Part of the fun of the 33 1/3 series of books on classic albums is trying to anticipate which direction the author will take. We’ve been treated to track-by-track details of the writing and recording processes, personal and poetic takes from jaded band members and giddy fans alike, and even a short novel (John Darnielle’s Masters of Reality volume).
Befitting Richard Hell & The Voidoid’s Blank Generation, musician and academic Pete Astor has taken it all on at once. Just as Hell simultaneously celebrates trash and poetry and high and low brows, Astor’s exploration of the 1977 punk rock staple jumps between social musicological study, absolute description of recording techniques and pure recollections of fan-boy enthusiasm, letting the impact of the record, spreading in all directions, be known.
Though safely removed from the perils of teenage writing, Astor’s memories of tentative glimpses into the New York underground through art-house cinema and of the poetry of Rimbaud and Baudelaire are clearly filtered through the romantic adolescent gaze, verging on nostalgia but never becoming cloying. Giving equal space to these enthusiasms (shared with the young Hell, we learn) as to the more practical discussions on the larger, looming music industry boom of the 1970s and The Voidoids’ place within it, assert these juvenile passions as just as valuable to that of the grown-up academic. Sure, Hell’s poetry is sharp, witty and stunning, the Voidoids are masters of their spiky instrumental craft (as well as tighter and more subtle than their influence on successive generations of bands would have you believe). But Hell’s spiked hair, ripped jeans, and bare chest with “YOU MAKE ME ______ “ scrawled upon it are no less important to the beauty and necessity of Blank Generation, Astor asserts. The sleeve photographs are explored as much as the music; the CBGB myths recognised as such, but cherished all the same.
Astor takes great care to highlight the musical and aesthetic contributions of the band, who have all too often fallen under the fog of Hell’s undeniable charisma. The Voidoids’ guitar wrangler, Robert Quine, may have become a tinny touchstone for those who want to bring the dislocated rhythms and clashing, conflicting harmonies to the three-chord thrash of rock’n’roll, but the less-celebrated Ivan Julian’s essential contribution to the group is admirably highlighted (not least by Hell himself).
The pitfalls of so much of the rhetoric surrounding mid 1970s punk rock groups – that they existed in a bubble of authenticity, as a frantic, primal attack on all other popular forms of rock’n’roll up to the Ramones’ year zero – are carefully avoided; the joyful excesses of T. Rex and Slade are happily acknowledged as influences on Hell, while the parallels between the decadence of British glam groups and the debauchery of Rimbaud are celebrated. Nothing, we are reminded, exists in a vacuum.
Within this short exploration and celebration, Astor gets to the depths of what’s so essentially alive and exciting about Blank Generation, but never forgets the surface and the craft of beautifully nihilistic artifice, ready to warp the minds of subsequent generations looking for a little something more from rock’n’roll.