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

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. But it was a transitional thing, because it was based on this ‘Beat Generation’ single by Rod McKeun, which Tom had. He collected obscure, strange, kitschy singles. The chord changes on that McKeun thing, though, are really familiar: there’s a thousand songs with those changes. It was a deliberate in-joke, but a really obscure one. I don’t think anybody figured out it was based on that for about 10 years. But at the same time it was an in-joke, the sentiments and the attitude were really committed, in your face. Sometimes people refer to it as being like lounge music, tongue in cheek, novelty. But it wasn’t a joke to me.

CRAIG LEON: I’d seen Richard in Television and The Heartbreakers, and ‘Blank Generation,’ I knew was a parody of that Rod McKuen 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 becoming 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 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 the one that stood out 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.

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. I just felt like I was a force of nature and I trusted my instincts. But it did produce a lot of anxiety in me, that this thing was really depending on…magic. For the record to be what I wanted, it would have to just break open things.

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 Bell, 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.

LEON: The Voidoids recorded the EP before anyone ever saw them play live. I first saw them in rehearsal, and it was very impressive. They were probably more advanced than Television, doing that free-form jamming thing. 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. And he looked like a University professor. He wasn’t 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. 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 should look like. All of us seemed like freaks. 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. 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 and roll people. The free jazz people and the rockabilly people 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, it still had the same old board.

JULIAN: 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 was originally living away up on the Upper West Side, and it was brutal going back and forth every night. 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 coopting 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,” more of a scrappy rock and roll record.

HELL: I think you have to be pretty sophisticated to listen to that and think that, because you have to forgive a lot to like that one more. The EP’s like the caveman version of those songs. It’s really crude. But caveman art is beautiful…

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, because that’s where he comes from, it’s about garage music.

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. 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 and 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. 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.

JULIAN: When we got to the album, we 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. Sire was negotiating a distribution deal with Warner Brothers, and the delay caused a lot of friction between us and Seymour, 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?” 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 – 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 just had this attitude and this artistic bent attached to it. 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.

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?

A shorter version of this piece first appeared in Uncut magazine, September 2009.