I’m the last person to sentimentalize drugs and a lot of the sleaze that accompanies them. Nor am I one to wax nostalgic about the good old days, especially when the only people going on about how great they were never actually lived through them. However, it’s hard not to feel something like regret over what was lost in the gentrification of New York City and the face-lift it underwent during the process. Sure, something needed to be done about the fact the city was teetering on the edge of financial ruin in the late 1970s while crime, the sex trade and drugs were creating a black hole far too many were getting lost in. Yet, as the great documentary, NY 77 The Coolest Year In Hell (which you can watch at the link) shows, that same atmosphere was responsible for one of the greatest bursts of creative energy the city had seen. 1977 was when hip-hop was bursting out in the Bronx, punk was exploding on the Lower East Side, and disco was flowering in Soho.
Very little of the anarchic energy behind those explosions existed once Mayor Rudi was done with New York City. While there’s no denying your chances of being propositioned in Times Square are far fewer today than they were 40 years ago, something of the soul also seems to have been sucked out of the city along with the peep shows and the hookers. There needs to be grit in the cogs pushing artistic creation — resistance and friction for the sparks necessary to light the fires of inspiration. Thankfully, while the streets might have been cleaned up and most of the edge dulled off the knife blade that was New York City, the spirit of the times still lives on in the hearts and minds of a few die-hards too set in their ways to ever, thank fucking god, change.
Sylvain Sylvain and David Johansen are all that’s left of the original line-up, but since they resurrected the New York Dolls a few years back rock and roll has become a little less tired and a lot more fun. I think a lot of us would have been content with the warm fuzzy feelings generated by just knowing their version of anarchy was back in the world, and not really given too much of a fuck what they did musically. Thankfully they have way too much integrity to fall into becoming a sort of Glam/punk version of Norman Rockwell. Creating a mawkishly sentimental vision of what the times were like so people could say, “What cute little punks — gee, weren’t things so much better back then when we were all shooting speed and heroin and people were getting knifed in the subway? Boy, I miss the good old days”.
What’s going to be released March 14 in the United Kingdom and North America (March 18 in Europe) on The Global Music Group’s Blast Records (UK) and 429 Records (US) is a celebration of rock and roll, New York City and the attitude that made both of them great in a 12-song CD and bonus DVD package. While in many ways this forthcoming disc epitomizes everything you love about the Dolls, musically you’re going to be surprised at how many directions they push themselves and the risks they’re willing to take at this point in their career. Best of all is the fact they haven’t forgotten that rock and roll is supposed to be fun, and they refuse to take themselves too seriously.
Musically they’ve drawn upon almost every influence you can think of that’s been part of New York City’s soundscape for the past 50 years, from the disco flavours of “End Of The Summer” to the British folk-tinged “You Don’t Have To Cry.” They also go back to the roots of pop music with echoes of the Phil Specter-produced songs of the ’60s showing up on “I Sold My Heart To The Junkman,” complete with strings and female backup singers, and the rockabilly sounds of “Round And Round She Goes,” an ode to the joys of abandoning yourself to rock and roll through dance. In fact every song on the disc is, in one way or another, a tribute to their home city either musically or lyrically.
The Dolls were never what anybody would have considered an overtly political band in a lyrical context, and they still aren’t. However, they’ve always had a great sense of irony and a sardonic mode of expression that let listeners know they didn’t give a rat’s ass what anybody thought of them. Originally their existence was enough of an “up yours” to the establishment they didn’t need much more than that to make people nervous and upset the status quo. While they may no longer wear their girl friend’s clothes on stage they’re still as uncompromising as ever when it comes to their take on the world.
Johansen’s introductory rant (given its title, “Fabulous Rant”) and the lyrics for “I’m So Fabulous” sum up the scorn they feel for what the straights have attempted to do to the city they love. “Nebulous New Yorkers is blasphemous/ It makes a giant ass of all of us/ What would the dear departed Murray the K say.” The track’s final few lines really drive the point home for those who might be too stunned to miss it: “Don’t come around here making new clothes for us/ I don’t need them I’m already fabulous/ I’m so fabulous I don’t want to hear about it/ I’m so fabulous I don’t want to look at you.” Johansen pretty much spits out that last “I’m so fabulous” before dismissing those who don’t get it with the final line as they’re not even worth his attention.
On the DVD included as a bonus with this package you follow the Dolls around as they’re working on this CD and see them on stage in a small club in Newcastle on Tyne where they made the recording. In listening to and watching them perform you can’t help but be impressed by their irrepressible energy and love for what they’re doing. Even more interesting is watching how that comes out in the studio. Sylvain’s genuine excitement over the fact they’ve managed to track down some old electric organs so he can get the exact sound he wants for a particular song and Johansen’s intensity while working on the lyrics tell you all you need to know. They take what they do seriously and put a hell of a lot of thought and energy into their creations, but they never forget to enjoy it either.
When you listen to Dancing Backward In High Heels the results of that combination are obvious as the songs are masterfully created and performed while a hell of a lot of fun to listen to. I don’t think I’ve smiled and laughed as much out of pure enjoyment listening to a rock and roll album in ages. If you’ve been a Dolls fan forever you’ll love the disc because they’ve retained all that was great about them originally while not being content to just do what they did in the past. They’ve taken their in-your-face attitude that used to come out in their stage show, and channelled it into the music and lyrics. So while they may not be as overtly disconcerting they’re actually more of a challenge to the establishment then ever. This a great album from a great band, and a reminder that rock and roll is at its most subversive when it does what comes naturally — throw a little old-fashioned anarchy into people’s lives by encouraging them to let go.
(Photo Credit: Sylvain Sylvain & David Johansen by Anna Victoria Best)