Music Features

Overlooked Albums #36: The Heartbreakers - L.A.M.F.

It was 1975. The dissolution of The New York Dolls came to be during supper in a Florida trailer park owned by Jerry Nolan’s mom. It served as last-resort headquarters as they made ends meet playing run-down clubs in the hot, humid state. Morale was low, and a verbal lashing by a frustrated David Johansen sparked the fuse. Nolan and Johnny Thunders, itchy from drug withdrawal, packed and left, any hope of reconciliation dying as days went by. Johansen would go on to a successful career, but the actual keepers of the Dolls’ signature sound would be Thunders and Nolan.
The duo went back to New York and hooked up with bassist Richard Hell, who had just left Television, to form The Heartbreakers as a trio. The gutter supergroup didn’t last long. Walter Lure joined in as a second guitarist, and Billy Rath replaced Hell after his quick departure to form the Voidoids. Personnel changes only strengthened the unit, which was thriving in the competitive NY club circuit. Yet no American record label would take a chance on a band helmed by junkies. This moved the group to set sail for England.
Signing up with Track Records seemed a sound financial move; opening for The Sex Pistols looked like a sly managerial coup. The Anarchy Tour, however, turned into a nightmare of bad press, angry locals, and cancelled dates. But the spell of bad luck was just starting. L.A.M.F., which stands for Like A Mother Fucker, would be the group’s only studio release.
Born To Lose opens the album with street-gang ferocity; it’s about survival in the face of adversity, but in spite of its bravado some take it now as a sad prediction. This is just a ripple of hindsight, though. The album was intended as a blithe party-hard juggernaut, with each song adding centrifugal force.  
Baby Talk is enlivened by Jerry Nolan’s machine-gun drums. Nolan, whose first love was jazz, is an underrated drummer. He could flesh out the simplest drum pattern with Gene Krupa movements. His songwriting co-credits add value to the group’s visceral rush with songs like Get Off The Phone, All By Myself and One Track Mind, all close in spirit to the Dolls’ sleazy vision.   
I Wanna Be Loved could serve as x-ray to Johnny Thunders’ style. Chuck Berry’s influence is evident, but Thunders refurbishes it with volume, overdrive and sustain, creating two-finger sliding chords and low-fret wails. He wasn’t a one-trick pony, though. It’s Not Enough, the closest thing to a ballad here, is like the mutant child of The MC5 and Ricky Nelson. Going Steady has the influence of instrumental groups like The Ventures. Pirate Love, a holdover from Dolls days, switches gears into a heavy blues sound. Some 80s hair-metal groups made whole careers nicking Thunders’ moves, never coming close to the original.
Chinese Rocks was the single. Though it dealt with heroin abuse, it did well with the punk public. Sorting out the royalties must have been a nightmare because the songwriter credits on the initial vinyl pressings of both L.A.M.F. and The Ramones’ End Of The Century are wrong. The sole writers were Richard Hell and Dee Dee Ramone, as it appears on recent CD editions. 
The original vinyl version of L.A.M.F. had a murky sound. Arguments over the mix caused a rift between Nolan and Thunders. Nevertheless, a bad vinyl pressing was the main reason for the poor audio quality, and this was the sole instance of a cassette version sounding better than the vinyl disc. It was a glitch that could be fixed, but by this time the fate of The Heartbreakers had already been sealed: Track Records went bankrupt, and Thunders and Nolan split.
A solo career seemed to be a new start for Thunders, but he was ruled by a junkie logic that turned opportunities to ash. Both he and Nolan would be destined to live on the fringes of the music business, regrouping as The Heartbreakers whenever drug money was needed. Heroin would finally take its toll on their health. Thunders died alone in a seedy New Orleans apartment of lymphatic leukemia; Nolan would follow in 1992, dying of a stroke in a NY hospital while undergoing treatment for pneumonia and meningitis.
The music business is crowded with artists living on past glories. The sad truth about Nolan and Thunders is that they could have done so much better had they conquered their demons. There’s nothing to celebrate about their untimely deaths, as drugs continue to kill our most beloved artists. L.A.M.F., their greatest achievement, is the one cause for celebration. Sounding better than ever in its latest CD edition, this sonic blitzkrieg has earned its place in the pantheon of renegade rock, still honoring its rude title with brass-balls panache.