Richard Hell and the Voidoids
Blank Generation (Record Store Day 2017 40th Anniversary reissue)
Not so very long ago, I was muddling through the stacks at my favorite record store when the sight of something surprising gave me pause. There, on a reasonably cool spring day, I found a copy of the Record Store Day reissue of Blank Generation by Richard Hell and the Voidoids, originally reissued in 2017. It had never been opened – it was still sealed – and had remained that way for years. It was pressed, at the time, to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the album’s original release on Sire Records.
I marveled at my good luck. I absolutely love this album, but I’ve never had a vinyl copy of it – just a few CD versions (the best of which was the Plundering the Vaults version, released in 1990) over the years. For me, finding this unopened, unplayed copy of this album was beyond good fortune. I bought it, of course, and brought it home excitedly. I wondered how it could have remained in the stacks, unclaimed (by anyone, including me) before now. I considered, “Some records really do just never get a fair shake. Even among the hotly collectable fare released on Record Store Day, somehow this went overlooked.” It was only right before I put this copy of Blank Generation on my turntable that I stopped to wonder what the odds were for such a serendipitous moment as this. It was then that I decided, philosophically, some records do not and can never get their due. No matter how many years have gone by and how respected an album might be within a small orbit, it never really gets to shine in the way it truly deserves – and this unopened, unplayed copy of Blank Generation stands as definitive proof of that fact.
I held the record in my hand for a moment and stared at it. “It’s funny how some records never get a shot,” I thought. Then I anxiously put the record on my turntable and sunk a needle into it – because I’m the lucky punk who found a brand new, limited edition pressing of one of my most favorite albums of all time, years after it was released to a voracious market on Record Store Day.
The remastered presentation on this reissue simultaneously gives up no surprises as well as being completely satisfying. As soon as a needle penetrates the vinyl and “Love Comes In Spurts” opens the A-side of Blank Generation, listeners will be floored at how far ahead of the pack Hell was when the album originally came out in 1977 (just one month before Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols); while other punks were still laser-focused on confrontation and declarations of revolt, Hell was more interested in slipping into listeners’ minds and warping them from the inside. Lyrics like “Insane with devotion/ A whole other notion/ I was fourteen and a half/ And it wasn’t no laugh” are easy for listeners to miss on the surface because the “Love comes in spurts – oh no it hurts” line is the thing which tickles them just the right way [and, on this reissue, the hard pan to the right channel for the “oh no, it hurts” line makes it sound cute and garish like hot pink lipstick – it’s perfect –ed]. Lines like “I just can’t get wise/ To those tragical lies/ Though I now know the facts/ They still cut like an axe” get lost next to the radical, ascending riff which appears right after the song’s chorus too but, when it appears one final time at the end of the song, it’ll set hearts racing.
After “Love Comes In Spurts” breaks the record open with such a perfect and coy come-on, “Liars Beware” keeps up the garish, brightly-colored and unusually-metered structure and styling intact and actually barks at listeners before launching into a staccato guitar rhythm which somehow also manages to incorporate a ska-informed upstroke (sort of – it’s just about the most “honky” rhythm ever committed to tape) while still sounding more uniquely “New York” than anything else. After that, “New Pleasure” attempts to discover a New Romantic tone a few years before such styling was everywhere in pop (guitarist Robert Quine knocks out a meticulously measured riff here, in a manner which simply did not exist anywhere in punk at the time of this album’s release) over top of which Hell goes out of his way to define a breathless vocal delivery which comes off as sounding like a very close cousin to The Heartbreakers – a vibe further developed by “Betrayal Takes Two” – which is basically the closest to a love song in the punk genre at the time which still sounds more romantic than snotty. After that, Hell takes listeners to his favorite dive (Max’s Kansas City or CBGBs probably – although neither is named in “Down At The Rock & Roll Club”) before “Who Says” sees Robert Quine take the math-iest guitar licks imaginable through a punk neighborhood and still manage to make it not sound awkward to close the album’s A-side.
Six songs in and one side down, listeners will not be able to deny that Blank Generation is an incomparable work. They may have done it by accident, but Richard Hell and The Voidoids rethought and revamped punk as a genre as well as reimagining the music’s staple traits in 1977 – before such practices were de rigeur; the educated, poetic and well-read bent which also touched Patti Smith’s Horses [a couple of years before – in 1975 –ed] is here, but it was basically nowhere else at the time – not in New York and not in London. Even now, Blank Generation remains unique.
