Prima Ballerinas on a Spring Afternoon
By Chris Epting
David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain are now, in effect, the New York Dolls. The ghosts of Johnny Thunders, Arthur Kane, Jerry Nolan and Billy Murcia hang in the air like so much red-neon cigarette smoke in the backroom of Max’s Kansas City, and this duo, since reuniting with then-living Kane seven years ago, has produced as much music in the last few years as they did back in the early 1970s.
Fleshed out with a revolving door of flashy lower east side players (including Steve Conte, Sami Yaffa, Frank Infante and now, Earl Slick), each year or two Johansen and Sylvain manage to produce yet another collection of glowing, hooky, street smart ditties as if to remind us all that those first two long-ago records were no fluke.
Last fall in England, along with producer Jason Hill (who also played bass), drummer Brian Delaney, and ex-Blondie guitarist Frank Infante, the boys hunkered down and got busy after playing a short artist residency at a Newcastle club called The Cluny.
The result is “Dancing Backwards In High Heels,” released by Blast Records in the UK (March 14), and in the USA by 429 Records (March 15).
On the one hand it’s what Dolls fans have come to expect: a grab bag of hipster goodies, including some Motown-flavored soul, a few street corner anthems, and blasts of bluesy, glittery downtown pop.
There’s the rich, Johansen growl direct from the bowels of the Bowery and the exuberant Sylvain background “oohs” and “ahhs” that would feel just as at home buried within Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound.
But there’s something else this time out, a freshness and energy that’s desperate and alive. This record pops in ways other recent Dolls records have not. Part of it is the simple, spare, pool hall-ambiance production, along with lots of warm percussion and organs – this is an intimate, handmade, earthy record.
But beyond those things, it’s the way these two almost gleefully celebrate their influences.
They cover 1962’s “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman” (originally done by Patti LaBelle and the Blue Belles) and we’re reminded of how much the original Dolls blueprint relied on classic 1960’s girl groups.
“Streetcake” may harken back to the bubble gum thrash of “Trash”, but it’s cooler, sexier and playfully confident – a celebration of being a New York Doll.
Similarly, “I’m so Fabulous,” “Talk To Me Baby,” “Fool For you Baby” and “Kids Like You” feature older, wiser approaches that are no less catchy or relevant – this is still Frankenstein-funk at its best.
There’s even a vamped-up cover of the 1978 Johansen cult classic “Funky But Chic.”
Sinewy, sly and a bit devilish, Johansen seems happy in his role as an expatriate bohemian; a trash and vaudeville crooner who channels Levi Stubbs, Sinatra, Jagger, Bessie Smith and Louis Prima – sometimes all in one song.
Sylvain told me recently, "In England there's a place called Blackpool, it's sort of like Atlantic City. We played there and it had this amazing vibe. I just couldn't resist."
That gets us to the closer, a lonely, plaintive heartbreaker called “End of the Summer.”
Through a gauzy, semi-tropical haze, he and Johansen offer one of their most memorable efforts yet (replete with some Barbara Lewis “Hello Stranger” lyrics woven through the refrain). Like some lonely Labor Day walk along an abandoned Coney Island pier, the song ushers us out, sad that the carnival ride that’s any Dolls record is over.
It’s a brisk little collection, clocking in at around 36 minutes. But good things come in small packages. Coupled with the interesting making-of DVD (spiked with some fun concert performances), this is a bargain.
The feather boas, the high heels and makeup cases are packed away in some dusty, forgotten trunks. That’s okay. That was never the essence of the Dolls anyway. They were blues, rock and roll, sex, style and songs – catchy songs.
“Dancing Backward in High Heels” is a swinging, rocking, soulful set that, like every other Dolls album, can make you laugh, make you cry and make you thank the stars that albums like this still get made.
Perhaps that’s just what happens when two musical soul mates wander around New York City long enough together, looking for a kiss.
New York Dolls tour the UK - O2 Academy Newcastle (March 27), Manchester Club Academy (March 29), London The Old Vic Tunnels (March 30-31). More info at nydolls.org.
Chris Epting is a journalist and author whose books include: "Hello It's Me - Dispatches From a Pop Culture Junkie."