Get Your Chinese Rocks Off...... and end up like
A fan's-eye view by
ITALIANO / AMERICAN KID from
Queens, New York City, USA by the
name of Johnny. Circa mid-Sixties,
he's thirteen years old and thinking
that he's doing pretty good for
He knows intuitively that for those not fortunate
enough to be born with a silver spoon down
their gullet the two time-tested escape routes
from poverty to fame and fortune are via either
the music business or professional sport. So
he chooses the latter.
He's short and skinny but runs really fast, got
a whole cupboard full of track medals back
home, a talent developed running from the cops after spraying the NYC legend "D.T.K.L. A.M.F." (Down To Kill Like A Muther-
Fucker) over the tenement walls. And he's holding down a regular place in the local hotÂshot baseball team alongside kids
five years older and twice as big as himself. The pro-team scouts are sniffing around like they got a potential Babe Ruth on
their hands and his destiny looks sealed until one fateful day the team coach takes Johnny to one side and tells him that his
ratted, matted haystack coiffure is decidedly un-American and either he gets it cut to a respectable length or he gets thrown
out the team.
"Fuck yew, muther," Johnny informs the coach. He swaggers off the baseball field, never to return.
"AFTER THAT it was rock 'n' roll right down the line," Johnny Thunders reminisces as a battered red van hurtles his
combo The Heartbreakers down the motorway to the first date of their mammoth "Chinese Rocks" assault on Europe tour.
"But you gotta good background of being physically fit when y'been involved with sport before getting into rock,"
he reflects in that languid drawl just as the other ex-New York Doll in The Heartbreakers, drummer Jerry Nolan, whirls
round at Thunders grinning like a peroxided wolf.
"HEEEEEEY, DICK-HEAD," he cackles. "Dey trew ya outta the team fer wearing ya high-heels and mascara on the
field of plaaaaay!"
Nolan dissolves into shrieks of derisive laughter and pounds his
legs with his fist and Thunders just contemplates him with tired
brown eyes; meanwhile guitarist Walter Lure (who resembles an
unholy cross-breed of a basketball player and a stick insect)
mutters a colourful stream of token abuse at the pair of them
and regards the passing Anglo rural wasteland with bored
Bass player Billy Rath, the West Side Story refugee and sole
pocket of sanity in the band, chuckles good-naturedly and
touches his guitar case impatiently, making me remember how
crucial this tour will be to The Heartbreakers and also that it's
been a long time coming.
"We fahnally got us a recording contract," Thunders
murmers to himself with a smile as he falls asleep curled up
embryo-like and clutching to his chest the book he's been
reading. It's entitled The Greatest.
"Ain't nobody gonna hear the "Chinese Rocks" / "Born Too Loose" single until we got it perfect,"
Nolan says determinedly. 'We been through too much to screw up now ..."
Nolan has been with Thunders since the start of it all seven years back in New York. Thunders formed those notorious
scumsurfers The New York Dolls when he was seventeen years old, and when his drummer and best friend Billy Doll died
aged sixteen in a bath with his body full of too much Mandrax and booze, Jerry was drafted in as the replacement.
Billy Doll's OD in no way deterred the rest of the band from the continuation of their suicidal hedonism in pursuit of the
fulfilment of every rock 'n' roll fantasy they could think of, an attitude reflected in the classic songs on their first album â€”
"Personality Crisis", "Pills", "Trash", "Jet Boy" and, best of all, "Looking For A Kiss".
The consequences of Thunders' meeting Iggy Pop (the first time the Dolls played LA, in the same year that Billy died) were
so far reaching that right up to The Heartbreakers' Anarchy Tour exile in late '76, there were no record companies
interested in signing them due to persistent dark rumours of "drug problems".
A tragic situation for the finest rock 'n' roll band that America has produced since The MC5.
Almost inevitable, though, because the spirit of the Dolls and all the self-destructive qualities that it entailed lived on in The
Heartbreakers. Clean, flash, sharp and white-heat rock music and a totally non-political lyrical content primarily concerned
with getting blitzed, getting laid and performing live, probably in that order...
