International Anthem: The making of Blank Generation by Richard Hell and the Voidoids (An oral history)

 

A shorter edit of this piece first appeared in Uncut magazine, September 2009.
To mark the record’s 40th anniversary, I’m running an extended version here.

In the summer of 1976, the Bowery waited to see what Richard Hell might do next. The original ripped and torn downtown nihilist, whose look and attitude Malcolm McLaren famously co-opted when he returned to the UK to put a band together, it’s no exaggeration to say Hell helped lay the foundation of New York punk.

He had formed and then quit arguably the two most exciting bands of the original CBGBs scene. When he left Television over Tom Verlaine’s desire to dominate, he hooked up with ex-New York Doll Johnny Thunders as The Heartbreakers, leaving that group after a year, dissatisfied with Thunders’ direction. “The music was just too brutish,” he says “Which I like…but I wanted to be able to extend.”

If those bands personified first-wave punk’s extremes of brains and balls, the unit Hell put together next finally synthesised the two. The key was Robert Quine, a friend since they’d first worked in a bookstore together, who turned out to be the third guitar genius Hell had worked with in a row. Teaming Quine with Ivan Julian, a skinny dreadlocked kid recently arrived from touring Europe with The Foundations, The Voidoids boasted a wired two-guitar attack as sophisticated as Television’s, but more driving, more angular, angrier, tenser.

Hell’s ‘Blank Generation’ – based on ‘I Belong To The Beat Generation,’ a novelty single send-up of Kerouac and crew by Rod McKuen – had been a staple of early Television and Heartbreakers sets and was already a CBGBs favourite. (When McLaren ordered the Sex Pistols to write their own version, ‘Pretty Vacant’ resulted.) The crucial cut on The Voidoids’ debut three-track EP, rush released on Stiff in the UK, a reworked version became the title track of their seminal debut LP of 1977, produced by Richard Gottehrer, co-founder of Sire records, and the man who once wrote ‘My Boyfriend’s Back.’

Following his frustrated experiences with Television and The Heartbreakers, the Blank Generation album lived up to all the expectations of Hell. But, following one unhappy tour of the UK supporting The Clash, The Voidoids gradually came stumbling to a halt. Within months of the release, Hell was suing his label, Sire, to get out of his contract. He wouldn’t make another album until 1982’s Destiny Street. “There was a lot friction with Sire,” says Julian, “then Richard also had his drug problem, which eventually made things more difficult than they had to be.”

Still, over the years, the song has stood as the definitive anthem of New York’s punk moment – even if the questions remain of what exactly the “blank generation” means, and who belongs to it.

blankgen

“Y’know,” Hell says, “when I get letters, it’s common for people to say, ‘I’m blank too.’ And I don’t know what they’re referring to. I don’t know whether people are deriving the same import from those lyrics, whether it corresponds to how I felt when I was writing it. If people are saying that song is about being numb…well, I dunno. You can be in a stunned state and express it as anger and pain.”


VOICES
Richard Hell (Writer, vocals, bass)
Ivan Julian (Guitar)
Craig Leon (Producer)
Richard Gottehrer (Producer, label owner)


RICHARD HELL
: ‘Blank Generation’ is the first song I wrote that didn’t have music by Tom Verlaine. I’d written a few songs with Tom when we were first planning to have a band, when were planning to call it The Neon Boys. And I had just picked up a bass in order to have this band with him. I’d never played an instrument before – well, I’d played clarinet in the 7th grade. But apart from that, I didn’t have any musical knowledge, except as a listener. So, when we first decided to do a band, I would write lyrics and sing to music that Tom had made up. But I knew that I wanted to also write music myself, and “Blank Generation” was sort of a transitional one, because it was a play on that pre-existing kitschy single by Rod McKuen, which was a record that Tom had. Tom had a little collection of 45s, he was always like that: he liked obscure, kitschy, strange, out-of-the-way singles with a lot of personality to them, or that were funny. But the chord changes on that song, though, are really familiar – I mean there are a thousand songs written to those chord changes – so there wasn’t any risk of it being treated as plagiarism or anything. But it was this deliberate in-joke. But at the same time – that joke was really obscure. I don’t think anybody really figured out that the McKuen record was the basis for it for about 10 years. But, while it was an in-joke, the sentiments and the attitude were really committed, in your face. Sometimes people refer to ‘Blank Generation’ as being like…lounge music, tongue in cheek, novelty. But it wasn’t a joke to me. And, when I was in Television, I always kind of resented a little bit the way Tom tended to play it as though it were a novelty song. But, at the same time: anytime I hear recordings of those early Television shows, his playing on it is great, his solo is fantastic. And that version definitely deserves respect. But the song did go through a lot of changes before it got to the Voidoids, that’s for sure. The version we did in The Heartbreakers has some stuff going for it. But they were kind of confused, because it was hard for them to figure out what kind of genre this song was in. It wasn’t quite a hard rocker, but I wanted it to have force. And there were these little elements left over from the original Television incarnation, and the way that Verlaine played it wasn’t really appropriate for Johnny’s style – so it never really gelled with The Heartbreakers. That whole period, before we got to the Voidoids, the song wasn’t at its most exciting stage.

