Wizard Wednesdays: New York Dolls (1973)
In case you’re just tuning in, last week, I started what I proposed as a series of Wednesday blog entries featuring selected content from my upcoming history of the productions of Todd Rundgren, A Wizard A True Star: Todd Rundgren In The Studio, published next month by Jawbone Press. Order now!
I remind everyone that my book is about ALL of Todd Rundgren’s classic studio productions, not just his own music, and features exclusive first-hand tales of the studio from Todd and most of the principles from the albums, including: Meat Loaf: Bat Out Of Hell, Sparks: (Halfnelson), Hall & Oates: War Babies, XTC: Skylarking, New York Dolls (New York Dolls + Cause I Sez So), Patti Smith Group: Wave, The Band: Stage Fright, Cheap Trick: Next Position Please, The Tubes: Remote Control + Love Bomb, Bourgeois Tagg: YoYo, The Pursuit Of Happiness: Love Junk + One Sided Story, Steve Hillage: L, Psychedelic Furs: Forever Now and Grand Funk: We’re An American Band + Shinin’ On. And yes, I discuss Badfinger’s Straight Up and give a shout out to Ass.
On Wizard Wednesdays, I will be leaking, editing and remixing material from both the book and my unused notes. In the previous two weeks, in honour of Rundgren’s Healing/Todd full album theatrical tour out East, I gave you a little bit of the story behind those albums. The following bears very little resemblance to the chapter in my book. This is a unique “remix” concerning one of Rundgren’s most notorious early albums for The New York Dolls.
New York Dolls – New York Dolls (1973)
“The New York Dolls,” wrote young Steven Morrissey, future singer for The Smiths in his 1981 book, The New York Dolls, “were the first real sign that the Sixties were over. Their unmatched vulgarity dichotomized feelings of extravagant devotion or vile detestation. It was impossible to look upon the Dolls as adequately midstream, just as it was impossible to ignore them.”
On the other hand, Morrissey’s book also includes as telling indictment, in a letter dated October 7th, 1975, from Donna L. Halper, then East Coat A&R director at the Phonogram / Mercury Records label from which the Dolls had recently been dropped.
“The New York Dolls contract,” Halper had written, “expired on the 8th of August, 1975. We had a two LP deal with them and it was decided at that time not to renew their contract. The reality is that neither of their LP’s sold very well. Not only that, but they were costing us huge amounts of because of their tendency to destroy hotel property. I truly believe that the company tried to be fair and patient with the Dolls but as talented as they were they were a continued source of aggravation for us.”
The industry may not have known what to make of them, but the effect that the New York Dolls had on a generation Morrissey’s age was nothing short of revolutionary. And while Morrissey had praised their “grotesque collaboration of court shoes, bouffant hair, black lipstick, nail polish, exaggerated posturing” in his book, he was equally candid about his opinion that the band’s campy, pre-glam image had distracted from any serious discussion of their music which, he wrote, “drew energy from desperation.”
“To stay loose and be crazy,’” Morrissey concluded, “was the Dolls’ doctrine, and eventually, that they looked like haggard hookers from a 50’s B-movie became immaterial. Nothing could detract from that music.”
The band’s Todd Rundgren-produced, self-titled album from 1973 struck such a chord with young Morrissey that he was not only moved to form the legendary Smiths, with Johnny Marr, but he would eventually pay the New York band back in a way that made it possible for the surviving band members to reunite with each other, in 2004, and with Rundgren in 2009.
They had debuted inauspiciously enough, at a homeless benefit at New York’s Endicott Hotel on December 24th 1971. After a year of various personnel changes and attitude adjustments and they had initially coalesced around singer David Johansen, lead guitarist Johnny Thunders, bass player Arthur “Killer” Kane, drummer Billy Murcia, and rhythm guitarist Rick Rivets. In early 1972, Murcia’s childhood friend, Sylvain Sylvain, replaced Rivets on guitar and they were more or less settled.
