New York Dolls
‘Dancing Backwards In High Heels’
album review

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Since the legendary New York Dolls reformed in 2004, at Morrissey’s request for his Meltdown Festival on the South Bank in London, the band have released two studio albums ”“ One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This (2006) and ”˜Cause I Sez So (2009). The Dolls’ new forthcoming album, Dancing Backwards In High Heels, released on Blast Records on 14th March 2011, is the best LP the band have produced since their 2004 reformation.

In fact, Dancing Backward In High Heals could well stand alongside their enormously influential landmark 1970’s albums, the eponymous 1973 debut, produced by Todd ”˜The Nazz’ Rundgren, and Too Much Too Soon, helmed by The Shangri-Las songwriter Shadow Morton. Some achievement considering that the roaring, exhilaratingly ramshackled rock ”˜n’ roll thunder of New York Dolls and Two Much Too Soon informed much of the musical blueprint and the defiant attitude for what became labelled as British Punk (the late Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren managed the group during their ”˜Red Leather’ period shortly before their untimely disillusion in 1975). The group’s dynamic and flamboyant appearance on ”˜Whispering’ Bob Harris’ moribund BBC Old Grey Whistle Test progressive rock television show in 1973 certainly inspired many future leading lights of punk who saw it in the UK.

It also has to be taken into account that only two original Dolls now remain: songwriter/guitarist Sylvain Sylvain and charismatic vocalist/lyricist David Johansen. The band’s first drummer, 21-year-old Billy ”˜Doll’ Murcia died of an overdose in 1972, during the group’s first, brief visit to England. Murcia’s replacement, Jerry Nolan, passed on in January 1992. The inimitable Dolls guitarist and dandy punk icon Johnny Thunders expired in April 1991, aged only 38. Nolan and Thunders formed a vital part of the Dolls’ sonic attack, further cementing their dissolute alliance in the seminal Heartbreakers, who appeared on what was left of the Sex Pistols’ ill-fated 1976 Anarchy tour of the UK. The Heartbreakers cover of Chuck Berry’s ”˜Too Much Monkey Business’ as ”˜Too Much Junkie Business’ speaks volumes. Finally, the Dolls’ bass player Arthur ”˜Killer’ Kane departed this life on 13th July 2004, tragically shortly after the Dolls’ historic reunion concerts in Morrissey’s Meltdown Festival.

It is extraordinary that the surviving Dolls are still breathing, let alone producing one of the best records of their wayward ”˜career’. The artistic success of Dancing Backward In High Heels is in part due to the fact that Johansen and Sylvain have to some extent boldly stepped out of the long, portentous shadows of the classic Thunders era Dolls sound. When the Dolls returned in 2004 they had to replicate the overdriven guitar resonance of Thunders, with guitarist Steve Conti, which carried through to a degree on the One Day it Will Please Us To Remember Even This and ”˜Cause I Sez So albums.

Retaining just drummer Brian Delaney from the post 2004 line-up, Johansen and Sylvain have now recruited veteran Blondie guitarist Frank Infante. Not attempting to duplicate Thunders’ trademark blasting guitar interjections and riffs, Infante, who has previously played with Sylvain, Joan Jett and Iggy Pop, offers his own distinctive guitar styling. Rather than dominating proceedings like Thunders did, Infante blends into the groove (though his presence is definitely felt), allowing Sylvain to enter the spotlight, with the diminutive Doll even contributing some poignant keyboards. This, coupled with the empathetic production and bass playing of Louis XIV lead singer/guitarist Jason Hill, has given Dancing Backward In High Heels an infectious new Dolls sound. All this surprisingly recorded in Newcastle, England, at their record company’s studio.
On the bonus The making of Dancing Backward In High Heels DVD that comes as part of the CD package, David Johansen’s glamorous girlfriend Mara Hennessey admits she was initially not that keen on coming to Newcastle to record. Now having experienced the city and its people (some of whom contribute musically to the record through her encouragement), with the Dolls playing three sold out shows at the intimate The Cluny venue before recording, Hennessey states that Newcastle is as vibrant and exciting as New York was in the early 1970’s when the Dolls first emerged. Sylvain relates that when he and Johansen walked through the centre of the city one evening, drinkers would leave the pubs to come out and shake hands with the band.

Remarkably, Johansen and Sylvain are at the top of their game. They could have simply opted to become an ”˜oldies’ style outfit, lucratively trading upon their former glories. However, you can sense that this was never really a serious option for the pair. Their compositions on Dancing Backwards In High Heels not only reflect Johansen and Sylvain’s inherent sense of joyous rock ”˜n’ roll swagger but also a poignant sense of loss and existential ennui.

The opening track, ”˜Streetcake’, tips a hat in the direction of the numerous 1960’s girl groups that informed so much of the original Dolls numbers. ”˜Talk To Me Baby’ carries echoes of prime T.Rex meets Phil Spector, a vigorous cover of Johansen and Sylvain’s good times anthem ”˜Funky But Chic’ (featured on the singer’s first 1978 solo album and includes the immortal lyric “I got a pair of shoes I swear that somebody gave me, Well momma thinks I look pretty fruity but in jeans I feel rockin’”) which actually tops the original, while a spirited version of Patti LaBelle & The Bluebelles’ 1962 hit ”˜I Sold My Heart To The Junkman’ joins the ranks of classic Dolls covers from rock ”˜n’ roll, rhythm &blues and soul music’s Golden Age (Bo Diddley’s ”˜Pills’, The Cadets’ ”˜Stranded In The Jungle’ and Archie Bell & The Drells’ ”˜There’s Gonna Be A Showdown’, to name but a few).

”˜Round And Round She Goes’ boasts an unstoppable, swinging Sandy Nelson beat and blasting sax, igniting the quintessence of jubilant dance hall rock ”˜n’ roll and R&B, in the Dolls’ interpretation of the 1960’s style of Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels or Newcastle’s own The Animals. Only The Cramps, who were obviously besotted with the Dolls, or the Stones (clearly a touchstone for the Dolls) at their height in the early 70’s, could ever rival their invocation of the primal essence of rock. “Yeah, baby that’s what I like,” shouts Johansen as ”˜Round And Round She Goes’ fades, summoning up the spirit of The Big ”˜Chantilly Lace’ Bopper.

On the other hand, in the mournful, organ driven blues ”˜Kids Like You’, featuring beautifully melancholic slide guitar from Infante, a reflective Johansen offers some hard earned words of advice to the young in a terrifying uncertain world”“ “Find a room that’s furthest from the flames, With a view and a breeze that’s cool, You make that cool your middle name, Kids Like You.” The plaintive ”˜You Don’t Have To Cry’ offers heartfelt consolation to a loved one, the slowly propulsive ”˜Baby Tell Me What You’re On’ rhetorically enquires “Is it twilight or the dawn?” and ”˜End Of The Summer’ quietly rages against the dying of the light with a ska groove and doo-wop backing vocals.

But this is still defiantly the New York Dolls. Dancing Backward In High Heels carries the Dolls’ unquenchable rebellious spirit and determination to embrace all the possibilities offered by life, no matter how hard the environment and economic circumstances. In ”˜I’m So Fabulous’, over a classic Dolls riff, Johansen loudly rails against the conformist, Disneyland-style playground for the rich and badly dressed that Manhattan has become in the past decade or so, while proclaiming in his wonderfully rasping bass voice his own enduring peacock splendour; “I’m more fab than all the hipsters on Broadway.” Long may he continue to be such a glorious Doll.

Copyright © Ian Johnston 2011



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