CRAIG LEON: I’d seen Richard in Television and The Heartbreakers, and ‘Blank Generation,’ I knew was a parody of that Rod McKuen ‘Beat Generation’ song. But I thought that was really good, because I always thought the New York thing in the 1970s was a continuation of the beat thing that had happened in the late ’40s and ’50s. I thought it was very cool for him to take a bad, mass-produced novelty song about the Beat Generation, and for it to become an anthemic thing. I always thought of Richard Hell as a really great writer, a literary personality, someone who could paint the scene, similar to Kerouac in the 1950s. Richard was kind of that for the 1970s scene.

RICHARD GOTTEHRER: I first became aware of Richard Hell through hanging out at CBGBs. Seymour Stein and I started Sire records, and I’d left Sire and formed my own production company, Instant Records, and started hanging around CBGBs with Marty Thau, who’d originally managed The New York Dolls. Marty was into that scene, told me about it, and we became partners for a while. Then Marty left, but I continued, and at CBGBs I was able to sign and make the first records by Blondie and Robert Gordon, who I put together with Link Wray, and I did a couple of other punk records during that CBGBs period. And the one that stood out as really interesting was Richard. Everyone really looked to him as the real, seminal punk.

CRAIG LEON: All of us thought of him as the quintessential figure. He was the CBGBs mentality personified. A lot of his persona, his imagery and his attitude is what Malcolm McLaren carried back to become the look of British punk. That was just Richard’s natural style. After Television and The Heartbreakers, people were keen to see what he was going to do. I don’t know how he hooked up with Bob Quine, but it was a really good move.

HELL: I wanted to play with Quine because I was ready to leave The Heartbreakers, and we’d become really good friends. I used to go over to his house and drink Martinis and listen to his records and talk about all kinds of stuff, he had this spectacular record collection. Finally he played me tapes of bands he had been in years before. He hadn’t been in bands for years, the guy was already in his early thirties, and he’d never had any success as a musician, because people would say, “You can’t be in my band – you’re bald.” When I heard these tapes, his playing was everything you’d hope it might be when you knew what his tastes were. And he’d really liked my bands. He said when he saw Television, it was the first time he felt something was going on in music that might mean there was a place for him. He even liked The Heartbreakers – and Quine didn’t like punk bands. But he recognised that Johnny was really about Eddie Cochrane. And Quine really reacted to attitude of a certain type. Especially contempt. He looooved seeing contempt. And we had plenty of that.

IVAN JULIAN: I was new to the CBs scene, and what people thought about Richard and the whole feud between him and Tom Verlaine and all that. But Richard had quit, or gotten kicked out of these other two bands, largely due to his attitude of not wanting to conform to what the other bands were. And so his thing was to have his own band, to prove to everyone at CBs he was able to do it on his own. I think that’s why, aside from [drummer] Marc [Bell], he chose people who were outside the whole scene at the time.

