In August 1973, five skinny, shambolically glamorous young men released an album whose tentative tremors would help change the course of rock history for many years to come. They were the New York Dolls – and, after their self-titled debut, nothing would ever be quite the same again. Or, at least that’s the legend. It came from an era when legends were still being created week in, week out, but it’s one New York Dolls’ guitarist, Sylvain Sylvain, is still happy to keep spouting in 2010. ‘We may not have sold a zillion records,’ he says, ‘but in terms of what we did to inspire others, we’re definitely the number one stars.’
The remarkably chilled and charming Sylvain is speaking to State from Paris, where New York Dolls are in the midst of a European tour, which hits the Academy in Dublin on April 20th. His unflagging enthusiasm for, and confidence in, the band he helped form in 1971 means he’s not so much an old rocker as an ageing teenager, still eagerly plugging his band as something precious, with plenty to prove. Back in that first year of the seventies, Sylvain hooked up with some school friends, drummer Billy Murcia, bassist Arthur Kane and guitarist Johnny Thunders, and when Thunders decided he didn’t want to front the band, they recruited the flamboyant and erudite David Johansen, the man who would ultimately make audiences sit up and take notice.
Initially, their sound mixed rhythm and blues with the energy of the early Rolling Stones, but it was their frustration with the stuffiness of the music scene of the time that injected that vital something extra. According to Sylvain, the Dolls gave the scene a richly deserved hard slap in the face. ‘Rock -n’ roll had become more like an opera,’ he reflects, with humorous disdain. ‘It was mainly put together by the industry itself. We were a bunch of kids who thought, we have to do something about this. Music was boring and we just said, HEY, WHY DON’T WE PUT ON A SHOW?’
Their frustration wasn’t exactly coupled with a proper agenda, as Sylvain is happy to admit. ‘The smartest things we did were done subconsciously. We never really had a round-table meeting back then – or even today. We just flew by the seat of our pants and hoped that our safety belt was on – and then we kissed our butts goodbye.’
The first of the Dolls’ many casualties was drummer Murcia, who died on tour in England in 1972. Replacing him with Jerry Nolan, they entered the studio and released an album that, to these ears, still sounds remarkably box-fresh. ‘Anything that’s good should and will live forever,’ Sylvain agrees. ‘Music comes around and around. We took our lead from the blues – deep down it’s still a three-chord progression and you’re still singing to your girlfriend, about your girlfriend and to try to get more girlfriends. If money or fame is all you’re after, I’m not sure that really happens.’