Johnny Thunders

TrackAlbum
Born To LoseL.A.M.F: The Lost '77 Mixes
Chinese RocksL.A.M.F: The Lost '77 Mixes
One Track MindLive At Max's Kansas City
PipelineSo Alone
You Can't Put Your Arms Around A MemorySo Alone
Daddy Rolling StoneSo Alone
Endless PartyQue Sera Sera
CrawfishCopy Cats
I Was Born To CryCopy Cats
Some Hearts (Birdsong)Acoustic Thunders

 

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The Heartbreakers photo

The Heartbreakers (l to r): Jerry Nolan, Richard Hell, Walter Lure, Johnny Thunders – photo: Roberta Bayley

 

Contributor: Andrew Shields

The point is that Johnny ‘had it’. Like Jack Kerouac or Frank O’Hara as writers, or Jackson Pollock in paint, he was never short of nerve and he was magnificent. He played with a mesmerizing, casual fury, ripping chords from the guitar as if they were love letters he’d stopped himself just in time from sending. He really only spoke with his guitar, so when he played he said a lot and said it directly. He burned.” Richard Hell

And I just got into that … album of theirs [the New York Dolls]! I thought it was great, just the rawness of it. And y’know Thunders guitar was what I really dug at the time.” Steve Jones

It was Keith Richards for me and Johnny Thunders … My first proper guitar was a Les Paul Junior. I saved for months, till I had enough money. I had to have a Junior, because of Johnny Thunders.” Mick Jones

A hugely influential figure – and generally his own worst enemy – Johnny Thunders was one of the greatest guitarists to emerge from the musical revolution that was punk. Possibly his most important achievement was to restore the idea that you didn’t have to be a musical virtuoso to be a great rock guitarist. His short sharp perfectly timed solos had the kind of visceral energy that had been present in early rock ‘n’ roll and in the great 1960s British ‘invasion’ bands but had seem to dissipate in the course of the 1970s. Indeed, Thunders was never a musical iconoclast like some of the British ‘punks’. Instead he had come not to bury rock music but to restore it to its former glory. In later years, he also frequently rejected the label of ‘punk’ guitarist, instead insisting that he played rock and roll (as he does in this interview on Irish TV in 1990).

Born John Anthony Genzale in Queens, New York, in 1952, Thunders received his first musical education through his sister Mariann’s record collection. She introduced him to the great American ‘girl’ groups like the Shangri-Las, who remained a major influence on his music for the remainder of his life. Later, he started regularly attending gigs at the Fillmore East, where he saw most of the major American acts of the day and British bands like the Yardbirds, the Who, the Kinks and Small Faces. Some people have also claimed that he can be seen in the crowd watching the Rolling Stones play at Madison Square Garden in the 1970 live concert film, Gimme Shelter. However, this identification has been disputed online.

New York Dolls photo

New York Dolls 1973 (l to r): Arthur Kane (bass), Jerry Nolan (drums), David Johansen (vocals), Sylvain Sylvain (rhythm guitar), Johnny Thunders (lead guitar) – photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

By this point, Thunders’ main guitar heroes included Keith Richards (always his principal idol), Jeff Beck and Hubert Sumlin. By the later 1960s, he had also became a fan of the newer harder-edged American bands like MC5 and the Stooges and their style was to be a key influence in deciding his own later musical direction. Having been in a few short-lived rock bands in his teenage years, in 1970 he joined the group Actress, with Rick Rivets and Arthur Kane on lead guitar and Billy Murcia on drums. Although Thunders originally joined as a bass guitarist, he soon swapped instruments with Kane, when it became clear that he was more technically proficient on it than was the latter. Shortly afterwards, David Johnansen joined the band as the lead vocalist and the New York Dolls were born. I would direct anyone who wishes to know more about that group to Michael Richardson’s fine Toppermost on them.

 

I didn’t like everything he did but equally a lot was great. He was a perfect example of a person who was not particularly articulate, but articulates through his guitar playing. You hear one note and know it’s Johnny Thunders.” Rowland S. Howard

‘Johnny, c’mon – you must remember Pipeline!’ I would prompt him to dig into his bag of tricks (being the same age and having grown up listening to all the same radio) and he held the room enthralled as he reeled off the AM charts like a card shark dealing hands. He had the look in spades too, the erstwhile angel with blood-stained sleeves, the cowboy saddlebags slung over his delicate shoulders and dark doleful eyes that said, ‘Feed me’.
He’d been all set to play professional baseball but got waylaid by rock and roll, and yet, metaphorically speaking, was still spending most of his time in the dugout. However, apart from the usual junkie characteristics of lying, stealing, cheating and going missing for days, he had a sweet nature that even the drug could not fully compromise. He was looked up to, and with admiration came the inevitable aspirations to emulate him.” Chrissie Hynde