HELL: It wasn’t that I had something to prove: just I would now be having a band unequivocally under my control. And I’d been playing for only two years, one year with Television, one with The Heartbreakers. I had never played at all before that. And I was feeling pressures from that. Especially since, by that time, [punk in] London had happened, and that ramps everything up five or six levels. For me, it was extreme, because I was not an accomplished musician. In fact, it was kind of a principle for me not being a musician: it was about not having to know how to play well. In retrospect, though, while I don’t regret that, I think that idea was misbegotten. I mean, I love good bass playing, and I love good singing and I love good song construction, and I wish I had been a little bit more interested in acquiring those skills back then…But at the time, I just felt like I was a…force of nature, and I trusted my instincts, and my leadership of the band was about finding ways to get these guys to be in sync with me, and to outdo themselves in making crazy, intense, beautiful recordings. But that could also have made for problems when I went into the studio, and it did produce a lot of anxiety in me: that this thing was really depending on…magic. I was looking for some kind of transcendence and catharisis, I was looking to make something happen almost out of religion almost. For the record to be what I wanted, it would have to just break open things. And that’s rare. It’s not easy to do, and I floundered around a lot trying to figure out how to make that happen.

JULIAN: I’d come over from Europe, I’d been playing with an English band, The Foundations. I put an ad in Musicians’ Classified, Robert Quine saw it and called me up. When I walked in to the audition, Richard was nodding out and burning his hair with cigarettes, Quine was there, looking like Quine, and the drummer, Marc, was there with two women who were both like eight feet tall and wearing ripped fishnet stockings. And, during the songs, these two girls would start pulling each other’s hair out, having knock down, drag out fights. And I thought: Oh – this is New York.

HELL: People talk about Quine, rightly. But I mean, Ivan is spectacular, too. Often, I hear people go into raptures over Quine’s playing and say, “Man that solo on ‘Liars Beware’…” which is Ivan. That happens a lot. Bob and Ivan really respected each other. Basically, I wanted a guitar player to join Bob who he was compatible with, so Quine really had the authority there when we were doing auditions: it was whoever Bob could play with. He basically chose Ivan, and Ivan just got better and better. In fact, he’s still peaking.

LEON: The Voidoids recorded the EP before anyone ever saw them play live. I first saw them in rehearsal, and it was very impressive, because Quine was getting all these sounds out of a very small amplifier, it was kind of the antithesis of The Ramones onslaught. They were probably more advanced than Television, doing that free-form jamming thing.

HELL: The Voidoids, we were fairly erratic, but we had like 18 months when we were really playing, tight and sweet, you know, with a lot of power and lot of imagination and invention. We would get a little bit loose and nobody had to think about anything, except to just go all out with it. We were pretty great there for a while, especially in the early stage. Later, things started to get a little bit more rigid and less experimental, because everything just sort of got poured into being aggressive.

LEON: Quine was almost like an avant-garde jazzer. He added a degree of dementia to everything. It was very introspective in a way, closer to something like John Coltrane. Quine brought an element of New York to the whole thing that wasn’t punk, but it became punk because it was so out there. And he looked like a guy who was a University professor or something, and he had that mentality. He was a really soft-spoken, coherent kind of guy. He wasn’t like anyone’s image of a rock and roller.

JULIAN: That was the whole stance of the New York punk scene. People had come there from all over the country and the world that didn’t fit in anywhere. And that was what the attitude was about, more than any kind of semblance between the music. The one thing that we did have in common was that none of us fitted in. We were the scene, without knowing it really, because we had nowhere else to go. When I saw Quine, I thought, Well, he looks as weird as I do, in terms of a record company’s idea of what a band and a guitarist should look like. It just seemed normal. All of us seemed like freaks, to be honest. That’s what Voidoids means – I asked Richard, “What in the hell is this name?” He said, “It means, like…nothing.”

HELL: I knew a lot of people were going to be less respectful and less interested because there was this old bald guy in the group. But that was kind of a statement in itself: grow up. But the reason I wanted to play with Quine was simply that Quine was a fucking genius. It took me many years to realise what a genius he was. I mean, I pushed him around a lot back in those early days, and I think it was healthy, I think he played better because of the relationship we had. But he did not get the respect from ordinary bands back then – the only people who appreciated what he was doing were the people who would wind up being what was called No Wave. And also, the real roots rock ’n’ roll people, the ’50s side of Quine, because he gets a lot from rockabilly. But, yeah, it was like the free jazz people and the rockabilly people that got him, but those were extreme sects, not common around CBGBs in those days.

