The legendary New York glam-punk posse return in triumph

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The New York Dolls

Meltdown, Royal Festival Hall, London Friday June 18, 2004

The first time i saw the original New York Dolls was in 1973, in a small town in upstate New York, and they were booed off stage. Granted they were sloppy musically, but it was their smart-arse attitude and camp, gender-bending posturing that outraged the hippie crowd. Such antics may have gone down well in the hip, arty centres of NY and LA, but the rest of the world, it seemed, was not ready for the Dolls.

Fast forward 30 years, and the reception the proto-punk legends received at the second of their special reunion gigs for Morrissey’s Meltdown Festival couldn’t have been more different. From the moment they launched into “Looking For A Kiss”, the audience sprang to its feet, and remained standing through to the encore of “Human Being” an hour and 45 minutes later.

Lead singer David Johansen was in excellent voice?I can only presume the droplets he kept taking between songs must have been some kind of elixir, because he seemed truly invigorated, preening and prancing about the stage with an energy and charisma most lead singers can only dream about. Johansen may have briefly morphed into some kind of bearded elder statesman, but tonight he was rock showman supreme. Between songs, he exchanged racy banter with guitarist Sylvain Sylvain, who resembled a punk Dion DiMucci with his floppy cap, black leather belt and armbands, while Arthur “Killer” Kane, who sadly passed away as Uncut went to press (see Obituaries, p34); plucked away on bass.

The big question was how the group would fare without the late Johnny Thunders, the trash-glam Keith Richards to Johansen’s Mick Jagger, but fill-in guitarist Steve Conte couldn’t have been better. He had all of Thunders’ spare, scorching licks and sassy moves down pat, but with a presence all his own. The band paid tribute to their former guitarist with a version of his “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory”, Sylvain whining out lead vocals until the song segued into “Lonely Planet Boy” from the group’s eponymous first album. The Dolls performed every track from that LP, augmented by tunes such as “Puss ‘n’ Boots”, “Who Are The Mystery Girls?”, and “Babylon” from Too Much Too Soon, along with covers of songs by The Shangri-La’s and Janis Joplin.

Stepping in on drums for Jerry Nolan, who passed away in 1992, was The Libertines’Gary Powell, who did his hard-hitting predecessor proud, providing the group with its musical backbone, thrust and drive, while a keyboard player rounded out the sound.

Usually these kind of reunions have been prompted by overdue mortgage payments or stalled careers, and as often as not the group has long passed its sell-by date, reduced to churning out past hits like its own tribute band. Not so with The New York Dolls, who sounded better than ever and appeared to be truly enjoying themselves, while the songs maintained their freshness, power and vibrancy. They certainly taught their contemporaries and today’s young gunslingers a thing or two.

Thirty years ago, the Dolls were a sloppy band with great songs and loads of attitude and style. Tonight they were simply great.