Before the Dolls formed in 1971, there was Actress, led by guitarist/vocalist Johnny Thunders. Thunders, who died in 1991 of drug-related causes, may have been the closest thing America ever had to Keith Richards – although much of what made him so also contributed to his death. Whatever Thunders lacked in technical ability, he more than made up for in street soul – and the Actress recordings are a perfect example.
At times, listening to the Actress sessions is the audio equivalent of watching hotdogs being made: not a pretty picture, but a key piece of Dolls history nonetheless. This was the pre-David Johanson lineup with Mr. Thunders himself handling the vocal chores as well as Chuck-Berry-meets-Spiders-From-Mars guitar leads. Rick Rivets was Thunders’ six-string foil at this point (he would be replaced by Syl Sylvain soon after); veteran Doll Arthur “Killer” Kane is on bass (also credited as producer); and Billy Murcia (who died in November of the following year) is on drums.
To be fair, these were rehearsal recordings – demos at best, never intended for release – so the distorted vocals and moments of less-than-perfect guitar tuning can be excused. On the other hand, these were the New York Dolls, for chrissakes – no, wait: this was the pre-Dolls Actress, who were working as hard on developing their attitudes as they were their chops. Listen to Thunders count in some of the tunes with an almost-throwaway, “One … two … one … two … three … four …” Often he really doesn’t establish any sort of beat – he just lets it be known that they’re going to play a song.
But never mind the warts and goiters: if you came for the rock ‘n’ roll, then there’s some beauty to be found here.
“That’s Poison” would become “Subway Train” by the time it debuted on the Dolls’ first album. Here it’s a bit of surf-twang sigh until the choruses hit and everything locks in: Murcia and Kane are the conductors as the train pulls out – leaving no questions in the air as to this band’s ability to simply rock.
From there, the going remains wild and wooly – even on the broken-hearted-punk-under-the-streetlamp ballads “Why Am I Alone?” and “We Have Been Through This Before”. There are moments during the Actress sessions that are almost Who-like, mainly due to powerhouse drum work by Murcia as Kane ga-woops the neck of his bass and Thunders pulls and yanks crazy bent-string passages against Rivets’ chugging rhythm. (Check out the breaks on “Take Me To Your Party” and “It’s Too Late” and tell me if there aren’t some Live At Leeds moments there.) “I Am Confronted” and “I’m A Boy, I’m A Girl” are a blend of midnight-in-the-alley tension and reckless guitars. Both takes of “Oh Dot” bull their way through kaleidoscope rave-ups – a side of these players that the Dolls never brought out in them. And “Coconut Grove” is a fat four minutes of cocky raunch: forget the vocals – just listen to Johnny Thunders play.
Actress: The Birth Of The New York Dolls is not the place for the uninitiated to start; it is, however, a cool view of a young Johnny Thunders as bandleader.
Compared to the Actress disc, French Kiss ’74 sounds as if it was recorded under laboratory conditions – even though it’s live rough-and-tumble Dolls on the radio in a foreign land. This was the classic lineup: Thunders and Sylvain on guitars; Kane on bass; Jerry Nolan on drums; and vocalist David Johanson leading the way.
At the time, the New York Dolls seemed to be challenging everything – everything – with their very existence. They were as rough and tough and raw as the Stones, yet took the androgynous thing a few platform-soled steps further: Mick and Keith never hit the stage in strapless evening gowns and go-go boots. At the same time, if you challenged the Dolls’ manhood, they might offer to beat the shit out of you.
Consider the setting for this recording: having won both the “Best New Band of 1973” and “Worst New Band of 1973” titles in the annual Creem Magazine poll, the New York Dolls headed to France, where they were adored without any asterisks. The band touched down in Paris, where they were greeted by a mass of journalists and photographers representing publications from throughout Europe.
And Johnny Thunders threw up.
In the airport.
Right in front of the whole works.
Blame it on junk – or cut a dead guitar hero some slack and blame it on a bad plane ride. Whatever; it was one hell of a way to say “Bonjour, Paris!”
No matter, though: all puking aside, the Dolls were rolling by the time they went barrel-assing into “Personality Crisis” to touch this Radio Luxembourg live recording off.
Nolan launches into full machine-gun mode during “Vietnamese Baby” as Thunders does some fierce strafing of his own; “Stranded In The Jungle” is pure camp and doo-wop; and “Jet Boy” jams and slams the gears big time. Listen to Kane’s bass storm the gates of “Bad Girl”; catch how Sylvain and Thunders tag-team on Bo Diddley’s “Pills”; listen to Johanson spit out the lyrics to “Puss “N’ Boots”, slam-dunking them into the song’s stop-and-go groove; and grin in spite of yourself to the back-to-back pucker-ups (the trashy pout of “Looking for A Kiss” followed by the goofy rave-up of “Give Her A Great Big Kiss”).
Oh, man – don’t stop now: click right HERE to read the rest of my take on the Dolls’ adventures in France on Jambands.com