Monday, October 17, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #164 - New York Dolls - In Too Much Too Soon

In 1973, the New York Dolls debuted with their self-titled album, acclaimed as a success by many who loved their live presence on the New York scene and cited as proof that “you had to be there” by detractors who felt that the band’s manic energy was dulled by producer Todd Rundgren. It’s tough, in listening now, to understand what these detractors were hearing – it’s a raw, roaring album, cleanly recorded and yet still a challenging listen because the guitars are so loud and upfront. After the album failed to light up the charts the way the band (and their label) had hoped, they were given another shot, enlisting producer George “Shadow” Morton, best known for his work with girl group the Shangri-Las (especially the sound-effects laden hits “Remember (Walking in the Sand)” and “Leader of the Pack”), but also the early Janis Ian hit “Society’s Child” and albums by Vanilla Fudge. His intermittent work as an outsider in the music industry and diverse tastes (plus his sense of humor) made him an ideal choice to produce the Dolls for their follow up album In Too Much Too Soon. In his words: “The Dolls had energy, sort of a disciplined weirdness. I took them into the room as a challenge. I was bored with the music and the business. The Dolls can certainly snap you out of boredom.”
            Morton did several things in producing that Rundgren didn’t in his approach to recording the Dolls: making their sound poppier (to the disdain of some and the delight of others), moving David Johansen’s vocals up and leveling the still-raw guitars out in the mix, advising the band not to settle with a competent take and to push themselves (this despite his saying “I let them do what they naturally did and merely tried to catch some of it on tape”), and, crucially, bringing his own history to bear on the music, adding sound effects, humor, and his direct connection to 60s classics the Dolls loved and grew up on. So if the band came up short on new material for their sophomore effort, the group and Morton where quick to follow the lead of the first album’s ace Bo Diddley cover (“Pills”) and find another batch of songs that could’ve been tailor-made for them to round out the record to feature length around the reworked demos and new cuts they were recording. And it’s here that both band and producer shine. As good as revived older Dolls songs like “Babylon,” “Puss ‘n’ Boots,” and especially the closing “Human Being” (plus Johnny Thunders’ excellent new contribution
New York Dolls in 1974
“Chatterbox”) are, they’re given a run for their money by the way the band fully inhabits the four cover songs here: “Bad Detective” (originally by The Coasters), “Stranded in the Jungle” (originally by The Jay Hawks), “Don’t Start Me Talkin’” (originally by Sonny Boy Williamson), and “(There's Gonna Be A) Showdown” (originally by Archie Bell). With Johansen up in the mix, he doesn’t sound like he’s trying to outshout the guitars and his vocal flexibility is on display throughout, particularly when he gets into the character of one of the covers. But that’s not to say that the guitars (Sylvain Sylvain and Johnny Thunders (who also takes a great, sneering vocal on his tune)) are pushed down too far – the album still retains a rawness and energy despite the more professional sheen Morton imbues the recording with. And throughout, the band’s writing continues the ideas put forth on the debut in classics like “Personality Crisis” and “Trash” – ideas that put them in line with the coming wave of punk rock. If the rest of society considers them “Trash” who cares? They know that they’re worth a damn and still a “Human Being” who demand your respect – and it’s this all-embracing humanity that powers their music through two classic albums and even into their mid-2000s reunion (but that’s another story…).
Shadow Morton with New York Dolls
            There’s a reason their early albums, after failing to break through as hits, have remained touchstones for decades – mainly because they’re great, but also because Johansen and co. really had something worthwhile to say. On the debut, sometimes this is obscured by Todd Rundgren’s insistence on delivering the raw product he’d seen in the band’s live performance. Here, with In Too Much Too Soon, Shadow Morton finds a way to retain that edge and yet sweeten things enough to make an even more memorable recording. They’re both classics, but for the uninitiated, In Too Much Too Soon is the easier way in and in the long run, it may end up remembered as the better record.

-          Patrick Brown

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