"Ah prefer drugs to women, anyhow," Johnny says wearily, as the smell of Fish City Hull permeates the air. "But we're all
clean now ..."
"What you say about the Dolls being a major influence on all the English bands coming through now is true," Jerry
says. "But we don't look back, we gotta keep moving. That's why we split from the Dolls coz David Johansen
"And we ain't part of no new-wave," Johnny says contemptuously. "We ain't part of no wave at all."
"Political bullshit," Walter Lure sneers. "If we did stuff like that, it'd be fake ..."
AWRIGHT, but you gotta see that it's real for English bands like The Clash and
The Jam. The Dolls were the major impetus in getting a new generation off its
butt to seek an identity contemporary for them in answer to the good-old-days
Sixties nostalgia hangover. But, ultimately, there's only one kind of riot worth
"And now they gonna put out the two Dolls albums in a double package
next month," Johnny says. "Even the record companies can see the Dolls
influence now ..."
"They should RE-MIX the fucking albums an' not just re-release "em,"
Jerry says, and launches into the usual expletives used by any New York Dolls
lover when discussing Todd Rundgren's horrendous production of their first and
Then Jerry gets pensive. "Hey, we gonna get any money outa that deal?"
I don't think Nolan or Thunders appreciated just how important the Dolls were
to a previously alienated section of British youth that came of age in the first
half of the Seventies â€” until they quit The Big Apple for these shores after the
invitation from their ex-manager Malcom Mclaren to join ill-fated Sex Pistols
tour. To many New Wave luminaries the Dolls â€” and more specifically Johnny
Thunders â€” had achieved near-legendary status. Fact and fiction blurred as
the stories came through of Johnny throwing up at airport press conferences and
on stage behind amps; Johnny switching price tags on clothes before the Biba's
gig; Johnny being hunted by the cops after running back to Noo Yawk with
fifteen-year-old millionaire's daughter and LA supergroupie Sable Starr; Johnny
junk-sick, death-trip rock 'n' roll myth.
Incredibly, both Thunders and his band The Heartbreakers lived up to the
build-up. The Roxy gigs after the tour confirmed that the band was better than
the Dolls ever were, even if you could never quite lose that sentimental
attachment to the memory and the blind fury you felt when they did "Looking For A Kiss" and "Jet Boy" on the Dull Grey
Whistle Drag when baldy-locks snickered and said, "Mock-rock".
"I'll never forget seeing that and knowing how great the Dolls were and knowing bands like that was where rock
had to go, " Pistols drummer Paul Cook told me once.
But karma always returns to sender, eh, Mister Harris?
THE BAND'S signing to Track records, where production duo Chris Stamp and Speedy Keen fully realised The
Heartbreakers to be a 1977 version of the rock 'n' roll total dynamics that The Who had been about, ensured the band a
recording sound-quality the equal of their drugs / sex / narcissus repertoire.
However, even when the long-awaited recording contract was imminent, nothing could diminish The Heartbreakers' constant
craving for the streets of New York City. It may have dished them dirt career-wise, but it would always be home.
"In Noo Yawk you can get anything you want at any time of the day or night," Thunders says wistfully.
A brief trip home around New Year, sandwiched between a minor bust for Johnny and the aborted Heartbreakers / Pistols
package, only aggravated matters â€” until another answer to The Heartbreakers' homesickness had to be found (other
than the boys getting as far out of it as possible as frequently as possible).
So their ladies and offspring were all flown over from the USA to act as stabilisers and, in the case of Johnny in particular, the
move appears to have worked wonders.
The first gig that the band did after the exodus from the US was at Dingwalls and at first I couldn't understand why young
Thunders was not in his "usual" condition â€” like he'd been, for example, a short while before at the trendy-pose-dive The
Speakeasy, bad-mouthing the packed-but-placid house like I ain't never seen anybody do before or since.
