Punk veterans New York Dolls returned to the scene this year with a new album entitled ‘Cause I Sez So’. They recorded the new material in Hawaii, reuniting with producer Todd Rundgren who they worked with on their debut album.
The New York Dolls originally swaggered onto the New York music scene in the early 1970s, influencing a generation with its subversive mix of high-decibel rock and high-heeled androgyny. They began the local New York proto-punk scene that later spawned the likes of The Ramones, Blondie, Television and The Talking Heads. The original band recorded two seminal albums - the eponymous debut New York Dolls in 1973 and Too Much Too Soon a year later, before calling it a day by the mid seventies. Their name came from a store Sylvain worked across from called The New York Dolls Hospital.
Many people blame the break up of the New York Dolls in the mid seventies on Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren; who briefly managed the Dolls towards the end of their career. The kind of provocative stunts McLaren later made work for the Sex Pistols blew up in the Dolls' faces. Dressing the band in red leather for performances with a Soviet flag backdrop was famously considered a farce at the time of Cold War and led to some backlash.
The surviving members – front-man David Johansen and guitarist Sylvain Sylvain – reformed the group in 2004 to much acclaim, returning to the festival circuit as a favour to ex Smiths front-man and one time president of their fan club Morrissey. And with that, no one wanted them to leave! They continued to tour and released an album in 2005 called One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This, which featured the single Dance Like A Monkey.
The current line up consists of David Johansen (vocals) and Sylvain Sylvain (guitar) plus Steve Conte (guitar), Brian Delaney (drums) and former Hanoi Rocks bass guitarist Sami Yaffa.
Sylvain chats to me about his phenomenal career in the Dolls, where I probe him on his thoughts of the scene, the music industry, the new album, being such an influence in music and Malcolm McLaren; as well as who he himself is currently listening to.
What have you been doing today? I am curious to find out what a person from such a seminal band might be up to on an average day!
I live in Atlanta, Georgia and it’s been raining. I’m just fiddling around in my office and my home studio. I have been working on some new recordings and getting my home studio back in shape; putting in some new stuff with old things. I have a nice array of accumulated stuff [material] as musicians like to put it.
How has the tour been so far this year?
We did about five weeks in the U.S. and North America and it went really well. We were mainly playing like houses of blues [type venues] and of course we came to the UK for a few shows and festivals. In June we were on the Jools Holland show which was really a gas! The last couple of months have been a little bit of relaxation and trying to put some of our solo things together. We have some time off now until we come back to the UK for the tour in December. The United Kingdom is one of my favourite places in the whole world! I love it from top to bottom!
You got a big break over here when you opened up for Rod Stewart in the early seventies, is that still very memorable?
I still remember that, it was pretty cool! And also on the bill was the Pink Fairies. Me, Billy Murcia and Johnny Thunders when we were teenagers we’d come to England and see them play at the Ronnie Scott’s club in Soho. We used to hang there and buy really kookie English clothing, then go back to New York and people were like ‘where the hell are these guys from?’ I have great memories of England from any time. The UK really embraced the New York Dolls and got – when we didn’t even know – what we were about! But they got it. It’s always been a great place for me.
You have also been heralded as kick starting the proto-punk scene in New York; inspiring the likes of Blondie and The Ramones. How comfortable are you with that statement as I know David doesn’t like being referred to as a punk band.
(Laughs) David doesn’t like being referred to as anything! That’s just that. I’m proud. If that’s the only thing that they want to give us the award for, I’ll definitely stand up and take it. And we did it. We subconsciously knocked down that wall in front of everybody, in a way. We were just bored of what was happening. I’ve always had a little rascals approach to show people. If you’re bored, it’s time to put on the show.
Well that sounds very punk to me! And when I hear bands today, you can hear the stamp you have left. So many bands cite you as an influence and I don’t think anyone can take that award away!
It’s a beautiful thing. Love moves in mysterious ways as they say. As mysterious as it was, I’ll take it!
It’s pretty justifiable when you are selling out the 100 Club in four minutes - earlier this year. How was that show?
That was pretty damn sweaty, as we say down here in the South, in Georgia. The audience were incredible and they just went nuts for it. We gave them our show. Whether or not we had hits, we have a lot of hit songs and the show was a compilation of our time playing music together – old and new. We kicked ass and they got it again! As long as we keep doing that and the audience love to see us, we’ll do that as long as there’s a breath of air in us.
That’s interesting, as when Morrissey originally asked you to initially reform for the Meltdown Festival five years ago, David just wanted it to be one off.
The hardest guy that had to face the New York Dolls getting back together again was probably David. But that was a one gig offer [back then] so it was an easy pill to swallow, which I’m glad he took. Once he took the plunge, he got up on the stage and felt that rush again that can only be called the New York Dolls. Something happened again and of course it happened to everyone else too; and we just kept on working because they just kept on calling us, so here we still are. They want us, and we love it!
And, you guys got to go to Hawaii and record a new album!
Yes, and work with Todd Rundgren too. We met Liv Tyler too. That was in New York in January. In January it’s a lot colder in New York than your country. It was really miserable. We procrastinated and pushed it a little bit by saying we were ready when we were not…with song writing and stuff like that [so we could go to Hawaii]. So that album really takes form in Hawaii in the four weeks [we were there]. I think we did a great job, when we started we had nothing and when we left, we had a really nice piece of work.
