In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.
When you hear a Johnny Thunders guitar riff, you know it’s Johnny Thunders. The sloppy Chuck Berry meets Dick Dale with a sprained wrist guitar solos combined with a Keith Richards meets Ray Davies rhythm – always punctuated with slides down the neck and hammer-ons – is as distinctly Thunders as is his voice – sarcastic, sweet, taunting, and offensive in one disheveled package. No other guitarist – whether it be The Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones or Guns N’ Roses’ Izzy Stradlin – could replicate his sound no matter how hard they’ve tried.
Born John Anthony Genzale in Queens, NY in 1952, he began using the moniker Johnny Volume in the late ‘60s while playing with The Reign and then Johnny and the Jaywalkers. After those groups he joined a band called Actress with Arthur Kane and Billy Murcia, which blossomed into the glam outfit The New York Dolls. Genzale traded in the Volume name and became Johnny Thunders. The Dolls dressed in women’s clothing and lipstick, playing rough uncouth rock n’ roll, paving the way for punk, glam, and metal bands to come. They put out two highly influential albums – New York Dolls and Too Much Too Soon – briefly worked under the management of Malcolm McLaren, and then broke up. After leaving, Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan (he replaced original Dolls’ drummer Murcia after he died from an overdose) started The Heartbreakers with ex-Television bassist Richard Hell, and later on added Walter Lure (ex-The Demons). Hell and Thunders often butted heads and Hell eventually left the group to start Richard Hell and the Voidoids.
The Heartbreakers put out one studio album, L.A.M.F. (an abbreviation for “Like a Mother Fucker”) in 1977 before breaking up. The songs were well-received by critics, but the production was a mess. Yet the album is still a classic (a million punk kids with L.A.M.F tattoos can’t be wrong, right?).
After The Heartbreakers, Thunders put out a series of solo albums mixing his signature punk rock n’ roll sound with covers of classic garage rock and surf songs throughout the late ‘70s and ‘80s. His first record, So Alone, featured The Heartbreakers’ Walter Lure and Billy Rath with guest appearances from The Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones and Paul Cook, The Only Ones’ Peter Perrett, Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott, The Small Faces’ Steve Marriott and The Pretenders‘ Chrissie Hynde. In 1983 he put out an acoustic album called Hurt Me placing a bit of a Bob Dylan spin on some tracks (even including a few Dylan covers) that included the highly influential (and often covered) “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory.”
Throughout his years as a solo artist, Thunders reformed The Heartbreakers several times for live shows and recordings, and started and ended many projects. His heroin addiction was a constant specter that held him back from the popularity he deserved – his influence far outweighs his success. In 1991 Thunders was living in New Orleans looking to start a blues band. But on April 23rd of the same year, he died of an apparent overdose in room # 37 at the St. Peter House in the French Quarter.
Today would have been Johnny Thunders’ 68th birthday. To celebrate we take a look at a few great covers that highlight the importance of his work and his controversial character.
Scott Weiland – Personality Crisis (The New York Dolls cover)
The first track on the New York Dolls self-titled debut album, “Personality Crisis,” was co-written by Thunders and David Johansen. Mercury released it as a single, with “Trash” on the B-side. It’s an energetic rock n’roll romper with attitude and grit that builds off a simple three-chord intro into a massive wall of howls and keyboards. In 2011 Stone Temple Pilots/Velvet Revolver frontman Scott Weiland released an album of covers featuring songs that inspired him. His version of “Personality Crisis” has him doing his best David Bowie, if Bowie was singing for the Dolls during the recording sessions for Let’s Dance.
Of Montreal – Chinese Rocks (The Heartbreakers cover)
The Origins of “Chinese Rocks” has been contested throughout the pages of punk rock history – from Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil’s book, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, to Dee Dee Ramone’s memoir, Lobotomy: Surviving the Ramones. In Please Kill Me, Richard Hell claims that Dee Dee brought him the song (after The Ramones refused to do it because of its obvious drug reference) 75% finished, and Hell wrote the remaining verses and brought it to The Heartbreakers. In Dee Dee’s memoir, he claims he was doing drugs with Heartbreaker’s drummer Jerry Nolan and played him the song, and Nolan took it to The Heartbreakers. When L.A.M.F was released, it credited the song to Thunders, Nolan, Hell and Ramone. On the 1994 and 2004 reissues it’s credited to all of the Ramones and not Hell. The official credits on ASCAP and BMI credit the song to Dee Dee and Hell. The Ramones eventually performed the song as “Chinese Rock.” It seems Thunders had little to do with writing it, but definitely took ownership of it and made it his own. In 2015 Of Montreal released a version of the song for a limited edition single for the Polyvinyl Record Company. It’s a lo-fi recording with crunchy guitars and some tweaking of the vocal and guitar melodies.
Arthur “Killer” Kane – In Cold Blood (Johnny Thunders cover)
Released in 1983, “In Cold Blood” takes its title from the Truman Capote book about the 1959 murders of the Cutter family in Holcomb, Kansas. Thunders repurposes the themes and book title to talk about living in NYC (while it was still dangerous) with lyrics like, “Well no one here gets out alive, living here it’s suicide, Avenue A you might survive, Riverton you’ll finally die, in cold blood.” References to police and The Guardian Angels over a Little Willie John “Fever” type melody make for a memorable piece of nostalgia. New York Dolls bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane took it a step further on the 2002 album of Johnny Thunders covers, I Only Wrote This Song For You, changing the lyrics to pay tribute to the Dolls. The sound is a very cleaned up swinging jazzy version with female backing vocals and Blondie’s Frankie Infante on guitar.
Marc Almond – Hurt Me (Johnny Thunders cover)
Johnny Thunders and Richard Hell co-wrote “Hurt Me,” and The Heartbreakers recorded it while Hell was still in the band (with Hell on lead vocals). Thunders rerecorded it for his acoustic solo record of the same name in 1983. Thunders lyrics differ from Hell’s version, and his vocals are far more poignant over only an acoustic guitar. Marc Almond came to fame as one half of the synth duo Soft Cell after they covered Gloria Jones’ “Tainted Love” in 1981. Here he is, on the I Only Wrote This Song For You tribute, covering Thunders’ version of “Hurt Me.” Almond makes use of the “then I’m going to sleep” line as a refrain, and has added programmed drums for his six-minute dream pop rendition.
Ronnie Spector feat. Joey Ramone – You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory (Johnny Thunders cover)
“You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” is probably Thunders’ most covered song. From Guns N’ Roses’ fairly straightforward tribute to Sheer Terror’s hardcore punk version, it’s a regular favorite by artists across genres. In a twist, Ronnie Spector (who often recalls Thunders – a fan of The Ronettes – crying through her set at the Continental Baths) covered it on her Last of the Rockstars album, with backups by the late Joey Ramone. Her version is true to the original, with a slight rasp in her voice and a sound that shows mutual adoration for Thunders’ work.