The origins of “Alternative Music” and the rise of Punk – Part II
“I’m Waiting for My Man”, The Velvet Underground (1967)
Back in New York another very significant artist to contribute to what would become alternate music, was Lou Reed. To think this song came out when I was in grade school is almost creepy. The guy is talking about a heroin deal in Harlem. I was likely making batman puppets, bringing my guinea pig in for show-and-tell, or writing my first poem for Mrs. T. Who knew?
Seemingly from a normal Brooklyn Jewish family, Lou Reed learned to play guitar listening to the R&B and doo-wop on the radio. Having received ‘electroconvulsive” shock therapy in his teens to ‘cure’ his homosexuality, things took a different turn for Reed. The appearance of ‘normal’ would continue for a while as Reed completed a B.A. from Syracuse University College of Arts and Science in 1964, where he met John Cale (who is most famous for his song “Cocaine”).
The Velvet Underground who was based on the lower East-side in New York would catch the attention of Andy Warhol who led the visual art movement in the 1960’s. Now considered by some to be the pioneers of Goth rock, glam rock, and maybe even punk rock, VU’s, 1967’s “The Velvet Underground & Nico” has been called the most prophetic rock album ever made (Rolling Stone).
Lou Reed had left his band the Velvet Underground by 1971 and made his first solo chart successful debut with “Walk on the Wild Side”. His music had explored the bohemian sound of the New York underground with songs about heroin, drug addiction, sexuality and a somewhat unexamined life. The “in” people in New York loved it.
Now, given this environment and influence we come to the New York Dolls. They are often cited as being the proto-punk, glam metal originators. Bands that closely followed their music would be the Ramones, Blondie, The Talking Heads, and Television.
Sylvain Sylvain and Billy Murcia went to Jr. High school together and stated a band called “The Pox” in 1967. When the band broke up, Sylvain and Murcia started a clothing store they called “Truth and Soul”. Sylvain also took a job at another clothing store called “A Different Drummer” which was across the street from a doll repair shop called the “New York Doll Hospital”.
Influenced by outrageous early U.S. rockers The Stooges, MC5, the Velvet Underground, Marc Bolan, and even American girl groups, the Dolls being true to their unique, campy selves, found their own mix of glitz, glam and R&B. In 1973 Iggy Pop put out the album “Raw Power”, and David Bowie had “Pin Ups”out of England. On the other side of the country, Alice Cooper put out his album “Billion Dollar Babies”, which was influential in its own right – again with an appearance of a Brit; Donovan.
In 1970 they recruited Johnny Thunders for their new band as their bass player, although Sylvain had to teach him to play guitar.
After a go of their own with Mercury records covering soul and R& B classics by such artists as Sonny Boy Williamson, Bo Diddly, The Jay Hawks, Chuck Berry, Middy Waters, even the Shangri-La’s, and the Coasters.
Just when they had gotten themselves a manager and started to gain some interest in their band, Murcia died of an accidental drowning after he passed out from drugs and alcohol. At the same time Rod Stewart had noticed them, and had them perform as an opening act in London. Back in New York, Todd Rundgren (him again?) produced the self titled album in 1973, “The New York Dolls”.
Rundgren says that no one knew what to do with the recording and he says he barely touched in, but rather left it to be released quite raw indeed. “Stereo Review” magazine compared the sound of the guitars to that of lawn mowers in its review as sales were not great. It was really quite unique/outrageous to some people.
In 1973 the Dolls were “the best new group” and “the worst new group” in Creem magazine1. They toured furiously in America and Europe to mostly fairly baffled, but accepting audiences. Also in 1973 they appeared on the “Old Grey Whistle Test”, where the host Bob Harris referred to them as ‘mock-rock”, much like the Monkees had been. Many influential British groups including XTC were watching this carefully.
By about 1975 the Dolls had run their course and they broke up.
The Ramones, Sex Pistols, the Smiths, KISS, Mötley Crüe, Morrissey, and many more suggest that they were influenced by the New York Dolls. To a certain extent it may be just fashionable to say so, and to what extent the influence there may have been is up for debate. At the time of the Dolls, the world was in turmoil as “the man” was definitely having problems of his own, the economy made it tough for the lower class to make a living at all. The uprising from the working class was a result. This was more or less happening simultaneously in North America and in England and Europe. The social dynamite called ‘Punk’ was the raw material ready to go up in flames. Whether it was the New York Dolls, the Ramones
The Sex Pistols, The Ramones, The Clash, The Damned, 999 and many more bands crawled from the wreckage of the early seventies and made themselves heard. They were closely followed by Blondie, Billy Idol, the Pretenders and many others. This was an important turning point in music which reignited the excitement that was rock. You do not even have to like it, but you do have to realize how it may have impacted bands you love to this day. That is unless you are still listening to the Monkees or Sonny and Cher.
1. Creem Magazine which was a monthly rock magazine where the terms “punk rock” and “heavy metal” were first used.(Hey wait a minute what about Steppenwolf’s “Born to Wild” with it’s “heavy metal thunder”).