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Classic Tracks: New York Dolls ‘Personality Crisis’

Producer: Todd Rundgren • Engineer: Jack Douglas By Richard Buskin
Published December 2009

The fact that they achieved little commercial success didn't stop the New York Dolls from making one of the most influential albums in the history of pop music.

The New York Dolls, 1973. From left to right: Arthur 'Killer' Kane, Sylvain Sylvain, David Johansen, Jerry Nolan and Johnny Thunders.Photo: Redferns

Before the Ramones, Talking Heads and the Sex Pistols, there were the New York Dolls. Combining shock image tactics with the energy, irreverence and street‑smarts of MC5, the Stooges and the Rolling Stones, the Dolls created a unique brand of kitsch‑yet‑menacing blues‑based garage rock, and in so doing they paved the way for not only punk, but also glam-metal and new wave. All of which was quite an achievement for a band that, in their original incarnation, recorded two cult‑classic studio albums that sold modestly and attracted mixed reviews; some extolling their virtues, others scathing in their criticism.

Too Much Too Soon

Having gone through a number of different line‑ups, the first‑generation Dolls — who took their name from a toy‑repair shop called the New York Doll Hospital — made their live debut at a homeless shelter, the Endicott Hotel, on Christmas Eve, 1971, with founder members Sylvain Sylvain on rhythm guitar and Billy Murcia on drums, together with lead guitarist Johnny Thunders, bass guitarist Arthur 'Killer' Kane and singer David Johansen. Blues and soul covers were all part of the repertoire, as were original compositions, mostly written by Johansen and Thunders. However, after securing the services of a manager and embarking on a UK tour, Murcia's misuse of alcohol led to his death by drowning and replacement by one Jerry Nolan.

Back in New York, the band's club appearances attracted a cult following, yet record companies steered clear of the crude cross‑dressers until Mercury stepped forward with a deal and arranged for an album to be produced by former Nazz guitarist Todd Rundgren. Given his specialisation in progressive pop and the Dolls' penchant for sleazy, shrill, savagely sloppy rock & roll, this appeared to be quite a mismatch. Indeed, Rundgren rarely attended the sessions, as confirmed by Jack Douglas, who was the man with his fingers on the faders of the Datamix console inside the Record Plant's Studio C.

"Whereas I was always part of the whole Max's Kansas City downtown crowd, hanging out with all the artists, Todd was more of an uptown kind of guy, more pop, more polished,” Douglas says. "So I think the label decided to balance things out, and since the guys in the band already knew me, they'd have someone they could relate to... Todd used to call it in quite a bit, and on one occasion, when they were recording a track and David [Johansen] was doing a live vocal, Todd told him, 'Man, that's going to be so good with a lot of harmony.' David said, 'Harmony? Are you accusing me of having melody?'

"David had a sharp sense of humour, but he was also being threatening, which was their thing. Still, although Todd didn't come to the studio a whole lot, he was there in spirit... and he did come in and mix the record.”

Jack Douglas

Jack Douglas at the Datamix console in the Record Plant's Studio C.

The producer and/or engineer of records by John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Alice Cooper, Aerosmith, Blue Öyster Cult, Patti Smith, Slash and, of course, the New York Dolls, the Bronx‑born Jack Douglas started out as a beatnik‑style folk musician (complete with goatee beard) on the Greenwich Village coffee‑house circuit, and in 1964 he was recruited to write campaign songs for Robert Kennedy's New York senatorial race and Lyndon Johnson's run for the White House.

Thereafter, Douglas played in a number of different bands, including the Soul Survivors, who had the 1967 R&B hit 'Expressway To Your Heart', as well as another backing Chuck Berry, and in early 1969 he and a fellow Soul Survivor formed an outfit modelled along the lines of an American Led Zeppelin. Named Privilege and signed to the Isley Brothers' T‑Neck label, they recorded an album at A&R, and it was during those sessions that Douglas caught the engineering bug, after mixing tracks for the very first time.

Enrolling on the inaugural engineering course at Manhattan's Institute Of Audio Research, he also gained employment as a janitor at the Record Plant, where his — and other trainees' — rise up the ranks coincided with being mentored by the studio's then‑manager, Roy Cicala.

The Dolls on stage in the UK, late 1973.Photo: Redferns"Roy really, really taught us the ropes, and he certainly taught me what the hell I was doing,” Douglas says. "He was such an amazing engineer, constantly inventing things on the fly, and it was just incredible what you could learn from him. If you were lucky, you became his assistant, and if you were Roy's assistant you knew you were going someplace.

