Johnny Thunders & The Heartbreakers: L.A.M.F.
Nina Antonia, MOJO, July 1994
THIS IS NOT PUNK: THIS IS EDDIE COCHRAN and Gene Vincent dragged screaming into 1977.
The Heartbreakers, fronted by Johnny Boy Thunders, came straight off the set of Scorsese’s Mean Streets, armed with a full round of pulp mythology, including gang warfare, weaponry and downtown drug lore. “L.A.M.F.” stands for Like A Mother Fucker – a gang warning to keep off their turf– but this band didn’t need outsiders to stir up trouble in the ranks; they made enough of their own.
The Heartbreakers’ bad-blood reputation was assured from the start by the band’s founders, Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan – who’d just got out of quarantine from the New York Dolls. Formed in late ’72, the Dolls were an utter derailment of human values: five pretty/ugly boys masquerading as call girls, the blueprint for Aerosmith, Kiss, Hanoi Rocks, Guns N’Roses and the whole other parade of miss-the-point spandex tragedies. When the Dolls were disappearing under an avalanche of personal problems one of their fans, Malcolm McLaren, tried to resuscitate their career but failed.
Thunders and Nolan quit and set up The Heartbreakers, recruiting Television’s ex-bass player Richard Hell and the gawky, lupine guitarist Walter Lure from The Demons. Hell was ousted after trying to muscle in on the spotlight and was replaced by Gary Gilmore lookalike Billy Rath. It was this line-up who flew to London, at the request of McLaren, to join the Anarchy tour alongside the Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Damned.
The Heartbreakers got their punk tag by association. For sure, they were street punks, as in hoods, but they never got close to a safety pin. They possessed the finesse to start and finish a tune together and a cut-to-the-quick ability to play their instruments. In spite of punk’s godless agenda they were treated like royalty by the UK bands and fans.
They signed with Track Records and began work on their debut album. The recording sessions, once the band actually got up and made their way to the studio, were not the problem; it was the mixing that hurt, and producer Speedy Keene didn’t lend a sympathetic ear. The earliest indication of the six-foot-under sound came with the release of their first single, ‘Chinese Rocks’, which all but buried the drooling, smack-driven lament. Johnny, Jerry, Walter and Billy got lost in a labyrinth of different studios, repeatedly trying to exhume the material from the mix mire, while appealing to Track to delay the looming release date. But the sour platter surfaced to meet promotion schedules, knee-capping the band’s hopes. Even the kindest of critical condolences couldn’t mend The Heartbreakers.
A series of mastering faults saw to the sinking of L.A.M.F. In 1984 a remix by Thunders and Tony James again missed its full potential; but I7 years after the original issue L.A.M.F. and The Heartbreakers finally get justice.
From start to finish this is a one-way ticket to maximum pleasure, each track leaping like a rock’n’roll Lazarus. They kick off with ‘Born Too Lose’, its hard boiled sentiments rising above the siren of guitars, but they drop the cynicism as soon as a sweetie pie strolls down the block. The Heartbreaker always had a fine line in hit-and-run romances, and ‘Baby Talk’ is at the top of the pack with its artillery-fire rhythm section, taking its cue from The Yardbirds’ ‘I Ain’t Done Wrong’. It’s nigh on impossible to single out contenders for the best of the bunch–they’re all equally delicious – but Eddi Cochran’s ‘Something Else’ crawls out from ‘One Track Mind’, and ‘All By Myself’ picks up the baton from Johnny Burnette. ‘Pirate Love’ defies gravity as the whole band sky-rocket to devastating effect.
Jungle Records’ decision to sort the rubies from the dust is a fine testament to the considerable talents of the late Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan.
© Nina Antonia, 1994