Paul [Westerberg] was a huge Johnny Thunders and New York Dolls fan, so I became one as I was learning about them. And I think there is a part of Johnny in all of us and I don’t mean that figuratively. Most of the punk rockers and the musicians I know have been his fan at some point or another. There is a sort of intrinsic beauty to Johnny that everyone takes away, as fucked up as the guy was.” Tommy Stinson

After leaving the Dolls in May 1975, Thunders and his musical soul-mate and comrade in arms, the drummer, Jerry Nolan, rapidly formed a new group, the Heartbreakers. The original line- up also included Richard Hell (who had recently left Television) on bass and Walter Lure on guitar. This version of the band survived until early 1976, when the musical differences between Thunders and Hell led to the latter’s departure from the group (some of the demos made in this first phase of the band can be heard here. Even then the group adhered to their core belief that rock songs should be short, sharp and straight to the point. One major point of difference, however, was the fact that while literary influences were always central for Hell, by contrast Thunders’ inspiration lay primarily in early rock ‘n’ roll and blues. In this context, the relationship between the two men was always a relatively fraught one and it frayed even further when Hell tried to impose his musical vision on the band. With his departure, Billy Rath replaced him in the group. Unlike Hell, he had no interest in being the front person or main songwriter of the group. This left Thunders and Lure as the major creative forces within the band.

Max's Kansas City

From that point on, the new version of the group had a tightness and cohesion that the earlier one had lacked. It also quickly developed a reputation as a superlative live act. During this period, it became closely associated with the ‘scene’ around Max’s Kansas City, a music venue in New York which had previously been principally linked with the Velvet Underground. One of the key components in the Heartbreakers reputation as a live act was Thunders’ unique style of guitar playing.

This was largely based on revved-up Chuck Berry/Keith Richards-eque licks and note-bending, distorted further through the use of reverb and high volume. This gave it an edgy aggressive feel, which made it an attractive model for many later punk guitarists. Thunders’ playing always remained far more about ‘feel’ than it was about the pursuit of technical perfection for its own sake. This gave an added excitement to his short solos which had a focused rawness that seemed on the edge of falling into chaos at any moment but rarely did. To use Bob Dylan’s phrase about Roscoe Holcomb, there was an “untamed sense of control” to his music making. Another way of putting it would be to say that there was more real rock and roll feeling in one note from Johnny Thunders than you will find in many other musicians’ whole careers.

In December 1976, this second incarnation of the band was parachuted into the frenzy which surrounded the Sex Pistols’ famous (or infamous) ‘Anarchy’ tour of the UK. The Heartbreakers probably owed their place on that tour to the fact that Nolan and Thunders had both previously worked with Malcolm McLaren while in the New York Dolls. Whatever the reason for their inclusion, the Heartbreakers now found themselves playing with bands who shared their rebellious, anti-establishment attitudes but who were also politically motivated in a way which was alien to the their philosophy. One result of their involvement with the tour, however, was that the Heartbreakers became associated with the English ‘punk’ scene – a movement which they did not, necessarily, have all that much in common. The band’s facility with their instruments was also something that came as a shock to many of their British punk counterparts (as evidenced by the quote below from a young Stephen Morrissey).

 

After witnessing Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers live, my much revered Carly Simon, Loudon Wainwright, Jefferson Airplane, Buffy Sainte-Marie, New York Dolls, Phil Ochs and Patti Smith albums are presently smouldering on a low light. Don’t talk to me about any band but the Heartbreakers because I just won’t listen – these boys are newer than the New Wave and (surprise!) they can play! What’s even more amazing is that the Heartbreakers’ music is both memorable and professional, something which is seemingly least expected from a New Wave band. The seventies start here.” Morrissey

I was barmy about Johnny Thunders; he was the Keith Richards of my generation.” Johnny Marr

Johnny Thunders was, for me, the best guitarist who ever lived … [not for his ‘technique’ but because he] played with his whole body, his complete soul.” Nikki Sudden

I just wish more people had survived. I imagine what Johnny Thunders would be like. I think he’d be so amazing right now. It’s so sad, really.” Debbie Harry

On the Sex Pistols tour, ironically enough, the Heartbreakers only got to play a very small numbers of gigs as most of the rest were either banned or called off at short notice. Nevertheless, their involvement in it gave the group a certain cachet in punk circles. Subsequently, they began to gain a wider following through playing concerts at London venues like The Roxy. The growing reputation of the band soon brought them to the attention of Track Records, the label run by Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp. Although both men had an impressive pedigree (Lambert, in particular, through his association with the Who) by this point they had also developed a reputation for unreliability and erratic behaviour, which, in many respects, resembled the Heartbreakers’ own. As a result it was to be on their label that the group’s first album L.A.M.F. (a New York acronym for ‘like a motherfucker’, one which also apparently had gang connotations) was released.

