It’s hard to overestimate the importance of this album. Despite racking up less than 500,000 sales on its release in 1973, reaching a dismal 116 in the US Billboard 200 album chart, and failing to chart at all in the UK, much like a tsunami its biggest impact has been seen in various waves far removed from its origin.
The first wave came in 1976-7 as punk blossomed with The Damned, The Sex Pistols, and The Clash, thus transforming the seeds planted by the New York Dolls into a full-blown aesthetic that changed the way we perceive music forever. Punk was already there in the Dolls’ 1973 debut: a lead singer with ugly yet immensely charismatic vocals, a guitarist who turned up his nose at the idea of long and show-offy solos and instead played as part of the team, a speedy rhythm section propelling the band through its patchier instrumental moments, and a general raucousness made all the more loveable for being rooted in catchy tunes and instantly memorable yelled slogans. This description applies as much to the Dolls as any of the great punk bands that followed them.
Where New York Dolls differs from Never Mind the Bollocks or The Clash is in the cleanness of its production and the incorporation of instruments from outside the standard guitars-bass-drum setup, hence anticipating London Calling and further post-punk adventures. There are harmonicas, pianos, Moog synthesizers, and Asian gongs deep in the album’s mix, as well as multi-tracked harmonies and overdubs and other studio tricks that deepen the music and make returning to it a never-ending joy. How many of these elements were down to the band and how many were the result of producer Todd Rundgren’s interference is irrelevant – the end result is the key, and the album sounds great to this day.
The New York Dolls’ mixture of The Rolling Stones’ swagger and ambiguous sexuality, The Velvet Underground’s street savvy, The Stooges’ guitar-droning heaviness, and various girl group’s sweet harmonies created a giddy concoction that was well ahead of its time, and the exhilaration of this mix clearly paved the way for Ramones and thousands of other bands to follow in their footsteps. But precious few actually followed in their footsteps: because the New York Dolls’ footsteps were stiletto ones.
It’s amazing to think that just a few years earlier The Rolling Stones were causing a media ruckus with their long, shaggy hair. Because suddenly in 1973, there was a band staring out of the cover of their debut album, unambiguously in drag, defying all norms of gender and sexuality in what was undoubtedly their most punk move of all. Because just how “I-don’t-care-what-you-think-of-me” tough were The Sex Pistols if they never put on a pair of high heels and lip gloss? Is anything The Clash did half as rebellious as that New York Dolls album artwork?
Although the New York Dolls were certainly never mainstream in terms of sales, they did work for a major record label in Mercury. So the refusal to dilute their drag queen imagery for widespread acceptance is every bit as inspirational as the music on their debut. It’s a determined rejection of the macho posturing that was already becoming a grim cliché of guitar bands in the early 70s.
The New York Dolls realised that being in a band was by very definition a performance, whether you’re pretending to be occult magicians (Black Sabbath) or mystic warriors (Led Zeppelin) or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (The Beatles), it didn’t matter. So why not have some fun with that performative aspect of playing in a band, and pretend to be women?
Dressing up in drag was a perfectly manicured middle finger up to the masculine codes of rock music at the time. It should’ve created a seismic wave, a dramatic shift in attitude to sexuality in rock music, but of course it didn’t. Despite the popularity of androgynous pop stars such as David Bowie and Prince in the decades since, scarce few have dared to try and combine the “feminine” art of cross-dressing with the “masculine” codes of hard rock in quite the same manner.
Sure, that’s partly because the New York Dolls were unique, a blaze of glory that burned so fast and intense that even they failed to sustain their glow past the 70s (although they staged a successful comeback in 2006-11, after which they disappeared once again).
But I believe now that, 45 years later, we are really beginning to feel the waves brought about by the New York Dolls’ earthquake. Now we have numerous bands with openly transgender members (Antony and the Johnsons, Against Me!), and the likes of Janelle Monae celebrating her pansexuality on record. Rock music is slowly becoming less traditionally “macho”, with enlivening results for those of us who respond to the sound of rebellion.
Of course, most of these changes in attitude are down to wider-spread cultural changes that have come about through political action, and would almost certainly have come about even if the New York Dolls had never existed. But it’s still electrifying to hear the band, with such guts on their debut album, asking if you would “make it with Frankenstein” and queering/feminising themselves in countless other ways. We should remember them for giving us perhaps the greatest ever Side A and Side B opening tracks ever, naturally (“Personality Crisis” and “Trash”, hot damn!). But we should also remember them for challenging the boy’s club set of rules for music, forever and always.