Richard Hell is widely acknowledged as one of the prime movers of punk rock. Born Richard Meyers of Lexington, KY in 1949, he moved to New York City in 1966 after a few years of troublemaking to pursue a career as a poet. He was soon joined by his friend and fellow poet, Tom Miller (who took on the name “Tom Verlaine”).
Hell and Verlaine have been characterized as inseparable and were often mistaken for brothers. They worked in bookstores and printed their own poetry magazines. This period of time is most notoriously remembered for their combined invention of the fictitious poet “Theresa Stern” whose book of poetry Wanna Go Out was published in 1973. The cover of the book featured a picture of “Theresa Stern”, which was actually a superimposition of Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell in wig and makeup.
The pursuit of poetry soon gave way to a more in your face form of art, rock ‘n’ roll. The two young men formed a band called the Neon Boys, whose garage rock feel and literate, clever lyrics full of puns and double entendres hinted at what the future might hold.
Hell and Verlaine recruited a second guitarist named Richard Lloyd, brought back Neon Boys drummer Billy Ficca and formed the band for which they would both be known for the rest of their lives, Television. Hell has often been credited with ideas behind the band’s image: short cropped hair and ordinary street clothes, often torn or with holes, which was a rebellious stance for a band of that era. This stood in contrast to most rock bands of the time, who were glamming it up in fancy shiny clothes and hair that cascaded past their shoulders. “We wanted to be stark and hard and torn up,” Hell wrote, “the way the world was.”
This version of Television would last for about a year or so, with vocal duties being split fairly evenly at first (about 60/40) with Richard Hell singing early punk rock classic “Fuck Rock ‘n’ Roll (Read a Book)” and an early version of the song that became a misunderstood anthem, “Blank Generation”.
After splitting with Television, Hell formed a nascent version of The Heartbreakers with Johnny Thunders, formerly of the New York Dolls. They recorded some demos, famously including another version of the track “Blank Generation” and performed live, but Hell soon quit to form a band he could lead.
Richard Hell formed the band the Voidoids in 1976, with Robert Quine and Ivan Julian on guitars and Marc Bell on drums, musicians who had floated around the NYC punk scene. Quine had already seen Hell perform with the Heartbreakers on a night that Hell had been chewing gum while playing. At some point during the performance Hell aggressively spat out the wad of gum. Quine later told him that was the moment he knew Richard Hell was a star.
In his autobiography I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, Hell states “I think Quine was the best rock and roll guitar soloist ever. He found a way to mix art with emotion that put him ahead of everyone.” He also speaks of Ivan Julian as “…a pro, was young and sharp, and he liked the same kind of slashing, swinging rhythm guitar that we did. He ended up playing some of the most popular and frenzied solos on our records as well.”
With his two guitarists in place the group rehearsed songs for a demo record, which was subsequently released by Ork Records as an EP. The world at large could now hear the sound they had imagined when reading articles published in the Village Voice and NY Rocker about punk rock, CBGB and Max’s Kansas City. The EP consisted of three songs: “Blank Generation”, “You Gotta Lose” and Another World”.
The U.K. release of the EP by Stiff Records boasts a fantastic cover: a picture of Hell standing shirtless in his apartment, pants unbuttoned, a picture of his own face pinned to the wall behind him, his name is spelled out with a font made of razor blades. I’ve got to admit that I didn’t realize those were razor blades for years, only noticing when I casually looked at the cover after it had been in my possession and played hundreds of times.
The EP did the job, showcasing Hell as an architect and instigator of the New York punk scene and lead to a contract with Sire Records. The ink barely dry on their contract, the band hit the recording studio to record their debut album, one of the most highly regarded debut albums in rock history. It wasn’t an simple process, however. The band finished their recording and submitted the tracks to Sire, which was undergoing negotiations for a change of distributor. This delayed the release of the record, leading Hell to overthink the process and re-record some of the tracks prior to the final mastering and release of the album. Despite it’s well regarded reception and continual praise since its release, the album Blank Generation is in truth a bit of a cut and paste job, a fact revealed with subsequent reissues of the album.
Flashback to 1977.
