Johnny Thunders - So Alone Album Of The Week Club review

The star-studded pinnacle of Johnny Thunders’ solo career, So Alone is not a perfect album, but its faults are easy to love... or hate

Johnny Thunders - So Alone
(Image: © Johnny Thunders)
Johnny Thunders- So Alone

(Image credit: Johnny Thunders)

1. Pipe Line
2. You Can't Put You Arms Round a Memory
3. Great Big Kiss
4. Ask Me No Questions
5. Leave Me Alone
6. Daddy Rollin Stone
7. London Boys
8. (She's So) Untouchable
9. Subway Train
10. Downtown

In 1978 producer Steve Lillywhite entered the studio with Johnny Thunders and a cast of musical reprobates. 

Joining Thunders were Sex Pistols' Steve Jones and Paul Cook; Only Ones' Peter Perrett and Mike Kellie; Hot Rods Steve Nicol and Paul Gray; Phil Lynott, Steve Marriott, Patti Palladin, Chrissie Hynde.

Even former Heartbreakers Walter Lure and Billy Rath joined the party for a spirited romp through The Shangri-La’s Great Big Kiss. It also features You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory, later covered by Guns N' Roses and Hollywood Vampires

The result? The pinnacle of Thunders’ solo career, and perhaps the finest recorded evidence of Cook and Jones outside the Pistols.

Every week, Album of the Week Club listens to and discusses the album in question, votes on how good it is, and publishes our findings, with the aim of giving people reliable reviews and the wider rock community the chance to contribute. 

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Background

Despite the Heartbreakers’ LAMF debut sounding like it had been knitted rather than pressed (junk-eared production values, mastering faults, duff cut – take your pick, it still sounded like it had been recorded in a sock), there was still enormous goodwill for ex-New York Doll and lead Heartbreaker Johnny Thunders in 1978. 

While he was the punk firmament’s leading heroin evangelist – shortly after releasing their Chinese Rocks smack anthem, the Heartbreakers told Zigzag they were considering changing their name to The Junkies – it seemed that everyone wanted him to succeed.

Sex Pistols’ fans belatedly turning on to the Dolls wanted to make up for not buying their records first time around, The Heartbreakers had been the best live band on 1977’s UK gig circuit and Thunders looked so cool: a thrift store Keith Richards with an endearing delinquent lip curl and a guitar tone like a rip in the space-time continuum. 

Ultimately, with sticking-it-to-the-man at an all-time premium, who didn’t want to see the gutter-glam Wile E. Coyote finally slay the elusive tongue-poking Roadrunner of mainstream commercial success?

Other albums released in October 1978

  • Photo-Finish - Rory Gallagher
  • Comes A Time - Neil Young
  • Hot Streets - Chicago
  • 25 Years On - Hawklords
  • Go 2 - XTC
  • Dire Straits - Dire Straits
  • Dog & Butterfly - Heart
  • Killing Machine - Judas Priest
  • If You Want Blood You've Got It - AC/DC
  • Toto - Toto
  • A Single Man - Elton John
  • Slade Alive, Vol. 2 - Slade
  • Hemispheres - Rush
  • Thoroughfare Gap - Stephen Stills
  • Coliseum Rock - Starz
  • If You Can't Stand the Heat... - Status Quo
  • Inner Secrets - Santana
  • Live! Bootleg - Aerosmith
  • Music for Films - Brian Eno
  • Prehistoric Sounds - The Saints
  • Private Practice - Dr. Feelgood
  • Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) - Captain Beefheart
  • Trouble - Whitesnake
  • Two for the Show - Kansas

What they said...

"So Alone is a gloriously sloppy amalgam of R&B, doo wop, and three-chord rock & roll. A cover of the Chantays' classic instrumental Pipeline leads things off, and is a teasing reminder of what a great guitarist Thunders could be when he put his mind to it. The record's indisputable masterpiece is You Can't Put Your Arms Round a Memory, a wrenching, surprisingly literate ballad in which Thunders seems to acknowledge that his junkie lifestyle has doomed him to the abyss." (AllMusic

"The album's highlight and Thunders' finest post-Dolls moment is You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory, a plaintive ballad about loneliness and addiction that seemed to sum up the sadness of Thunders' short and largely wasted life." (Pop Matters)

"Thunders turns in reasonably strong performance, perfectly employing his gutter guitar and New York sneer in a number of (musical) veins, including greasy R&B and a tender ballad. Not since the Dolls' two records has he sounded so lucid and involved – So Alone is Johnny Thunders at his best." (Trouser Press)

What you said...

