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Johnny Thunders

+ {The Heartbreakers} + {Johnny Thunders & The Heartbreakers}

Born to lose, or to ultimately win the hearts of glam-punk-rock fans from all over globe, guitarist/singer JOHNNY THUNDERS lived the dream of a drug-fuelled rock’n’roll star (much like his idol KEITH RICHARDS), primarily as the foil to DAVID JOHANSEN in proto-punk 70s outfit, NEW YORK DOLLS, and then as leader of The HEARTBREAKERS. As a solo artist living in London, Johnny was known to frequent with the post-punk glitterati (ex-SEX PISTOLS, et al), but his dream turned into a nightmare and eventual death as substance abuse (mainly heroin) took hold of his sporadic and sprawling music career.
Born John Anthony Genzale, Jr., July 15, 1952 in Queens, New York City, JT’s early life began to blossom, when, in 1967/68 (as Johnny Volume), he played with both The Reign and his own Quintano’s School for Young Professionals-sponsored combo, Johnny & The Jaywalkers. At the turn of the 70s, frustrated and bored with his environs, Johnny took a summer vacation in London, England, taking in Carnaby Street, the Speakeasy Club and the odd hippy festival or two (Isle of Wight, etc.).
Back in NYC’s West Village, he struck up a friendship with musicians Arthur Kane (bass) and Rick Rivets (guitar), forming the short-lived Actress toward the end of ’71. With Rick out of the picture (he formed The Brats), the birth of the NEW YORK DOLLS culminated with the addition of Jagger-like singer DAVID JOHANSEN, Rivets replacement Sylvain Sylvain and drummer Billy Murcia; tragically, on a brief tour across the Pond, the latter O.D.’d.
THUNDERS and his motley crew of campy cross-dressers (Jerry Nolan on sticks) almost immediately got the break they needed and signed to Mercury Records in early ‘73. Garnering a cult following (which duly stretched to London and punk Svengali MALCOLM McLAREN), the NEW YORK DOLLS despatched two seminal albums, `New York Dolls’ (1973) and `Too Much Too Soon’ (1974) before imploding and fragmenting into various punk/new wave combos.
Now as vocalist and guitarist, JOHNNY THUNDERS formed The HEARTBREAKERS (nothing to do with TOM PETTY’s band) alongside Nolan and ex-TELEVISION/pre-Void Oids bassist RICHARD HELL. After an initial gig as a trio, the group picked up an extra guitarist, Walter Lure and Richard’s replacement Billy Rath. The quartet were invited to London by ex-`Dolls manager, MALCOLM McLAREN, who offered them a support slot with his Brit-punk stars, The SEX PISTOLS; namely their “Anarchy” tour of late ’76 alongside The CLASH and The DAMNED. Johnny and band subsequently signed to UK label, Track, issuing their debut 45 `Chinese Rocks’ (a tribute to oriental narcotics co-written with Dee Dee of the RAMONES) in early ‘77; both the lead track and its flipside, `Born To Lose’, products of a time when it was cool to be wayward and wasted.
In September of that “Jubilee” year, The HEARTBREAKERS released their much-anticipated debut album, L.A.M.F. {*5} – New York street slang for “Like A Mother Fucker” – and, although it suffered from tacky and tinny production provided by one-time THUNDERCLAP NEWMAN affiliate Speedy Keen, the set still managed to squeeze into the UK charts. So bad was the record’s sound that Nolan apparently left in protest; further calamity befalling the band as they found themselves on the wrong side of the immigration authorities having abandoned their label. On the plus side (not counting the raft of consequential “L.A.M.F. REVISITED” re-vamps {*7} with THUNDERS in control), the record had its favourable moments such as both sides of the aforementioned debut 45, plus the RAMONES-esque `One Track Mind’, `Get Off The Phone’, `Pirate Love’ and `All By Myself’. Deported back to NY, the band inevitably splintered despite having recruited a replacement drummer, Ty Styx.
