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Johnny Thunders & The Heartbreakers

Johnny Thunders (vocals, guitar) and Jerry Nolan (drums) had quit The New York Dolls and Richard Hell (vocals, bass) had been forced out of Television.

The trio joined forces in May 1975 and after a few shows added Walter Lure (vocals, guitar), who had played with a group called The Demons.

In 1976, Hell was either pushed out of the Heartbreakers or quit the group (depending on which version of events you believe) and was replaced by Gary Gilmore lookalike Billy Rath. Hell went on to form his own band The Voidoids.

With Rath and new guitarist Walter Lure, The Heartbreakers began a European tour just as the UK punk scene was building momentum, which helped the group develop a following in and around London, with The Sex Pistols inviting them to open on the ill-fated ‘Anarchy’ tour.

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Interestingly, the Heartbreakers’ song, London Boys, is a swipe at The Sex Pistols, in response to The Pistols’ New York, which was, in turn, a put-down of The New York Dolls.

The band shortly signed with Track Records. The release of their debut album, L.A.M.F. (An acronym for “Like A Motherfucker”) put a huge strain on the band.

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 Keen (former vocalist/drummer of Thunderclap Newman) 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. Several members of the band gave up at this point

Johnny Thunders bounced back with his first solo album, So Alone (1978). Featuring a veritable who’s who of ’70s punk and hard rock – Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders, Phil Lynott from Thin Lizzy, Peter Perrett from The Only Ones, Steve Marriott (Small Faces), Paul Cook, and Steve Jones (Sex Pistols), among others – the record was a testament to what the former New York Dolls guitarist could accomplish with a little focus.

Thunders never followed up on the promise of his solo debut. His subsequent records were a frustrating mix of drug-addled mediocrity and downright laziness.

The Heartbreakers reformed in 1979 for a few farewell shows at Max’s Kansas City with drummer Ty Stix sitting in for Nolan. The resulting live album Live at Max’s Kansas City ’79 is considered a punk classic.

The band re-formed occasionally to play at New York clubs until the death of Johnny Thunders on 23 April 1991. He was 38.

Thunders was found dead on the floor of his room in a New Orleans guest house, and the death of rock’s most famous junkie since Keith Richards was obviously assumed to be a drug overdose. But it wasn’t that simple.

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According to his friends, he was seriously ill with leukaemia. The coroner’s report stated that Thunders’ death “may have been drug-related” as empty packages of methadone were found, along with a syringe in the toilet. An autopsy failed to confirm a cause of death.

Traces of methadone were found in the bloodstream but, curiously, no booze.

As Johnny was witnessed out drinking in many bars in New Orleans the previous night, the examination must have been less than rigorous if it failed to determine the presence of alcohol in his system.

Police also confirmed the disappearance from his room of his passport, $2,000 cash, his silk suits and three months’ supply of prescription medicines.

Johnny’s sister, Mariann, has always maintained her brother was murdered; “I spoke to him that evening and he sounded fantastic. I believe there was foul play. Nothing corresponds – the time on the death certificate, the time the police were called . . .”

The likeliest explanation is that Johnny was chosen as an easy mark when he toured the bars, followed to his room, attacked and robbed. It is unlikely those responsible for his death will ever be caught. Johnny is buried in St Mary’s Cemetery, Flushing, Queens, New York.

Drummer Jerry Nolan died in January 1992 of a stroke, aged 45.

In 1994 L.A.M.F was digitally re-mixed as originally intended and Johnny Thunders and The Heartbreakers finally got justice.

“The kids don’t learn. They forget real quick when someone dies”
Johnny Thunders. 1982

Johnny Thunders
Vocals, guitar
Richard Hell
Vocals, bass
Jerry Nolan
Drums
Walter Lure
Vocals, guitar
Billy Rath
Vocals, bass
Ty Stix
Drums