At the time I lived in a slightly rural area outside of Monterey, CA. I didn’t read the Village Voice or NY Rocker. I had no knowledge of bands such as New York Dolls or Television. It wasn’t until October of 1978 when my little brain was punk rockified by seeing Devo on Saturday Night Live.
My taste in music began to shift. Commercial radio held little interest for me. I sought music at the left of the dial, on smaller non-commercial radio stations and began the hunt for punk and new wave records. Not every purchase was a Blank Generation or Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo, but I visited both of the records stores in my area week after week, searching for new excitement, seeking sounds that would raise the hair on the back of my neck.
My first memory of the cover of Blank Generation was seeing it on a record store wall being used as a dartboard. There was Richard Hell, holding open a trashy jacket with his left arm, inviting your gaze. He is shirtless underneath the coat, poverty or junkie slim, hair and face non-committal, as though he just woke up at 2 in the afternoon. Across his chest, written in felt pen, “You Make Me_____” . I was compelled to buy the record and fill in the blank.
The picture is intentionally misleading. He wrote of being interviewed by pioneering rock journalist Lester Bangs who asked him to come up with definitive meanings for the songs on the album. In his frustration he stated “To me, ‘Blank’ is a line where you can fill in anything. It’s positive.” He later explained, “Would I really write ‘I belong to the Blank Generation’ without knowing that it would be understood as describing us as being numb and apathetic?”
The title track leads off side two of the album with rhythm guitar and a solid bass thump, the kind that kicks you right in the chest. It only took the opening line, “I was saying let me out of here before I was even born…” before I was hooked. “Triangles were falling out the window as the doctored cursed…” punctuated by a couple of the most jarring, slashing guitar breaks I had ever heard! I had no knowledge of jazz guitar or up from the gutter New York rock like the Velvet Underground, so this was all new to me.
Side one opens with a songs that would make any teenage boy giggle, “Love Comes in Spurts”. The song starts with everything already in motion, which forces the listener is to chase after the band, and yes, laugh a little at the chorus: “Love comes in spurts (oh no, it hurts!),” yelped by Hell, his voice breaking like the teenage boy that was listening to the record.
The album is playful and rocking, filled with ideas I had never considered. It opened me up to new things, like a well written book. It was and is still everything a record album should be.
When the album was first reissued on CD the cover was different, showing Hell in a shirt, torn at the left shoulder with sunglasses on. The cover has a light purple, almost pink border, which was not very punk rock. On the original album, the recording of “Down at the Rock and Roll Club” has Hell squealing out the line “Scotch & soda” as though he had been struck by a cattle prod. For some unfathomable reason they replaced it with a slighter longer, tamer version. They also unnecessarily added a couple of bonus tracks, “I’m Your Man” and “All the Way”. As a rule I am in favor of bonus tracks (I’m a completist), but in this case these additions and choices weaken the album.
Thankfully today we have the newly issued 40th anniversary edition which restores the album to its original state, including the original LP version of “Down at the Rock and Roll Club”. Both the CD & LP versions of this latest reissue also include a wealth of bonus tracks (this time appropriately), including some alternate recordings of some of the songs that appear on the album proper. This gives the listener some idea of the LP that might have been, if not for Hell’s tinkering during the delay in the album’s release. Some early live recordings of the band at CBGB give us a glimpse of what it must have been like in the mid-seventies. It also includes a radio advertisement made for the album which clearly shows that label was out of their depth and had little or no idea how to promote the band.
The original LP has been a favorite of mine from the very first time I listened, so much so that when I had an opportunity to have my own radio show on a local public radio station in Pacific Grove, CA on KAZU 90.3 FM, I named the show Blank Generation. It ran for close to eight years before I decided to leave California and move to Oregon.
Portland was a smart move on my part. In addition to the opportunity to continue hosting a radio show (It’s a Nice World to Visit on Freeform Portland), 2014 Richard Hell visited Powell’s Books in 2014 to promote his autobiography I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp. He read from his book, was heckled by a seemingly drunk woman (whom he fended off with clever verbal barbs), and signed copies of his book afterwards. He was a distinct pleasure to meet. I treasure that day.
Thanks for the music Mr. Hell!