(Sevens, a new feature on Aquarium Drunkard, pays tribute to the art of the individual song.)
My first exposure to a lot of things punk was the late music critic Robert Palmer’s Rock and Roll: An Unruly History, which was written as a companion to the PBS documentary series of the same name. The chapter I read over and over focused mostly on the 70s New York scene, but it also included all the proto (Stooges, Velvets, Modern Lovers) and post (Ubu, Joy Division, No Wave) that you could handle as well. In the appendix, Palmer had included his own personal top ten albums lists for each of the major eras he covered. I made it my personal goal to own all of the albums on the punk/post-punk list. After starting with Television’s Marquee Moon, I then picked up Richard Hell and the Voidoids’ LP Blank Generation. Hell’s impact on punk is immeasurable – from the style of his clothing to his misunderstood nihilistic expression* – but in the larger critical world he is only considered to have created one masterpiece – “Blank Generation.”
The title track is a perfect example of the duality that Hell often portrayed. “I was sayin’ let me out of here / before I was even born / it’s such a gamble when you get a face,” yowls Hell in the song’s opening line. The double meaning of saying “let me out” before he was born (is he asking out of the womb and into the world, or asking never to even have to be subjected to the world itself) feeds into the chorus. “I belong to the blank generation / and I can take it or leave it each time / I belong to the…generation / but I can take it or leave it each time.” Hell has often maintained that the ‘blank’ of the title phrase is, literally, a blank – something that can be defined by each individual person and thus why he leaves the word out the second time he says the phrase. But it’s impossible not to read it also as a blank, a wasteland, a limbo – something that a lot of individuals identified with in the wake of post-modernism and the cultural and social turns of the 70s. The howling delivery of the lyrics, typical of Hell’s singing, serves as a symbolic recreation of an infant’s first post-birth cries as well. I was saying let me out of here, indeed.
Musically, the highlight of this whole mess is the late Robert Quine’s guitar. As much a presence as Hell is and always has been, the Voidoids would not have been anything without Quine’s innovative work. Angular, caustic and sloppily controlled, it cuts and dices the song into a million pieces (“Triangles falling at the window as the doctor cursed”). When Hell shouts out “take it!” at the end of the second chorus, Quine launches off into the stratosphere, completely out of step with the song, yet totally in sync. It’s a jaw dropping moment and truly one of the great guitar solos of rock and roll. It makes total sense that both Lou Reed and Matthew Sweet would tap Robert Quine for some of their best work in the coming decades. His guitar, Hells’ lyrics and performance, all come together to create one of the greatest and most punk songs of the entire New York era.
* – An excellent examination of and interview with Hell was done by Lester Bangs in his “Richard Hell: Death Means Never Having to Say You’re Incomplete” which is available in the Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung collection. words/j. neas
MP3: Richard Hell :: Blank Generation
MP3: Whiskeytown :: Blank Generation (cover)
Amazon: Richard Hell – Blank Generation