Revisit: Richard Hell and the Voidoids: Blank Generation

Revisit: Richard Hell and the Voidoids: Blank Generation

Without Richard Hell (nee Meyers) there is no punk scene in New York.

Without Richard Hell (nee Meyers) there is no punk scene in New York.

Hell, along with Tom Verlaine (nee Miller), hitched their way to New York City as the swinging ‘60s gave way to the self-indulgent ‘70s. Once there, they established themselves as street poets and the progenitors of the entire CBGB’s crowd. While their first project together – Neon Boys – failed to leave much of a mark, the band that sprang from that group would. As Television, they rewrote the possibilities of music, combining angular guitars with hyper-literate lyrics to create an aesthetic all their own. But like satellite NYC punk figure Brian Eno before him, Hell became frustrated with the restrictions he felt Verlaine placed in the allocation of songwriting, leaving the band before they recorded the landmark Marque Moon in 1977.

To illustrate how close-knit and insulated that scene was, within a week of his departure, Hell was asked to join a new group being formed by a couple of former New York Dolls. So not only did Hell help found one of the most important groups of the CBGB scene in Television, he also was an original member of Johnny Thunders’ Heartbreakers. Yet, as with Television, Hell found the situation too creatively confining and, finally, struck out on his own in an attempt to be the solo artist he’d always been at heart.

Freed from these creative constraints, Hell forged a path all his own, creating an aesthetic package that has stood as the defining element of NYC punk. While it’s always something prone to debate and equally impossible to refute or prove definitively, Hell is consistently cited as the first to sport ripped clothing, something that would go on to become a punk staple that continues to this day. This sartorial choice, coupled with iconic visual imagery, helped further cement Hell’s status within the pantheon of punk’s most important progenitors.

Other than Patti Smith’s Horses, there are few album covers that define the artist as much as the scene from which they sprang. With disheveled hair, a rail-thin frame cloaked in black leather and the words “You make me _____” scrawled across his chest, Hell’s Blank Generation immediately became a generation-defining visual that, when coupled with the challenging music contained within, showed the potential inherent in complete and total artistic freedom in pop music.

As with all things NYC punk, however, the sound of Richard Hell and the Voidoids sounds light years away from what generally comes to mind when the subject of punk is broached. Rather than the dumb/smart fast-and-loud combination perfected by the Ramones, Hell and the Voidoids employ a more exploratory, almost avant-garde approach (can something be proto-post-punk?) Aside from two of the best known tracks on Blank Generation (the innuendo-laced “Love Comes in Spurts” and the manifesto-like title track), much of the album is more akin to the artier end of the CBGB set. Given Hell’s pedigree, however, this should come as no surprise. Although not as musically sophisticated as Television, the Voidoids still manage a uniquely idiosyncratic sound that funnels several decades worth of rock ‘n’ roll into a blender then set on frappe.

Key to the Voidoids sound is the guitar of Robert Quine, its brittle, jagged tone unsettlingly aggressive and yet inherently melodic. It’s little wonder the Godfather of Punk himself, Lou Reed, would recruit Quine for his own group as the ‘70s gave way to the ‘80s. Aiding Quine on Blank Generation is former member of the proto-photo-metal group Dust (and the future Marky Ramone) Marc Bell on drums and Ivan Julian, a former member of the Foundations (“Build Me Up Buttercup,” “Baby Now that I’ve Found You”) on guitar. This level of stylistic diversity helps make the Voidoids a singularly unique entity.

Kicking off with “Love Comes in Spurts” and its crazed ascending guitar riff courtesy of Quine, Blank Generation stands as one of the all-time great punk albums to come out of New York City. Insanely catchy and yet somehow also borderline atonal, “Love Comes in Spurts” is about as traditionally structured as the album gets, quickly flying off the rails with Hell’s ranting and railing on “Liars Beware,” his vocalizations barely keeping pace with the Voidoids’ frantic pounding. Changing tact yet again, “New Pleasure” brings together a sound akin to proto-math rock with a straight-ahead rocker, all in well under two minutes.

“Down at the Rock and Roll Club” is all brash, bratty rock ‘n’ roll posturing and self-mythologizing (“They say, ‘Richard are you gonna go out tonight?’/ I am uncertain, I ain’t feeling too right/ But I rip up my shirt, watch the mirror flirt/ Yeah, I’m going out, out into sight”) With its play-by-play narrative, it offers listeners a chance to temporarily immerse themselves in the sound and feel of mid-‘70s CBGBs. Similarly, the title track serves as a generational manifesto that effectively tears to shreds the all-inclusiveness of the peace and love generation: “I belong to the blank generation/ I can take it or leave it each time/ I belong to the generation/ But I can take it or leave it each time.”

Unlike his former bandmates in Television, Hell leans closer to the Ramones model of short and sweet. With the exception of the eight-minute “Another World,” nothing on Blank Generation scratches the four-minute mark, with most clocking in well under three. Central to all of this is Hell’s lyrical poeticism which, along with Smith’s, stands as some of the most literarily erudite in the CBGB punk canon. Interestingly, his vocal delivery is at times reminiscent of Smith’s own, the words sounding as though they are being chewed on and savored prior to being expelled.

Despite a handful of subsequent attempts at recapturing Blank Generation’s brilliance, Hell and the Voidoids limped into the 21st century, occasionally coming together to perform until Quine’s death in 2004 effectively put an end of the band. Hell, meanwhile, found himself gravitating more towards writing, specifically poetry and novelized fiction. With the publication of the seminal Please Kill Me, an oral history of the New York City punk scene and its biggest movers and shakers which appropriated that prevocational phrase once scrawled on a t-shirt of Hell’s, his place was forever cemented as the quintessential NYC punk. Blank Generation stands as both Hell’s crowning achievement and one of the most important albums to spring forth from the Bowery

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