Remembering the New York Dolls: Rock’n’Roll Goes to Camp

Sandra Canosa

 

“The New York Dolls are trash [and] they play rock’n’roll like sluts,” wrote critic Nick Kent in his review of the band’s 1973 debut album for British rock magazine New Musical Express. He meant it as a compliment.

Kent was a bit of an odd man out in his praise of the New York Dolls back in those days. Though they’re widely revered now as a somewhat eccentric but highly influential blip on the rock history continuum, most people – critics and audiences alike – just couldn’t wrap their heads around what the group was doing at the time. Their sound was a return to the hard-rocking, rhythm-and-blues based music that first launched groups like the Rolling Stones or the Animals into the spotlight, but had since fallen out of fashion with the opulence of the post-Sgt. Pepper pop world. Their look, however, was more like a ‘60s girl group on steroids.

But the Dolls were also tougher, sloppier, and more aggressive than any of those ‘60s rock bands had dared to be, a rambunctious brawl of electric sound that strongly foreshadowed the punk revolution of the later 1970s. Songs like “Looking for a Kiss” and “Trash” dealt with subjects like heroin and drug addiction with an almost perverse nonchalance; watching them perform live, as Nick Kent described it, was “almost as if Donny Osmond ditched his brothers, started taking downers and grew fangs, picked up with a bunch of heavy-duty characters down off 42nd Street and started writing songs on topics like premature ejaculation.”

More controversial than their sound or songs, though, was the Dolls’ appearance. The album cover art for their eponymous debut features the five male band members poised on a sleek Victorian sofa, hair coifed, eyes and lips tarted up with makeup, adorned in women’s clothing from bloused tops to high-heeled (or, in guitarist Sylvain Sylvain’s case, roller-skated) toes. This picture was itself a more respectable representation of their typical stage dress: a disheveled hodgepodge of spandex, boots, and rouge that brings to mind something more along the lines of Pretty Woman than a rock’n’roll band.

The Dolls’ appearance in 1973 shouldn’t have been as shocking as it was. After all, David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust tour had already conquered North America and the glam rock craze was in full swing. Acts like T. Rex, the Sweet, Todd Rundgren, and Gary Glitter were all enjoying major commercial success while dressing up in heels and makeup. But again, the New York Dolls were doing something different here. Unlike the haute couture fashions and theatrical stylings of most of their glam rock peers, the Dolls took on a different kind of feminine sensibility, one that drew from the streets rather than the runway. Where others reveled in Bowie’s signature soft androgyny and gender-defying bisexuality, the Dolls come off more like a bunch of hypermasculine dudes trying to play dress-up (and doing a rather poor job of it).

 

 

All things considered, the street-tough sex-worker-chic look actually paired quite nicely with the band’s rough-and-tumble sound. But the combination of hard rock and transvestism proved too much for any mainstream crowd. The glam rockers weren’t so into the hostile music; the rock’n’roll purists were put off by what Jon Tiven of Zoo World called the “fag act” that “prevent[ed] those seriously interested in hearing them from getting into their music.” Straddling such different realms of rock made it difficult for the Dolls to accrue a substantive following in their time, and makes it hard to categorize them still today. They’re not glam rock or blues-rock, but a cheeky, ironic, and altogether “campy” reaction to both.

Camp – as in the style, the aesthetic sensibility – is a difficult word to pin down. Even in her seminal 1964 “Notes on ‘Camp,” which popularized the word and brought its ideas into the mainstream, writer Susan Sontag is unable to come up with a precise definition, only circling around some greater notion through examples and characteristics. Camp delights in the artificial, in the melodramatic, in poor tastes with good intentions. “The ultimate Camp statement,” Sontag says, is that “it’s good because it’s awful.”

The New York Dolls clearly meet these qualifications. Their deliberate failures are what make them so memorable: their failure to be either a glam rock group or a hard rock band; their failure to look and dress like normal men or like high-fashion stars; their failure, even, to play their instruments particularly well. Years before punk broke, these would become the newfound sensibilities of rock, only launched well before their time. The playful rambunctiousness of the Dolls would go on to influence acts as diverse as the Sex Pistols, KISS, the Ramones, and the Smiths.

At the heart of Camp is a certain sense of poking fun, of bringing to light the inherent ridiculousness of the world. “The whole point of Camp,” Sontag argues, “is to dethrone the serious.” The Dolls entered the New York rock scene at precisely the moment when pop music consciousness was at its most inflated and self-righteous. Rock had flown over the preceding decade from a position of rebellious anti-consumerism to a decadent spectacle of theatrical display. But the Dolls’ particular blend of Rolling Stones-type rock with an over-the-top glam aesthetic managed to reflect and expose the sheer absurdity of both tropes at once. Singer David Johansen, with his pouty lips and flamboyant gesticulations, is a ringer for Mick Jagger, only in lipstick and a tube top, undermining Jagger’s usual pose as a hypersexual alpha male. At the same time, the group eschewed the usual coy androgyny of glam for a different kind of feminine appropriation that actually complemented their belligerent stage act, calling out the rigid glam-rock gender codes hidden underneath all that glitter.

 

 

By Camp-ing up rock’s preeminent competing genres, the New York Dolls simply exposed the fact that rock music, in and of itself, is already Camp. Rock’n’roll has long posited itself as the music of rebellion, of youth, as the voice for the oppressed and marginalized. In its grand delusions of being anti-establishment, anti-mass consumerism (while simultaneously operating within the mainstream music industry and consumer establishments), rock music has long strived to “dethrone the serious” of the world. Yet the Dolls, in their very exaggerations of what popular music had become, aimed to dethrone how seriously rock music had begun to take its role as the dethroner of seriousness. They Camp-ed Camp, and in doing so, re-injected the fun and the playful elements of rock that had begun to wear thin in the early 1970s. Their dance in the limelight may have been brief, but the final flourish of the New York Dolls made a seismic sweep over rock’s future airwaves. 

 

Author Bio:

Sandra Canosa is Highbrow Magazine’s chief music critic.

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