When the New York Dolls formed in late 1971, they were not only creating some of the most passionate music of the new glitter era (and in fact defining a new New York rock style) but setting the stage for the punk movement that followed five years later.
The band members were born and grew up in various boroughs of New York City and played in local bands; several had been in Actress. In late 1971 Johnny Thunders, Rick Rivets, Arthur Kane, and Billy Murcia began jamming, and soon they were joined by singer David Johansen. After they had replaced Rivets with Syl Sylvain, the combo started playing the Mercer Arts Center in Lower Manhattan. The Dolls' music was strongly influenced by the Rolling Stones, the MC5, the Stooges, and the Velvet Underground, but deliberately more amateurish. And their cross-dressing captured the outrage and threat of glam. Despite this, their music and attitude were down to earth, and their stardom-by-self-definition stance served to keep most record companies at a distance. Still, a local glam scene of sorts developed around the group.
During the Dolls' first tour of England, Murcia died after mixing alcohol with pills; the official cause of death was suffocation. The band replaced him with Jerry Nolan, who would appear on its Todd Rundgren–produced debut. Though both the debut and its followup —which was produced by George "Shadow" Morton —were critical successes, they were commercial disasters; the group's sound and image were just too weird. After they lost their recording contract, the Dolls were briefly managed by Malcolm McLaren (who later worked with the Sex Pistols), who suggested that they use a communist flag as a stage backdrop. When no new record contract developed, both Nolan and Thunders left the band, and Johansen and Sylvain continued to tour with various backing musicians under the Dolls name through 1977. Thunders and Nolan formed the Heartbreakers [see entry], and later, Thunders created his own bands, one of which, Gang War, included MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer. In 1978 Nolan and Kane played a few shows backing former Sex Pistol Sid Vicious. Johansen [see entry] began his solo career in 1978, and Sylvain stayed with Johansen's band until he quit in 1979 to start his own solo career.
Johnny Thunders died of a drug overdose in 1991. Former band mate Jerry Nolan made his last public performance at a memorial concert for Thunders —Nolan himself died shortly thereafter of a stroke at age 40.
Through the years, archival Dolls material has surfaced: In 1981 ROIR released Lipstick Killers, a formative Dolls studio tape from 1972; Red Patent Leather documents a 1975 New York show; Night of the Living Dolls includes previously unreleased material; Paris Le Trash is another live album. Rock 'n' Roll is an anthology.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
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