But when I saw him afterwards with his beautiful blonde lady Julie and heard about their two-year-old son Little Johnny
Thunders and their Park Lane flat I could see why from now on Thunders would be in total control.
Now he had too much to lose. Now it wasn't too much, too soon. Now it was make-or-break.
They tore up every venue I saw them play around London during this period prior to the full tour, including The Marquee
(which didn't deserve the atmosphere generated by The Heartbreakers after the numerous New Wave band bannings that
the Wardour Street club dished out in 1976).
THEN JOHNNY got sick and the first few dates were cancelled. A while at home with Julie to recover and then out on the road
at last, going for broke on the most important tour of their lives.
At the Hull Technical college the band have to push their way through a bar packed with long-haired Anglo-Rednecks to get to
the stage in an adjacent hall where the seven hundred strong mob of screaming kids (yeah, screaming) are waiting in rock-
The Anglo-Rednecks in the bar (mostly students, young marrieds and rugby players) can not comprehend what's happening
and feel obliged to come out with typically boring can't-tell-the-boys lines plus threats to "tear yez inseed owt, sonny".
Not until the band hit the stage and slam into the opening chords of the great "Chinese Rocks" single as the lights come on
and the Hull kids start rioting with joy, do I believe that they'll get out of town without being lynched. Then it rapidly becomes
apparent that these kids love The Heartbreakers so much they might just tear them limb from limb for souvenirs...
Thunders is provoking them to further levels of anarchic self-expression, aiming his Chinese-graffiti-stained guitar at them
tucked into his shoulder like a sten-gun, chopping out those burning white chords as Walter Lure howls the autobiographical
lyrics penned jointly by Dee Dee Ramone, Richard Hell, Jerry Nolan and Johnny Thunders...
"Somebody called me on the phone / They said, 'Hey, is Dee Dee home?/ Do ya wanna take a
walk? / Do ya wanna go an' cop?/ Do ya wanna go get some CHINESE ROCKS?'..."
Nolan beats hell out of his kit with the obsessive sadistic pleasure of a superb drummer, his relentless drive in perfect synch
with Billy's faultless bass line, the rhythm section the backdrop for Lure and Thunders as they slash out the riffs and bawl the
chorus with both love and hate for that suicide Godhead.
"I'm living on Chinese Rock /All my best things are in hock / I'm living on a Chinese Rock /
Everything is in the pawn shop/ HIT IT!"
THUNDERS, exuding Total Style in black and gold tonic mohair suit, white silk shirt and black tie, shakes his head like he
wants it to part company from the rest of his body and stares bug-eyed dementoid at the girls trying to fight their way past the
arm-linked line of bouncers in desperate attempts to touch him.
The crush in the crowd of kids gets too much for some nubile Hull chicklets and they faint and get carried out as the band
continue to rip through the classic rock song. Addictive, basic, unforgettable song like the sullen and selfish anti-humanity put-
down, "All By Myself"...
"All by myself/All by myself / All by myself / WITH EVERYBODY ELSE!"
"Which is exactly how ah feel," Thunders said once to the self-conscious poseurs at the Speakeasy gig, and you knew he
"Go to Burr-min-haaam," Thunders told the spoilt West End brats that night. "They know how to rock 'n' roll there."
Yeah, Thunders is undoubtedly Seventies rock 'n' roll incarnate and has got no time whatsoever for a crowd that stare blankly
at a gig as though they're watching the Idiot Box...
Tonight he's in his element, treating the spike-haired hordes to the entire catologue of Thunders theatrics as a stream of
potential hit singles like the contemptuous rejection "Let Go", the teenage romance "Going Steady", the cynical "I Love
You", and more all make our eardrums ring with rock music the equal of anything on any side of the Atlantic you care to name.
Thunders pouts, sneers petulantly, drops his jaw in mock surprise then casually strikes the opening of "Pirate Love" as he
throws himself crashing backwards into Walter before sprinting across the low stage like he was still getting gold medals for
the hundred metres.
