The New York Dolls’ first album expanded their cult from Manhattan to the rest of hard-core, hard-rock America. As a result, Too Much Too Soon is less specifically rooted in Manhattan, though its bluster and swagger are no less urban. Rather than the specifically New York City “Subway Train” of their first LP, there’s “Babylon,” the town on Long Island, the Philadelphia soul of “There’s Gonna Be a Showdown,” and the Chinese accents of “Bad Detective.” Too Much Too Soon is plainly about moving a lot and not going anywhere. “All dressed up/Got nowhere to go,” sings lead guitarist Johnny Thunders and he is aching for release.
Just as lead singer David JoHansen’s taunting “Do you think you could make it with Frankenstein?” encapsulated the first album, Thunders’s “C’mon, gimme some lips” becomes the motif of this one. The Dolls have never lacked arrogance, which has earned them often invidious comparisons to the Rolling Stones. But now their self-confidence seems matter of fact. “Frankenstein” defended their eccentricity — bassist Arthur Kane’s chemise, Thunders’s feathery hair, and JoHansen’s New York accents. “I’m a Human Being” isn’t a taunt but a statement of complicity: The Dolls have discovered that they really aren’t that different.
Onstage the Dolls’ dynamism covers their rough edges. But their records work as well. Too Much Too Soon owes much to producer Shadow Morton, who has shown the Dolls how to make those edges stand in relief against the group’s natural and undeniable talent.
Consequently, even their nerviest attempts turn out successes. For instance, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s “There’s Gonna Be a Showdown” is of interest not just because it is the album’s strongest cut but because it is built on Jerry Nolan’s drumming. Nolan is the one Doll who approximates the standard definition of musical competence. Critics usually ignore the issue of competence with groups like the Dolls — but musical competence simply has a different meaning to the Dolls than it has for most groups. They are searching for effects and it is to their credit that we only hear the best of them.
To that end, Too Much Too Soon makes it clear that the Dolls are not just David JoHansen’s backing band. Both Nolan and Thunders emerge as powerful forces. Thunders’s “Chatterbox,” which he wrote and sings, is a classic — his guitar work as inventive as the most underrated of all metal guitarists, the MC5’s Fred Smith. Meanwhile, JoHansen is a talented showman, with an amazing ability to bring characters to life as a lyricist.
Ultimately, the Dolls remind me not of a rock band, but of a baseball team. Like the Mets, they are rising from deprecation to become champs. I think they’re the best hard-rock band in America right now. As they say, “I can hold my head so high, ’cause I’m a human, a riff-raff human being.”