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Clothes Make the Band

New photo books on early punks say at least a thousand words Two of the year's most enticing photo books tackle rock pioneers as their subjects. In a strange, coincidental twist, both have bright pink covers. New York Dolls (Abrams Image) collects photographer Bob Gruen's portraits, live shots, and..

New photo books on early punks say at least a thousand words

Two of the year's most enticing photo books tackle rock pioneers as their subjects. In a strange, coincidental twist, both have bright pink covers.New York Dolls (Abrams Image) collects photographer Bob Gruen's portraits, live shots, and publicity stills of the mid-'70s pre-punk pacesetters; The Clash (Grand Central), on the other hand, is an oral history- accompanied by a scrumptious array of visuals--of the most widely beloved of the early British punks. The commonality between the books is that their subjects believed that the being in a band was about making spectacles of themselves. (Maybe that's where the hot pink comes in.) Even if the Dolls and the Clash had not influenced countless acts, they'd have made rock history for their fashion sense alone.


Thanks to the notorious cross-dressing photo on their 1973 debut's cover (pictured left), the Dolls were infamous before anyone outside New York had heard a note of their music. The shot was misleading, but not by much: The band only played one show, at the drag spot Club 82, while dressed entirely in women's clothes. Flip through New York Dolls and you'll see all manner of gender-line-crossing attire. There's hulking, six-foot bassist Arthur Kane in gold-lamé tube top and hot pants; lead singer David Johansen in a nylon see-through blouse; lead guitarist Johnny Thunders rocking a black feather boa where a shirt should be; and a group shot of them wearing heels so chunky, they make Fluevogs look like matchsticks. Even a spread of the band dressed in '30s pinstripe gangster regalia looks like a parody of masculinity, thanks to Johansen's painted-on mustache and Kane's sloppy, three-shades-too-dark lips sourly puckering a cigarette.The Malcolm McLaren/Vivienne Westwood red patent leather outfits the group wore onstage in 1975 (while McLaren managed them) were relatively dowdy when compared to the Doll's found-clothing style. The band's genius for the spectacularly thrown-together was key to its appearance and its sound as well. The Dolls' name came from the New York Doll Factory, a toy repair shop; it is appropriate for a band whose music and look both could have come from the Island of Misfit Toys.

The Clash (the band), in contrast, was a lot more severe, both sonically and stylistically. The Clash (the book)-credited to the band's members, Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, and Topper Headon-seems more monumental than New York Dolls, partly because of its sheer size. It's a doorstop for the coffee table (a la The Beatles Anthology) packed with reprinted pages from British pop papers, record sleeves, fanzines, handwritten lyrics, and ephemera galore along with the wealth of photos. Gruen's compendium, in contrast, is half as tall and far less thick. Yet, what it gives up in stature, Dolls makes up in freshness, which is likely due to the group's relative lack of exposure when compared with the Clash, one of the most widely photographed bands of its era. (In fact, Gruen already published a 2004 book on them.)

The boys of the Clash were natural camera hogs, though they brooded where the Dolls would pout. They were always in costume. One can grasp the band's career arc just from this book's photos; no knowledge of its music is necessary. The looks mutate from early, eye-catching industrial outfits stenciled with slogans, like "heavy duty discipline," and images of police at the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival riots, into a more classicist, rockabilly style of open collars, high-waist peg-leg trousers, and pompadours (around the time of 1979's London Calling).Just as you can see the hunger and fury that drove the band early on, and the ease with multiple styles marking their glorious middle, an uneasy image of Strummer and Jones tells the tale of the Clash's disintegration after 1982's Combat Rock. The obvious tension between the two comes out not just in the difference between Jones' wary gaze and Strummer's intent stare, but the juxtaposition of the former's Panama hat and cargo pants with the latter's leather jacket and a ukulele held like a casual weapon. Both are severe in their own way; neither is ready to cede his ground. If their band hadn't been called the Clash, one look at this photo tells you it would have been apt.(Photo of The Clash: © UrbanImage.tv/Adrian Boot)