…And, on the B-side, listeners are hit first with the album’s title track – which is easily the most spectacular and timeless cut on the album. To this day, “Blank Generation” is the song which is arguably bigger than the band that produced it; “Blank Generation” has appeared on a multitude of compilations and documentary and feature film soundtracks, as well as having been covered by innumerable other bands (including, most recently, The Bobby Lees’ Jon Spencer-produced, Alive Records-released album, Skin Suit) and has shown no sign of slowing down. On this reissue, the song takes on all-new life and beauty (the 1990 CD reissue compares, but comes off as sounding completely flat and two dimensional compared to this release) as the hard-panned structure of Ivan Julian’s guitar and Hell’s bass occupy hard left and hard right locations in the mix respectively, before Marc Bell’s drums [later dubbed Marky Ramone –ed] Robert Quine’s lead guitar and Hell’s vocal take up all the space in the center position. That assembly is, particularly with the refreshed fidelity of this reissue, a bit of magic; the performances radiate with the ragged fury of men cast aside on the street and left to die or drown, forgotten in the rain. The lyrics mirror such desperation perfectly; “I was saying lemme out of here before I was even born – it’s such a gamble when you get a face” simultaneously echo both the desperation of the destitute man dying alone in the street as well as the university educated sophomore just coming to terms with the fact that his “bright future” isn’t so certain after all. It’s desperate and sophisticated at the same time, and those same terms sum up the image relayed by lines like, “The nurse adjusted her garters as I breathed my first/The doctor grabbed my throat and yelled, ‘God’s consolation prize!’” which appear later in the song – and have since become the hard-hearted ethos and aesthetic of a select few fans who would take them and make them their own, later. The song remains a masterpiece which has never been touched by anyone trying to match its power (not Hell’s peers, not those who have gone on to follow him on similar musical terrain, and not even Hell himself – really), and remains perfectly remarkable within the context of this remastered reissue too.
“Blank Generation” is a hard act to follow, obviously, but the distorted reality and stomping guitar of “Jesus Walking on the Water” attempts to take on the task. Even forty years after its original release, “Jesus…” seems to come up short of the goal; on this reissue, the thin guitars, cowbell and lyrics about going for a walk late in the night feel preposterously small compared to “Blank Generation” – and so listeners simply find themselves waiting patiently for the song to end. It’s only if a listener lifts their turntable’s needle and then walks away in order to gain fresh perspective (perhaps pausing until the next day) that the pulsating guitars and Richard Hell’s excellent verbal image creation really get the chance to shine at all after “Blank Generation.”
Eventually, Blank Generation re-establishes its forward movement when “The Plan” abandons overdrive and investigates punk as a descendant of the Velvet Underground in both sound and spirit (the song moves along in a very metropolitan way with just two chords doing most of the song’s drive and Hell upping his accent a bit so it feels thicker) which lets the album breathe a little easier before “Another World” returns to the gritty, grimy city and the gutters that Hell loves to ally himself with so well. At nine minutes in length, “Another World” is less punk orthodoxy in form but finds a balance and remains “punk” until the needle lifts thanks to the singer’s random moments of screeching on the mic and orgasmic groaning and panting.
And then the needle lifts – and some listeners will find that they’ve discovered something remarkable; some might even go so far as to call it life-changing. True, this reissue does feature a second record and that disc does feature some of the sonic souvenirs that the reissued CD from the Nineties also contained as well as a few cuts unique to this set (there are demos from The Voidoids time at Electric Lady studios, an alternate version of “Who Says,” from the band’s Plaza session and also lots of live recordings from CBGBs), and the listening experience will be great for fans as will the essay in the liner notes which was penned by Hell himself, but those unfamiliar with this record NEED to listen to LP1 first. LP1 will make fans of them and then they can get further immersed with the help of LP2. The meat and essential fare in this reissue of Blank Generation is all in the original studio recording – that is the document that everyone needs to hear and needs to know – so readers are advised to start looking. Who knows? Maybe you’ll discover that you’re just as lucky as I am. [Bill Adams]
Richard Hell and the Voidoids – Blank Generation (full album) – [Stream]
The Record Store Day-released, 40th anniversary 2LP reissue of Blank Generation is no longer available, but the album remains in print and available on Amazon. Buy it here.