"I was totally obsessed with the whole thing and I would sleep there at the studio. I worked as a dubbing engineer, making edits and copies, and then as an assistant engineer, and I really didn't care about having any other kind of life.”

Assisting on demos by Billy Joel and Patti LaBelle, as well as on rock, jazz and jingle sessions for the likes of Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Alice Cooper, Cheap Trick, Judy Collins, Janis Ian and the James Gang, eventually led to Jack Douglas's first project as a fully‑fledged engineer, recording the 1971 Who album Who's Next? That same year, he also worked on John Lennon's Imagine, and by 1973 he was in the producer's chair for Alice Cooper's Muscle Of Love. However, if Aerosmith's Get Your Wings and Toys In The Attic would place Douglas on the fast track to production success, it was his engineering of the New York Dolls' eponymous debut that first brought him to the attention of the Boston‑based heavy metal group.

"There was nothing else like the Dolls at the time, which was really cool,” Douglas says. "It was about playing with complete abandon and being as shocking as you possibly can. That was part of the Alice thing, but with a New York twist — transsexual, transvestite. It was really a downtown New York street kind of feel. David was an artist and a writer and an actor, and he had a lot to do with how everything looked and felt. His lyrics were great — they still are — and putting that amount of literacy into that package is what made it so good and appealing. I got that right away; I totally got it, but I don't think anybody else quite did. They thought, 'Oh, this is really shocking, it's gonna be cool,' but it was way, way deeper than that.”

Record Plant Studio C

Jack Douglas today.

In addition to its custom‑made Datamix console, the Record Plant's 10th floor Studio C control room also featured a 16‑track Ampex MM1000 tape machine and a Tom Hidley‑designed Westlake monitoring system. Looking through the glass towards the live area, David Johansen performed his vocals inside a booth located to the left — when Jack Douglas wasn't in there, pounding his cowbell, watched by his assistant Jimmy Iovine — while the bass amp was in a closet in the rear‑left corner; the drums were in a very small booth directly opposite the desk; the rhythm guitar amp was set up next to the kit and screened off with a couple of gobos; and the lead guitar amp was in plenty of space to the right of the studio.

"It was not a really big room, but a really dead room,” Douglas says. "Heavily carpeted and very much what they thought was the right way to go in New York at that time. They used to say, 'You know, if you step five feet away from this there's a 90dB drop in sound.' We used to think, 'I don't know if that's such a good idea... Isn't there anything that's live?' I remember Roy [Cicala] finally started to take the rooms apart. We used to drag sheets of plywood in there to give them some life. They'd be stacked downstairs and we'd bring up 4x8s and put them all over the room, saying, 'Don't let Tom Hidley see us doing this or he'll kill us!'

"In terms of the drums, we didn't mic the hi‑hat because we liked the leakage into the overheads and into the Altec Saltshaker snare mic. That gave us the sound we liked and there was no need to mike the bottom of the snare. On a two‑rack‑tom kit we usually used a [Neumann U] 67 or, if it was already in use, we'd be forced to use an 87, and we would stick the one mic in between both toms and put it in a figure‑eight pattern. For the overhead, we would use one mic and it would usually be a good-quality tube, like [an AKG] C12, with a lot of compression on it — that was the main kit sound, and then there would be an 87 or a 67 on the floor tom, while on the bass drum we'd use Altec 66s or [Electro‑Voice] RE20s. The 66s had a really unique sound — they had a lot of bottom end and they also captured a lot of percussion.

"For David's vocals, if he hand‑held we gave him a 57; otherwise I'd just stick him in front of an 87. His performances with the rhythm section were guides, although when I did the Dolls' reunion album in 2006 [One Day it Will Please Us to Remember Even This, with Johansen and Sylvain as the only surviving members from the original line‑up], most of those vocals were live in the control room and I just had to fix them here and there.

"For guitars on the New York Dolls album, we had the Sony C30s and C31s, which were great microphones, and sometimes Sennheiser 421s and Shure SM57s. It depended on how loud they were playing. The C30s and C31s had 10dB pads in them, but sometimes we'd stick a 57 on there, while there would be an RE20 or tube [Neumann U] 47 on the bass amp, along with the direct. We had modified Ampeg B15s, and we used to take the direct off the back of the amp so we had a really nice, clean output.

"Those guys played really loud, and I used a room mic, sitting in the middle and open all around, to capture the vibe. The thing was, they were playing live, and so, although a few of Johnny Thunders' leads were overdubs, for the most part the guys were just out there, bashing away. The bass amp was in a closet, but I'd leave the door open — as I still do if it's in another room — to get that big bottom sound leaking into everything. The guitarists' amps were Marshalls, and there's no way that, with those in the room, we were going to keep them out of the drums. It was impossible. It was a small room, they were at full volume, and no matter how much separation was in there, there was a healthy bleed.”