JULIAN: When I first walked into the rehearsal room for the first time, I’m thinking, “God, the band’s good, but that guy really can’t play.” Because Quine was doing such abstract things. That was my first impression of him: “What the fuck is this?” Bob loved music, and he was literally a musical encyclopedia. I’d go to his house and listen to records for hours and trade notes. We discussed our approach to what the band was going to be guitar wise, and decided we wanted to use The Yardbirds as a model. Two guitar players, you can’t tell who’s playing rhythm and lead, they both basically just play guitar, one in one speaker and one in the other, and sometimes that’s switched, so you have these two parts that are interwoven, working together. We always tried to listen to each other’s part, and make sure we never played in the same part of the neck or the same chord at the same time.

LEON: The songs for the EP were done in two different places. ‘Blank Generation’ we worked up in an old studio called Bell Sounds, we’d get in there for $10 an hour, because the guy who was looking after it at nights would let us in. That was a really great studio, where Shadow Morton did all his stuff, The Shangri-Las all that, a lot of doo-wop, it still had the same old board.

JULIAN: It was a tiny studio, and the desk had these big gigantic black knobs. One of Richard’s insecurities at the time, which I’ve always thought of as an asset, was…let’s call it his bass playing style. Richard wasn’t that proficient, but he had a knack for coming up with really, really great bass lines. We rehearsed those three songs, and nothing but those three songs, for, it seems like months before we recorded the EP, five hours a day doing these three songs. There was a bit of bunker mentality, maybe. And I was living in Richard’s flat, too – I had come to New York from Yugoslavia, where I’d been playing with a band, and at first I moved to a friend’s apartment on the Upper West Side. And Richard said to me, “You know, you’re way, far away up on the Upper West Side, it’s like really hard for you to get here…” So offered me the chance of a room in his flat, move in and pay half the rent, which was incredibly cheap at the time, maybe like $120. So I moved downtown to Richard’s, and, before that, it was brutal going back and forth every night on the train. The trains in the ’70s, the subway, you literally took your life in your hands going down there at night. So I guess Richard thought if I was going to stay alive to play in his band I better move in with him downtown.

LEON: There was a whole negotiation going to get Instant Records affiliated with this new company Stiff in the UK, and I think Stiff was very interested in getting the Richard Hell EP out because punk was coming up in Britain. So there was a sense of urgency. It was done in three days. I mean that EP never really came out in the US – it came out on Terry Ork’s little label, which basically meant that it came out south of 14th Street in Manhattan, and that was it. The EP was primarily done to try and get it out in Stiff in Britain. That might have been Marty wanting revenge on Malcolm for stealing The Dolls and co-opting a lot of the New York thing and bringing it back to London.

HELL: The EP… y’know, only recording of ‘Blank Generation’ that I really take seriously is the one on the album. That’s the only legitimate one to me, that was the culmination of all the stages it went through.

JULIAN: I actually listened to the EP version recently, and I thought, “You know, this doesn’t sound as bad as I remember…” I was almost shocked when I heard it again recently, I was thinking “You know, this is kind of better than the album version.” As a recording, it represents more of the period and the time: it’s more of a scrappy rock ’n’roll record. But I think we did it in two or three days, very fast, but it wasn’t expected to take any longer than that.

HELL: I think you have to be pretty sophisticated to listen to that EP version and think it’s better than the album track, because you have to forgive a lot to like that one more. The EP’s like the caveman version of those songs, you know. It’s really crude. But caveman art is beautiful…We’d only been together for three weeks when we made that EP. That band had only existed three weeks. Terry Ork had told me he wanted to bring out my record, and I don’t know if we even had the band name yet. So we were still struggling to find out how we were going to be playing. I mean, in my head, I had a kind of target I wanted to aim at, but it was so early in us finding where we were and where we could head, and that’s why it sounds so crude. The tempos are strange…but it definitely has its appeal. I always hate it though, because some musical-snob types will say that that’s the best thing we ever did. And I think that’s absurd – I don’t even think it’s the best recordings of those songs. But then, the last time I listened to it, I thought that version of ‘You Gotta Lose’ was the best thing on there, and I thought it really sounded great, where previously I’d always thought of it as being a complete waste of vinyl. It all depends on your frame of mind when you lift up the turntable.