Sadly, while the album itself was an excellent one, its murky sound (the reasons for which are much disputed although most commentators lay the primary blame for it on Jerry Nolan) greatly dampened its impact on release. Later re-releases have restored the album to something like its original glory. In essence, it is a top-class collection of ‘bare bones’ no frills rock and roll songs. It opens with my first choice, Born To Lose, which fittingly is one of Thunders’ finest ‘loser’ anthems. As Nina Antonia, Thunders’ biographer has argued, although the message of the song is bleak the musical backing to it comes across as “triumphant” and Thunders “revels” in “the luckless sentiments” it contains.

My second choice from the album, Chinese Rocks, is, with Lou Reed’s Heroin, one of the most honest accounts of the drug addict’s lifestyle in rock music. Originally written by Dee Dee Ramone, he gave it to the Heartbreakers when his own band, the Ramones, proved reluctant to record it. Richard Hell (who, at that time, was still in the Heartbreakers) then made some minor changes to it but, when it first appeared on the album, both Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan had added their names to it as songwriters. In more recent times, the credits have been changed to list Johnny, Joey and Dee Dee Ramone as the writers of the song. This toing and froing has meant that ‘Rocks’ has been the subject of some controversy but, whatever the merits of that are, it remains an extremely powerful song. Also, as Nina Antonia has pointed out, it is anything but a celebration of the life of a drug addict. She describes it as a “brutally seamy sketch” of such an existence. It has a touch of “gallows humour” about it, something which was even more apparent in Thunders’ own later song, Too Much Junkie Business (a pastiche, in some respects, of Chuck Berry’s Too Much Monkey Business).

Because of the Heartbreakers’ prowess as a live act, I decided to include the version of One Track Mind from the classic Live At Max’s Kansas City album rather than the studio one from L.A.M.F.. It has an energy and excitement to it, which the other rendition (as good as that is) does not quite possess. It also shows the concentrated power and cohesion which the group possessed at that point. Sadly, the internal disputes within the group about the sound/ production of L.A.M.F. ultimately led to its disintegration in late 1977. Early the following year, Thunders began playing gigs in London with a loose collective of musicians (sometimes known as The Living Dead) which included people like Paul Cook and Steve Jones, formerly of the Sex Pistols, the great Peter Perrett of the Only Ones on guitar and backing vocals and the singer, Patti Palladin, a fellow American, who was to become one of his most regular collaborators in later years.

It was with this nucleus of musicians that Thunders recorded his first solo album, the classic So Alone, which was first released on Real Records in October 1978. Perhaps surprisingly, given the chaotic nature of Thunders’ lifestyle at that time, the record was a consistently excellent one which represents one of his finest musical achievements. It opens with a brilliant cover of the Chantays ‘surf’ instrumental Pipeline, which is my first pick.

My second choice from So Alone, You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory, is probably Johnny Thunders’ greatest song. It also reveals a sensitive and vulnerable side to his songwriting, one which had not been as apparent in his earlier work. Indeed, in more recent years, ‘Memory’ has become something of a rock standard, covered by artists as diverse as Guns N’ Roses and Ronnie Spector. The album version also clearly demonstrates Thunders’ ability to, in Paul Westerberg’s words, make the guitar sound “like an animal in pain”. I would also advise readers to check out the superb solo version on his much underrated 1993 ‘acoustic’ album, Hurt Me. And here’s another fine acoustic version:

Reflecting Thunders’ love for early rhythm and blues, my next choice Daddy Rolling Stone is, in the words of B.P. Fallon, the Irish musician/ broadcaster/ musical networker, a “storming” cover of the Otis Blackwell classic. It also features brilliant ‘cameo’ vocal performances by the late great Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy and Steve Marriott of the Small Faces, who also contributes a fine harmonica solo. Along with a number of other self-penned classics such as Ask Me No Questions and (She’s So) Untouchable, So Alone is also notable for what are probably the definitive recordings of a number of songs that Thunders had previously performed with the Dolls. These include the great Subway Train and a cover of the Shangri-La’s ‘Great Big Kiss’ which includes some brilliant interplay between Thunders and Palladin.

