Review: New York Dolls box set

New York Dolls

Personality Crisis: Live Recordings & Studio Demos 1972-1975 (box set)

(Cherry Red)

Five CDs round up what is surely the last word on the Dolls’ unreleased archive, at least so far as listenable artifacts are concerned.  There’s a lot of live material floating around out there, but the shows here… Paris and Detroit 1973, Long Island, Vancouver and Dallas 1974 and New York 1975… are more-or-less the knees-iest of the bees-iest in terms of sound quality, while two discs of studio demos negate any number of other, shorter, CD collections.

The Dolls occupy a fascinating position in the history of rock, the bridge between the last of the sixties greatest riff monsters (the Stooges, the MC5, the Stones) and the first of punk rock’s self-annointed destroyers.  

For that reason alone, they are loved and loathed in more or less equal quantities.  Yes, they deserve the credit for steering music onto the path that it would take from the late 1970s onwards but, if someone was happy with the way things were before that, they also get the blame.  It’s hard to get down to Barclay James Harvest when the kid down the block is playing “Frankenstein” full blast.

In terms of the band’s own history, the demo discs are the priceless ones.  The June 72 Blue Rock Studio set, and four tracks recorded in the UK that October, capture the band at what might have been its most idiosyncratic and inventive, with the late Billy Murcia’s drumming steadfastly refusing to allow the band to slip into anything approaching straightforward rock’n’roll.

The band was still developing its sound; still bigger on the New York arts circuit than anywhere else.  Left to their own devices by fate and management alike, who knows what they might have developed into?  Angular and harsh, the Blue Rock version of “Jet Boy” is as sparse as the familiar, “finished” take was full, and the solo that tears it to shreds amidships leads it into altogether untapped territory.  Listening to it today, you hear 1977 coming loud and clear down the highway, with no deviations permitted.

“Frankenstein,” from the same sessions, feels like a ramshackle out-take from The Rocky Horror Show; and “Looking for a Kiss,” from the UK demos, packs a sleazy danger that the band would rarely recapture.  It’s telling that when Johnny Thunders went back to the Dolls for his So Alone solo debut, this was the sound he was aiming for – a point proven by comparing the English take on “Subway Train” with the one he recorded six years later.

Billy Murcia died just weeks after the latter session was taped, towards the end of the Dolls’ British sojourn; home again, they recruited Jerry Nolan to succeed him, and you can tell the difference just three seconds into the first of the Planet Studios demos, taped in March 1973.  Technically, Nolan was a vastly superior drummer.  But he never had the intangible feel that was Murcia’s trademark… while Nolan played what should have been played, Murcia played what could have been played, and his bandmates had no choice but to follow him. 

Not that the Dolls ever became a conventional rock band – they’d have been enormous if they had, as opposed to the footnote they’d have remained if rock had not taken a hard left turn in their gaudy, glorious aftermath.  Without ever even looking at a picture of the Dolls in full flight, their music drips with satin and tat, and the Planet Studio sessions paint a delicious picture of how they sounded before producers Todd Rundgren and Shadow Morton got their hands on them.  Different from before, but still more real than what came later.

As do the live discs.  Three songs from the riot-scarred Paris Bataclan show are as ramshackle and chaotic as the gig’s legend demands; a new year’s eve bash at the Michigan Palace in Detroit, and a post-second album gig at My Father’s Place both gain in savage immediacy what their taped-off-the-radio origins lose in fidelity; and, by the time we hit the Vancouver and Dallas shows later in the year, the band is almost slick.  Almost.  Except slick bands don’t play garage-Stooged Shangri-Las covers.

The package ends with a New York night from the Red Patent Leather era, that was the Dolls’ final outing, a clutch of new songs, and it’s fascinating to slip from this show back to the earliest demos on disc one.  For a band whose detractors liked to describe as one dimensional, it really was an incredible journey – one which guitarist Syl Sylvain will be laying out in print form this summer, with the publication of his autobiography There’s No Bones in Ice Cream (Omnibus Press).  It, too, is a remarkable tale about a remarkable band and let this box set act as its soundtrack.  At least until they make the movie of the book….

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