The 40th Anniversary Release of Richard Hell & The Voidoids’ “Blank Generation” Brings Back The Greatest Punk Album That Wasn’t Really A “Punk” Album

richard_hell_blank_generation_40th_anniversary_deluxe_edition_2397526

In the wonderful liner notes accompanying Blank Generation: 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition, guitarist Ivan Julian remembers that the band was listening to James Brown’s album, coincidentally entitled Hell, as they went into the studio, two times as it turns out, to record their debut.   And reading that, it cracks the code on why this amazing record — every bit the equal to Television’s debut Marquis Moon, and one of just a handful of late ’70s records (Pink FlagHorses, The Clash, This Year’s Model, The Modern Dance, More Songs About Buildings and Food…) that have stood the test of time — sounds the way it does.  Because, children, Richard Hell & The Voidoids could swing, and it certainly wasn’t the rhythm section, with future Ramone Mark Bell on drums and Hell on bass, that did it.  You see, for an album heralded as a classic punk record from that first generation of CBGB bands, Blank Generation sure was funky, and Lord, was this band tight.

We remember the first time we heard it, in our campus housing at Hampshire College when future rock critter Byron Coley came back from The City with his latest batch o’ discoveries, must have been just after Thanksgiving of ’77, and the first thing that was clear was this band could play.  We’d never heard a guitarist like Bob Quine, except maybe for Jeff Beck.  But while we knew enough to recognize Hell as a progenitor of the New York punk scene — we’d spent the previous summer in the The City, we read the two papers we’d soon write for, the Voice and the Soho News — this didn’t sound like the Ramones, whom we’d seen at CBs, and it didn’t sound like Patti Smith or Television.  If punk rock was supposed to be primitive, these weren’t primitives — or at least Blank Generation wasn’t primitive — because on vinyl the Voidoids could turn on a dime, Quine and Julian’s rhythm and lead guitar playing was as tight as Keith and Mick Taylor, and the whole band was as propulsive as, well, James Brown’s J.B.s.  Even as Hell’s singing, and the affect was, well, okay, primitive, and even as they were categorized as punks, this was a band, and an album, that wasn’t an alternative anything — they were the real deal. And this was as exciting a record as that moment produced.

So here we are, 40 years later, and Richard’s a revered icon in the Village, known as much for his superb rock criticism and lovely 2013 memoir I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp as he is for having produced two of the best records from New York City’s great musical epoch between ’77 and ’83.  With this remastered version of the Voidoids’ debut, and the addition of a modest set of live tracks and alternative cuts, let us consider Blank Generation as music.  Which so rarely happens.  Hell is such an important cultural figure — and importantly, because he stopped playing music so long ago that he’s succeeded in having us think of him as a writer, not as a musician — people tend to gloss over Blank Generation, and what an incredible record it is. (And Hell himself thought so little of the classic Destiny Street that in 2010 he rerecorded it with a different band, which we thought, and said then, was a mistake.)

10showwall1-facebookjumbo

Now this may be hard to follow, but try. We have long thought of Richard Hell as sort of the inverse of the Velvet Underground.  While we listen to, and revere, our Velvets records, while we are suckers for every box, all the live shit (including the material Bob Quine, who was then a Wash U law student, followed them around and recorded on a cassette deck), for us the Velvet Underground are kept alive by the bands who channel them, who imitate them, who cover their music.  A decade ago, we wrote about the Velvet Underground as much as a notion than as an actual band. When we listen to the Brian Jonestown Massacre or Spiritualized or Jesus and Mary Chain, we are in Velvets world.  In other words, the VU are something bigger than, you know, a band who put out records, great as they are.

But Richard Hell, who is such an outsized figure — co-founder of Television, member of The Heartbreakers and Dim Star, the guy whose torn pants beget “punk” as a British fashion craze — is less often considered for the two incredible records he released with the Voidoids, than in some other, broader context.  And yet, even as we read his fiction, and his really quite excellent music criticism, even as he has become, over time, something of a quite generous pen pal, we play his two Voidoids albums constantly. Forget the broader context, we revere Hell, first and foremost, because of his vinyl output with the Voidoids.

f9235d64b0ac81ccdc88c950c851aac0-robert-richard-punk-art

Now it’s true that people play Blank Generation and Destiny Street as much because they want to hear Bob Quine’s skronk as because they want to hear Hell, and while we get that — we’d rather listen to Quine and Ivan Julian together than Quine on a fucking Lloyd Cole album — let us give Richard the credit he’s due.  Blank Generation is, as this 40th Anniversary release shows, one of the rare albums from that era that, 40 years on, holds up. The world may worship Television’s Marquis Moon, and and we certainly gave Verlaine his due upon that record’s 35th anniversary release, we have always thought Hell deserved the same treatment, the same reverence. He’s not a guitar god or a lyrical mystic, his singing’s not Bono great, his bass playing perhaps tends more in the direction of Sid Vicious than Jaco Pastorius, but, you know, hell, if you’re into real rock’n’roll, as we called it at New York Rocker, he’s the real deal.  And he was the songwriter, band leader and visionary spawning two of our favorite records ever.

Along the way, Hell has a made some artistic mistakes, and they’re not always the ones he thinks.  He was correct — as is proved on the 2nd CD of this anniversary release, with its alternative versions of “Love Comes In Spurts” and “Blank Generation” — to have gone back in the studio in the summer of ’77 to completely re-record the album.  He was right to have had his compendium known as The Richard Hell Story remastered. But the less said about Destiny Street Revisited the better. (We understand why he’d want a mulligan on the output from his drug-addled days, but it is possible to be sobriety addled too, and some things are best left as they were.  Wire wonderfully recorded Change Becomes Us in 2013, comprised of songs botched in a 1981 live release. But that was cleaning up a sloppy live set of great songs; Destiny Street’s songs sound better on the 2005 remastering of The Richard Hell Story, but the original is a masterpiece, and not just because Quine is on it.)

Richard Hell’s efforts at polishing and remastering the past are worth it.  He’s an exceptionally intelligent artist who, all grown up and having survived himself, wants to be known by the way he hears his music, which is not exactly the way it ended up released.  But the way it ended up released is fucking awesome, even if remastering CDs can make something sound marginally better.

He should take comfort in having produced, in the original Destiny Street, a sophomore album better than his friend and rival Tom Verlaine’s 2nd Television album, Adventure.  And he should take new pleasure in the recognition that Blank Generation really can be understood not simply as a great punk album, but as one of the finest rock’n’roll records ever made.

One Response to “The 40th Anniversary Release of Richard Hell & The Voidoids’ “Blank Generation” Brings Back The Greatest Punk Album That Wasn’t Really A “Punk” Album”

  1. […] a month ago, we wrote about the 40th anniversary release of Richard Hell & the Voidoids’ great Blank Generation. In an overly long appreciation, we took a swing at Hell’s 2009 Destiny Street Repaired, the […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: