If you were perusing a record store in 1973, there was one album that was guaranteed to catch your attention. In an era of jeans, T-shirts, and bad moustaches, The New York Dolls all sat on one couch striking menacing poses while dressed in outrageously extravagant drag. Whether you were intrigued or repulsed, there was no way to miss the band’s debut while sifting through the vinyl.
Glam rock had arrived, and nobody had gone to these kinds of visual extremes before. Fishnets, go-go boots, fully contoured makeup, and gigantic hair. Fans of David Bowie, T. Rex, Slade, or any number of British glam acts probably thought they knew what the Dolls were going to sound like just based on their looks alone. But once the needle hit the vinyl, a different sound came out: something grittier, dirtier, more ragged and worn out.
The New York Dolls weren’t taking after the glam rock icons of the day. Instead, they were plundering the depths of proto-punk spearheaded by the likes of the MC5, Blue Cheer, and especially the Stooges. Making the razor-edged sound as ferocious as possible was a skinny Italian kid from the Bronx who had only just turned 21 when the album was released in the summer of 1973. That was John Genzale, but on the record sleeve, he went by a different name: Johnny Thunders.
The name came from an old Kinks song, but the identity was all his. With his sloppy lead guitar lines and choked harmony vocals, Thunders flaunted the growing wave of technicality and proficiency that was creeping into rock music. The Dolls wanted rock and roll to be dangerous, exciting, and untamable, and damn any flubbed notes or missed rhythms along the way. David Johansen might have been the flamboyant frontman, but Thunders represented the attitude and aggression of the band.
Before they knew it, the Dolls had a following. Not anything resembling mainstream popularity, or really any real fan base outside of New York City and London, but a group of misfits and freaks that appreciated the gonzo DIY that the Dolls brought to their music and image. It was so far outside of the pop and rock mainstream that an entirely new subculture was beginning to spring up. People who had never played the guitar before could look at Thunders and see a future, and Thunders never seemed to care whether his solos were coherent or in tune. It was all about how you hit the instrument and the guts that you put into it.
But Johansen had a different direction that he wanted to pull the band into. Something a little more camp, where cocktail and lounge music could rub elbows with B-movies, novelty songs, girl groups, and old-school Hollywood. All Thunders could do was sing his own song, ‘Chatterbox’, which stayed true to the band’s gritty and minimalist original sound. Thunders held tight to drummer Jerry Nolan due to the pair’s shared heroin addictions, and factions began to form within the group.
When Englishman Malcolm McLaren came on board as manager and sided with Johansen’s theatrical approach, Thunders took Nolan and pledged allegiance to the growing wave of bands that were playing gritty New York clubs like Max’s Kansas City and CBGB. Although he was the same age as the musicians who were beginning to spearhead the first wave of punk, Thunders also carried an elder statesman attitude with him: if it wasn’t for him, punk likely wouldn’t have looked and sounded the way that it did.
That’s because members of Blondie, Television, the Dead Boys, and the Ramones could be found in the audience of New York Dolls shows. A lucky few, notably Blondie and Television, even got to play with the band while they were on their last legs. But when Thunders and Nolan defected to punk, they created a new band that was stripped of the Dolls’ androgenous ethos and kitschy approach. The Heartbreakers were grimier and more fatalistic than the Dolls, and Thunders was the captain of the ship.
The Heartbreakers were drawn together more for their shared drug addictions than for any actual musical connection, but their musical connection was still potent. At least it was on stage, where the band thrived and pulled in some of the biggest audiences of the New York punk scene. Despite being bolstered by Thunders’ best-written songs, The Heartbreakers struggled to translate their energy and excitement onto vinyl.
The group’s only album, 1977’s L.A.M.F., was plagued by poor production and improper mixing — but that couldn’t stop it from becoming an essential part of punk’s initial foundation. The only thing that could stop The Heartbreakers were themselves, specifically the addictions that plagued the band at every turn. Disappointed by the album’s failure and wishing to strike out on his own, Thunders began a solo career.
His first solo LP, 1978’s So Alone, featured a collection of some of the best musicians based in the UK at the time, including Phil Lynott, Steve Lillywhite, Chrissie Hynde, Steve Marriot, Paul Cook, and Steve Jones. The album included what would become Thunders’ most endearing song, ‘You Can’t Put Your Arm Around a Memory’, which would continue to be covered by the likes of punk leaders like Joey Ramone, Duff McKagen, and Billy Joe Armstrong.
Thunders’ other essential contribution to punk came from his biggest vice. His heroin addiction had caused Thunders to become simpatico with Ramones bassist Dee Dee Ramone, and while meditating on one of their scores, Dee Dee penned an ode to their derelict lifestyles with original Heartbreakers and Television bassist Richard Hell entitled ‘Chinese Rocks’. The song would be an endearing part of punk’s first wave, with both The Heartbreakers and the Ramones recording notable versions of the track.
Throughout the 1980s, Thunders continued to release albums in between his attempts to stay clean. By the early 1990s, Thunders was more of a ghost than a living musician, and when he died in 1991, the cause was speculated to be anything from a drug overdose to leukaemia to murder. The only thing that was known was that Thunders was dead, and with him went one of the first true-blue punk rockers.