Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers were beginning to hit their stride by 1977. After Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan jumped ship from the New York Dolls in early 1975 and connected with former Television bassist Richard Hell, the trio began the first lineup of the Heartbreakers and gigged around New York clubs. Hell’s desire to take over the band ultimately led to his exit, and Thunders became the dominant creative force starting in 1977.
Issues that plagued Thunders and Nolan’s tenures in the New York Dolls, namely their crippling heroin addictions, did not initially affect the Heartbreakers, as each band member indulged in drug use to some degree. The band also diverted from the glam-influenced look of the Dolls, favouring sharper suits and shorter haircuts. Finally, with Hell out of the picture, the core of Thunders, Nolan, guitarist Walter Lure, and bassist Billy Rath concentrated on a more concise and impactful sound, one that would influence the growing wave of punk rock.
Within the early New York punk scene, The Heartbreakers cut a distinctive edge. Unlike the more art-rock sounds of Television and the genre-hopping of Blondie, the Heartbreakers played music highly indebted to early rock and roll, with a fair amount of R&B swagger to differentiate themselves from the buzzsaw bubblegum of the Ramones. Thunders befriended Dee Dee Ramone as they crossed paths, and Dee Dee provided them with one of their signature songs, ‘Chinese Rocks’.
The connection was based on chemical dependency as well. Dee Dee often talked of leaving the strict oppressive leadership that Johnny Ramone created within the Ramones for the looser, more heroin-positive environment of the Heartbreakers. The band’s live shows continued to thrive, but each time they entered a studio, the results came out unsatisfying.
When the band arrived in London in the summer of 1977, punk was exploding as England’s biggest musical movement. Due to the foundations they laid with the Dolls, Thunder and the Heartbreakers were greeted with a warm reception and large crowds. The band signed to British label Track Records and began once again trying to capture their explosive live sound on tape.
The resulting sessions would produce L.A.M.F., the band’s only studio album. With muddy production and weak dynamics, the band members were unhappy with the final results. However, Track records pressured the band to release the album before Christmas and promised additional payment if they let it hit stores. The only dissenter was Nolan, who left the band as a result of the dispute. The band recruited a series of stand-ins, including the Sex Pistols’ Paul Cook and The Clash’s Terry Chimes, but the experience left Thunders sour and he decided to depart for a solo career not long afterwards.
The band reunited for shows in the following years, but these were largely to get the members enough money to pay their rent and feed their addictions. There was no intention of writing new material or keeping the band going beyond financial needs, and eventually, the members burned out and put the band on hold permanently. In subsequent years, occasional live material was released that helped solidify the notion that the band were one of the premier live acts of the punk era, including footage from the band’s peak during their summer in London in 1977.
Check out footage from the Heartbreakers live in London performing the song ‘Let Go’ in 1977 down below.