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Interview: New York Dolls guitarists Sylvain Sylvain and Earl Slick
Johnny Thunders is dead. That's not news: the original lead guitarist of the New York Dolls checked out in a New Orleans hotel room two decades ago. We're only bringing it up now because of the void his death left when the band that made him infamous reformed in 2004.
Following in the footsteps of Steve Conte and Frank Infante, the latest guitarist to fill in for Thunders is Earl Slick, a hired gun whose CV includes stints with David Bowie, John Lennon and Mick Jagger.
Slick joins the two surviving Dolls - frontman David Johansen and rhythm guitarist Sylvain Sylvain - for a tour in support of the band's new album, Dancing Backward In High Heels
"One thing we can do, that the other guys can't do, is kick your ass with feel."
As we watch Sylvain and Earl buddy up at TG's photo shoot, it's obvious just what a great fit Slick is for the New York Dolls. He looks the part and comes from the same place, both geographically and musically, as David and Syl.
"It's a fucking miracle come true!" exclaims an ecstatic Syl. "He could have been here since day one." Day one for the Dolls was their gig on Christmas Eve 1971 at The Endicott, a flea-bitten welfare-hotel-cum-homeless-shelter in the Upper West Side of New York.
You couldn't dream up a more fitting venue for a group of street toughs in drag mixing together the raw blast of proto-punk bands such as The Stooges and MC5 with the sweet arrangements of 60s girl groups like The Shangri- Las, Ronettes and Shirelles.
"We did it all blindly," says Syl as he and Earl take a break from the shoot to talk about guitar playing and life as Dolls. "We didn't have any kind of round table discussion about what we were doing or were about to do. This was real kids living their lives, getting into trouble. We weren't making it up. We're still like that."
Slick interjects with his own early Dolls memories: "I saw the Dolls once or twice back then… I liked them," he says with a laconism that would shame a Spartan.
Aside from Johansen, Sylvain and Thunders, the original Dolls line-up included drummer Billy Murcia and bassist Arthur 'Killer' Kane. Murcia died from a drugs overdose in 1972 while the band was on tour in England and was eventually replaced by Jerry Nolan. Kane, meanwhile, died from leukaemia in 2004 after a few reunion performances.
The original New York Dolls were a gang, an intimidating sight that would send John Q Public scuttling across to the other side of the road to avoid them.
Critics loved, dismissed and even hated the Dolls in equal measure. The band couldn't have cared less, standing their ground, tottering on high heels, chewing gum and projecting 'attatood'.
"We were scary!" laughs Syl. "That's why we didn't get signed for years. We were passed by every major record company. The only label that didn't come down and chuck out the New York Dolls was Mercury and that's who we eventually signed with."
The Dolls recorded two albums for Mercury: New York Dolls in 1973 and Too Much Too Soon, which was released a year later. Neither shifted many copies at the time of their release, but they have sold steadily over the years, becoming essential listening for guitarists of a certain bent.
In more recent years, despite the loss of Nolan, Thunders and Kane, the surviving Dolls have nailed down three more albums: One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This (2006), Cause I Sez So (2009) and the new record Dancing Backward In High Heels.
A mix of street corner doo-wop and '60s pop, the new album was recorded in Newcastle, of all places. David and Sylvain just happen to like it there. Earl wasn't onboard at the time of the recording, so Syl shared the album's guitar parts with one-time Blondie guitarist Frank Infante.
According to Sylvain, some of the songs started life as post-gig sketches recorded into his iPhone. "I recorded Talk To Me Baby in my hotel room in Camden Town, London," says Sylvain. "I guess I was disturbing my neighbours. They were knocking on the walls and doors and stuff!
"End Of The Summer I wrote in Blackpool when we were doing a festival there last year. It reminded me of Coney Island in New York. So that's basically how the record kicked off - recorded on a smartphone by a big dummy like me!"
Earl's chance for a place in the Doll's line-up came when Frank Infante declined the offer to tour with the band. Earl got wind of the vacant spot and threw his hat in the ring.
"I was just looking to get out on tour this year," he tells us. "I wasn't sure who was going out or what was going on. Anyway, one thing led to another and I ended up getting in touch with Sylvain and that was it."
Both men clicked as musicians, bonded by their love of a certain English rock group. "The inspiration for me to stay a guitar player has been Keith Richards, my entire career."
"I grew up with The Stones too," says Syl. "They were great when they first started. You could tell that [the music] was innocent and still in its learning process. We would pick up their records and go 'Wow, did you hear what they're doing now?'"
Syl's obviously pleased to have Earl onboard, but how does Slick rate the guitarist who's been a Doll since day one? "Syl is wonderful," says Earl. "He's a damn good rhythm player."
"It's funny," interrupts Syl. "When we first started, and in some cases today, it's like, 'Oh shut up, you don't know how to play your instrument. You don't know how to write a song, you have no reason to be onstage!'"
"Syl's a really good in-your-face feel player," counters Earl. "It's all about the damn feel. Neither one of us, if you think about it, is the most proficient player on the planet. But one thing we can do, that the other guys can't do, is kick your ass with feel."
While Sylvain has played various Gibson Les Paul models over the years, including the white Les Paul Custom that found its way into the mitts of Sex Pistol Steve Jones, he's best known as a Gretsch player.
"I've always gone for those hollow bodies," says Sylvain. "Eddie Cochran was God for me. I loved how he used to fuck with those guitars... You know, hot rod them. That's what I do. Like with my Gretsch Golden Anniversary: I took out the treble pickup and threw in a humbucker."
Earl has his own signature guitar made by Framus. "Those guitars are made so well," says Earl. "That's one thing I'm very particular about, my equipment. I'm using a few of them. Some with P90s and some with humbuckers. I also have my own signature guitar straps."
Earl's new straps have a cool old-school rock vibe, a description that brings us neatly to his choice of guitar amplifiers... "I'm using Orange AD30s," he says. "I use two of 'em at once. I don't like to rely on gadgets to get sounds. If I can't get the guitar and amp to sound good together, there's an inherent problem there. Either I suck or I'm using the wrong gear!"
Now that they've found their lead guitarist, the New York Dolls will spend most of this year's summer touring the US as part of a Mötley Crüe/Poison package deal. The Dolls will be the opening act!
"Er, shouldn't those guys be supporting you?" we ask. "You did invent them, after all." The question is brushed aside with a snort of laughter. Syl doesn't want any credit for the '80s hair metal scene, thank you very much. He just wants his band to be tough as hell to follow onstage.
He and Earl are like a pair of prize fighters; they can't wait to get out there and tear down the competition. "We're still poking at you like, 'Wow, you think you're fucking groovy?'" says Syl. "Well, shit, I can still do it twice as good, backwards, dancing in high heels... so fuck you!"