LEON: I have a feeling that EP was made too early in their development. It shows a nice photograph of what they were like, but they were still gelling, feeling each other out. I’m glad we got what we got, because it’s really great stuff, I just think it could have been even better.

HELL: There’s a pretty big distance between the EP version and the album version, but it’s mostly about the playing, not the production. I really thought the producer had to be somebody who could capture what we sounded like, our playing, it wasn’t about any frills. That’s why Gottehrer was really appropriate for the album, because that’s where he comes from. It’s about garage music. It wasn’t effects or harmonies, no fancy production touches.

GOTTEHRER: The rawness and roughness of the music, it was kind of basic, but we didn’t just burn through it, we did it with real attitude, trying to make a definitive record. Bob Quine and Ivan Julian, they were amazing, Quine has become legendary obviously. One thing I remember about the sessions, they were very wired. That album, sometimes it would make me nervous to hear it, because, besides the aggression, there was a wired edge to it that never went away. Listening to it today, it almost seems more of a document than an album, a document of the time rather than a rock ’n’roll record.

HELL: Over the years, I’ve gained more respect for what Gottehrer brought. It’s not such a simple thing to just capture what a band sounds like, it takes a lot of skill and understanding. He did a good job. I’ve had problems with him since in other areas…but he was respectful of what we were doing. Although, Quine wouldn’t say that. Quine hated him, as he hated Seymour Stein. Quine was just treated by them as band member who might be a liability because he didn’t look like a rock and roll player. They just didn’t get it about him. I wasn’t really that conscious of it, but in later years I heard things from the band members, how they resented some things about the way they were treated by the authorities at the label. But I found Gottehrer easy to get along with. And he was in a pretty sweet position, because those guys got a lot of the percentage of the record, so he had nothing to lose, it was all gravy. And even though the music must have sounded weird to him – because it’s weird music – he could sure relate to the driving stuff. He definitely knew it was about something going on that wasn’t his world, and so he would defer to me…But he could hear how some of those songs sounded pretty good. Whatever faults there are on the record, they’re my faults. Not his.

GOTTEHRER: Quine was quite reserved. But his playing was both sparse and erratic and just unpredictable, in the moment. If unpredictability is a way of identifying punk, he definitely had that. He was a little older than the average kid who was hanging around CBGBs. Ivan was quite a bit younger, and also a great guitar player, but Quine had this just – it was like a machinegun, he sort of spit out sound. Even at that moment, I didn’t appreciate just how accomplished a guitar player he was. He would eventually go on and play with many great people and build his own legend. Richard Hell was his own character. He would mumble when he needed to, and his sound was meant to have this whining kind of shouty-explosive edge to it. I think he was very conscious of the way his voice sounded. He played a small Mustang bass I remember, and his bass playing was good, but it was more punk driven than anything else on the record.

JULIAN: When we got to the album, Richard had ideas, as to how a song should sound. Then he basically let Quine and I do what we want. It was like a democracy, or maybe a benevolent dictatorship. It was Richard’s thing, but we had played live several times before the album, and of course we’d rehearsed about a million times, and so we’d already worked out what we wanted to do when we went into the studio, Richard had ideas about what he wanted to add for the record, but mostly in terms of his own performance. In terms of the band it was pretty much a democracy, and no one from the outside really influenced the record, not Gottehrer or anyone. We actually recorded the album twice. We recorded it first at Electric Lady. Richard wasn’t happy with it, so then we recorded the whole thing again at Plaza Sound in Midtown, above Rockefeller centre.

HELL: The thing about the album being recorded twice. Most people don’t even know about it, but the scholars and fanatics know we recorded a lot of those songs twice, because there was this delay in its being able to be released, because Sire had switched distributors…And there have been people have said that the first version was better – Quine, I think, said something about that somewhere, and Clinton Heylin makes comments about it in a book. I don’t agree, and on ‘Blank Generation’ itself, it’s most definitely not true, because the first version really suffers. I’m only playing like half the bass line, I’m going bom-bom-bom-bom, it’s really boring, and plodding. Whereas, on the later version, it’s bum-be-ba-ba-bum-be-ba-ba-bum-be-ba-bom…the song drives so much harder and sounds so much more compelling. And when the CD re-release of the album came out, I used the first version of ‘Down At The Rock And Roll Club,’ the recording we made on the first go round– and everybody hated it. Anyway, I don’t have any compunctions about that. And I’m a guy who’s happy to criticise himself.

