The album cover hits with a stark black and white photo, title scrawled in lipstick red aross the top. The boys appear on a white satin couch with a strange combination of high pop-star drag and ruthless street arrogance. There’s lipstick, eyeshadow and platform boots, but there’s also some sinister slipstream flowing here. Remember the earliest Stones’s publicity photos? What was scruffy and outrageous then looks so commonplace now — in ten years will this photo seem as quaint?
But the Dolls are a lot more than just another visually weird band. In much the same way that the Stones and the Who began as symbols of and for their club audiences, the Dolls, in their series of legendary gigs at the Mercer Arts Center came to be the forefront of a new creature/clan. Somebody once described them as “the mutant children of the hydrogen age”: boys and girls of indeterminate gender, males with earrings and flashing orange hair, females with ducktails and black leather, interchangeable clothes, makeups and postures, maybe gay, maybe not — and what’s it to ya, mothafuckah? (Wistful lost children with battery acid veins and goldbrick road dreams … how hard it is to be outrageous these days …)
Interesting sociologically, but it could get pretty deadly on a music level, if it weren’t for the Dolls’s street sense. They don’t take their movie any more seriously than they take anyone else’s, and they play it with a refreshing and sardonic sense of humor.
In fall of last year the Dolls Toured England, where their first drummer died of chemical complications. They returned to the US and added friend Jerry Nolan, who seemed to spark a tightening-up and surprising musical growth. The band attracted a lot of record company interest, but most executives went away mumbling and snarling — with the exception of Paul Nelson, who kept coming back. In time a contract was signed and work began, with whiz-kid producer Todd Rundgren at the board. At first the combination seemed not only bizarre but unworkable: Todd, ace of complex board work and over-dubbing sessions versus the driving but basic dead-end kids of the Seventies. But strangely enough, the compromise between live raunch and studio cleanness and complexity seems to work about 90% of the time.
Generally, the Dolls’s live sound is the traditional two-guitar, bass and drums, with occasional harmonies behind lead vocals, and for the most part, it is maintained here. As is often the case with first albums, the group got too hung up with the toys of the studio — a few lead lines are all but buried in overdubs, some vocal choruses are just a bit too rich — but on the whole, it’s mostly straightforward power rock.
Lead singer David Jo Hansen wrote most of the lyrics, and his keen sense of the absurd comes through on the opening cut, “Personality Crisis,” a driving rocker. “With all the cards of fate mother nature sends, your mirror’s always jammed up with all your friends…. You got so much personality, you’re flashing on a friend of a friend of a friend …” The cut is a jumping companion piece to classics like “20th Century Fox” and “Cool Calm and Collected.” After finishing the screaming end of the take David sauntered into the control booth at the Record Plant. “Was that ludicrous enough?” he asked earnestly.
“Looking for a Kiss” is many people’s favorite Dolls song. It’s another full-power rocker with contemporary slice-of-urban-life lyrics: “I did not come here lookin’ for no fix — ah, uh-uh, no! — I been out all night in the rain babe — just looking for a kiss.” Guitarists Johnny Thunders and Sylvain Sylvain (he’s the one with the roller skates and clown rouge on the cover shot) lay down a suitably harmonic-cacophonic city sound behind David’s sincere plea — “I mean a fix ain’t a kiss!”
“Vietnamese Baby” is a love song, and Todd’s magic fingers turn the drums into occasional bursts of machine gun fire. “Now that it’s over baby — whatcha gonna do?” “Lonely Planet Boy” is a comparatively acoustic ballad with a great late-night smoggy city feel, as close as the Dolls get to being ethereal. David’s voice is almost a whisper over the Ice Dog saxophone of Buddy Bowser. Although just a taste too busy, the cut has a mood of drifting solitude that’s just right at the end of a strange sad night when the manholes have been trying to bite you.
“Frankenstein (Orig.)” — it was written before Edgar Winter’s — is the album’s “bad acid” song. It builds an air of oppressive and droning inevitability, helped along by Todd’s droog-ing on the Moog. In an interview David explained, “The song is about how kids come to Manhattan from all over, they’re kind of like whipped dogs, they’re very repressed. Their bodies and brains are disoriented from each other … it’s a love song.”
“Trash” has an infectious rhythm riff, and uses Stones and Beach Boys quotes as well as old R&B lines: “How you call your loverboy? Trash!” It’s a nonsensical, good-rocking ass-shaker. Probably the most easily accessible song here is “Bad Girl” (“A new bad girl moved on my block/I gave her my keys, said don’t bother to knock”). The guitar break by Johnny is short, catchy and effective. Nobody takes any long solos anywhere; what counts is the song, words and music and the arrangements are lean and mean, put together with craftsmen’s ears.
“Subway Train” is a personal favorite. The charging guitar phrase that keeps running throughout has all the metal banshee mania of the Seventh Avenue IRT, and the riff is equally relentless. “I seen enough drama just riding on a subway train,” David sings, and if you’ve ever been there you know just what he means.
“Private World” is another favorite, about your own fantasy retreat from it all (“Shut the door!”) — with an oddly familiar and infectious riff, and nice honky-tonked piano by Todd and Syl. The album closes with “Jet Boy,” mostly words on a swooping riff; Marvel Comics meets the Lower East Side. Throughout, the rhythm of drummer Jerry Nolan and bassist bad Arthur Kane is solid and pulsing, the guitars fast and slashing, the structures simple but effective.
The only question I have is if the record alone will impress as much as seeing them live (they’re a highly watchable group). They’re definitely a band to keep both eyes and ears on. In different ways, and for widely different reasons, I’m as excited about the Dolls as I was when I first heard the Allman Brothers. I guess it has to do with being real, and caring enough to do it right.
There are a lot of approaches to reality now; the Dolls is one you can dance to. You can love them or hate them, but they’re not gonna go away. I’m waiting for their next album.