The New York Dolls gig, Big Biba Rainbow Room, November 26th 1973.

Here is a sketch of David Johansen lead singer of the infamous New York Dolls as I remember him that night.

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sketch of David Johansen at Rainbow Room gig, Big Biba 1973. By Kasia Charko.

It was quite a performance to say the least, and one I have never forgotten. I used to buy The New Musical Express and sometimes Melody maker to read on the tube on my way to work. There was so much going on in music in the mid 70′s, I was very much into Stevie Wonder and Bob Marley at that time and of course David Bowie who was involved with American musicians such as Lou Reed and Iggy Pop .

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David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed.

I  started to see articles and photos about a band called The New York Dolls from the American glam scene which looked a lot more edgy  and exiting than the British glam scene. When I heard they were going to be at Biba’s Rainbow Room I got tickets for one of the nights, I believe they were on for two nights.

The New York Dolls were formed from a band called Actress which consisted of Johnny Thunders on bass, Rick Rivets and Arthur Kane on guitars, and Billy Murcia on drums. Rivets was replaced by Sylvain Sylvain, and David Johansen joined as the lead singer and in the summer of 1972 renamed as The New York Dolls they played at Manhatten’s Mercer Art Center.  Their music was influenced by The Rolling Stones, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, and MC5 , and from the publicity photos available they looked very camp like slutty crossdressers with extreme backcombed hair and sloppy makeup.

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L to R. Arthur Kane,Sylvain Sylvain, David Johansen,Johnny Thunders, Jerry Nolan.

They wore girls blouses and tops and kid’s cowboy gear. Arthur Kane was the first to wear a tutu onstage and they all wore very high heeled sometimes over the knee platform leather or plastic boots. Sometimes they wore antique clothing which being a bit delicate often ripped or split during their stage antics. They repaired these with safety pins. Malcom McLaren who managed them for a short while before The Sex Pistols described them as follows.

Sylvain Sylvain,  a red cheeked Egyptian toy boy dressed in a child’s fringed cowboy shirt
Johnny Thunders,  a rock n’ roll latino rag doll.
Arthur Kane,  A boy- girl who seemed to think he was every suburban girls wet dream of a Teutonic god in gold spandex.
David Johansen,  A New York Mick Jagger lookalike, only twenty years younger and a lot taller.

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The big British Glam rockers at the time were, Sweet, Slade, Gary Glitter, and apart from T, rex and Bowie a bit tame. They all looked like big ‘blokes’ dressed up. The American counterparts looked  wild and dangerous, like they drank a lot and took a lot of drugs, which they did of course. The New York Dolls suffered a casualty  on their first British tour when Billy Murcia died after mixing pills and alcohol. He was replaced by Jerry Nolan.

The ticket for the gig that night says that the price for the show including the meal was two pounds fifty. I cannot remember eating a meal but we were well lubricated when we got there having spent the best part of the afternoon in Thackeray’s wine bar around the corner. We almost certainly drank Biba wine when we got to the Rainbow Room. I have not touched much on the Rainbow Room yet, needless to say it was quite sedate and elegant and not really the place for a band like The New York Dolls but on reflection I think that added to the drama.

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Big Biba Rainbow Room.

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Ticket stub for New York Dolls concert.

We were not there long before The Dolls lurched on stage and began their frantic set. My first impression was that they all had a strange familiarity, David Johansen really did look and sound like Mick Jagger and Johnny Thunders looked like an exaggerated crossbreed of Keith Richards and Rod Stewart. They were all very thin and long limbed even by 1970′s standards. They had draped themselves with many long pink Biba feather boas and had obviously raided the Biba closet for other articles of clothing.
The music sounded like a Rolling Stones style cacophony and the Dolls careened about the stage, stumbling , falling over and crashing into one another. David Johansen pranced, posed ,and danced like a spastic Mick Jagger, I have to say it was awful, but so awful it was funny and I honestly thought it was a comedy act. The poor feather boas were ripped and stomped on and there were  pink feathers floating everywhere.
I noticed some people there who got up and danced franticly and they were really into them. They were not a Biba crowd  at all, they were very different with a rockerish edge to them. Needless to say the place was getting a bit disheveled as the set went on with a lot of chairs tipped and drinks spilled. The Dolls were very impaired that night and I heard later that they had insisted on a stash of forty bottles of champagne, I think they had  indulged in other  substances as well. They had also been on a rampage through the store apparently helping themselves to clothes. The head of Biba security had caught them but they were reluctantly let go.
There is an Old Grey Whistle Test on You Tube which shows a Dolls performance around that time. It must have been after The Rainbow Room gig because Arthur Kane is wearing a Biba jacket and David Johansen is  almost certainly wearing a Biba polka dot girl’s blouse. Apparently Arthur  had bought the jacket after switching the labels, it was a forty pound jacket which he changed to twelve pounds a stealthy form of shoplifting nonetheless. The jacket was a favourite of mine, black wool jersey with fake leopard skin collar and cuffs. The model Mouche is wearing a version of it on the staicase at Big Biba in my last post. It turns up again on another photo this time in Paris where the Dolls went next after Britain on a  Euopean tour. I hope Arthur appreciated it!

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That Biba jacket. Photo from The Biba Experience, Alwyn W. Turner.

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Arthur Kane far right with jacket.

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Arthur Kane, the Biba jacket in Paris.

The Old Grey Whistle test footage shows a better more sober performance by the Dolls, I believe they had recorded instrumentals and live vocals back then.

Little did we know that the first New York Dolls performances in 1972 -73  would herald a huge change in culture music and fashion in the coming few years as the punk movement came in sweeping the 1970′s away. They were a great influence to many British and American bands punk, glam and metal all through the 80′s as well. Their influence can be seen in The Ramones, The Damned, The Sex Pistols And Generation X , and many more as well as 80′s glam metal bands Motley crue, Kiss, Hanoi Rocks and others. It was great to be there at the start of the revolution.

4 comments

  1. Love The New York Dolls & Biba, wish I had been there to see this..would definitely be my idea of a ‘dream gig’…by sheer coincidence though, I went to see Sylvain Sylvain just last night,he’s on tour in Ireland and the UK at the moment.

  2. That’s amazing! I hope he does well, they had a really bad time of it over the years. I was watching a film clip the other day where Morrissey was describing their woes and how they never really got the credit they deserved. It’s hard to convey how dangerous and bad they looked, Iggy Pop as well. There was not much in the way of drugs around then, I had never even heard of heroin until Lou Reed’s song.

  3. He was really great last night, he played so well! One of the best gigs that i’ve been to in ages, it was quite a small venue but it was totally sold out, he did loads of dolls songs and a couple of new ones,had some great rock ‘n’ roll stories to tell too,myself and my friends chatted with him for a while after the gig, he’s a lovely bloke, very friendly, great sense of humour. I’m not sure if you’re on FB Kasia, but if you are this is the link to the New York Dolls page that Sylvain runs himself, https://www.facebook.com/nydolls

  4. Thanks, I am not good at the Facebook and twitter things but my son will be here this week so i can have a look. Great to hear he is doing well

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