Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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David Johansen

  • David Johansen [Blue Sky, 1977] A-
  • In Style [Blue Sky, 1979] B+
  • Here Comes the Night [Blue Sky, 1981] A-
  • Live It Up [Blue Sky, 1982] A-
  • Sweet Revenge [Passport, 1984] A-
  • The David Johansen Group Live [Epic Associated/Legacy, 1993] A-

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

David Johansen [Blue Sky, 1977]
Balancing the unrecorded classics of the Dolls' rent-party phase--"Girls" ("I love 'em seizin' the power"), "Funky but Chic" ("Mama thinks I look pretty fruity but in jeans I feel rotten"), and "Frenchette" (as in laundrette)--against ground-breaking love/heartbreak songs like "Donna" and "Pain in My Heart," this is in many ways a "better" record than either Dolls LP. Sound quality is fuller, the rhythm section funks and flows, the guitarists play genuine solos and respond to the call, and Johansen's voice is as open and direct as his new songs, finding an almost soulful musical and emotional range. Conceptually, though, it's singer-with-backup in a post-garage mode, packing no distinctive structural or sonic kick, pretty conventional for the pied piper of outrageousness. A-

In Style [Blue Sky, 1979]
Johansen is equal to his more soulish musical concept--no "disco," just slower tempos, subtle be-yoo-ty, and some reggae--but he doesn't have the chops to get on top of it, and while this is solid stuff, the best of it tends to thin out a little. Although the problem isn't how often you think "that's bad" but how often you don't think "that's great," the record is summed up for me by "Big City," the most banal lyric he's ever written. Until now, you see, he'd never written any banal lyrics at all. Now he's got three or four. B+

Here Comes the Night [Blue Sky, 1981]
With the help of sideperson extraordinaire Blondie Chaplin, the pater-familias has finally mastered his own fast, vulgar studio-rock style, and this is his best solo, though only we who truly love him will hear it that way. True, the words aren't what they were in the Dolldays--"Marquesa de Sade," which rhymes "girl," "world," "pearls," and "social whirl" with an insistence that makes me wince, is typical. But like almost every other song here, "Marquesa de Sade" is also hooky and hearty. If In Style sounded desperate, this one sounds past caring, and carelessness was always the Dolls' secret. Inspirational Cliché: "You think I'm a whore/But I got a heart of gold." A-

Live It Up [Blue Sky, 1982]
The inspired deployment of taste, always Johansen's specialty, is why his solo career has flourished live even when it's floundered on record. By kidding around with such florid models as Eric Burdon and Levi Stubbs, he can make a populist commitment that never seems cowardly, condescending, or corny--and bring off an in-concert LP (featuring six cuts he's never recorded in his present incarnation) that conveys all his good humor, deep feeling, and entertainment value. A-

Sweet Revenge [Passport, 1984]
The synbeats and keyboard colors on his first studio LP since 1980 don't flush away the corn that is his destiny, but after years of records geared to grandiose AOR-cum-band-bar guitarism, they update its context. Just in time, because--ignoring a few easy rhymes and possibly excepting "N.Y. Doll"--his best solo album ever showcases his best songwriting since the N.Y. Dolls, including but not limited to the hedonist "I Ain't Workin' Anymore" (he got money), the hostile "The Stinkin' Rich" (they got too much money), the fast-talking "King of Babylon" (baby he was born to rap), and the explicit "Heard the News" (in solidarity with the people of El Salvador). As for the corn, I believe every word. A-

The David Johansen Group Live [Epic Associated/Legacy, 1993]
A Bottom Line show from the beginnings of his solo run, before he had the arena-rock flourishes down pat, this isn't quite the song showcase it might have been later--no "Bohemian Love Pad," no "Wreckless Crazy," no "She Loves Strangers." But on the other hand, no "Melody," no "Marquesa de Sade," no "Flamingo Road," no enjoyable-to-forgivable gestures that aged even more awkwardly than the rest of his Grass Roots phase. In retrospect, this Staten Island band sounds a lot more like the Dolls than it did at the time. And if it's less inspired and more in control--cf. Johnny Thunders's veering cameo--that's not entirely a bad thing. A-

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