JULIAN: There was a delay in getting it out. Sire was negotiating a distribution deal with Warner Brothers, and the delay caused a lot of friction between us and Seymour Stein, because we were like, “Okay, we’ve finished a record, we want it out, we wanna work, we wanna go play – what’s going on?” And it was months before the record actually came out. I mean, when we opened for The Clash in the UK, our first tour, the record came out on the last day of the tour.

HELL: As far as ‘Blank Generation’ having an impact as a song – well, it was very delayed. That’s probably my fault, because I stopped playing right away. I mean, we sued Sire to get out of our contract, because we were so fed up after that Clash tour. The band members hated Sire, and the same with me. I felt really fucked over by them, within six months of the release of the record. So we basically vanished. We didn’t tour. We refused. We sued to get out of making another album for them, and just did the gigs in New York that would pay the rent.

GOTTEHRER: Richard Hell was the complete example of what that era was like. I mean, when you get to Blondie, for example, their goal was always to be a successful pop act. Blondie, Talking Heads, these people all used punk to get in the door, and then they became something else. But Richard, I think, was that. He was exactly what he appeared to be. He just had this attitude. He was respected for that, and, at the same time, he might have gotten passed over because of it, because, in the end, the record companies all these other people signed to wanted to do business. I think Richard may have been a little early for a traditional public. He had this attitude but he also had this artistic bent attached to it. His words were meant to provoke, but they were also poetic, so there was an intellectual element to it.

HELL: If you look at say The Ramones – nobody was noticing them either back then. In terms of the larger culture and commerciality, they were a joke. But they plugged away and plugged away – and, they didn’t become the weird phenomenon they have become really until after Joey Ramone died. I think maybe ‘Blank Generation’ might have had a lot more presence if we had continued as a band. But it seems to actually still be gaining impact. It seems like every year there’s more…it penetrates deeper and it arises more often.

GOTTEHRER: No matter where I go in the world, invariably ‘Blank Generation’ comes up. Everyone within a certain circle seems to know it. It was never a hit, never sold very much, but its impact was far greater than sales. But, the thing is, back then, in my mind, ‘Blank Generation’ was meant to be the anthem of the generation. It was structured in a way that I thought, from my own songwriting days, would turn it into a hit single. I was naive enough to believe the world was ready for that. The world wasn’t ready for it. It just was ahead of its time. Or perhaps not in any time – it just exists in its own space.

JULIAN: ‘Blank Generation’ was one of the reasons I joined the band .I always loved the song, but I never expected anyone else to get it. Eventually, college papers and then mainstream press started talking about it as being like the New York punk anthem – but that didn’t happen until years later. But does it encapsulate what everyone was feeling at that time? Well, yes it does. Because so many were disenfranchised by what was going on in the music scene and culturally, things were in a limbo, and this had this aggressive statement: This is how I feel. As opposed to: This is how I feel. Y’know?

HELL: I try to evade that issue of what the song “means,” because I tried to make it as subtle and complex as I could, and to try and paraphrase it is kind of dumb. But since the ’70s, one small statement I made in one obscure interview has been repeated over and over as though it was the most significant thing about the song for eternity. Always, when they write about the song, people say: “Richard insists that it’s not negative, it’s about the chance to reinvent yourself.” Well –that’s not true. I said something along those lines once in one little interview with Lester Bangs, because he was coming down on me for being a nihilist and full of despair. He wasn’t hearing what I was saying: it wasn’t that I was being negative, just I was looking around and seeing what things were like! It was perfectly legitimate that you could read that line “blank generation” as being about having the option of reinventing yourself, and that was part of the intent. But it wasn’t the essence of what I was getting at. I mean, obviously, that whole song is about hopelessness: “I was saying let me out of here before I was even born!” But also, my intention was to write a song that would be a “generation” song. You know, like ‘My Generation.’ I had set out to write one for what I felt like, and what I thought things were like for people like me. Although, I knew it was unlikely that there were a lot of people who were going to rally around the concept of…being nothing. I didn’t expect that it was going to incite mobs to identify with it. But I did have this feeling that I might…make a few friends?