They hit tragedy early on, in London, when Billy Murcia suffocated in a bathtub after a lethal combination of drugs and alcohol. Shaken, but driven to succeed, the band had replaced Murcia with Jerry Nolan by years end, as managers Marty Thau, Steve Leber and David Krebs continued, in vain, to secure a recording contract for New York’s hottest cult band.
“The way we felt about it,” says Sylvain, “was that we had to make ourselves feel famous, before we could actually become famous. We wondered, ‘How the hell did they do it?’ So while we were being influenced by the drag queens and stuff, we weren’t strictly copycats at all. It was all done with love. Things just happened to have that theatrical sort of influence… this was like the end of the sixties. Everything had already been tried in the sixties and then we’d see movies like Performance with Mick Jagger and of course all those guys in the Rolling Stones and other bands we’d see, Marc Bolan in T. Rex, they were all playing around with makeup. The first time I saw Rod Stewart, he had so much makeup on that he looked like he could been in Twisted Sister especially with those skinny purple pants and all that stretch lame. So The Dolls, all of us, came from all of that. Arthur called his bass ‘Excalibur’ after King Arthur. It was crazy. And everybody in the group had something that they specifically brought into the Dolls. My big influence was the rag business that I was born into.”
By 1972, Todd Rundgren had become one of the leading lights of the New York music scene. He had entered the pop consciousness in the group Nazz, and when that band dissolved, Rundgren moved on to studio work, as an engineer on The Band’s Stage Fright, and later as a producer of Badfinger’s highly successful Straight Up album. As a self-sustaining solo artist, Rundgren had put himself on the map with three critically acclaimed solo albums, of which his most recent, Something/Anything? had cemented his reputation as rock’s most interesting studio wizard. His social life was shared, and at times directed, by his girlfriend at the time, a model named Bebe Buell and the two made a pretty couple at their regular haunts like Steve Paul’s The Scene and Max’s Kansas City.
“Bebe brought Todd by to see us play at Max’s or the Mercer Arts Center,” says Sylvain, “but it wasn’t like he was there with a mind to produce the band, it was just the kind of thing that happened. Just like everybody else who was probably brought there by their lovers. We were turning on all the chicks, so they were all bringing their guys. It was that thing, like ‘Hey you know that guy really turns me on,’ you know? Maybe this is the reason why they have sex that night.”
Rundgren, whose own tastes at the time leaned more towards the progressive rock stylings of Frank Zappa, Yes and John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, found the Dolls act “funny.”
“There was definitely a sense of humour about it,” Rundgren recalls, “and part of it was also that there was kind of a limit to how seriously you were supposed to take yourself, and I guess that was what kept you from playing too good. It was provocative, but only in the sense that The Rolling Stones were provocative when they would get dressed up in drag. In fact, that was their model, the Rolling Stones in that drag era – ‘Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing In The Shadows’ and stuff like that. Johnny Thunders was not much of a guitar player but he had that attitude, and the way he looked became highly influential later on. Musically, it was that whole kind of snarling thing. The irony is there that were so many other bands in New York, at the time, who were so much more ‘raw,’ in other words, sloppy and unable to play their instruments. By contrast, the New York Dolls actually came off as competent.”
Rundgren was also attracted to the “charisma” of front man David Johansen.
“There were other lead singers around at the time,” he recalls, ” but they were either hideous on one level or another or unable to carry a tune. There were so few rules at that point. A lot of it was the legacy of the Velvet Underground, you know? A lot of the New York bands in the scene, at that time, were hoping to be the next Velvet Underground in a way and to sing about drag queens and heroin and that sort of stuff. But whereas the Velvet Underground had real musicians like John Cale in the group, the Dolls had not put together a band to expand any musical horizons. That’s really not what they were going for.”
In March of 1973, Mercury Records finally signed The New York Dolls to a two-album deal. The band members, barely out of the teens, were now signed to a major label. The Dolls, their managers, and their new label threw several names of likely producers up the flagpole, as it were, to see which one would fly.
“When you’re going to make a record,” says David Johansen, “everybody’s talking about producers and stuff like that, especially like management and stuff like that. When someone, maybe it was Marty Thau or Syl, not sure, suggested Todd Rundgren, we just thought, ‘Todd? Of course!’ He was right under our noses.”
