I was sayin’ let me out of here before I was even born (Blank Generation)
I withdrew from the street and all humanlike zones
I’d had it, I’d had it – I was mush to the bones (The Plan)
Here’s one that gets better with age, my age in fact, Richard Hell & The Voidoids Blank Generation. I picked this sucker up all of 23 years ago now, because I’d read about it and I wanted the LP that ‘Love Comes In Spurts’ was on after hearing it in the film Pump Up The Volume*. So I bought it and played it a few times and then put it carefully back on the shelf, filed under ‘R’ and forgot all about it. You see, at the time it didn’t fit my very narrow definition of punk – which was basically either Sex Pistolian, or Ramonesesque.
But boasting, as I now do, one of the world’s broadest minds I have to say that I have a lot more time for Blank Generation. Not that Mr Hell needs my approbation in any way shape, or form I’m sure – hell, umm, Hell was the man who was in the starting line-ups of two of NYC’s best ever punk acts The Heartbreakers and Television; a man who was wearing deliberately ripped clothes held together by safety pins on stage back in 1973; it certainly made an impact on a certain visiting Mr M. McLaren.
But Mr Hell’s version of punk comes hurtling at you from all manner of oblique angles and acute inferences, courtesy of his NY art punk background and the always extraordinary guitaring of Robert Quine – has that man ever knowingly played something straight forward and blues-based? the answer, rather thrillingly, is I suspect a big fact ‘non’. First time around I was drawn to the hurtling, spasmodic not-remotely-as-rude-as-the-title-is ‘Love Comes In Spurts’, I love the way the whole song just lurches towards you always seemingly on the verge of just collapsing with Marky Bell’s** drums just keeping it from careening off the rails. I also dug ‘Blank Generation’, the inspiration for the Pistols’ ‘Pretty Vacant’, which has a great, camp swagger to it, along with some rather special ‘ahhh ooh ooh’ backing vocals and a totally off-key guitar solo. Again, I like the song so much more now than I did – rebellion clearly being wasted on the young and idealistic.
To my ears Blank Generation has great echoes of everything from prime time Velvet Underground^*, a healthy dose of a looser Television (particularly on ‘The Plan’ which could almost be a light-hearted, creepy offcut from Marquee Moon), to another 1537 all-timer The Modern Lovers. I really like Hell’s lyrics, they’re often playful, never obvious, sometimes just carved out to sound right and sometimes, just sometimes, they shift into focus and the song reveals itself – see the self-harming ditty ‘Betrayal Takes Two’, or the dark sarcastic ‘Down At The Rock And Roll Club’.
But my sort-of point is that Blank Generation was a logical and necessary progression on the NYC scene and a great leap forward in itself, if you listen carefully it really was the bridge between old and new rebels. The herky jerky rhythms and off-kilter guitar lines prefigure the likes of Talking Heads and countless post-punkers like Gang Of Four. The Voidoids have a really great melodic sense too, sure they’re happy to violate it and lead you astray, but they usually bring you right back with a clever little hook, or line here and there; ‘Who Says?’ being a great case in point.
Again and again, although it’s Mr Hell’s name on the cover, it’s the guitars of Mr Quine and Mr Julian that transform Blank Generation into something special for me. A track like ‘New Pleasure’ is essentially an interesting pop rocker and in lesser guitarists hands certainly would be a bit of a punkoid boogie, but run through The Voidoid Matrix^ it just becomes something a bit other, a strangely angled nugget that never quite hops in the direction you expect it to. From that to the slightly elegiac playing on ‘Walking On Water’ is a big jump but the band cover it easily, incidentally the guitar freak-out on that track is worth the cover price alone.
Tell you what, Ian Dury was right, there ain’t half been some clever bastards.
681 Down (at the rock and roll club)
*loved that one, especially the bit where Samantha Mathis got her ya-ya’s out. Hey, I was 18!
**in 1978 Mr Bell changed his surname to Ramone after being summoned by Johnny and served in the trenches with them till the end, with a 4 year drying out period in the middle.
^*Quine being a notable VU bootlegger and obsessive in his own right.
^I suspect this was an actual thing, I suspect it would have been assembled in a lab by a mad scientist, it would have to have lots of dials and big switches and be powered solely by lightning.