JOHNNY THUNDERS duly returned to London where he recorded the un-appropriately-titled SO ALONE (1978) {*8} album, aided and abetted as it was by Lure and Rath, plus the cream of the UK new wave scene including Peter Perrett (The ONLY ONES), Chrissie Hynde (future PRETENDERS), STEVE MARRIOTT, SEX PISTOLS’ Paul Cook and Steve Jones, Paul Gray (EDDIE AND THE HOT RODS), etc. Sadly, it went unreleased in his homeland, America (for a while at least!) missing out on the literate, yearning drawl of `You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory’, his postscript to Marc B via `London Boys’ (BOLAN’s `The Wizard’ is a bonus on the CD), and three rollicking covers from The Chantays (`Pipeline’), Otis Blackwell (`Daddy Rollin’ Stone’ – featuring PHIL LYNOTT on a verse) and The SHANGRI-LA’S (`Great Big Kiss’); the penultimate and final pieces, `Subway Train’ and `Downtown’ were penned with old NYD mucker JOHANSEN.
JOHNNY THUNDERS & THE HEARTBREAKERS re-grouped for farewell gigs toward the fall of ‘78; the resultant stage set LIVE AT MAX’S KANSAS CITY (1979) {*7} stands as testament to what might’ve been; check out the cover of Berry Gordy Jr.’s `Do You Love Me’ (made famous by The Contours and the DAVE CLARK FIVE). During the interim period, THUNDERS teamed up with another former Pistol, SID VICIOUS, in the ill-fated, unfortunately named, The Living Dead; Sid was to die in controversial circumstances the following February.
The 80s were a drug-fuelled blur for most of the time for THUNDERS as he jumped ship from one project/concept/idea. There were of course snippets of his talents via hard-rock outfit Gang War (alongside fellow proto-punk MC5 leader WAYNE KRAMER), but recordings were sparse and bootlegged to oblivion; one can try GANG WAR (1990) {*4}.
In the meantime, THUNDERS released a series of sporadic albums/singles mostly for UK indie label, Jungle, although he never managed to shake off the cult legend tag. Although initially only released in France as an EP (comprising five cuts including a take of BOOKER T & THE MGs `Green Onions’), IN COLD BLOOD (1983) – the album {*4} – led out a series of fair-to-middling records. If one had to pick out the best of these, the acoustic-live HURT ME (1983) {*7} has its all-too-brief moments with tracks sticking to a shortened formulaic approach; songs by DYLAN, SLOAN, and old NYD nuggets getting a fresh injection – no pun intended.
While there was room in his life for another predictable stab at a JOHNNY THUNDERS AND THE HEARTBREAKERS reunion, through a raucous re-tread of covers and originals in LIVE AT THE LYCEUM BALLROOM, LONDON (1984) {*4}, the man was a pale shadow of his former self for QUE SERA SERA (1985) {*5}. Together with supporters of his cause, Keith Yon and Tony St. Helene (the former rhythm of The Black Cats) and long-time sidekick Patti Palladin (ex-SNATCH), the ill-fated STIV BATORS, John Perry (ex-ONLY ONES), Glen Matlock (another ex-SEX PISTOLS guy), and others, all the right chemicals were in place for the punk party album of the year – listeners just didn’t buy it. The poignant staple title track, once the hot property of Doris Day and her ilk (now in the hands of Johnny and PATTI PALLADIN), was just so out of touch. The pair’s duet covers set, COPY CATS (1988) {*6} was a nice touch, recalling rock’n’roll goldies from the 50s and 60s, ELVIS’s `Crawfish’ even surfacing as a single; highlight renditions stemmed from SKY SAXON/SEEDS (`Can’t Seem To Make You Mine’), Bacharach-David (`Baby It’s You’), Leiber-Stoller (`Alligator Wine’) and DION (`I Was Born To Cry’).
Sadly, after only a matter of hours cutting a take of `Born To Lose’ with German punks DIE TOTEN HOSEN, Johnny died in New Orleans on April 23, 1991; the circumstances remaining shrouded in mystery until a subsequent autopsy revealed what most people suspected, that he’d overdosed on heroin – many journos, friends and family still have suspicions. He left three sons from his first marriage (to Julie) plus a daughter conceived while he’d lived in Sweden with his girlfriend, Suzanne. On the back of this tragic end to one of rock’n’punk heroes, Jerry Nolan died the following January. Rath and Lure duly retired from the scene; the former joined The Muggers, the latter would release an LP in Italy, `Live In Berlin’ (2008) which featured several Thunders & The Heartbreakers cuts.
© MC Strong 1994-2003/GRD // rev-up MCS Apr2012

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