Formed in New York City in 1971, the band released just two albums – a self-titled record in 1973 and a follow-up, Too Much Too Soon, a year later – before breaking up in 1976 with its five members pursuing careers in new bands and as solo artists. Neither album managed to break the Top 100, but the Dolls’ groundwork (like fellow New Yorkers the Velvet Underground before them) helped ignite the punk and indie movements in the years to come.
The group’s two surviving members reunited in the ’00s with a new lineup and released three more studio projects. But their legacy is built on those two ’70s albums – uncompromising, raw and playful records that often belied their struggles behind the scenes (drug abuse and infighting plagued them from the start). Below, we outline 5 Reasons New York Dolls Should Be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
They Were Ahead of Their Time …
When New York Dolls’ self-titled debut album came out in 1973, there weren’t too many bands that sounded like them … and there were even less that looked like them. They prefigured punk by combining the most basic elements of glam and rock with an even more basic approach to their music. They packed it in a could-not-care-less attitude that was pretty much a middle finger to rock’s established conventions. And then they wrapped it all in a persona that included makeup, high heels and dresses. Nobody was sure what to make of them, so they didn’t sell a ton of records. But it wasn’t long before their influence made its way to various genres, including punk, disco and indie.
… But They Also Looked Back
Even with all their forward-thinking, rules-breaking ideology, New York Dolls were products of their collective pasts. “Looking for a Kiss,” the second song on their 1973 debut album, starts with singer David Johansen declaring, “When I say I’m in love, you best believe I’m in love, L.U.V.” It’s a direct lift from the opening line of the Shangri-Las’ 1964 hit “Give Him a Great Big Kiss.” And the writer and producer of that girl-group classic, Shadow Morton, produced the Dolls’ second album, 1974’s Too Much Too Soon, which featured four old-school R&B covers, including the 1956 doo-wop song “Stranded in the Jungle.”
They Were Punk Before There Was a Word for It
While punk arguably started in 1976, around the time of the Ramones‘ debut album, historians typically point to a handful of earlier artists who had a hand in shaping the genre – MC5, the Stooges and New York Dolls among them. Like the Ramones, New York Dolls came from the same city, played a similar brand of three-chord rock ‘n’ roll and grew up with their ears glued to ’60s girl groups and garage bands. They also had attitude to spare. Before he helped steer Sex Pistols to infamy, Malcolm McLaren served as the Dolls’ manager, dressing them in red leather and booking early shows in unconventional markets like South Carolina. By decade’s end, they were punk pioneers.
Their Solo Careers Yielded Some Interesting Results
After New York Dolls broke up in 1976, the five members went their separate ways, though their careers intersected over the years. Guitarist Johnny Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan formed the Heartbreakers, whose 1977 debut album, L.A.M.F., is a Stones-y blast of guitar-powered rock ‘n’ roll. Guitarist Sylvain Sylvain formed another band, launched a solo career and worked with singer David Johansen in his solo group. Bassist Arthur Kane cofounded a band with future W.A.S.P. frontman Blackie Lawless. And Johansen reinvented himself as lounge singer Buster Poindexter in the mid ’80s and became a minor success blending musical styles from the past.
Their Reunion Wasn’t a Total Embarrassment
In 2006, more than 30 years after their last album, New York Dolls released their third record, One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This. By that time, three members of the core quintet – guitarist Johnny Thunders, drummer Jerry Nolan and bassist Arthur Kane – were dead. David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain (who died in 2021) led a new Dolls through more than a dozen new originals that evoked the sound and spirit of the pioneering group. Physical age and mental maturity certainly figured into the album’s more controlled nature, but as far as reunions after decades-long hiatuses go, this one was pretty good.