Johnny Thunders has been done a disservice by history.
Johnny Thunders has been done a disservice by history, an early star of the punk scene whose status as an old hand at the start of the punk explosion has made it all too easy to forget him amid the vibrant young blood of the Ramones, Pistols, Clash and the like. As the lead guitarist of glam pioneers the New York Dolls, Thunders played a raunchy style only mildly covered up by the gloss of pop production, and his untamable edge gave that band its grit. By 1977, he’d cut loose from the Dolls and formed his own band, the Heartbreakers, establishing himself at the forefront of New York’s budding punk movement in time for it to explode. Only 25 years old, the seasoned veteran looked like something of an elder statesman amid the untrained, caterwauling teens filling CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, if you could ever use that tag to describe a guy who still played like a high school garage prodigy and who lolled around in a constant altered state from the kind of drug use that tends to get quantified with the phrase “even for the time.”
D.T.K., issued several times over the decades since the swift implosion of the Heartbreakers, finds the band playing two sets on March 15, 1977 at the Speakeasy in London. Tearing through selections from their one and only studio LP, L.A.M.F., the Heartbreakers do not add any bells and whistles to the material. There are, of course, no solos, no jams, and what changes there are to the originals largely consist of playing them louder and faster and with even less concern for polish. Between-song banter consists almost entirely of Thunders freely baiting the crowd, mocking their reserved appreciation and the English in general in a great, slurred airing of grievances as Thunders plays the dejected has-been lamenting his lack of kudos.
Yet where so many live punk documents find bands clanging away with no sense of time or key, the Heartbreakers have a musical focus that belies Thunders’ act of spiraling self-pity. The band’s rhythm section of drummer Jerry Nolan and bassist Billy Rath is one of the tightest in first-wave punk. Listen to them tear into the first set’s opener, the junkie nightmare “Chinese Rocks.” It’s always been something of a mystery of how the song, co-written by Thunders’ one-time collaborators and cohorts Dee Dee Ramone and Richard Hell, ultimately got claimed by the guitarist, but this live recording removes all doubt about whether the most fitting person got it. Dee Dee’s day band, with its rave-up bubblegum leanings, might have made cheery irony of the song’s docudrama of pawning all one’s belongings or hearing one’s girlfriend crying in the shower, while Hell and his Voidoids would have made springly, detached art punk out of it. But as Rath and Nolan roar furiously through the number while Thunders moans the lyrics in a narcotized slur, the full nihilism of the song hits like a sledgehammer.
The rhythm section provides a shuddering, no-nonsense contrast for Thunders, who sneers his way through the first set but still lays down power chords sticky with stale beer and god knows what else. “All by Myself” clangs ahead on the ramshackle interplay of Thunders and second guitarist Walter Lure as Nolan and Rath sit comfortably in the pocket doing a smooth vamp that keeps the track somewhat restrained, though that only leaves Thunders more space to grind out riffs until he unleashes the platonic ideal of a punk solo, unshowy and scrappy but nonetheless punchy and honed to a diamond tip. “Born to Lose” absolutely stomps, with Rath’s bass gurgling to the forefront while Nolan fills every space between chords with charging but nonetheless supple fills. Lure and Thunders play so hard they sound like they might snap half their strings, and Thunders yelps with a wild rasp that predicts Paul Westerberg’s anguished howl.
As fun as the first set is, the Heartbreakers come alive in the second set. Pepped by a far more engaged audience, Thunders no longer sounds like the brash provocateur but instead the head of a party. The lack of existing Heartbreakers material makes both sets largely the same, but the differences are significant. This round opens with a blistering cover of the Contours’ “Do You Love Me?” in which Nolan does a shockingly good Motown shuffle that is then shredded by the guitarists’ pummeling interpretation, Rath’s jaunty bass fills and Thunders’ gravelly screams. Even repeat numbers show more focus; “Chinese Rocks” makes an anthem of self-immolation, while “Get Off the Phone” sounds about twice as loud as it did a few hours earlier, and Thunders regresses to a snot-nosed teen in his dismissive kiss-offs. Both sets close with “I Wanna Be Loved,” but where the first performance is filled with contempt for the audience, the second sends things off on a buzzing high of shared defiance. By the time the song closes out with Lure’s cooing background vocals over Nolan’s simian kit-bashing, what could easily have been a document of a prematurely aging icon instead morphs into one of the rare classic live punk LPs, a snapshot of a short-lived but invigorating group that put quite a few of their younger usurpers to shame.