Thursday, March 10, 2011

March 10: New York Dolls, "Personality Crisis"

Artist: New York Dolls
Song: "Personality Crisis"
Album: New York Dolls
Year: 1973


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Though many people would rather think of the sudden rise of certain genres as "musical revolutions," in nearly every case, there is a point earlier in history where one can clearly see this new style of music present with an older style.  That is to say, before a number of bands make a new sound popular, there is always a group that managed to balance that performance with the roots from which it came.  This is perhaps no more true than when people try and point to 1977 as the year that punk rock "came out of nowhere," as when one looks to the beginning of that same decade, it is quite easy to find a number of clear examples of the genre already in existence.  Though it is simple to see the style within the music of bands like The Stooges and Velvet Underground, to find the band that perfectly balanced what would become punk rock with the sound of rock and roll, one need look no further than the equally legendary New York Dolls.  Best known for their influence on the hard rock sound, many accurately state that "before punk rock existed, The Dolls were playing punk rock," and it was their monumental self-titled 1973 release that serves as proof of their place in music history.  Filled with a sleazy, glam rock sound, all with an energy and attitude that was second to none, the record absolutely blows away any of their peers, and there is perhaps no better a definition of the bands' sound or the overall impact they had than one can find within The New York Dolls iconic 1973 song, "Personality Crisis."

The fact that "Personality Crisis" kicks off the album, as well as serving as an introduction of the band to most people, is absolutely stunning, as the opening note is somewhat jarring.  The group wastes no time jumping into the song full speed, with guitar legend Johhny Thunders ripping across the track.  While his playing has what is now termed as a "classic rock" sound to it, there is also a clear underlying attitude in their sound, and it is here were one can begin to tell that "Personality Crisis" is something a bit different from the music of their peers.  Bassist Arthur Kane furthers this idea, as his playing is jumpy, and lends a bit of a darker mood to the song, as well as providing it with much of its edge.  The drumming of Jerry Nolan is amazingly sparse and dry for the time period, and it is in this aspect of "Personality Crisis" that one can hear the minimalist attitude that would define punk rock.  However, it is the piano work from Sylvain Sylvain that provides the most clear bridge between the "classic" rock sound and what would be termed punk, and the way in which the piano clashes with the guitars is nothing short of stunning.  At times, it sounds as if Sylvain is trying to smash the keys, playing with an intensity perhaps only akin to that of Jerry Lee Lewis, and this helps to highlight the fact that the band as a whole never lets up their energy even in the slightest.  It is this raw, unrestrained energy that makes "Personality Crisis" such a landmark song, and before the rise of the punk era, it was this song that served as the "defining" song of the underground New York City music scene.

However, as amazing as the musical arrangement is on "Personality Crisis," the song simply would not have the status that it does without the brilliant vocal performance from David Johansen.  Making very little effort to sing in the traditional sense of the word, it is the energy and attitude within his voice that push the song to the next level.  In retrospect, Johansen's performance is perhaps more akin to rapping than anything else, and one can look to a seemingly endless list of later performers that adopted and adapted his style.  It is also his wild scream at the top of the song that sets the tone for "Personality Crisis," and the punch that he retains throughout the song is without question the source of inspiration for a majority of punk frontmen.  Yet one cannot overlook the lyrics on "Personality Crisis," as much like the vocals and music, they are rather blunt and filled with attitude.  Speaking directly to the idea of having to figure out exactly "who" you are in life, Johansen brilliant states the meaning behind the songs' title when he delivers the line, "...but now your tryin' to be something, now you've got to do something..."  This simple, direct definition is one to which all can relate, and it serves as the perfect final piece to the song, making it have an appeal unlike any other song ever recorded.  The tension and attitude that Johansen injects into the words is second to none, and though many have covered the song since, none come even close to his superb performance found on the original.

When one looks at "Personality Crisis" as a whole, it is almost mind-boggling to consider all of the influences that one can hear witihn the music, as well as the bands that clearly took large parts from the sound of The New York Dolls.  Finding a balance between the glam-rock sound of David Bowie and Elton John, and serving as an influence for artists ranging from The Ramones to Aerosmith to Bruce Springsteen, one simply cannot deny the massive importance that lies within this song.  Furthermore, it is on "Personality Crisis" that one can hear the early "sloppy riff" sound that Johnny Thunders would perfect over the next decade, in turn making him a legend in his own right.  It is the way in which the band is able to balance the sleazy blues of The Rolling Stones with the edge and fury of The Stooges that makes "Personality Crisis" such a remarkable moment in music history, and the way in which producer Todd Rundgren was able to give each sound its own space on the song helps to highlight the exceptional talents of the band members.  Yet at nearly four minutes, the song stands in stark contrast to the genre it would create, and yet that fact also proves that the punk rock formula can be adapted in any number of ways.  Perhaps moreso than any other band, one can argue that without The New York Dolls, punk rock simply would not have come into existence, and one can easily understand why this is true, along with hearing just why the band is held in such high regard, by experiencing The New York Dolls' extraordinary 1973 song, "Personality Crisis."

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