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When the New York Dolls used Communism to make cash


“Does passion end in fashion? Or does fashion end in passion?” – Malcolm McClaren

Malcolm McClaren was king of the ‘cool hunters’; simultaneously enmeshed in fashion while maintaining a cool distance with a steady eye on the evolution of music and fashion. The definition of cool hunting is trend spotting, somebody who observes changes within fashion, music or anything related to pop culture.

For example, during the 1990s, MTV employed these tactics; cool hunters would gain permission to enter the homes and observe young teenagers; what were they wearing? How were they talking? Where were they listening to? A year, later these observations were packaged into a bundle of marketable images and merchandise and sold right back to them. Sometimes it got a little fuzzy as to who started what.

One thing is clear, however, Malcolm McClaren did bring punk, in a tragically ironic way, to the masses. His perverse and gateway to corruption took shape in the form of a boutique called ‘Sex’. He and his partner, Vivienne Westwood, owned the shop that would famously establish The Sex Pistols and, more specifically, Johnny Rotten as the poster-child of the then-burgeoning punk scene in 1975.

McClaren wrote in an article for The Guardian: “For me, the answer lay at my first store on 430 King’s Road, where I sold the ruins of pop culture – a jukebox stood proudly in the centre of the store.”

Perhaps not as well-known, McClaren helped The New York Dolls deliver a very punctual swansong. By 1975, The New York Dolls had been dropped by their label as their contract with Mercury Records had expired. Wracked with inner turmoil and a declining presence within the New York City scene – which resulted in playing smaller venues – things were not looking too hot for the Dolls. While they may have been the ultimate proto-glam punk band, they began faltering in their high-heeled shoes. Perhaps too absorbed within the punk aesthetic; drugs began to play too hefty of a role within the inner ranks.

McClaren observed in the same article for The Guardian that, “Drugs and alcohol had seeped into their lifestyle and they were already past their shelf life.” Despite this, because of his thirst for the perfect marriage of punk and profit, he thought he could turn them around. He added: The music industry paid no attention to anyone who liked the New York Dolls, dismissing them mistakenly as homosexuals. It now continued to deteriorate even further.”

McClaren met the Dolls in London when they walked into his shop. They became instant friends and, soon after, McClaren found his way to New York City to watch the Dolls rehearse. Later, McClaren sought to assume control over the Dolls, and inspiration struck: “I decided to make them look not like girls, but worse, like Communist dolls. Red, patent leather Communist dolls. I had a fondness for all that Chinese stuff.”

The New York Dolls now found themselves completely clad in red – to some people’s disbelief, they even had a hammer and sickle flag hanging behind them at shows. David Johansen said poignantly: “We’re trisexual. We’ll try anything once.”

For whatever it’s worth, while it was not a lifesaver, it did put on the media’s radar and bring them somewhat back into the scope of the public’s eye and the band blew up again in London, offering a brief illusion of a return to the top of the pile. Following a North American tour, however, things would not last for the group. They played their last show on December 30th, at Max’s Kansas City, but what a ride it was.