Listen to this track, a proto-punk explosion by a band started by former Television founder and bassist Richard Hell. It’s the era-defining “Blank Generation” by Richard Hell & the Voidoids, a flagship song of the 70s New York punk scene, even before the word punk was applied to it. It is taken from the group’s 1977 album of the same name, Blank Generation.
Richard Hell was a key mover and shaker in the New York club scene, a regular at Max’s Kansas City with the New York Dolls and Patti Smith, and later at CBGBs with Blondie, the Ramones, and Talking Heads. Hell, born Richard Meyers, inspired a look and a sound that helped to kick off a punk scene across the pond in England, while adding a kind of literacy and fierce intelligence to rock music that would transcend any one scene.
When Malcolm McClaren visited New York City on an extended trip that had him briefly managing the New York Dolls, Hell’s fashion sense and general presence was the model on which McClaren would base his line of clothing back in London as sold in his and wife Vivienne Westwood’s boutique Sex, and his next music management project, the Sex Pistols. Having said this, Hell’s band the Voidoids, formed after he’d played with a pre-recordings Television and Johnny Thunders’ The Heartbreakers, offered something that the Pistols were not generally known for – lyricism.
While with Television, Hell had taken a different approach to rock ‘n’ roll, compared to his bandmate Tom Verlaine’s. Hell wanted to be in a gritty rock ‘n’ roll band, even if Verlaine wanted to take the group in an artier, and more “serious”, direction. The tension between the two eventually inspired Hell to stretch out on his own and leave Television, who would later go on to record a classic of their own – Marquee Moon. Yet despite the differences in opinion about what rock ‘n’ roll should be, the two were both fans of Bob Dylan, and of Dylan’s skill at infusing rock music with a sense of poetry as well as sheer attack.
You can hear it in this song; a barrage of words that fall into each other, yet push the song along while they’re doing it. Guitarist Robert Quine’s irregular chording at the beginning of the song, and the chaotic shards of sound that pull together some classic rock ‘n’ roll soloing bordering on a kind of rockabilly feel are real stand outs too. The result is a tune that stands as a cornerstone of back-to-basics rock ‘n’roll, inspiring the Sex Pistols ‘Pretty Vacant’ and the Stray Cats ‘Stray Cat Strut’ all in one explosion of sound.
But, it’s also a song that demonstrates that even if you’re playing basic rock ‘n’ roll, it doesn’t mean you have to write basic, just-functional lyrics. Hell, like Patti Smith, was interested in putting across lyrical imagery, as well as visceral energy on a musical level. And this song has both, a veritable microcosm of what was going on in the minds of the audiences of those sweaty clubs out of which Hell and his contemporaries made their names. Despite high-profile appearances at CBGBs, and later in England opening for the Clash, the group would never be a household name. Yet, this song, and also Hell’s “Love Comes in Spurts” would be immortalized as punk classics among the bands coming up behind them.
Richard Hell’s career turned to more literary concerns by the end of the 1980s. You can visit the official Richard Hell website to get a list of his literary works, and of his subsquent musical projects.