Originating in New York City and named after the same location, the New York Dolls, for a period of time, were one of the biggest pioneers of punk rock. Even with their years of being active being rather sporadic, and with the drastic changes in their lineup as a band, the New York Dolls remained one of the most influential punk bands of all time. They’ve impacted some of the biggest names in rock history including the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, Guns N’ Roses, the Damned and so on.
The New York Dolls, although not the most commercially accredited, have had the most distinctive presence both on and off stage. They realised watching their contemporaries, such as the Stooges, that simply sounding good in records would not do. Instead, they made their presence equally dynamic both on record as well as on stage. They embraced a unique fashion on stage with androgynous costumes ranging from red leather outfits to makeup and often, it was all drag. This certainly turned some heads, especially in the 1970s, and that is exactly what the band was going for and eventually, it became part of their image.
The New York Dolls as a band, had seen some of the most tragic deaths in their career. From Billy Murcia’s death in 1972 from an accidental overdose to Arthur Kane’s demise from leukemia, in 2004, the band underwent a constant change in its lineup. In spite of that, New York Dolls remained the most loved by their fans throughout their career both for their music as well as their impressive “punk” attitude.
Here, we explore their legacy.
New York Dolls‘ six definitive songs:
‘Stranded in the Jungle’ (1974)
A cover of the original song by the American doo-wop group the Jay Hawks, the New York Dolls covered this song on their album Too Much Too Soon (1974). They released this song as the album’s lead single. They also included it in their 1994 compilation album called Rock ’n’ Roll.
New York Dolls’ lead singer David Johansen later included a live version of ‘Stranded in the Jungle’ in his album Live It Up which was released in 1982. Even though a cover version, the song soon become the New York Dolls’ one of the most popular tracks.
‘Jet Boy’ (1973)
‘Jet Boy’ was the closing track on The New York Dolls’ self-titled album. Written by David Johansen and Johnny Thunders, and without giving much explanation, all the song says is that the jet boy figure flew around New York City and he stole his baby. Album producer Todd Rundgren managed to capture the band’s wild energy in this song.
The band performed ‘Jet Boy’ on in 27th November 1973 on The Old Grey Whistle Test which led BBC 2 radio host, as well as the host of the program, to mockingly refer to it as ‘mock rock’. ‘Jet Boy’ was originally co-released with ‘Vietnamese Baby’ as its B-side track.
‘Looking for a Kiss’ (1973)
From their album New York Dolls, released in 1973, this song is entirely about a love-ridden man looking for a kiss from his love-interest; until it isn’t. As the last part of the song shifts from “looking for a kiss” to “looking for a fix and kiss”, the song clearly makes vivid references to heroin and him wanting to be addicted to it.
The New York Dolls’ lyrics didn’t hold back on mentioning things (heroin, in this case) that were a taboo talk about, let alone include in works of art. Even though the New York Dolls were as punk as it could get, it was still quite a step to paint the picture as it was in reality.
‘Teenage News’ (1984)
The New York Dolls’ album Red Patent Leather was composed and released one month before they disbanded for the first time and ‘Teenage Leather’ was part of this album. It was written by the band’s lead singer, Sylvain Sylvain, and became his solo debut later on in his career.
Although it was going to be one of the singles for the band to release in October 1974 at Record Plant East, only two of the members (Sylvain and Johansen) showed up for recording, Thunders not showing up at all. The song could have very well been a part of the band’s third studio album had they made one.
This song was the New York Dolls’ debut single for their self-titled album. Even though the song did not top any charts, but with David Johansen on the vocals, Arthur Kane on bass, Nolan on drums and Todd Rundgren’s additional synth piece added at the end of the song, it became one of the most popular songs by the Dolls.
The band re-recorded it in reggae style for their 2009 album Because I Sez So. Even though many were critical about this version and thought it would sound lame, this rendition worked surprisingly well for the song and earned them recognition from the audience.
‘Personality Crisis’ (1973)
Released as a double A-side with ‘Trash’, ‘Personality Crisis’ was the lead track for the New York Dolls. Written by the band’s lead singer David Johansen and guitarist Johnny Thunders, and with its accompanying piano piece as well as the rocking beats, ‘Personality Crisis’ became one of the most definitive glam-punk tracks of all time.
The lyrics of the song speak of how in the midst of multiple cultures and trying to please everybody, one finds it difficult to retain one’s originality and instead mould themselves into what other people expect them to be. An early demo version of the song was used on the 1981 collection ‘Lipstick Killers- The Mercer Street Sessions 1972. ‘Personality Crisis’ has remained one of the most famous songs by the New York Dolls.