Todd Rundgren was, at the time, the highest paid record producer in the world in the wake of his contract with Capitol act Grand Funk Railroad, whose single “We’re An American Band,” would become one of the biggest records of the year.
“We all knew Todd from Max’s and The Scene,” says Johansen, “and we liked him and dug the Nazz and stuff like that. I dug what he did with Grand Funk Railroad a lot, but to me it didn’t really have anything to do with how anything sounded or how records should sound, or anything like that, know what I’m saying? To me, it was more like, ‘Okay, we’re gonna make a record and it’s gonna be a new thing, so I wasn’t really basing it on anything that Todd had done before. I just knew Todd was cool and he was a producer.”
“It didn’t really happen as magically as everybody would like to believe it happened,” adds Syl Sylvain. “It was really more, ‘Hey, who’s around and who’s available,’ as it always is. And then it was ‘Who will take the money that we have to offer and who could give us the time to get it out as soon as possible.’ It wasn’t a long list, and Todd was a New York guy we knew and who seemed like he could handle that.”
Bud Scoppa was the publicity manager for Mercury Records at the time and attended some sessions at the Record Plant. Bud recalled an amusing moment for the book, which transpired between Rundgren and “Killer” Kane.
“We were in the control room with Todd,” Scoppa recalls, “and the band started a take. Something wasn’t sounding right, so Todd got on the talkback mic right away and said ‘Hold it, hold it!’ Then he goes out into the room and walks up to Arthur Kane’s bass cabinet and plugs in the cord. He said, ‘Yeah, that’s all you needed. Okay let’s try it again!’ It was sort of an encapsulation, I thought, of his attitude toward the band. Todd was such a musician and they were just getting by on attitude and energy. But as disdainful as he appeared to be at some points, he got the job done really well.”
Syl told me a similar story, only this time between Rundgren and Jerry Nolan.
“Todd was basically hands off,” says Sylvain, “but, you know, he would comment if he thought he needed to, but he’d only try to improve it and try to bring you out, to be better and maybe you know if you were really out of tune and couldn’t even figure it out or something. I do remember there was a few times even with Jerry, where he just couldn’t keep the beat, and Todd would be out there with him in the isolation booth with a drumstick and like hitting the beats on a cowbell for Jerry in his cans, his headphones. Todd was sort of a live click track, keeping the steady tempo for Jerry to follow.”
“As far as I’m concerned,” David Johansen added, “one of Todd greatest strengths as a producer is… he could take this, like, mishigas of us playing and then he could go off and listen to each instrument and just EQ them in such a way that they all sound really enriched, I think.”
“A lot of producers would try to make you seem perfect,” adds Sylvain, “instead of presenting you the way you are. Todd never did that, in fact he made it sound exactly like a band on a stage. He put Johnny Thunders on the right side and Sylvain Sylvain on the left side. You know, the kids have talked about that for years and Todd was a genius at getting our sound up on the record.”
New York Dolls was released in August of 1973, and NME reviewer Nick Kent praised the album in the August 25, 1973 issue.
“The New York Dolls are trash, they play rock ‘n’ roll like sluts and they’ve just released a record that can proudly stand beside Iggy & The Stooges’ stupendous Raw Power as the only album so far to fully define just exactly where 1970’s rock should be coming from… this is exactly the brand of music I’ve been crying out to hear amidst the junk-pile of flatulent technique and lifeless professionalism that has hung like an albatross around the neck of high-energy rock… the Dolls’ appearance is as exciting as seeing a beat-up purple Chevy flashing through Death Valley.”
Kent wasn’t done, however, going on to describe the band’s songs as “musical street fights” and “a bastardized brand of hell-cat cacophony teetering on pure anarchy…held together by the kind of attitude that has always stood as the quintessential factor of the rock n’ roll statement i.e. total lack of self-consciousness and a commitment to full-tilt energy workouts no matter what level of proficiency you’re working at… Todd Rundgren has worked miracles cooling out his often impetuous whiz-kid overkill to present a vivid document of the New York Dolls on vinyl.”