Auto Erratic

Of all the songs on the LP, Jack Douglas's favourite song is the self‑descriptive 'Personality Crisis', a proto‑punk classic featuring Johnny Thunders' trademark riffs and a David Johansen vocal that presages Johnny Rotten.

"When they came into the studio with that, it was already an important song,” Douglas confirms. "It was Syl who decided to add the piano — even at that time he was a very decent player. It definitely gave the song more edge, and we compressed the hell out of the piano just to give it even more excitement. It was miked with a 57. A lot of times, in line with something Roy [Cicala] showed me, I would take the 57, wrap a little foam rubber around it, stick it in the back of the piano and drop the lid down to hold it in place. Then I'd just stick a ton of compression on it and let it do its thing. Forget about stereo — just mono.

"As with the other tracks, there was editing, and this was difficult because the tempos weren't always the same. Editing was just a normal part of tracking people back then, because those musicians screwed up a lot. You know, sometimes we'd just stop and they'd pick it up from where the mistake was — 'play a little bit of the last verse and let's go into the chorus.' We had strobes for tuning, the cowbell to try to keep the tempos in the ballpark, and Syl still remembers me in that booth, jumping up and down with the cowbell so that he'd see me... They didn't really much care what I did, so long as I could get it together. It was just a mess, but it was one of those things that got pulled off, and every day of pulling it off was a victory until it was done.

"Johnny never played the same thing twice. Sometimes, playing with the rhythm section, he just got the feel and he nailed it. At other times, he would stop playing because he knew he wasn't going to get into it and he'd want to redo it later. Suddenly, he'd be in the control room with me. Then, when he overdubbed his leads, I would do four or five tracks and just comp them like a vocal. He was totally, totally unpredictable, and that's how he was in life.

"After Johnny left the band [in 1975], we kept talking about doing another record, and one time he gave me an address and said, 'Come on down and meet me.' When I looked at it, I knew it was near the Mud Club, where I think he was doing a gig, but when I got down there the address didn't exist. Instead, when I looked at where the address would have been, there was an old Cadillac with shades pulled down around the windows. Realising that Johnny was living in his car, I went over and tapped on the window, the window went down, his girlfriend or wife just looked at me from the driver's side and, not knowing what else to say, I asked her, 'Is Johnny home?' She said, 'I'll see if he's here.' Then the shade went down, the window went up and I had to wait a few minutes before the back shade went down, and there was Johnny.”

A Mixed Reception

"One of the best solid rock sets to come along in a long time, featuring raunchy lead vocals, tight harmony backup and excellent instrumental skills,” enthused a Billboard review following the album's August 1973 release. "The Dolls obviously have a gimmick (their appearance, of course), but more important, they have the resources to back up the gimmicks. The material is original and is the kind of wall‑shattering sound that so few bands can achieve successfully.”

Others weren't quite so positive, with Stereo Review likening the band's guitar playing to the sound of lawn mowers, and the album's tepid sales seeing it peak at 116 on the US charts. Nevertheless, New York Dolls has since been ranked at 213 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, while the same magazine has placed 'Personality Crisis' at number 267 of its 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

"It sounds like it was made in a wooden box,” admits Jack Douglas who, in addition to ongoing production projects, teaches a class focusing on "the psychology of the recording session” at the Expression College for Digital Arts in Emeryville, California. "It doesn't sound good at all, but there's something about it that just works. I mean, I knew it wasn't sounding good when I was doing it, and you couldn't ask them, 'Let's get a sound on this.' You just couldn't. They had no patience for getting a sound on anything. 'Is there sound going through the microphone into the board?' 'Yes.' 'Well, that's good.'

"It was so enjoyable and it was such a challenge. What's more, that record is pretty much what turned me into a producer from an engineer. For one thing, Bob Ezrin dropped by and said, 'You realise you're producing this. You should be producing!' And for another, the Dolls were managed by Lieber & Krebs, and my reward for completing that project was to take a shot at their baby band, which was Aerosmith. So it all worked out really good for me. Bob, who was convinced I was a producer, gave me Alice Cooper to produce, Lieber & Krebs gave me Aerosmith, and I never looked back.

"I'm going to be 64 soon and I'm still totally obsessed with making music. I wake up in the morning singing, because I honestly can't believe I do this for a living. It's just so much fun.”  

