Johnny Thunders, ne’er-do-well plank man for protoglam punksters (or protopunk glamsters) The New York Dolls, set the sneering template for the generation of snotty guitarists to come. His sound was explosive. It wasn’t art. It was 50’s and 60’s R& B drunk at a party, a pocket full of pills and track marks on its arm.
His image has also had an enduring influence, see The Strokes, with their birds-nest hair and black leather jackets, posing for photo shoots and video promos as if heroin hipsters in New York hadn’t worn that shtick out back in ’72.
The New York Dolls were a street gang, a rough-housing mess of lip-stick, glitter and leather. No matter how out of your head you were you could bet they were twice as wasted, falling off the stage, careening into one another, grabbing the audience by the lapels saying:
“Listen to this… this isn’t Memphis…this is piss alley New York… The Stones were pussies…Elvis was a Grandma… What are you thinking for? Fight someone!”
Like all the best bands, the Dolls polarised critics, and they’ve made many a best band/worst band list. Among those who like their music stupid, their influence was long-lasting and far-reaching, inspiring everyone from Motley Crue to The Sex Pistols (though Johnny Rotten probably wouldn’t admit it.)
Here’s the first song off their first, self-titled album from ’73.
By ’74 the Dolls were washed up, to fast to live for long. When things started to hot up in England a few years later, Johnny headed to London with his new band, The Heartbreakers, formed in ’75 but going nowhere fast, despite an enviable live reputation. They stayed in England throughout the punk years, taking part in the infamous Anarchy tour, introducing heroin to the scene and releasing their only ever album in 1977.
The album’s title, L.A.M.F. ( Like a Mother Fucker), is based on a gang tag Thunders had seen in New York. Plagued with mixing issues at the time, it’s a raw record, the most certifiably punk of his career (The Dolls were always more Rolling Stones pop-boogie). This is the lead off track, Born Too Loose (commonly misspelt as Born To Lose) a blistering joy ride down piss alley.
The Heartbreakers broke up shortly after the album’s release, to the dismay of many, but the surprise of none. Johnny remained in England and recorded his first true solo album So Alone, a collection of cover and live favourites. It’s a strange album, far poppier than anything he’d recorded before. By turning down the guitars Thunders’ weaknesses as a vocalist become far more obvious, but for all it’s flaws the album stands as a reminder of another Johnny, the Johnny that might have been (a scummier Elvis Costello perhaps?)
The song below is a Shangri-Las cover, highlighting again the influence of pop on punk. It features Thin Lizzie’s Phil Lynott on bass as well as renegade Sex Pistols.
Thunders moved back to America later that year. The Heartbreakers reformed for a few shows over the years, Thunders moved to Detroit and started a project with members of MC5, but nothing he did seemed to go anywhere, everything fizzled out with dodgy demos and a haze of drugs. He finally died in New Orleans in 1991.
Johnny’s life was a tragedy, in the purest sense of the word. He had talent to spare but wasted it. Heroin hollowed him out until there was almost nothing left of the stuff that makes a man. Friends say he had been off it for several months before his death. Whispers of foul play flew abroad, “I heard some bad friends fixed him in order to steal his methadone prescription…”
The police chalked him up as just another victim of drugs, which, whatever the facts surrounding his death, he was, for clean living folks don’t tend to mix with people who would kill you for methadone. He walked his own path, knowing full well where it would take him, and for that reason he needs no pity.
And anyway, “What are you thinking for? Fight somebody!”