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When the New York Dolls took on Bo Diddley


If you’re talking influential rock and roll figures, no conversation can happen without mentioning Bo Diddley. Although not among the likes of Chuck Berry and Little Richard when it comes to the first names mentioned, leaving out Bo Diddley is leaving out a crucial element to what made rock and roll unique from rhythm and blues: the beat, the rhythm, and the guitar-led drive. Diddley was instrumental in establishing rock music as its own genre, and his contributions continue to shine in popular music any time any musician breaks out his eponymous drum pattern.

But Bo Diddley also had a notable impact on the punk music that would come into vogue two decades after his initial success. That’s because Diddley was a pioneer in DIY. Having built his own guitar, acted as his own writer, producer, and engineer, and having diversified his backing back to incorporate members of different races and genders, Diddley continuously kicked back at the moulds that were just beginning to form thanks to his own influence. Diddley was feral and aggressive in his attack, the aftershocks of which could be felt in both London and New York during the 1970s.

If you’re looking for a more direct line to Diddley’s connection with punk, look no further than one of the architects of the form, the New York Dolls. The Dolls were a glitter rock band in the same vein as Slade or T. Rex, but they had an important distinction: they were rawer and more primal. Featuring basic musicianship, given that all members were self-taught, the band brought in elements from the Rolling Stones, the Stooges, and The Shangri-Las to create an entirely new sound.

But like any young band, the Dolls needed covers in their early sets to fill time. One of their choices was the slightly bizarre pick of Bo Diddley and his early 1960s cut ‘Pills’. Featuring lyrics of being shot up with drugs while being attended to by a “rock and roll nurse”, ‘Pills’ was transgressive even when the Dolls included it on their 1973 self-titled debut album. Now imagine Bo Diddley performing the song to audiences in 1961.

The Dolls didn’t have to do much to give the song any more edge than it already had. Just a faster tempo and a bluesy harmonica line were all it took to transform the song into a proto-punk classic. Although David Johansen provides some fiery vocal crunch, Diddley has plenty of frenetic and harried vocal lines all his own on the original. Even though punk might have seemed like the destruction of everything that came before it, the lineage of the genre reached all the way back to Bo Diddley.

Check out both versions of ‘Pills’ down below.