Friday, April 19, 2024

CD Review: Johnny Thunders & Patti Palladin's Copy Cats (2024)

Johnny Thunders & Patti Palladin’s Copy Cats
At this point in the time-space continuum, singer, songwriter, and guitarist Johnny Thunders (née John Genzale) is more myth than man. It’s been – give or take – some 50 years since Thunders burst onto an increasingly prog-oriented rock ‘n’ roll scene like a hurricane-strength gust, debuting his ramshackle six-string skills and idolatrous Keith Richards mimicry for the masses with 1973’s self-titled debut album from the New York Dolls. A second, more polished Dolls LP appeared the following year, the Shadow Morton-produced Too Much Too Soon inspiring and influencing a generation of musicians to follow Thunders’ three-chord tsunami with variations on his style.

Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers

Musicians and fanatical gutter-rockers like myself may have been the only people to actually buy either New York Dolls album, and the band broke up in 1975 as Thunders – among other band members (he wasn’t alone in his afflictions) – began sinking into the drug addiction that would plague the remainder of his too-brief existence. The second chapter in the Thunders legend began with the formation of the Heartbreakers with former Dolls drummer Jerry Nolan along with Television bassist Richard Hell and guitarist Walter Lure from NYC punks the Demons. The bassist quickly bailed out to form Richard Hell & the Voidoids, as there was only room for one ‘King Junkie’ in the Heartbreakers; Hell was replaced on the fat strings by Billy Rath.

The Heartbreakers were every bit as short-lived as the Dolls had been, releasing but a single, albeit often-reissued 1977 album, L.A.M.F. on the Track Records label. More popular on the other side of the pond than stateside, the Heartbreakers joined the Anarchy Tour of the U.K. with the Clash and the Damned, solidifying their British audience. But when Track went bankrupt, the band broke up. Thunders stayed in London and recorded his influential 1978 solo album, So Alone, with a cast of friends like Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott, Steve Jones and Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols, and special guests like Chrissie Hynde (The Pretenders), Steve Marriott (Humble Pie), and Peter Perrett (The Only Ones).

Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers
Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers

With both the Dolls and the Heartbreakers (temporarily) in the rearview mirror, Thunders moved from the U.K. to Detroit in 1980, where he performed in a band called Gang War with former MC5 axe-wielder Wayne Kramer. From there, there would be various Heartbreakers reunions, then back to Europe, Thunders and his family living in Paris and Stockholm while the guitarist released a series of solo albums on dodgy, often fly-by-night labels, recordings typically comprised of a handful of studio tracks padded out with (often) poorly-recorded live performances. Some of these albums were pretty good (1984’s acoustic Hurt Me, 1985’s Que Sera Sera) and some were mighty ugly (1982’s In Cold Blood, 1983’s Diary of A Lover).   

One of the best representations of Thunders’ talents was released in 1988 and passed by without notice by all but the most fervent of the guitarist’s fans. Recorded in London and inspired by John Lennon’s Rock ‘n’ Roll album, Copy Cats is an affecting and heartfelt collection of vintage 1950s and ‘60s cover tunes that influenced Thunders in some way or another. The guitarist shares the spotlight on Copy Cats with singer Patti Palladin, a NYC veteran who was one-half of the punk duo Snatch and a former member of the Flying Lizards. Palladin also provided backing vocals for So Alone and Que Sera Sera, so the two already had a history and musical chemistry together. Palladin is also credited as producer for the album, which was reissued in 2023 for its 35th anniversary by Jungle Records in the U.K.

Johnny Thunders & Patti Palladin’s Copy Cats

Johnny Thunders
Johnny Thunders
The album’s name came from a Gary “U.S.” Bonds song, “Copycat,” which was recorded but never released, and Thunders and Palladin called in all their chips to piece together a solid studio band to record the songs. Former Heartbreakers Billy Rath and Jerry Nolan provided the rhythm section, which was accompanied by talents like guitarists John Perry (The Only Ones) and Henri Padovani (Wayne County & the Electric Chairs) and backing vocalists Chrissie Hynde and Jayne/Wayne County, and a wealth of other musicians, including a full-blown horn section. The song selection for Copy Cats was truly inspired, ranging from psychotic R&B (Screamin’ Jay Hopkins) and psych-pop (The Seeds) to deep soul (The Chambers Brothers) and obscure proto-Americana (Tarheel Slim).

