Home Music New York Dolls: Live at Radio Luxembourg, Paris Dec 1973

New York Dolls: Live at Radio Luxembourg, Paris Dec 1973

A New York Dolls live album – especially one from their heyday in the early ‘70s – is always something to approach with trepidation, even for a fan. Although their live shows were legendary events as events, the band itself – and especially iconic guitarist Johnny Thunders – was not necessarily known for the surgical precision of their playing. But paradoxically, in the studio they tended to sound a little constrained and muted, and their two albums, though essential in themselves, feel like a compromise between what the Dolls could be and what a record label was willing to release. In theory, then, the chances of ever hearing the band at its absolute best would seem to be pretty slight, but in fact it’s a relief to find that, for every moment on this album – and there are a few – where the show sounds like drunks fighting in a guitar shop, there are many more where the band meshes perfectly and delivers glam trash rock at its most sublime.

The show was recorded at the peak of the Dolls’ visibility – the period when, following the release of their first album, the band embarked on a European tour in the hope of generating some much-needed sales. The recording was made for broadcast on Radio Luxembourg and the sound quality, unlike so many Dolls bootlegs and live tapes, is crisp and clear. The band could be forgiven for being apprehensive – just a year earlier, a European tour had ended in tragedy with the death of original drummer Billy Murcia – but if they were, it certainly isn’t audible. Naturally, the set list draws heavily on their then-recent debut album and its 1974 follow up Too Much Too Soon, but they also throw in a few covers for good measure.

“Looking for a Kiss” is one of the band’s signature songs and it proves to be an incendiary opener. It’s immeasurably rougher than the recorded version, but with Jerry Nolan and Killer Kane nailing down the beat, Thunders and Sylvain Sylvain get away with even their more approximate attempts at playing the tune and David Johansen, in conversational/ranting mode, manages to hit most of the right notes in most of the right places. Their anthem – or one of their anthems – “Personality Crisis” comes next, and it’s a storming performance, far better than the slightly staid studio original with its unnecessary piano. Having warmed up, Johansen is on top, throat-tearing form and Sylvain – rarely given due credit – holds the song together while Thunders delivers his superbly over-loud sneering backing vocals.

Despite Jerry Nolan’s solid backbeat and Sylvain’s impeccable timing, though, the band never quite approaches being tight, but their energy and attitude carries them through it all triumphantly. The Dolls seem to be in a cheerful mood – Johansen introduces a superlative performance of the evergreen Bo Diddley classic “Pills” with a nod to their location – “Ze name of zis song is le Pills” and even the scrappier performances – “Bad Girl” and a wildly ragged “Puss ‘N’ Boots” burn with the energy that was slightly lacking from their studio versions. At times – as on the penultimate, storming version of “Trash” – the band plays magnificently, but as always with the Dolls, the album is also instructional in showing just how far attitude and passion can take you; “Vietnamese Baby” feels triumphant despite some blatantly wrong notes by Thunders and Johansen’s dubious pitch and an overlong “Jet Boy” teeters on the edge of just being a noisy mess but retains its strangely innocent punky charm.

The Dolls could be relied on to play some perfectly chosen covers and the best of these is probably the chaotic, funny stroll through a Shangri Las favorite with “Give Her a Great Big Kiss” (surprisingly, they bothered to change the gender). A rough version of the Jayhawks’ “Stranded in the Jungle” – shortly to surface in a marginally more polished, but less fun form on Too Much Too Soon the next year – is notable for its exuberant silliness. This version of the album has a slightly different running order from previous releases and omits the cover of Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man” (though it’s mentioned in the promotional material), so it’s never entirely clear if what we are hearing is the performance as it was on the night, but it works regardless. The show closes with the aforementioned version of “Trash,” but as a bonus there’s what seems to be an early studio version of “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory,” a song that would remain unreleased until Johnny Thunders put it out as a single in 1978. This version sounds tighter and in every way superior to that single, though its inclusion here is slightly mysterious. Even so, if you’re a Dolls fan and haven’t heard any of their live albums – or have only heard 1984’s belatedly released and very different Red Patent Leather, this – with its pristine sound and with the band functioning pretty much as well as it ever did – is the one to get.

Captured at the height of their powers, the New York Dolls’ live show lives up to the band’s attitude in a way that their studio work rarely did.
80 %
Triumphantly trashy

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