Chris Wigmore: If punk rock has an Exile on Main Street, this is it. For me, this is Thunders' greatest moment. it even edges LAMF because of it's versatility. You've got soul, stax, punk, bleeding heart ballads and pure rock'n'roll in here, but it all hangs together beautifully. 

Unlike LAMF, I don't think it's a very 'punk' album, and anyone who criticises the vocals and the playing is missing the point - it's the attitude and the songwriting that is important, and this album has both in spades. I mean, who would you rather listen to? The tight virtuoso musicianship of, say, ELP, or the filthy snarl of the Ramones? 

Pipeline kicks it off, showcasing the guitar and the groove, but instead of keeping up the pace, this eclectic album bungs in the ballad - track two, BAM! You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory is perfection - heartbreaking, simple but not simplistic.

Like all of Thunders' solo work, the Dolls loom large. Great Big Kiss begins with the immortal line from the Doll's Looking For a Kiss: "When I say I'm in love you best believe I'm in love, L-U-V" and takes the Shangri La's over the Brooklyn Bridge and into the tenements.

The other highlights are London Boys - Johnny's venomous answer to the Pistol's New York... featuring with Paul Cook and Steve Jones, making it sound like a Pistols track with a different singer. And then there's Daddy Rollin' Stone. If you don't get goose bumps when Steve Marriott's vocals drop then you're dead.

Johnny died too young, but at least he made this album before he left us, and it's a hell of an epitaph.

Jonathan Novajosky: It was my first time listening to the album and it's safe to say I was very disappointed. I just can't get behind the vocals here. Considering that You Can't Put Your Arms Round a Memory is a popular song covered by other bands, it was even more of a letdown for me that I did not enjoy it at all. So Alone definitely captures the classic late 60s/early 70s sound, but almost to the point to where it sounds outdated. I would never have guessed this album came out in 1978 by listening to it. 

Most of the songs aren't terrible – just very bland and unmemorable. The only track I mildly enjoyed was London Boys. The use of brass on a few songs was a nice touch, but I don't see any way I would return to this album. I understand the appeal, but this just was not for me. 4/10

Brian Carr: Thanks largely to Dave Grohl on the Washington, DC episode of Sonic Highways, I understand what people like about punk. The DIY aesthetic, the fact that you didn’t have to play for years before starting a band, and the blowback against how “BIG” rock had become. Punk was the rebellion that many felt was missing in rock. I get it.

But I’ve never personally liked the music. Well, other than the Ramones, but I wonder how much of that was because I saw Rock n Roll High School at a tender young age. 

I figured we would get a punk or punk related album in the Club at some point, and it comes in the form of So Alone by New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders. I know the Dolls are considered glam and not punk, but the snotty vocals and subpar musicianship, well, if it walks like a duck... There has never been anything I could grab onto with punk, and so it is with So Alone. The vocals are annoying and the guitars sound like they have a contact high. In my one listen (and a second quick buzz-through), it reminded me of a Rolling Stones album with about 75% less talent. Sorry to all of those who love this stuff, but it’s never been my thing.

Bill Griffin: I could like this if Johnny could carry a tune. Musically, it's pretty darn good (I like the sax bits and generally don't like horns at all) but he simply can't sing. He almost gets there but doesn't. I hear a lot of other artists (Dylan and Springsteen, for example) and Johnny evokes Mick Jagger at times except for his inability to carry a tune. Jagger isn't the best singer himself but he can at least stay on key. Good music just isn't enough to make up for a bad singer. I wouldn't turn it off if a song came on the radio but I also wouldn't stop at one if I was station surfing.

Dave Hinsley: This is a nice listen. Interesting. But the New York Dolls' Too much Too Soon is way better. In fact Leave Me Alone is a less good version of Chatterbox. Interesting to hear this album though.

John Davidson: I was totally unfamiliar with this album, having written off American Punk as a hollow commercialised copy of the real thing (Pistols, Stranglers etc) 

On the surface this album does go some way to redress that - but then you look at the talent involved and realise that this a shambolic drug-fuelled showbiz album rather than a lost punk classic.

The cover of Pipeline gets things off to a good start, but this is largely down to the fact that it is a fast paced instrumental. As soon as Thunders starts 'singing' the album gets less interesting.

While there are a few songs (London Boys for example) where the sneering tone and lack of finesse fit the song perfectly, he really cant hold a tune on the softer songs.

