In the short history of ’70s-era punk rock, and the longer, larger arc of rock music in general, the New York Dolls were the crucial link between the Rolling Stones, the MC5 and the Stooges and the Ramones, Sex Pistols and all that came after. Fusing a raw, unschooled approach to bare-bones rock & roll with flamboyant style (makeup and ladies clothing and accessories weren’t exactly de rigeur in 1972, and true glam rock came later), outsider lyrical themes and imagery and a musical penchant for earlier rock forms (’50s R&B, girl groups, etc.), the Dolls’ artistic influence far outreached their commercial success.
Originally released in 1981 on a cassette-only (!) release courtesy of ROIR â€“ aka, Reach Out International Records, purveyors of fine punk and new wave and more for about 30 years now â€“ and available on CD for almost 10 years now, Lipstick Killers: Mercer Street Sessions, 1972 captured the original New York Dolls at almost the very beginning of their storied and historic career, four months in. It’s also one of the few (the only) recordings with original drummer Billy Murcia, who died tragically (accidental drowning at the hands of two groupies trying to revive the passed-out drummer by pouring coffee down his throat while in a bathtub) a few months later on their first tour of England, where they opened for Rod Stewart and The Faces before 13,000 at Wembley Stadium, never having played to an audience of more than a couple hundred people before that, and just shy of signing to Mercury Records.
All of the songs on this CD were recorded by Marty Thau around the same time the Dolls were inventing themselves and reinventing rock & roll with their historic shows at the Mercer Street Arts Center in what eventually became the Soho area of New York City. It pre-dates their two releases on Mercury records, but Lipstick Killers is obviously how the band actually sounded in person, raw and live and warts and all, before they were put into the studio by Mercury records where their unique energy and sound was commercially neutered doctored by Todd Rundgren and George â€œShadow” Morton for their two major label releases (1973 and ’74, respectively). Sure, the commercial efforts sound bigger, louder and more polished (yet somehow thinner), but compared to the other mainstream rock of the day (The Sweet’s â€œBallroom Blitz,â€ to pick just one sorta-comparable example), the Dolls didn’t stand a chance.
A few years later, and helped in no small part by the pre-Sex Pistols meddling of wannabe impresario Malcom McLaren (he draped ’em in red patent leather and hung a Soviet flag behind ’em), the Dolls were done. Shooting partners Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan formed the Heartbreakers, Johansen started a solo career (and ultimately became Buster Poindexter), Syl Sylvain became a cabbie, but remained somewhat active musically, and Arthur â€œKillerâ€ Kane became a Mormon…Thunders and Nolan died (predictably, given their junkie lifestyle, but both of ’em hung on until the early ’90s), the remaining three reunited in 2004, which led to a live album and DVD, and one excellent movie about Kane, called New York Doll, filmed before Kane’s unexpectedÂ death from Leukemia. Johansen and Sylvain continue to tour and record under the New York Dolls moniker.
For A-B comparison’s sake, here are four cuts that can be found on both Lipstick Killers and the Dolls’ debut. I prefer the raw, unadulterated lo-fi slop of the Mercer St. Sessions to the watered-down hard rock of the debut album, but hey, would I be writing this column if I didn’t? Listen and decide for yourself…