From that point, Johnny Thunders’ albums became progressively patchier. There are, however, a few major exceptions to this such as Hurt Me and the superb ‘covers’ album, Copy Cats. Part of the reason for this lay in his struggles with the temptations of life on the road. As his physical condition gradually deteriorated, it became more difficult for him to concentrate on producing the type of coherent and cohesive records which he had previously made. As a result, while all of his later albums contained at least a few brilliant tracks (such as his version of the great Dolls pop/rock song Endless Party on the 1985 album, Que Sera Sera) there was more filler on them than before.

The shining exception to this trend was Copy Cats, the album of 1950s and early 1960s rock and roll and pop covers which Thunders made with Patti Palladin in 1988. As the album proved, their vocal styles were brilliantly complementary. This was clearly demonstrated in their cover of Elvis Presley’s Crawfish, a song which had first appeared in his 1958 film, King Creole. If it required a major dose of bravado and chutzpah to record a song by The King, then Johnny and Patti were definitely not short of either. While very different from Presley’s version, theirs has a wit and energy which is very much their own.

My next selection, I Was Born To Cry, gives Thunders the opportunity to give a nod to another Italian-American rock ‘great’, Dion. To quote Nina Antonia again, his version of the song “is sublime, a miniature tragedy of full blown proportions with a hearty dose of irony”. This sense of irony is apparent throughout the record and – when combined with the obvious love and admiration for the music which both Palladin and Thunders share – gives it a freshness and edginess which prevents it from becoming overly respectful. Instead the album is full of life and vitality and is anything but a museum piece.

In the later years of his life, Thunders made a number of efforts to go off drugs and to get clean. He also put together a new backing band known as the Oddballs, which featured Alison Gordy on backing vocals, Stevie Klasson on guitar and Jamie Heath on saxophone. It was with Heath that Johnny recorded the beautiful Some Hearts, my last choice. Heath’s fine filigree sax part helps create the atmospheric quality which makes it one of the finest songs Thunders ever recorded.

Sadly, Johnny Thunders’ attempts to get his life together ultimately failed and he died – in still rather mysterious circumstances – on 23rd April 1991 in New Orleans. It seems clear, though, that he was in very poor health even before the rather sad circumstances that surround his death. However, he left behind a very rich musical legacy which has gone on to influence artists as diverse as Mick Jones, Johnny Marr, Paul Westerberg, Chrissie Hynde, Debbie Harry and a whole host of other artists.

Will conclude with Vic Godard’s fine tribute to Johnny:

 

 

Johnny Thunders photo

Johnny Thunders (1952–1991)

 

Johnny Thunders Cyber Lounge

Johnny Thunders Musical Tributes

Johnny Thunders unofficial site

“Johnny Thunders: In Cold Blood” by Nina Antonia (Cherry Red Books 2000)

“Looking For Johnny: The Legend of Johnny Thunders” by Danny Garcia (Punk Hostage Press 2018)

“Stranded in the Jungle: Jerry Nolan’s Wild Ride” – a Tale of Drugs, Fashion, the New York Dolls, and Punk Rock by Curt Weiss (Backbeat Books 2017)

Jerry Nolan (1946–1992)

Billy Rath (1948-2014)

Richard Hell official site

Walter Lure & The Waldos

New York Dolls facebook

Johnny Thunders biography (iTunes)

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs ….

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Jeff Beck, Chuck Berry, Blondie, Clash, Rowland S. Howard, Kinks, Johnny Marr, Morrissey, New York Dolls, Pretenders, Ramones, Lou Reed, Rolling Stones, Sex Pistols, Shangri-Las, Small Faces, Ronnie Spector, Swell Maps, Thin Lizzy, Velvet Underground, Paul Westerberg, Who, Yardbirds

TopperPost #778

5 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    Apr 5, 2019

    Johnny proved in every song on this list and in most of the others that punk playing could be virtuosic. A marvellous musician and the Debbie Harry quote is spot on – how amazing would he be today?

  2. Wally Salem
    Apr 6, 2019

    You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory is such an amazing song. So is Some Hearts and I can certainly see the influence he had on Nikki Sudden and Dave Kusworth.

  3. Andrew Shields
    Apr 7, 2019

    David & Wally, thanks for these comments.
    David – As you say, would have been interesting to see how Johnny might have handled the role of ‘elder statesman’.
    Wally – Nikki was always one of Johnny’s major champions. And Johnny’s music was developing in very interesting ways later in his life. Led Syl Sylvain to ask him at one point ‘are you a folk musician now, Johnny?’. Unfortunately he hasn’t yet given us Johnny’s reply.

  4. Dave Stephens
    Apr 19, 2019

    A very fine Topper. Thank you Andrew. Particularly liked the “untamed sense of control”.

  5. Andrew Shields
    Apr 20, 2019

    Dave, thanks for this. Thought the Dylan quote captured something of Johnny’s ‘ragged glory’…

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