You don't have to be a great singer to sell a great song (lord knows Dylan has hardly been gifted with the voice of an angel) but there has to be some redeeming quality and beyond a tuneless sneer Thunders has nothing to offer.

I know Steve Marriott wasn't at his best in the late 70s but he could still carry a tune and would have been a better vocalist on many of the songs here. 

Overall this didn't work for me- mostly due to the vocals being so poor - would give it a 4/10 .

Mike Knoop: I like it - mostly. I love the 70s NYC scene, and I'm always glad to hear an album I've previously missed. I don't have a problem with Thunders' voice - hard luck stories like You Can't Put Your Arms Round A Memory or Downtown need a hard luck voice to sing them. 

My favourite tune, Great Big Kiss, has the same goofy charm that the best work by the Dolls does. Rockers like Leave Me Alone and London Boys show he could still go full throttle when he wanted. And Daddy Rollin' Stone is a hilarious bit of one-upmanship between Thunders, Phil Lynott, and Steve Marriott. Spoiler alert: Thunders comes in third. Special kudos to John Earle on saxophone. For all the guest stars here, he's the one who has the biggest positive impact of the album.

I have two main problems with the record. The first is sequencing. Why start off with a pedestrian run-through of Pipeline when you have bullets like Leave Me Alone or London Boys in the chamber? You Can't Put Your Arms Round A Memory also feels more like a side closing epic than a second track. 

The other fault is a bigger issue in that even at just over 30 minutes, Thunders seems profoundly out of ideas. He covers his own song (Subway Train) and brings nothing to the table but a knife and fork. And, again, Pipeline? I have nothing against the original but there's nothing new here. I don't consider the bonus songs in my scoring, but any of the four tracks included on the 1992 CD reissue would have given the album some much needed muscle - even the meandering Marc Bolan tune The Wizard.

Cheers to producer Steve Lillywhite for being able to herd these cats as well as he did. It's an inessential but fun addition to the New York canon.

Carl Black: Does anyone remember that scene in the film (I think it was during Sid and Nancy) were an American sings to Johnny Rotton, well not Johnny Rotton, but the actor, "I need a job, a good job, one that will satisfy my emotional needs" and Johnny gives him a foul mouthed contentious, response. Was the American Johnny Thunders? I ask because that's what I think this album is. A safe version of the Pistols. 

Let's put it this way, if you went in the pit at a pistols show, you'd get hit, smacked shat on and spat on. The Clash, you'd get pushed around and end up in an anti-fascist movement that would end in a riot, Sham 69.... A full on fight, smashed glass everywhere, broken bones and cut lips. 

If you went down the front for a Thunders gig you'd get pushed around a little bit, get a bit sweaty, and your mum and dad would give you a lift home after the gig as they'd be waiting for you with a can of Coke outside the venue. I guess I'm trying to say this was all a bit too safe. Caught between rock'n'roll and punk. But not really one thing or the other. 

I did like Daddy Rollin' Stone. Was that a Phil Lynott? And I love the Mississippi Horn in that song. But not enough here. Plus he sounds unconvincingly drunk on every song. Punk rock but safer than any mothers womb.

Iain Macaulay: Johnny Thunders is one of those great artists that was let down badly. Let down by bad drugs. Let down by dodgy production and let down by inconsistency in the song writhing department, more than likely due to bad drugs. 

It’s a real shame that because of this, the casual listener will always consider him at his best as a ‘greatest hits’ package. He was a great guitarist that always had great musicians backing him, could always put across a good show, even at his worst, had albums with some very tasty deep cuts that were infinitely darker and more interesting than the tracks he’s known for, as this album has. 

He will always be a legend to a very narrow band width of music fans, of which I am one. I like this album, not as much as LAMF, and nowhere near as much as the Dolls. I like it because it’s honest, it’s raw and it doesn’t try to be anything more than what it is, a bunch of guys playing live rock and roll purely for the love of having a laugh. 

Sure, some of these songs have been covered much better by other artists, which shows the songs are written well, and unfortunately he destroys the Dolls' Subway Train, but how could he improve on it? Over all I can’t listen to this without raising a glass and thinking ‘what a fucking shame’. Johnny could have been a contender, but if had, he wouldn’t have become a legend.

Roland Bearne: Well this was fun. Great scungy, punky rock n roll. The album does convey a joyous sense of it being recorded over an extended blow-out with a revolving door of good musical mates popping in to lay something down. Always an utter joy to hear Philo's velvet tones. Great good fun stuff, not rocket science just great rock'n'roll.

Final Score: 6.02 ⁄10 (120 votes cast, with a total score of 723)

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