Manhattan Mayhem: A History of the New York Dolls

New York Dolls

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Manhattan Mayhem: A History of the New York Dolls Review

by Mark Deming

For a band who were together a bit less than six years and only recorded two albums, the New York Dolls cast a very long shadow, and it's all but impossible to imagine the punk revolution of the late '70s occurring without the guiding influence of their sloppy swagger and street wise smirk. One of the consequences of the band's lasting importance (aided and abetted by their unlikely resurrection in 2004) is seemingly every bit of music the group committed to tape (either with or without their knowledge) has found semi-authorized release somewhere, and Manhattan Mayhem: A History of the New York Dolls is a two-disc set which pulls together relevant material from before, during, and after the Dolls' brief reign as Kings of New York. Disc one beings with seven demos, recorded prior to their first album, which previously surfaced on the album New York Tapes: 1972-1973. The 1972 material makes it clear original drummer Billy Murcia lacked Jerry Nolan's skills behind the kit, and these demos sound thin and lackadaisical, as if you're listening to a less-than-enthusiastic rehearsal tape. Next up are seven tracks from various former Dolls recorded after the band's collapse; Syl Sylvain's two tunes fare the best, sounding lively and full of spirit (his cover of "Trash" is far better than you'd expect) and Jerry Nolan's material shows he was a better frontman than most drummers, while Johnny Thunders' contributions have been widely heard elsewhere and poor Arthur Kane sounds simply hapless on "Mental Moron" from his short-lived band the Corpse Grinders. Disc one concludes with two songs from a 1971 rehearsal by Actress, which featured Thunders, Kane and Murcia before the band evolved into the New York Dolls; the vibe and the promise is there, but the spark David Johansen brought to the band is sorely missed. Disc two features a 1974 concert from Paris that has already been released under several titles (most recently as From Paris With L-U-V by Sympathy for the Record Industry). It's easily the best stuff here, and one of the best extant recordings of the band on-stage, but it's still second-string Dolls material -- the sound quality is not especially good (it sounds like a better-than-average audience tape), and while the band is in rollicking good form (and Johansen is having a great time), they're also typically sloppy, threatening to fall apart at any given moment, and whoever gave Syl Sylvain a vocal mic that evening should have told him not to try singing harmonies. Still, the live disc at least offers a clear glimpse of what made the New York Dolls one of the greatest rock bands of their day, something you can't quite say of the rest of this archeological project.

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