Jungle Records has seemingly shuffled the order of the tracks with every new reissue of Copy Cats, but the core material remains the same, the label adding two bonus tracks to its 2007 CD reissue (the bawdy, brassy “Let Me Entertain You” and a magnificent, infectiously-rhythmic take on “Love Is Strange”), which appear on the 2023 version, with no further outtakes or additions. What Thunders and Palladin gave us is plenty fab, however – witness the raucous reading of Hawkins’ 1958 song “Alligator Wine,” a delicious swamp-blues stomper with haunted vocals, searing guitar, and kudzu hanging from the studio walls. Thunders’ gritty vocals are tailor-made for Tarheel Slim’s bluesy “Two Time Loser” and perfectly contrast with Palladin’s smoky, sultry vox.

The Elvis Presley recording of “Crawfish” (from the 1958 movie King Creole) serves as the template for Thunders’ cover version here, the guitarist bringing a light-hearted touch to the otherwise heavily-ambient performance. Thunders and Palladin get their girl group-groove on with the Shirelle’s “Baby It’s You,” the duo perfectly capturing the romantic zeal of the original with Palladin’s mesmerizing vocals and Thunders’ masterful acoustic strum. Sky Saxon’s “Can’t Seem To Make You Mine” – a minor 1967 hit for the Seeds – is afforded a similarly yearning performance, Thunders’ wan vocals well-suited for the song’s heartbreak lyrics. Jay & the Americans’ 1962 Top Ten hit “She Cried” is reimagined here as “He Cried,” the performance spotlighting Palladin’s enchanting girl group-styled vocals floating above the song’s rich instrumentation.

The R&B-tinged rocker “I Was Born To Cry” proves that, while Thunders is no Dion DiMucci, he can deliver a powerful and effective vocal performance when so inspired. Originally, Copy Cats closed with the Chanters’ 1954 song “She Wants To Mambo,” performed by Palladin and Thunders with theatrical flair and over-the-top humor similar to David Johansen’s approach to “Stranded In the Jungle” on the Dolls’ Too Much Too Soon. Although Copy Cats only clocks in at roughly 32 minutes (add seven minutes for the bonus tracks on the CD reissue), there are plenty of high-quality rock ‘n’ roll cheap thrills to be had. Thunders’ fretwork is atypically subdued throughout the album – less buzzsaw and more scroll-saw, as it were – the guitarist customizing his licks in service to these reverent performances. Although Thunders’ vocals would never be confused with, say, Mick Jagger’s, he found a perfect musical foil in Patti Palladin, and their collaboration together on what would be the guitarist’s final studio album is pure magic.      

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Johnny Thunders got off the bus in 1991, dying at the St. Peter Guest House in New Orleans at the young, abused age of 38 years, his tortured soul damaged by years of drugs and drink and fleeting notoriety. Even his death is the stuff of legend – was it the cocaine and methadone found in his system by the New Orleans coroner that killed him – or was it the untreated, advanced leukemia that had left his body a gaunt, shambling mess held together with bailing wire and superglue? Despite the family’s pleas, the New Orleans Police Department couldn’t be bothered to investigate the death of just another junkie musician. Or was it foul play? In his 1998 biography, Lobotomy: Surviving the Ramones, Dee Dee Ramone claims that “they told me that Johnny had gotten mixed up with some bastards…who ripped him off for his methadone supply. They had given him LSD and then murdered him.”

No matter how he died, over the ensuing years Johnny Thunders has become a Christ figure, an obscure rock ‘n’ roller resurrected by a profitable underground cottage industry of crappy live recordings, dodgy biographies, and questionable documentary films. Decades of rumors and innuendo have made Thunders the avatar of a certain kind of sleazy rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, inspiring bands like Guns N’ Roses, Hanoi Rocks, D Generation, and the Wildhearts, among many others. Although his meager recorded legacy doesn’t support such enduring mythology, it has been artificially propped up by an unfair image of Thunders rather than reality. Separating the man from the myth, Thunders was a guy that just wanted to play his guitar…and he seldom brought more skill, focus, and care to his performances than he did on Copy Cats. (Jungle Records, reissued 2023)

Buy the album from Amazon: Johnny Thunders & Patti Palladin’s Copy Cats

Also on That Devil Music:
The Heartbreakers' L.A.M.F. Live At The Village Gate 1977
The Dirtiest Dozen: Punk's Most Important Bands

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