Artist: New York Dolls

Track: 'Personality Crisis'

Label: Mercury

Released: 1973

Producer: Todd Rundgren

Engineer: Jack Douglas

Studio: The Record Plant, New York

Disorganised Charm

Part of the Dolls' charm was the feeling that whatever song they were performing — on‑stage or in the studio — might fall apart at any time, and their approach certainly bore this out.

"They were totally disorganised,” Douglas confirms. "They had the songs when they got to the studio, but recording them was really tough. Don't forget, everything was foreign to them, including working with headphones, trying to keep a tempo without speeding out of control, and not making horrendous mistakes in the middle of a take — it was a totally new experience.

"I don't think anybody thought that record was going to get done, least of all their management, but we managed to pull it off. David and Syl were fairly sober — or sober enough — and I was as straight as straight goes... in those days... and now. It seemed to me the important thing was to get it done, and it was fun, it was an adventure. You know, every time we would complete a song it was like 'Wow, maybe we can do another one.'

"We had to do quite a few takes of the big numbers, and sometimes I would go out and pound on a cowbell to keep the time somewhat even. There'd be a little nodding‑out here or there, and they didn't care much about how it sounded, so it sounded really raucous and live. The sound coming out of their amps was a mush and a mess, but it seemed like the right sound for that album. It was kinda cool.”

Recording A Dead Rat: Jack Douglas & John Lennon

It was at the Record Plant in July 1971 that Jack Douglas first met John Lennon, while taking care of some editing work on the Imagine album. And it was at the Record Plant on the evening of December 8th, 1980, that Douglas saw Lennon for the last time, just minutes before the ex‑Beatle was gunned down outside his home in New York.

During that time, the producer‑engineer worked on three Lennon albums (two of them collaborations with Yoko Ono), as well as a trio of Ono's solo efforts, but among all of the sessions one of the more unconventional had to be that for 'Dead Rat', an unreleased Yoko track that required Douglas to actually record a lifeless rodent.

"There was a 16‑bar section where the music just stopped, and that's where the dead rat did his solo,” he explains. "Yoko brought it in a shoe box and we miked it up and captured his essence. Believe it or not, it took two takes. The first one didn't quite have it and I had to tell my assistant to move the mic and take the pop filter off...”

A couple of years later, Jack Douglas was in LA, working with Alice Cooper, when John Lennon arrived on the West Coast to commence his Phil Spector‑produced, coke‑and‑booze‑soaked sessions for the Rock & Roll album.

"Very often, I was driving the getaway car while John was getting into trouble,” Douglas remarks. "[Drummer] Jim Keltner and I would be pulling him out of clubs and bars, but back at the studio I couldn't bear to be around Spector. That guy had been my hero until the Imagine album, and then I never wanted to have anything to do with him. He just refused to realise that he was of another generation. You know, I don't claim to be the greatest Pro Tools guy in the world — that's a different generation — and Spector didn't belong to that generation of musician‑engineer‑producers. However, he just had to make believe and get paranoid and crazy. We all knew he had tremendous talent — he was brilliant at putting the right arrangers, songwriters and artists in the same room together — but the gun play was frequent and he would get all drugged up, just raising his head every once in a while to say, 'More echo'.”

In 1979, after Lennon had taken an extended leave from the music business, Jack Douglas ran into him in a health-food restaurant on New York's East Side, and although they exchanged phone numbers, Douglas had no intention of disturbing the musician's well-publicised existence as a house husband. Nevertheless, just under a year later, Lennon was calling the producer and asking him to helm his comeback album, Double Fantasy.

"It was totally top-secret, absolutely no one could know,” Douglas recalls. "Not even the musicians who I was initially rehearsing knew whose record they would be making. Then, after we actually began Double Fantasy, I wouldn't let John and Yoko work at the same time. I would have Yoko record in the morning and afternoon and then John at night. For the most part, they would come to each other's sessions, but when they were doing their vocals it was better for them to not be together because they might get in each other's way. They totally respected each other's stuff, but it was hard for them to be there when the other one was doing it. They'd want to make suggestions and they weren't always taken that well.”

The posthumous release, Milk & Honey, contained other partly finished tracks that Lennon had recorded for Double Fantasy. "Luckily, I always had him do live vocals while playing guitar in a booth, and they were usually quite good,” Douglas says, while asserting that yet more unreleased works-in-progress will eventually see the light of day. These, however, probably won't include the Lennon‑Douglas co-composition, 'Street Of Dreams'.

"That was just him singing and playing the piano,” Douglas explains. "I'd love to see it released, but I'm not sure that will ever happen.”