The story of the New York Dolls’ re-forming is almost as legendary as their original incarnation in the early ’70s as an influential punk-glam band with a hedonistic lifestyle as colourfully over-the-top as their on-stage performances.
Almost 20 years after they had split up, die-hard Dolls fan Morrissey persuaded the three surviving members to reunite for the Meltdown Festival at the Royal Festival Hall in 2004. Though bassist Arthur Kane died soon after, singer David Johansen and guitarist Sylvain Sylvain carried on to record two well-received albums.
The recent release of Dancing Backward in High Heels means that the reincarnated Dolls have now produced one more album than in their heyday nearly 40 years ago when they embodied the link between The Rolling Stones and The Sex Pistols. Delving more deeply into their roots in ’50s rock’n'roll and ’60s soul-pop, it has fewer trademark guitar-heavy riffs but shows that these evergreen sexagenarians still have a lot to offer, as they promote the new material on tour.
The acoustics of the Old Vic Tunnels below Waterloo Station may not be the best, but somehow its dingy caverns seem suited to the Dolls’ rough-edged, garage-style music. Given a warm welcome, the band played a 75-minute set, mainly made up of songs from the new album and classics from their first two albums.
It was noticeable that the new songs sounded more edgy and menacing than on the recording. Highlights included the Big Apple-style brashly exhibitionist I’m So Fabulous (though the raucous sax playing is missed), the glam stomp Talk To Me Baby, the sexily laid-back Streetcake and the dance-friendly Funky But Chic.
But it was the early, seminal stuff that really stood out and got the audience going. Songs like the proto-punk Looking For A Kiss, the Beach Boys-meets-Ramones Trash, the pulsating Jet Boy and rousing encore Personality Crisis all sounded as fresh and sharp as they must have done to the budding New York punk scene in the mid-’70s.
Though toned down from their former camp excesses, these guys do know how to put on a good rock’n'roll show. The remarkably slim-hipped, black-clad, shade-wearing Johansen has a natural stage presence which is less frenetic than Jagger to whom he is often compared, while the flamboyant, beret-wearing Sylvain enjoyed chatting with the audience. Newly recruited lead guitarist Earl Slick (who replaced Mick Ronson in David Bowie’s band over 25 years ago) did a decent job in filling the shoes of the irreplaceable Johnny Thunders.
It’s great to see that the remaining New York Dolls are not only still alive but thriving and seem to have no intention of retiring as they continue to age disgracefully.