Kids slam into the microphones, knocking them to the planks as roadies anxiously set 'em up again. Things are getting out of
hand. And does the leader of the band on stage try to cool things out the way Iggy did at the Rainbow?
Does he hell.
"HEEEEEEY, WHOOOO GOT DER SPEEEEED?" he shouts at them, and they roar their approval.
"WHOOOOOO GOT DER FUCKIN' SPEEEEEED!"
("Iggy's lost it now," Johnny once told me with obvious sadness. "It's Bowie-show now. God, telling the kids to cool
"FER OUR next toooon," he drawls, languidly ruffling up his hair at the same time with the self-worship every classic rocker
has. "We would like to doooo..."
Thunders trails into silence as if forgetting what's next and Walter saunters lip to the mike like a whitewashed Harlem
Globetrotter and says, "Get Off The Phone!" The energy level fever-pitch manic, compulsory dancing for everyone in the
house and joining in for the ecstatic chant of the glorious chorus ...
"Geeet offa der phone, / Nobody home! / Geeet offa der phone / AN' AH DON' WANT YEW! / AN'
AH DON' WANT YEW!"
The Heartbreakers quit the stage and with a sinking
feeling you realise that the best gig you've seen all
year (and, brother, ah seen some killers) is nearly over.
They come back for the encore and get the rapturous
reception reserved for home-coming conquering
heroes. Thunders rips off jacket, tie and shirt and
discards his guitar. He prowls the front of the stage cool
and poker-faced as the girls in front act out the nearest
thing I ever saw to Beatlemania ... it's easy to see why
The Who have asked Thunders to star in their Chris
Stamp-produced movie "My Generation".
He drapes the hand-held mike lead over his bare back
and suddenly jack-knifes from the waist as Billy, Walter
and Jerry hit a long, drawn-out, golden-oldie slab of
Thunders points accusingly at a face in the crowd and
his big brown eyes are full of hurt. What a conman ...
"Yew broke ma heart, coz ah couldn't danse, ya didn't even want me around?'
"But now ah'm back an' ah'm gonna show yew that ah can really shake 'em down..."
Nobody would argue with that as The Heartbreakers sturm und drang their way through the old Contours number with the
panache of rockers brought up on a regular diet of AM radio pop-trash. Then they climax with a reprise of their single and
anthem, "Chinese Rocks", before diving back to the dressing room to collapse soaked in sweat and totally exhausted. That's
the wrecked condition every rock band should be in when they leave the stage; nothing left to give...
BACK AT the hotel Johnny, me and the band's sound-wizard Keef attempt to empty one of those minature bars they install in
hotels with the ridiculous midget-sized booze bottles.
Johnny rings Julie as he always does after a gig and then we talk and smoke the night away, the conversation covering
everything from Dolls legends ("Yeah, the chick who cut Arthur Kane's finger off was the same one who cut up Dee
Dee's butt with a bottle"), to New York bands ("They should send over the good ones like Mink De Ville") to where
we can get some skins, man, at this time of the morning...
The next gig is at Eric's in Liverpool, and the venue is napalmed with
classic rock 'n' roll just like they did it in Hull, just like they will do at
every gig they play on the "Chinese Rocks" tour of 1977...
The next day we drive back to London and when we stop off at a
service station on the motorway Thunders buys a fluffy toy dog for
Little Johnny Thunders. Big Johnny hangs back as the rest of the
band pay for the things they bought at the cash desk and clutches
the toy dog to his chest.,
"Musn't let Walter see me with this, man," he whispers.
"He'll make fun of me..."
Hey, Johnny, you think that this time you're gonna break on through
to the success you and the band deserve?
"I think so, man," he says. "We can handle most situations
The first Heartbreakers single is in your dealers' shop right now.
It's called "Chinese Rocks."
"The plaster's falling off the wall, / My girlfriend's
crying in the shower stall, / It's hot as a bitch, / I
SHOULD HAVE BEEN RICH, / But I'm just digging a
Chinese ditch ..."
(First published in the NME MAY 28TH 1977 sourced from the Don't Care Archives)