As much as any band could, the Heartbreakers both aesthetically and individually personified the bridge between proto-punk and punk rock. They coalesced in 1975, when New York Dolls Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan joined forces with Richard Hell, who’d just left Television. The quartet was completed a few months later with the addition of guitarist/vocalist Walter Lure.
The next year, their best-documented lineup was formed when Hell was replaced by Billy Rath (Hell would go on to form a namesake band, and it’s easy to wonder if he didn’t do that to make it difficult to oust him from a THIRD epochally crucial group), and this version of the Heartbreakers would record their lone album, L.A.M.F. (Like a Mother Fucker), which was one of punk’s great letdowns. A terrible mix buried confident performances of fine songs, and the shittiness of the record prompted Nolan to quit the band.
That album has been remixed and remastered a fair few times, and it contains some of punk’s earliest enduring anthems, like “Born to Lose” and “Chinese Rocks.” That latter song was eventually performed by the Ramones on their 1980 LP End of the Century under the title “Chinese Rock,” and the song is partly noteworthy for a years-long dispute over exactly who wrote it. It’s long been accepted that the song was a collaboration to some degree between Richard Hell and Dee Dee Ramone, a reality reflected in the End of the Century credits. But on the original pressing of L.A.M.F., Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan are credited as songwriters—a credit that’s absent from the many subsequent reissues. If that claimed writing credit was an attempted money-grab, karma for that larceny was pretty instant—L.A.M.F. didn’t really generate all that much money at first. According to Dee Dee Ramone in his memoir Lobotomy:
For a while dope was called “Chinese Rock” in New York. When you would walk around the Lower East Side people would smirk at one another on the sidewalk and let you know with hand signals that they have the Chinese Rock. It was supposed to be good luck if someone had rocks. I must’ve had a lot of luck.
Jerry Nolan and Johnny Thunders used to call me quite frequently. Jerry would come over to my place and pick me up and then we would go cop some dope. The Heartbreakers we’re just getting together with John, Jerry and Richard Hell. I guess those guys were all dope fiends then… Richard Hell had mentioned to me that he was going to write a song better than Lou Reed’s “Heroin,” so I took his idea and wrote Chinese rocks in Deborah Harry’s apartment that night.
I wrote the song about Jerry calling me up to come over and go cop. The line “My girlfriend’s crying in the shower stall” was about Connie, and the shower was at Arturo Vega’s loft. The intro to the song was the same kind of stuff I had put in songs like “Commando” and the chorus of “53rd and 3rd.” I wrote those songs before “Chinese Rocks” and the Ramones had already performed and recorded these tunes.
When Jerry was over at my place one day, we did some dope and then I played him my song, and he took it with him to a Heartbreakers rehearsal. When Leee Childers started managing them them and got them a record deal, “Chinese Rocks” was their first single off L.A.M.F. …but the credits are false. Johnny Thunders ranked on me for fourteen years, trying to make out like he wrote the song. What a low-life maneuver by those guys! By then, I was really too fucked up to care.
In a passage in Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s must-read Please Kill Me (which features the Heartbreakers on its cover), Ramone admitted that Hell contributed to the lyrics, and Hell added:
The controversy about that song comes from the fact that we played it in the Heartbreakers. I brought it to the next rehearsal, exactly as it was done by the Heartbreakers for all those years. I would sing it because it was a song I brought in, and it became famous in New York.
But after I left the Heartbreakers, they kept playing “Chinese Rocks” and then ended up recording it. And they all put their names on it, though nothing had changed about the song—they just added their names to it. Johnny Thunders did have great songwriting instincts. He always had the greatest touches and the most catchy kind of ideas, but he had nothing to do with “Chinese Rocks” at all.
Being the last concerned party left alive, Hell took the last word for himself in a 2005 interview with Marc Prindle:
…they [Nolan and Thunders] wanted to have a claim on that song. They had nothing whatsoever to do with it. They also said shit about me when I left the band; they acted like they kicked me out or something. Johnny never said anything like that, but Jerry was known to say stuff like that. If he didn’t actually say that, he hinted at it just because it was like this New York gang mentality where they were offended that I left the group, so they had to make it out to be that they never wanted me anyway. And I never had any bad feelings; I had a great time in that band and I was happy in it up until the time where I wanted to try to do stuff that wasn’t really right for that band. I was the fucking lead singer. I did most of the singing and wrote most of the songs. But yeah, it’s all silliness. Water way under the bridge.
I don’t really give a shit about the “Chinese Rocks” thing. What happened is really clear, and the songwriting credits can all be checked at BMI. The song is by me and Dee Dee, but Dee Dee did 75 percent of it. I mean, all I did was write two verses out of three. Dee Dee wrote the music, the concept was his. He’s basically responsible for it. But he brought me the song; he didn’t even know Johnny and Jerry, but we were friends and he thought the band was great. And when the Ramones didn’t want to do the song he said, “Look, I’ve written one verse of this song with the chorus and it’s about heroin, how about you write the rest of it and it’s yours?” And that’s what he did. I say it all the time: when I was in the Heartbreakers, everybody sang the songs that they wrote and I sang “Chinese Rocks”—there are plenty of live tapes to prove it. Then I stopped performing it after the Heartbreakers and they kept playing it. That was their biggest song, so they wanted to take credit for it. Stupid.
Because of the early-‘90s deaths of Thunders and Nolan, and the 2014 death of Billy Rath, Walter Lure is the last Heartbreaker standing. Last year, he joined up with the Replacements’ bassist Tommy Stinson, the MC5’s guitarist Wayne Kramer, and Blondie’s drummer Clem Burke to pay tribute to his former band and to L.A.M.F. with two nights of shows at NYC’s Bowery Electric. Those shows also featured contributions from Jesse Malin, Cheetah Chrome and Liza Colby, and they were recorded for a DVD release. That release coincides with a tour—Lure is paying tribute again to the album, with Burke, Social Distortion’s Mike Ness, and the Sex Pistols’ Glen Matlock. Dangerous Minds got a preview of the DVD, it’s pretty great, and we’ve been permitted to share that version of “Chinese Rocks” with you today.
BONUS! Here’s “Born to Lose” because why not.