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- Posted on Apr 19th 2010 7:35AM by Chris Mugan
One of the most influential groups of the early '70s, the Dolls helped lay the aesthetic and sartorial foundations for punk and glam metal later in the decade. Inspired as much by girl group pop as garage rock 'n' roll, the likes of 'Jet Boy' and 'Personality Crisis' continue to resound long after the group disbanded in 1976 amid acrimony and drug abuse.
Despite the unfortunate passing of guitarist Johnny Thunders, bassist Arthur Kane and drummer Jerry Nolan, a rejigged line up still boasts founder members vocalist David Johansen and guitarist Sylvain Sylvain. Last year, they released a second post-reunion album of scuzzy bar room rock n roll, 'Cause I Sez So.' Spinner caught up with Sylvain ahead of the band's return to Europe in April for a string gigs.
Your new line-up has been pretty consistent for two albums now. How far does it feel like a proper band, rather than a bunch of guest musicians?
One of the songs our bassist Sami Yaffa, who I brought into the band, wrote with David, 'We're All in Love,' is featured in that 'Kick-Ass' movie, which we're really proud of.
The line-up is well accepted, but it's a band with me and David having a benevolent dictatorship. We're the only two real survivors, but we get all (the other guys') inputs and if it's good, we keep it, and if it's not we trash it. We'd like to keep it as close as possible to what (the Dolls) first brought to the forum.
So what parts of the Dolls' legacy do you seek to continue?
I've always had a 'Little Rascals' approach to show business -- if you're bored, put on a show. We got together originally because music was so mundane, it had lost its pizzazz. It was rock opera, not rock 'n' roll. As kids from Queens, we went to Manhattan to check out the scene and there wasn't any. The Velvet Underground had come up, who were early heroes of mine, and had already finished. All the bands were playing Madison Square Gardens, it wasn't like a club scene at all.
You got back together with David and Arthur for a one-off reunion at Morrissey's Meltdown festival in 2004. When did you realise it could be a longer term project?
As soon as we started getting offers to make a new record, that gave us a message -- wow, we've still got more to give. We didn't want to become a revival band, not that there's anything wrong with that; the creativeness spilled out during boring times like sound checks. We'd be jamming and we'd come up with songs. We started to perform them and the audience really liked it. They went seamlessly with the old ones.
There is a huge gap between the Dolls' break up and the reunion. What is the chemistry like now between you and David?
It's a healthy one, we trade back and forth. We don't have an equal partnership. He sits on top of everything and calls the shots, which I'm not so happy about, but that's alright. We'll let the public decide whether it's healthy.
Does this have a bearing on why you now have a side-project, Batusis with Cheetah Chrome of Dead Boys fame?
Basically, our first couple of years back together were really busy and now there's more time. Everybody's getting back to their own solo projects or whatever. I was hunting around for a deal when Smog Veil Records said my old friend Cheetah was also looking to make a record.
Cheetah saw the New York Dolls and was inspired like all the bands. It gave the Dead Boys a reason to get together. We've been pals every since and played together a few times over the years, but never made a record.
So this was a sweet deal and we both called the shots on it. We got signed to do three songs last November, so we went up to Nashville where Cheetah lives. I live in Atlanta, so we're 'damn Yankees,' which is what you are when you move down south. We recorded four songs in four days.
For the current Dolls' album you went into the studio with Todd Rundgren, who produced your eponymous debut back in 1973. Why go back to him?
It was really funny, my manager came up and said, "Hey, man, how would you like to make a record with Todd?" Totally not knowing he recorded our first one. We thought it would be cool.
The great thing about it was that we recorded in January, in Hawaii, in Todd's home studio. The band had got together in New York and it is the most miserable month to be there -- you freeze your tits off. So we weren't really ready to make a record. We had 30 or 40 ideas, all in pieces, and just to get out of New York, we said, "yeah, we're ready."
Liv Tyler came to the studio one night and told me how she grew up with New York Dolls music and that was really beautiful, because I knew her mom (singer and model Bebe Buell).
Malcolm McLaren managed your band for a short time. How fondly do you look back at that period?
That was really sad to hear (that he passed away). I found Malcolm first and introduced him to the band. I first met him and Vivienne (Westwood) at a New York clothing trade show in 1971. He was a really cool looking guy and we were in love with the same kind of music and bored with what was going on.
We became really close friends, then in 1975 I met Malcolm at the Chelsea Hotel and he saw I was depressed, things were not going so good for the Dolls and we were about to break up. So without any contract he took us on as a personal manager and got us a loft to rehearse in, so it was like going back to the old days.
We'd already decided we were going to dress in red to play -- we were always a little bit political -- so when he suggested we should play in front of the red flag, our eyes lit up. Career-wise, it was a bit kamikaze -- the Vietnam War was still going on -- but musically and artistically it was fulfilling.
So should we blame Malcolm in part for the break up of the Dolls?
No way. We were making art for art's sake. We wanted success, but not at the cost of selling ourselves out. We all agreed on what to do and we're still influencing people today, that's what's important.
New York Dolls play across Europe in April.