On Its 50th Anniversary, the Meaning Behind “Stranded in the Jungle” by New York Dolls

When the New York Dolls released Too Much Too Soon 50 years ago, they simultaneously closed a chapter on their young career while opening a new era in punk rock.

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Their Todd Rundgren-produced debut didn’t sell many records, but critics loved them.

In the ’70s, a young Morrissey sent letters to NME declaring his love for the band. The magazine also reported the future Smiths singer ran the New York Dolls’ U.K. fan club.

Morrissey would eventually organize a New York Dolls reunion in 2004, though only three members of the classic lineup were still alive. The Smiths wouldn’t be the only legendary band the New York Dolls would inspire.

Doo-Wop and Punk Rock

The Jayhawks (or The Jay Hawks), a Los Angeles-based doo-wop group, released “Stranded in the Jungle” in 1956. Ernestine Smith and James Johnson wrote the Top 20 hit, and soon, another one-hit soul group, The Cadets, covered the song.

However, when New York Dolls began work on their 1974 album Too Much Too Soon with producer George “Shadow” Morton, they weren’t prepared with enough songs. So, the band added oldies to their original compositions.

The band was already a fan of Morton’s work with The Shangri-Las. He was famous for writing “Remember (Walking in the Sand)” and “Leader of the Pack” for the girl group. So, Morton’s ’60s soul aesthetic blended seamlessly with the New York Dolls’ heavy sound, and the producer tamed the group’s chaos without stifling their energy.

Mercury Records released “Stranded in the Jungle” as the first single. The song features singer David Johansen using character voices while backed by female doo-wop vocalists.

Though Too Much Too Soon, like their debut, wasn’t commercially successful, it became a cult album and cemented the New York Dolls’ legacy as a proto-punk and glam band.

Do You Know Where You Are?

A crash leaves Johansen stranded in the jungle, though he has a bigger problem—trying to keep a date. He needs to get a message back to his girlfriend explaining his predicament, but luckily, she has already seen news of the plane wreck.

Well, I’m stranded in the jungle; I’m trying to keep a date
With my little girl, that was back in the States
I’m stranded in the jungle; I’m afraid of it all
Wondering how I could get a message back home
But how was I to know that the wreckage of my plane
Had been picked up and spotted, but my girl on Lovers’ Lane?

But Johansen’s situation worsens because another man is planning moves on his girlfriend. The other man pleads his case:

Baby, baby, let’s make romance
I says, your old-time lover hasn’t got a chance
I said he’s stranded in the jungle, bad as he can be
Come on, pretty darling, just you and me, oh yeah 

Things in the jungle, as you can imagine, only deteriorate with Johansen on the menu—as the main course! Meanwhile, the other guy persists while Johansen must find a way out of the cooking pot.

Indeed, the singer escapes the banquet and heads for the ocean, where he thumbs a ride from a whale. He reaches the United States in half a day and finally reaches Lovers’ Lane, though he’s nearly dead.

Finally, he expresses his love for the girl, supported by the New York Dolls and their doo-wop backup vocalists.

Communist Chic

Following the album’s release, the New York Dolls imploded under addiction, internal tensions, and declining interest from music fans. They connected with British fashion designer and manager Malcolm McLaren, who eventually assembled the Sex Pistols.

McLaren and his then-girlfriend, Vivienne Westwood, met the group while visiting New York to participate in a boutique fair. Westwood is known for bringing punk and new-wave fashion to the mainstream. Furthermore, she and McLaren ran a clothing shop called Sex in London, central to the Sex Pistols’ origin story.

However, McLaren’s work with the New York Dolls was disastrous. He dressed the group in patent red leather outfits and hung a communist flag as a backdrop while the band performed concerts.

Eventually, amid mounting tumult and chaos, Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan left the group while the band’s roadie replaced bassist Arthur Kane, who was too intoxicated to perform. They continued to perform with Johansen, Sylvain Sylvain, and various iterations of the group before a final show in 1976 at Max’s Kansas City in New York with Blondie.


The New York Dolls, in their short career and with limited commercial success, influenced several generations of glam and punk rock. They were crucial to the development of punk rock in the UK with the Sex Pistols, The Clash, and The Damned.

Kiss, Aerosmith, and Guns N’ Roses have cited the New York Dolls as primary influences. Moreover, the 1980s glam hard rock movement, which includes Twisted Sister, Mötley Crüe, and Poison, equally owes its influence to the New York Dolls.

Johnny Thunders became the North Star for punk guitarists from Johnny Ramone to Steve Jones. He used Chuck Berry blues licks and power chords that were later adopted by Social Distortion and Green Day, among others.

David Johansen may have been stranded in the jungle, but Axl Rose welcomed the world to the jungle on Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction—an album title that fittingly embodies both bands.

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Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage

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