New York Dolls
Dancing Backward In High Heels
, March 25th, 2011 14:42
Rewind to 10 years ago and David Johansen is holding court at the Garage in North London. Ably backed by his excellent blues ensemble, The Harry Smiths, Johansen is seemingly pointing the way forward for rockers of a certain vintage. Rather than re-visiting his debauched past as one of the progenitors of punk rock, Johansen swan-dives even further into the primordial ooze of rock & roll to delve into its origins as the blues. The clue of course is in the band's name, a moniker that honours the famed archivist of American vernacular music.
It's worth mentioning, because at that moment Johansen displayed more dignity than the never-ending saga that is The Rolling Stones ever will. Touching upon the music of Lightnin' Hopkins, Oscar Brown Jr and Mississippi John Hurt among countless others, Johansen's delivery was considered, intelligent and frequently moving as his matured voice sat comfortably and convincingly between Dylan's nasal whine and the low range growl of Tom Waits. This was surely the way he'd go next...
Sadly it never happened. Morrissey, erstwhile Smith and New York Dolls fan of note, persuades the surviving members of the band – that'll be Johansen, guitarist Sylvain Sylvain and bassist Arthur Kane – to apply the glitter and cram their feet into stack heels for just one more time at his Meltdown festival.
And now, bizarrely, with just two of the original members left in the band (Arthur Kane joined guitarist Johnny Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan in 2004) and the appearance of this, their third post-reunion album, New York Dolls have released more material now than they did in their original incarnation.
Comparing the Dolls' post-2004 output with their Mercer Arts Centre heyday of the early to mid-70s is something of a non-starter. Gone are Thunders' spidery guitar lines, Nolan's rudimentary yet effective thud and Kane's simple bottom end but there remains at least enough traces of Johansen's lascivious wit and Sylvain's sub-Stones riffing to charm even the most ardent doubters. And this is what works in this album's favour. Rather than aping their past, New York Dolls have kept their breathless lust in place while the music delves even further into their own influences.
With his tongue firmly in his cheek, preventing a smirk is nigh on impossible as Johansen growls on opening track, 'Streetcake', "Let me be your streetcake 'til the breadman come / I'll give you more sugar than the breadman done". Elsewhere, on 'I'm So Fabulous', it's difficult to disagree as Johansen declares, "I'm more fabulous than all the hipsters on Broadway!" while saxes honk, squawk and fight for space. And should someone in their early 60s really be concerned about the gentrification of their neighbourhood by out-of-towners? Well, if you're the one who created the reputation of said area, then why the hell not?
'I Sold My Heart To The Junkman' and 'Talk To Me Baby' hark back to Phil Spector's glory years and the days of the Brill Building and crucially, what's at play here is that the Dolls aren't trying to compete against themselves. Guitars are toned down while the saxes and keyboards are brought to the fore. Unlike The Stooges, whose ill-advised The Weirdness failed because it attempted to carry on where they'd left off over 30 years previously, New York Dolls' charm and outright cheek prevents from falling into all-out self-parody.
Make no mistake – Dancing Backwards In High Heels won't replace their eponymous debut or Too Much Too Soon in your affections any time soon but it does find itself manoeuvring into the position that Johansen tried to get to a decade ago. And that's exactly where they should be at this point in time. Who'd have thought such a thing from these reprobates? All power to 'em.