Thursday, November 5, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Richard Hell & The Voidoids - "Blank Generation" (1977)

With its defiant opening lyric,"I was saying 'Let me outta here!' before I was even born," "Blank Generation" (the song) immediately defines the ground rules under which Richard Hell is playing: "It's fascinating to observe what the mirror does, but when I dine it's for the wall that I set a place." Similar themes of undefined alienation, social misalignment, and Life as constant irritant run through the entirety of Blank Generation (the album), Hell's stunning and startling debut album with his own band, The Voidoids (Ivan Julian, Bob Quine and Mark Bell, who would soon thereafter become Marky Ramone).

Richard Hell had been in the young NYC Punk scene for some time already, having been a founding member of Television and doing a stint as one of Johnny Thunders' Heartbreakers.  Hell was a musician, a poet, an artist and a confrontationalist.  Hell skulked around CBGBs in a t-shirt festooned with a bullseye and the words "Please Kill Me," and is often pointed to as the originator of the razor cut spiked hair and safety-pinned clothes look that the Brit Punks quickly appropriated.

While the title and lyrics of "Blank Generation" may seem on the surface to be the perfect representation of the expected "no future" mindset of many of  his contemporaries, Hell saw it as hopeful.  As he explained in a 1978 interview with Lester Bangs, "To me, blank was a line where you can fill in anything ... It's the idea that you have the option of making yourself anything you want, filling in the blank. And that’s something that provides a uniquely powerful sense to this generation. It's saying 'I entirely reject your standards for judging my behavior.'"

That anthem is the clear centerpiece of the album, but the rest of Blank Generation is much more than simply an undercard to the main event.  Quine's sharply angular guitar carries Hell's painfully honest lyrics into the dark underbelly of after hours rock and jazz clubs, careening through dark passageways and pushing past sweaty, overpacked crowds of faceless onlookers.  The vocals howl and shriek and plead and cajole; the overall sound is insistent if inconsistent; the lyrics are brilliant.

The opening track, "Love Comes In Spurts," might just have a been a snickering double-entendre in anyone else's hands.  It turns out to actually be a painful realization that relationships are not always what the appear to be: "Love comes in spurts/In dangerous flirts/And it murders your heart/They didn't tell you that part."  That painful realization is expanded upon later on the track "Betrayal Takes Two," leads him to question its purpose on "Who Says?" ("Who says it's good, good, good to be alive?/It ain't no good, it's a perpetual jive."), and finally brings him to the album's closer, "Another World," in which he decides, "I could live with you in another world...but not this one."  Elsewhere, Hell calls out the fakers ("Liars Beware"), indulges in "New Pleasure," interprets Credence Clearwater Revival's "Walking On The Water" and invites us all to meet up "Down At The Rock And Roll Club."

Start to finish, Blank Generation is as solid an album as you could possibly want, filled with surprise turns and unexpected moments.  Simply put, it's a must-have. However, avoid the 1990 CD reissue, which inexplicably opts for completely different recordings of some tracks and chooses to replace the original artwork.