Did Hawaii inspire the album?
It’s more that when we get together, something happens. This sound comes out. Me and David, somehow that is just what happens. And we incorporate the new guys, we push them to write. The way ideally you should work is to try it in front of the audience, which [the album] was not. Compared to the first time we were working with Todd, back in the seventies, it took the industry years to finally catch on to the New York Dolls and give us a deal. We were together basically three years before we started recording in 1973. The momentum and difference between those songs were that they were already hits to most of our audience. They were already singing Personality Crisis and they knew Trash and stuff like that. Compared to this one, it was done blindly, basically we went in without trying it out with anybody and here it is. I had twenty five songs, came out fifteen, of which we released thirteen.
It must have been an experience recording somewhere so beautiful!
It was amazing. Hawaii was a magical place. On the island of Hawaii, where we were staying, the whales were just out there in the ocean, the beautiful caves, the beaches…but the Hawaiians are conservative about their lifestyle and their politics. It’s weird, as a cannabis smoker myself I have always known of this stuff called Maui Maui and things like that from the island. But things got so tight and the island is so tough now they can’t grow anything anymore. Most of marijuana here comes from California.
On the new album, you cover your classic Trash; and it has a Hawaiian vibe about it. How did you come up with this idea?
We have been playing that song for some time and we improvised our way into that island rhythm. When we were recording in this beautiful house, on like a vacation, in the mountains where you can see the ocean. I could see this cruise ship going at such a snail of a pace. And I was imagining if I was a musician on the lounge, what song I’d be playing. Of course, I would be playing my own song Trash, and in this rhythm. We did it live a few times and so we just tried it. I always knew that Trash, in its original form in 1973 as a love song. Although it is called Trash, it really is a love song. It is a love story when you listen to the lyrics. The way David sings it, with his accuracy on range, with that raspy voice of his, it was beautiful. Everybody liked it and we put on the background voices and it just came out, unintentionally. Like I said, that’s how that whole album came out.
Will you be playing that live on the tour?
Oh yeah! We’ll start it off fast, then after the break down we’ll go into that reggae beat.
How do you compare the crowds over here to the States? Are there any differences?
Yes, for one thing the audience in the UK is more likely to participate and really throw themselves into it. They’re a lot looser, let’s put it that way! Here, they are reserved sometimes, until you get them going! Then finally they’ll get into it and let themselves go. I found that at all times too, even in the seventies that was the case. It was the same for the UK and Europe actually. They could see the light at the end of the tunnel with the New York Dolls.
So not much has changed, UK fans know a good band when they see one!
The industry never picked up on it, until really late and I see the same thing happening today. We’re basically going through times of change right now. Through the way people buy music, the way they want to get their music… and it was like that in my time, until someone catches on and wants to break it through and they say let’s go out there and get this genre, whatever they’re going to call it. Which was great, but I came out of the Dolls and was totally forgotten by the mid seventies, by 75, 76. I had my band The Criminals, we wrote a whole bunch of songs and nobody seemed to care or want to record. The record industry became weird; it was all over the place. I took it upon myself to do everything. Start my own record company, put out my own records, no matter the how small publication, how small the units I was producing; but it taught me every aspect of the business. From mastering to distribution to artwork, everything. I didn’t take the answers from A & R people rejecting me as a good one and I took it upon myself and started selling records. And when I started selling five thousand records at a time, then they started knocking on my door and telling me now they’re interested. I think you have to do it for yourself; you have to take the chance. The industry will never change until they are forced.
Going back to being forgotten in the mid seventies, Malcolm McLaren has been blamed for this retrospectively. What are your feelings on the matter?
I don’t think anyone but the New York Dolls can be blamed for the break up in 1975. We were very impressionable by everybody and of course we were young. But I don’t think Malcolm [was to blame], who I actually introduced to the band, through my clothing business. I had my own clothing business called Truth and Soul, we were a knitwear company here in the States in the late sixties and early seventies. It was me and Billy Murcia. I met Malcolm and Vivienne Westwood at a trade show in New York; at what they called boutique shows back then. Their company was Let It Rock. Of course I already had my band New York Dolls and Truth and Soul, and they came down to one of our shows and that kicked off that relationship. I think of Malcolm McLaren to be a real friend, him and Vivienne. They loved the New York Dolls. They got it! I think all he ever tried to do was help. The New York Dolls, whatever happened, I’d go back and do it all over again no matter what had happened.
Finally, seeing as you have inspired so many, I’d be interested to know who you are currently rating.
Who do I like right now? I like Pete Doherty and whatever he chooses to call his band this week. We did festivals together in Spain and places like that. I think Fuck Forever is the most romantic song written in the 21 st century so far.
New York Dolls on tour in the UK in December - Cambridge Junction (Dec 2), Bristol Anson Rooms (Dec 3), London HMV Forum (Dec 4), Southampton Talking Heads (Dec 6), Leamington Spa Assembly (Dec 8), Liverpool O2 Academy (Dec 9) and the Edinburgh HMV Picture House (Dec 10).
Ticket Hotline: 08700 603 777.
Book Online: www.seetickets.com.
The album ‘Cause I Sez So’ is out now.