Richard Hell & The Voidoids - Blank Generation 40th Anniversary Edition

by Kevin Orton Rating:10 Release Date:2017-11-24
Richard Hell & The Voidoids - Blank Generation 40th Anniversary Edition
Richard Hell & The Voidoids - Blank Generation 40th Anniversary Edition

Like love, sometimes genius comes in spurts. Same could be said for dumb luck. Whether it was dumb luck or genius, Richard Hell & The Voidoids cut a masterpiece with Blank Generation. 40 years later, it still sounds as fierce as it did then. Say what you will of Richard Hell, but his masterstroke was in assembling the Voidoids: Marc Bell, Ivan Julian and of course, the late, great Robert Quine. Quine worked in a bookstore with Hell, Julian answered an ad and drummer Bell would soon reinvent himself as Marky Ramone. But for a brief period, Hell had a band that lived up to his moniker.

As for Hell himself, he admits he wasn’t the greatest of bass players. Nor was he under any illusions about his singing ability. But he could hardly be written off as a fashionable poseur. If anyone held the pedigree for enfant terrible of CBGB’s Punk scene, it was Richard Hell. In terms of cred, he was not only a founding member of Television but the Heartbreakers as well. To say he helped usher in the New York Punk scene is an understatement. He was the cutting-edge vanguard. The first to rip up his clothes and pin them together. The first to spike his hair. The poster boy for heroin chic. In the mid to late 70’s Hell was king of the Lower Eastside. The swaggering epitome of “mad, bad and dangerous to know”. But he also had a secret side. Hell was a true intellectual. Behind those trademark shades lurked a bookish romantic.

One of the many things that makes Blank Generation so unique is the juxtaposition of Hell’s rebellious bravado and his more introverted side. On the surface, this album is a mainline rush of Sex, Drugs & Rock & Roll. But all that is betrayed by lyrics fraught with self-doubt and conflicted feelings. More than anything, Blank Generation is a cold hard look in the mirror, while doing your worst.

Whether you consider it nails on a chalkboard or not, if the first notes of ‘Love Comes In Spurts’ don’t stop you in your tracks, you’re deaf. I can’t think of a more obnoxious or alarming way to kick off a record. Talk about a statement of purpose. Playing it the other day, I had to pull the cat off the ceiling. Hell’s tortured vocal comically at odds with the Doo Wop parody of the backing vocals. Julian and Quine’s vengeful guitars truly a “fuck you” to anything and everything. But this isn’t just about blind rage. While the Sex Pistols aimed their sites against society, here, the struggle is mostly internal. And that’s what sets this album apart from the pack. That said, ‘Liars Beware’ is a protest song for the ages. And how many protest songs do you know have lines like, “I’m a man with his share of excess nice but it can’t be spared for drooling lice.” Manic guitars go for the jugular before Hell sneers, “You ancient slut, I can’t endure your smirking smut”. Pure poetry, the gutter variety.

‘New Pleasure’ could serve as Hell’s thesis paper for a PHD in debauchery. Outside of ‘Chinese Rocks’ its one of the catchiest songs about being a junkie I’ve ever heard. But in Hell’s world, heroin’s anything but chic. It’s just another hanger on.

‘Betrayal’ is the closest we get to a ballad. Amidst the squalor and seediness there is a tortured, blood on your shirt romanticism that the Sex Pistols and Clash never had. The complexities of a confused, fucked up relationship come creeping up to stab in the back. Is this love? Or a one-night stand? Or both? And of course, the drugs are a third wheel, blurring the lines even further. “They burned down the house and met in a bar with a hotel attached and kissed all the scars”. What an image. What Hell lacked in cutesy one liners, he more than made up for with stark romanticism.  

If anyone wanted to know what it was like playing CBGB’s back in its glory days, all you need to do is check out the sordid likes of, ‘Down At The Rock And Roll Club’. Talk about a snapshot.  Even more scathing is ‘Who Says?’ “Who says its good good good to be alive? Same ones who keep it a perpetual dive.”  As for keeping your head above the fray, “users can’t see the horror, tell one if you want to bore her.”

‘Blank Generation’ is without a doubt the quintessential Punk anthem. As for being the voice of the ____ Generation, “I can take it or leave it,” Hell shrugs.  Positively dripping with sarcasm.

At heart, Blank Generation is a good old-fashioned Rock & Roll record and just to prove it, out of left field comes an early Creedence cover. How “Punk” is that? Then again, Creedence wasn’t exactly hippie dippy Soft Rock. It’s not just some arbitrary cover either, it’s a statement: “We’re doing nothing new, just doing it in a new way.” In the liner notes, Hell credits Bob Quine for the off the wall choice.

‘The Plan’ is like something torn from the pages of 120 Days of Sodom. “I was surprised and somewhat disappointed there was no outrage about this song,” Hell quips in the liner notes. Disturbing to say the least, it’s a song about someone who is so disaffected and defeated, he knocks up his former girlfriend, so he can get revenge on her by raising the daughter as his concubine. Hell claims to have been inspired by Poe but years later remarked the plot eerily echoes the Marquis de Sade’s short story, Eugenie de Franval. It all goes to show, Blank Generation is not only a weird, seriously twisted album, it’s inspirations are actually quite literate.

As for the closing track, the song’s protagonist is left alone in the backroom looking at his lady love in “a box lined with silk.” When he imparts he could live with her in another world, it’s like something straight out of Edgar Allen Poe. Specifically, Poe’s infamous observation, “The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.”

In the entirety of Rock & Roll, there is no album quite like, Blank Generation. What’s more, its an acquired taste. On the surface, it’s obnoxiously dissonant and tough. Not the kind of record you kick off your shoes off with. Nor is it background or party music. It’s the kind of thing that demands something from its audience. It demands that you actually take the time to listen to it. And once you do, it’s not an experience you’re likely to forget. While the Ramones and Television had their fingers on the pulse of New York’s Lower Eastside, Richard Hell was up to his neck in it. No other album so beautifully and defiantly captures New York’s seedy underbelly in the late 70’s.

After Blank Generation, that’s pretty much all she wrote for Richard Hell and the Voidoids. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s something to be said for “less is more.” Hell’s career held on by a thread until the 80’s, when he left the Music business to concentrate on writing. By all accounts it was a life saving move. If his recently acclaimed memoir, I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp is any indication, he wasn’t wasting his time. But as this 40th anniversary reissue makes all too clear, Blank Generation remains Hell’s masterpiece. And the same goes for Quine and the rest of the Voidoids. It’s a truly odd and original record that influenced an entire____ Generation. A bona fide classic, up there with the likes of Television’s Marquee Moon and the Ramones’ debut. And if it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, that’s fine by me. Now excuse me, while I pull the cat off the ceiling. Time to blast it again.

Overall Rating (1)

5 out of 5 stars