How often does a former Sex Pistol hold the door open for you? Well, that's exactly what Glen Matlock – ever the soul of politeness – does on this frigid Lansing night, though perhaps the question needs rephrasing. How often do you get to see two punk's original vanguard, live and unplugged?
That's exactly what we get with this inspired pairing of Matlock and New York Dolls guitarist, Syl Sylvain – up close and personal, armed with nothing more than their acoustic guitars, a few stories and a generous dipping through their bands' respective back pages (hence, the Sex Dolls billing).
Sylvain emerges as the more outwardly animated performer, but his wit and showmanship make tonight's under-attended mid-week outing – there can't be more than 40 people here tonight, give or take – feel like an outing at Radio City Music Hall (which the Dolls played, incidentally, supporting Mott the Hoople).
When it comes to the art of crowd response, Sylvain doesn't miss a trick. “It was a long way from fuckin' Cleveland – c'mon, Lansing,” he cracks after his opening one-two punch (“Teenage News,” “I'm Sorry”), which earns a bigger response. For a slow-burning “Femme Fatale,” he calls on the help of Hattie Danby (drummer for tonight's opener, the Plurals), and leads a girls-against-boys singalong battle on the chorus.
While introducing the Bo Dilddley song, “Pills” – which the Dolls covered – Sylvain recalls the night that he and his cohorts got booted from My Father's Place, where the song's author was performing. “We're yelling for 'Pills,' Bo Diddley's onstage – he's getting really fuckin' pissed off, right? He calls the security guys, and has us thrown out of the fuckin' place for selling drugs!” Sylvain recalls, amid roars of amusement. “You can't make this shit up.”
The same thing happens on the Dolls classic “Trash,” which Sylvain pauses to deconstruct via Eddie Cochran – because that's where its central riff originates, he asserts. “Mark my words, we wouldn't have a fuckin' punk revolution without that fuckin' riff – I'll show you why,” Sylvain says, before playing snippets of “Sheena Is A Punk Rocker” and “God Save The Queen” that sound a bit familiar. “I just wanted to tell you, I fuckin' ripped it off first, OK?”
All jokes apart, Sylvain's approach shows why the other Dolls/Thunders songs that he whips out (“Great Big Kiss,” “Jet Boy,” “You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory”) still stand up today. Often dismissed during their heyday as undisciplined noise merchants, the Dolls' influences actually owed a great deal to their '50s and '60s heroes – only cranked up to ten, with grittier overtones than the glossy nostalgia of, say, “Happy Days.” You get the idea.
Sylvain ends his set with a flourish by reprising his 2012 single (“Leaving New York”) as he walks strumming through the crowd – there he goes, right past our table! – having gotten the evening off to a rousing start, indeed. By contrast, Glen doesn't talk quite as much – eternal English reserve, eh? – but showcases an equally biting wit.
For example, when he's introducing “Ambition” – a slow-burning ballad that Iggy Pop recorded on his 1980 album, “Soldier,” and one of Matlock's best-known post-Pistols tracks – he recalls feeling thrilled, until he heard the end results.
“He (Iggy) said, 'You got any songs?', and I played him a few ideas...I was lucky enough that he chose one of my songs to do,” Glen explains. “But he didn't make the best job of it.” Amid a few nervous laughs, Glen repeats the point: “Well, he didn't. I'm gonna kind of try and improve on it now.” And he does, with a self-assured delivery that helps him make his case.
Like Sylvain, Glen's not above the odd crowdbaiting trick or two himself – such as on the Sex Pistols' standard, “God Save The Queen,” when he seeks to incite a mass clapalong: “I ain't got a drummer at the moment, but I got all of you guys, so it'd help me out if you do this...” He pauses to demonstrate. “It keeps your hands warm!”
And, also like Sylvain, Glen's songwriting bears the '50s and '60s imprint – not only in music, but also in sentiment, whether he hails the era's anything-goes spirit (“A Different World”), voicing his disdain for the bullshit quotient of modern life (“On Something” -- as in, "Wish that I was..."), or giving a two-fingered salute to self-indulgent figures shucking and shimmying into the public's good graces (“Yeah Right”).
As these tunes suggest, Glen's an accomplished songwriter – the bar's got to be high, indeed, when you're responsible for classics like “Pretty Vacant” and “Ghosts Of Princes In Towers,” which also get an airing tonight. He deserves more than being seen as the product of a glorious revolutionary past – which is probably why he seems genuinely surprised that John and I express delight at his announcement of the Rich Kids' song, “Burning Sounds.”
However, it's one of the highlights of Glen's set, which finds him dipping into the Kinks (“Dead End Street”), and a couple standbys from the Pistols days – “Pretty Vacant,” and “Stepping Stone,” which he dryly introduces as a song “by one of the first boy bands in existence”. Perhaps he's feeling a bit weary of that whole subject, though the song actually hails from the Monkees – an original '60s boy band (so to speak) Hopefully, experiences like this tour will show audiences the greater depth to Glen's back story.
The evening ends on a triumphantly casual note, as Sylvain, Glen and Hattie join forces for some loose, extended romps through“Bang A Gong” (T. Rex), “Money” (Barrett Strong), and “Personality Crisis” (New York Dolls) – three non-originals that provide an appropriate snapshot of the spirit on display. Or, as Glen explains before he unleashes “Burning Sounds”:
“To me, when you're 15 and 16 years old, and you start checking out rock bands, you hear something that makes you think, 'There's got to be a bit more to it than what they tell you.' I like the Kinks, and the Beatles, and stuff like that – and they made the burning sounds for me.” Let's hope these guys team up again, and treat us to a few more burning sounds like we heard tonight – because, if you didn't make it to this outing, you definitely missed something special.