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How the New York Dolls Revolutionized Rock and Roll

From their head-turning looks and hard-partying lifestyles to the lean, mean music they created, the New York Dolls have influenced countless musicians over the last five decades.

Glam, Rock & Roll

The New York Dolls may not go down in history as the most commercially successful band of all time, but their musical output and aesthetic continue to have a massive impact. Released in July 1973, their groundbreaking self-titled debut is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2023. Over the last five decades, the album has influenced everything from the raw energy and attitude of punk to the androgynous fashion of glam metal. 

The band’s stripped-down compositions challenged the prevailing prog rock sounds of the era while their platform boots and spandex aimed to disrupt the status quo. With the grit of The Rolling Stones, the wild racket of The Stooges, and a healthy dose of glam rock and girl group influences, the New York Dolls helped lay the foundation for a new kind of raunchy rock and roll.  A wide array of artists such as Kiss, the Ramones, The Smiths, and Guns N’ Roses all cite the band as an influence – even if you haven’t listened to the New York Dolls yet, you’ve likely listened to a few bands they’ve inspired. 

Below, you’ll find a breakdown of the New York Dolls’ influential proto-punk sounds, flamboyant fashion sense, debaucherous public image, and the way each aspect of the band has continued to inform underground and mainstream music.

A Passionate Precursor to Punk

As previously mentioned, the Ramones cited the New York Dolls as an influence, but they weren’t the only early punk band to do so. The Damned and the Sex Pistols were also fans of the New York Dolls, and they aimed to channel the band’s rebellious spirit as they crafted their own takes on punk. The New York Dolls exemplified the “punk attitude” years before the genre had a name and their music laid the foundation for many key components of the early punk sound. 

Their self-titled album is full of straightforward songs with driving tempos, vocals brimming with sass and raspy swagger, and lyrics that blended youthfulness, streetwise insights, alienation, and tongue-in-cheek wordplay. The crude musicianship of the band proved that you could make highly effective rock music without the need for excessive layers or progressive arrangements. When fans realized they could make music without having to be virtuosos, it inspired a whole new generation to pick up instruments and start their own bands. 

After the band’s initial breakup, singer David Johansen released a few solo records while other members formed the influential punk group The Heartbreakers and played in Sid Vicious’ backing band. As the first wave of punk took the world by storm, the true impact of the New York Dolls began to take hold.

Glam, Sleaze, and Hair That’s Teased

Early on, various producers and labels didn’t want to work with the New York Dolls as they found the band too vulgar or viewed their onstage fashion as too offensive or over-the-top. Once Mercury Records and producer Todd Rundgren were on board, the Dolls did what any self-respecting band of provocateurs would do – they dressed in drag for the cover of their self-titled debut. Much like Iggy And The Stooges’ 1973 album Raw Power, the evocative cover attracted fans and aspiring musicians that were looking for something beyond the mainstream sounds of the day. 

Certain fashion aspects such as the band’s teased hair influenced some early punk and post-punk aesthetics, but it was the ‘80s “hair metal” bands that drew the most inspiration from the Dolls. From their high heels to the thick rouge on their cheeks, the New York Dolls’ androgynous look clearly had a huge impact on glam metal, specifically bands like Motley Crue, Poison, and Hanoi Rocks. These bands also took inspiration from the Dolls’ hard-partying image and developed reputations for living lives of excess. 

Beyond these aesthetics, there are also some guitar and vocal threads you can trace from the New York Dolls to glam metal. All you have to do is listen to the layers between the shredding solos and singers belting out high-pitched pop hooks.

Shock and Awe Lives On

Although it may not be as apparent as being proto-punk pioneers or glam rock icons, the New York Dolls have also influenced modern music in a variety of ways. Sonically, you can still hear and feel the attitude of the Dolls when you listen to bands like The Strokes or The Hives. 

The bold appearance of the New York Dolls has empowered countless musicians over the last five decades to express themselves in thought-provoking ways. It’s hard not to think of the Dolls when you come across the glam stylings of groups like Måneskin. Everything from their flamboyant footwear to the way they perform onstage is reminiscent of the New York Dolls, but Måneskin isn’t the only international sensation to draw from these influences. 

Modern fashion icons like Harry Styles have adopted an aesthetic that has been praised for its ability to start conversations around gendered fashion as he’s been known to wear sequined tops, pearl necklaces, and dresses. Without the undeniable influence of the New York Dolls over the years, who knows if the edge and flash of Styles’ wardrobe would be as prominent. 

It’s safe to say that the work of the New York Dolls will continue to exert a strong influence over rock and roll as younger musicians are pushing back against societal norms in an incredibly impactful way. The shock and awe that the Dolls generated can be used to not only provoke a response but shine light on serious issues and inspire real change. The future’s looking bright, thanks in part to the enduring legacy of the New York Dolls.

Essential New York Dolls Records

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