Heartbreakers. There were other offshoot bands from various members of the Dolls but for my money, the cream of the crop is The Heartbreakers.
So let’s go back to 1971, in the basement of a NYC bicycle shop called Rusty Beany’s. The owner would let bands practice in the basement and one of those bands was called Actress. They consisted of Johnny Thunders on guitar and vocals, Rick Rivets on guitar, Arthur Kane on bass and Billy Murcia on drums. There are recordings of these practices available (Actress – The Birth Of The New York Dolls album), and they’re interesting because you hear seeds of songs that would become New York Dolls and Heartbreakers classics.
Skip ahead a year or so, and the band had taken on a lead singer in David Johansen, and replaced Rivets with Sylvain Sylvain, who had been in an even earlier band with Murcia but had left to spend time in the UK. They recorded what are known as the Mercer Street Sessions.
Unfortunately, this band seemed to have a dark cloud over it. They went to the UK, even before they had label support, to play with the Rod Stewart show and record some demos at Escape Studios (those songs and the Mercer St. sessions are available on Private World – The Complete Early Studio Demos 1972-1973 and they sound pretty damn good).
They played the Rod Stewart gig, and after, while drummer Billy Murcia was out partying with some new-found pals, he overdosed and died from accidental drowning. The band headed back to NYC to regroup and mourn the loss of their friend.
Some time later, after deciding to keep going as a band, they recruited Jerry Nolan to play drums. He was a perfect fit for the band, a true pro who played with a style and proficiency that the band hadn’t had in Murcia. They went into the studio with their then manager Marty Thau, and recorded demos, known as the Planet Studio demos (also on Private World – The Complete Early Studio Demos 1972-1973, as well as the Hard Nights Day and Seven Day Weekend albums), and consist of songs that would make up a good portion of the 2 albums they would release on Mercury Records.
Around this time, new management was hired in the form of Leber – Krebs, who were also managing a new band out of Boston known as Aerosmith.
They had a hard time getting a deal but through Mercury A&R man Paul Nelson, they signed with Mercury Records and recorded their first album with Todd Rundgren producing. Some would say that another producer would’ve been better at capturing the Dolls’ live sound but the record does sound pretty good and has a great selection of songs from the bands repertoire. Personality Crisis, Pills, Bad Girl, Lookin’ For A Kiss, Jet Boy and Trash are all there, as well as others that make up a great 1st album.
Although the album didn’t sell that well, they toured and got to recording their 2nd album for Mercury.
This one they did with George “Shadow” Morton, famous for his work with the Shangri La’s. Also at this point, the band was going through internal disarray with drinking and drug use among some members, and ego problems with others.
The album is made up of some earlier songs that didn’t make the first album, a couple of covers and a couple of newer tunes. It was a great record…too bad the general public didn’t see it that way. Songs like Babylon, Who Are The Mystery Girls, Human Being, Chatterbox and It’s Too Late are all standout cuts.
Rather than a national tour this time, they were booked into smaller venues around the New York area. At this time they also lost Leber – Krebs, who wanted to focus on Aerosmith.
Someone they had met in the UK, one Malcolm McLaren, who went on to fame managing the Sex Pistols, had been in NYC at the time and jumped in to help the bedraggled band. Some songs were written and the band went on the Red Patent Leather tour. They wore red outfits designed by McLaren, and draped a Russian hammer and sickle flag as a backdrop, and proceeded to play their set. A live album from this era (Red Patent Leather) was recorded at New York’s Hippodrome.
The tour wound up in Florida, where the band was staying at Nolan’s mothers, when over an argument, Nolan and Thunders left the band.
For a couple of years, Sylvain and Johansen played under the name The Dolls with various musicians, but it was over by 77.
For the complete story, check out Nina Antonia’s The New York Dolls – Too Much Too Soon and Trash! The Complete New York Dolls by Kris Needs and Dick Porter.
Next Month; Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan form The Heartbreakers……chaos ensues.
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