New York Dolls, 100 Club, London
Thursday 21 May 2009
As befits a gig that sold out in four minutes, featuring one of the most important rock'n'roll bands of all time at one of London's most historically important small music venues, tonight's crowd are suitably ostentatious in their devotion to the New York Dolls.
Much like the band themselves, the hollow-cheeked vagabonds that make up the their hardcore fan base seem to have changed little in the 37 years since the release of the New York Dolls' self-titled debut album, a work packed full of Stones-aping rhythm and blues, Phil Spector melodies and a healthy dose of make-up and miniskirts.
As the band emerge from their dressing room, they are followed by a never-ending trail of groupies and hangers-on. That the former Clash bass player Paul Simonon and the Primal Scream front man Bobby Gillespie appear somewhat starstruck in the front row of the audience speaks volumes.
Kicking off with an ear-splitting rendition of "Babylon" – a song which comes across like a funnier, filthier "Brown Sugar" – it's immediately apparent quite how well the band are aging. Yes, four founder members have died since their formation (mostly through drug and alcohol abuse) leaving just the front man David Johansen and the rhythm guitarist Sylvain Sylvain from the original line-up, but this pair are doggedly clinging on. Johansen in particular looks remarkably lean and healthy – sort of like an ancient Greek vase, cracked and worn but still an object of peculiar beauty.
The band are quick to slip in material from their imminent fourth album, Cause I Sez So, its title track a glorious slice of the cartoonish swagger and sleaze that made the band's name all those years ago. "Better Than You" changes the pace somewhat but also introduces the first of many bum notes that Sylvain hits on the night. However, it's all in the spirit of proceedings, and when Johansen complains about the guitarist's lack of professionalism, it's done with a massive grin.
While older tracks such as "Frankenstein", "Looking for a Kiss" and "Jet Boy" send the mostly middle-aged crowd into spontaneous fits of pogoing, it's a cover of the Bo Diddley song "Pills" that really steals the show. As Johansen empties his lungs into a harmonica, it's clear how much of the old bluesman he has in him. It's not just his gravelly Howlin' Wolf-like voice, but also his manner, that effortless mix of grace, authority and seedy wit, which ensures that even when he puts on reading glasses to check the set-list between songs, he still seems somehow beyond human.
In an ideal world the New York Dolls would be essential listening for all new guitar bands, with all those who fail to recognise the Dolls' eminence being punished by having their instruments taken away. With po-faced stadium acts like Kings of Leon currently dominating the nation's iPods, such a regime could be our only hope.
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