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Bluffers's Guide to the New York Dolls

The New York Dolls split up 40 years ago today, September 10 1974. Here's our beginner's guide.

  • The band made a rather inauspicious live debut on Christmas Eve, 1971 at a homeless shelter in New York * Original drummer Billy Murcia was drowned at the age of 21. He passed out in the water after a drugs and alcohol binge. His replacement, Jerry Nolan, died in 1992 after slipping into a coma that lasted for weeks. * Murcia and guitarist Sylvain Sylvain teamed up with bassist Johnny Genzale in a band called Actress. But Genzale switched to guitar and changed his name to Johnny Volume, before becoming Johnny Thunders. He got this idea from a DC Comics character named Johnny Thunder. * The band became The Dolls Of New York, taking their name from the Doll Hospital Of New York, where toys were repaired. This happened when their first stable line-up, also featuring frontman David Johansen and bassist Arthur Kane, was confirmed. They then changed the name to the New York Dolls. * The Dolls couldn’t get a record deal in the States, so they came over to London and opened for Rod Stewart at Wembley Arena on October 29. Also on the bill were The Faces and the Pink Fairies. * This performance led to several record label offers. But Murcia’s death nearly broke the band up. But they returned to New York, brought in Nolan, and in 1973 signed to Mercury. * Their self-titled, debut album was produced by Todd Rundgren. It was recorded in eight days, and mixed in half-a-day. * At a label meeting to discuss possible producers for the first album, Johansen is said to have fallen asleep, and only woke up when Rundgren’s name was mentioned. * The album’s cover, which had the band in OTT drag, caused controversy and the label took out ads claiming, ‘Introducing the New York Dolls. A band you’re gonna like, whether you like it or not’. But the album didn’t sell at all well, despite the Dolls opening for Mott The Hoople on an American tour. * When The Dolls appeared on The Old Grey Whistle in November 1973, Johansen told host Bob Harris off air that he had ‘bunny teeth’. After the Dolls mimed Jet Boy, Harris cited them as ‘mock rock’. Some have claimed, this actually triggered what would become a war between hippies and punks a short while later. * Second album - Too Much, Too Soon – got its title from a biography on doomed Hollywood actress Diana Barrymore. * Top producers and songwriters Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, were lined up to produce the album, but they withdrew shortly before recording was to start. The Dolls did one session with A&R man Paul Nelson, before eventually bringing in Shadow Morton, renowned for his work with 60s girl group The Shangri-Las, whom the Dolls loved. * The album only had two new original songs. Four of the tracks were old Dolls numbers they’d done as demos for Mercury in March 1973, and the rest were covers. This lack of new material was put down to the band’s drink and drugs problems, coupled with Morton’s own alcoholism. * On their cover of Bad Detective, Johansen impersonated fictional detective Charlie Chan, because the song’s narrative was set in China. * Despite getting a positive critical response at the time, the album was again a commercial flop.. selling less than 100,000 copies in the States. A subsequent US tour was hit by cancelled show, the band’s ongoing addiction problems and arguments between the five. * Malcolm McLaren tried to revive their fortunes. He changed their image, dressed them in red leather and got them to adopt a seeming Communist Party ethos. They even had a hammer & sickle flag! But it failed to halt the Dolls’ slide. After being dropped by Mercury, they split up. * By the time, they reunited in 2004, Thunders was dead (in 1991), and Kane followed shortly after their comeback gig, at the Meltdown festival in London.