If you spend any amount of time in punk forums you will know that one questions permeate everything that is ever posted—is it punk? The second question that seems to be hanging around the air like a bad smell is, who was the first punk band? If you watch the video below of New York Dolls performing in drag back in 1974, you will find a surefire answer for the latter question. If the former question crosses your mind in connection to it and you don’t answer in the affirmative, you need to have a little chat with yourself.
New York City has always been a liberal spot on the American map. Famed for its arts district and the plethora of writers, actors and musicians that have called it home, The Big Apple has always been a hotbed of subversive creativity. It made it the perfect breeding ground for punk rock as it began to bubble out of every orifice the city had to offer in the mid-to-late seventies. But before it did, before the Ramones took over CBGB or Dead Boys came out to play, there were the New York Dolls.
Formed in 1971, by the time they took the stage at Club 82 in this footage, the band had already gained a widespread hum of hype around the musical circles of the big city. Their self-titled debut album had been a serious thumb in the eye of the established rock elite as they championed energy and chaos over expertise and musicianship. With that ethos, they became one of the most influential bands of the 20th century.
The band’s name came from Sylvain Sylvain, a founding member of the band and his side hustle of working in a fashion store. Opposite the store was the New York Doll Hospital, a repair shop for the toys, it grabbed Sylvain’s attention. With Johnny Thunders, Billy Murcia, Arthur Kane and David Johansen on board by 1971, the band set course for their new sound and pursued it with abandon.
Like their contemporaries The Stooges, the New York Dolls knew that it wasn’t good enough to sound good on record, you also needed to bring the house down when performing live. Perhaps because of Sylvain’s previous work, or perhaps their connection to NYC in comparison to the Stooges’ Detroit, the band were far more fashion conscious than every other group. It meant their stage shows were usually dabbled with androgynous costuming.
Of course, David Bowie had been helping move this idea along in Britain but it was still an almost unthinkable thing to do in 1974. The ludicrous costuming soon became a part of their image and the band, again, pursued it like madmen. It meant, either to gather a reaction or make a statement, the band would often perform entirely in drag.
Below, we’ve got one of those moments as they take to the stage of Club 82 and deliver a searing rendition of their song ‘Pills’ while all in women’s clothing. It may seem trivial now, to be on stage in women’s clothing and expect a lot of fuss in 2020 would be pretty silly, but in the early seventies, this was as provocative and precocious as it got.
The performance is ragged and the song isn’t necessarily their best but what we do get a double dose of in this instance is attitude. So as we watch the clip, just remember that: Yes, the New York Dolls were as punk as could be.