Review Summary: An excellently executed half-hour portrait of 1970s New York proto-punk and its performers, every bit as loose, chaotic and genuinely hanging-by-a-thread desperate as the lives of those who recorded it.
What makes an artist or act, not just good or great, but legendary? The answer will, of course, vary from person to person, but generally seems to hinge around either a consistently brilliant output, a short but impactful career, or (most often) a combination of both. An artist who shows flashes of genius but is prematurely taken from their craft will generally make for a prime candidate for legendary status, either enforced by a rabid fanbase, the specialised media, or simply the passage of time.
John Anthony Genzale, best known by his stage name Johnny Thunders, definitely fit the above description. A true innovator of punk and rock'n'roll guitar, his erratic lifestyle and rampant drug addiction nevertheless threatened to end his career at any point, and it is nothing short of a wonder that he managed to survive the 1970s, let alone the following decade. Still, even as his life spiralled further and further out of control, so too did his legacy become more and more revered among proto-punk circles, to the point where any of his early to mid-period albums will be touted as a must-have for fans of this genre. And while the two tecords he cut with the New York Dolls tend to be mentioned before any of his other exploits, his first effort after that outfit's implosion – with new, short-lived band The Heartbreakers - will not come far behind; nor should it, as it is only marginally less accomplished than anything from the Dolls' original run.
And yet, that album (christened L.A.M.F.
, after a common acronym used in New York graffitti) almost never came to pass. So troubled was its gestation, and so unhinged the performers, that for the best part of a year the fate of the record hung in the balance, dependent on whatever whim Thunders and his equally as intoxicated associates might have next. Between numerous individual attempts at mixing the material, members quitting and being re-hired, a suitably chaotic tour with the Sex Pistols and, of course, copious amounts of narcotics, the future of not only L.A.M.F.
but the band itself seemed increasingly more uncertain. While the band did
implode shortly afterwards, however, the album managed to avoid that fate – and just as well, as, had that not been the case, the 70s glam-punk scene would have been deprived of one of its most notable and shining gems.
Not that L.A.M.F.
in any way seeks to reinvent the wheel; much to the contrary, actually. The songs (and the band) were mainly an excuse for Thunders, former Dolls accomplice Jerry Nolan, and new recruits Walter Lure and Billy Rath to visit the UK, and attempt to consume all of the drugs in the Greater London area in the process; as such, it is not surprising that the musicians stay firmly within their comfort zone for the duration of the record, never once straying too far from the glammy proto-punk Thunders himself had innovated as a member of the New York Dolls. In fact, the best way to describe the overall sound of L.A.M.F.
is as a slightly updated version of what the Dolls had offered up in their self-titled debut three years previously – murky, muddy, chaotic proto-punk rock, peppered with just the right amount of glam and pop sensibilities. And, much like on that record, the mixture works beautifully almost every time, even if the odd song is less instantly appealing (Baby Talk
) or memorable (Goin' Steady
) than the rest.
Still, it is hard to argue with a record which contains, not one, but two
absolute stone-cold proto-punk classics. Born To Lose
(or Born Too Loose
, depending on the source) opens hostilities in a swaggering manner, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is life beyond the Dolls for Thunders, whose raucous cries of 'I said HIT IT!'
are both a statement of intent and a desperate, fruitless attempt to enforce some sort of order on the chaos around him. Dee Dee Ramone-penned crack cocaine anthem Chinese Rocks
, on the other hand, gets its definitive reading here – murky, menacing, and a million miles from the Ramones' squeaky-clean re-interpretation from four years later. Either would be an obvious standout on historical value alone, so the fact that they are both genuinely excellent punk-rock tracks can only be construed as a pleasant bonus.
While these two songs would go on to become the flagship songs from the album, however, very few of the remaining ten tracks from the original release go to waste, either. It's Not Enough
, a slower, plaintive song, is an easy third standout, with Thunders' nasally crooning bringing to mind punk rock's most notorious hopeless romantic, Joey Ramone – a similarity which extends to the only other sentimental moment on the album, the obviously-titled I Love You
. Pirate Love
, on the other hand, shows the band's other extreme, standing as the most fuzz-drenched of all the tracks on the album, and inadvertently providing the inspiration for the lo-fi movement which would flourish in later decades. The rest of the songs mainly follow the rollicking, dissonant, sub-three-minute template set forth by the Dolls, with Thunders making the similarity even more obvious by openly aping former associate David Johansen's vocal stylings while also lmbuing each song with his distinctive guitar tone and fiery solo licks.
Speaking of fuzz brings about the elephant in the room for anyone discussing this particular record, and allegedly its biggest drawback – the production. As stated above, none of the members of the band was happy with Speedy Keen's final mix, which was only made worse by an error in the original vinyl printing, which rendered the album almost unlistenable; and while that would eventually be the version Track would choose for the album's original release, the myriad attempts to remaster the material since have shown that the band may well have had a point to reject it – evidently, the fans did not like it either.
And yet...the muddy, murky, messy production job lends these songs a certain charm. Despite some barely-acceptable botches which really should not have happened in a professional release (such as the sound quality often markedly varying from one track to the next) it can be argued that most of the songs on this album would almost certainly not have packed such a punch had they had the sort of pristine sound found on, say, the New York Dolls' Too Much Too Soon
; the declaredly lo-fi sound only heightens the feeling of a band constantly on the verge of collapse, helping put across the desperation felt by all involved in a way a 'real', professional production job might not have. Still, mileage does vary on the album's sound quality, and even to this day there are those who say a definitive mix for L.A.M.F.
is yet to be achieved.
Production issues notwithstanding, at the the end of the day, it is hard to argue against The Heartbreakers' one and only album as a bonafide proto-punk classic. Its first half alone would have granted it that status, and the fact that the songwriting quality remains at an absurdly high standard well into the back end only aids L.A.M.F.
's case. Any record with album tracks as solid as All By Myself, Get Off The Phone
or One Track Mind
– to say nothing of the legendary, genre-defining standouts – could never be classed as anything less than excellent, and that is exactly what L.A.M.F.
is: an excellently executed half-hour portrait of that genre and its performers, every bit as loose, chaotic and genuinely hanging-by-a-thread desperate as the lives of those who recorded it.
Born To Lose
It's Not Enough
Get Off The Phone
One Track Mind