Punk culture - Phil Johnson talks to Richard Hell, one-time hellraiser and American father of punk
The idea that punk was a British invention is one of the great canards of pop culture. In reality, while we may have provided much of the elbow grease, and all of the spit, the original music, fashion and attitude came from America. When Malcolm McLaren painstakingly constructed The Sex Pistols from the substandard materials available - rather in the manner of a youngster assembling a wonky Meccano kit - he already had several working models in New York to copy from.
One of these was the band Television, formed in 1974 by Tom Miller and Richard Meyers, who as schoolboys in the late 1960s had run away to New York from Delaware and Kentucky. Following the example established by the self-invented superstars of Andy Warhol's Factory, they changed their names to Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell. The new monikers reflected their impressively recondite, yet touchingly teenage, interests in poetry and evil.
Television - which had evolved out of an earlier group, The Neon Boys - began to play gigs at Lower East Side clubs such as CBGB. There, they were spotted by McLaren, who was by then managing The New York Dolls, just before they broke up. Hell's spiky hair, torn clothes, declamatory singing style and sloganeering lyrics - he had a song whose catchy chorus went "I belong to the blank generation" - clearly struck a chord. The rest is history.
It was certainly history for Hell, because Verlaine kicked him out of Television shortly afterwards, before the group went on to become successful. A while later, Hell formed his own group, Richard Hell and the Voidoids. Their first album, Blank Generation, was released on the Sire label in 1977 and remains one of the most important documents of punk. It has just been re-released in Britain, where it is available on CD for the first time.
Hell, now aged 50, is a writer rather than a rocker these days. His striking first novel, Go Now, appeared in 1996 (when it was reviewed, rather unfavourably, in the New Statesman), and he is currently at work on another, as well as editing and contributing stories to various little magazines. He still lives on New York's Lower East Side, which was where I interviewed him recently, sitting on a bench in Tompkins Park in the midday sunshine. "Now the album is being re-released, the thing that everyone asks is, 'What do you think of it?'," Hell says. "My usual response is that it's atrocious, it's shit, but it's still better than anything anyone else did."
In lieu of further music, Hell hopes that his new public will catch up with his writing, "because that's all there's going to be". He says that he only ever wrote songs to commission, when they were needed. "Otherwise, I didn't do it. Of course, I was addicted to heroin then, which definitely has an effect on your level of initiative, but it's still true now. I only write songs when there's a use for them, whereas I write words every day no matter what, with no thought as to whether they're going to be published or not."
Hell's conversation is witty and ironic, and he's endearingly self-deprecating. But when I ask him - almost apologetically - about the revolution in cultural manners that he helped to provoke, he is suddenly in deadly earnest. "You're assuming that I was taken by surprise when this stuff caught on, but it was designed to catch on, to have an impact. I intended it to happen. The song 'Blank Generation' was used as an allusion to - and even uses the same chord changes as - a corny novelty song from the early 1960s called 'I Belong to the Beat Generation'. I completely intended to rearrange things as much as I possibly could, rejecting the hippie and beat era for the way I saw the world."
Hell had a message, and he did everything he could to amplify it. "I can't really reduce these things to fashions, but everything was different from, and opposed to, the sort of cultural tendencies, youth styles and ideas that preceded us," he says. "It was all very consciously adopted, from the way I cut my hair and dressed, to why I would call a song 'Love Comes in Spurts' as opposed to 'Love Is All You Need'. But the idea that you made yourself up, as I did by changing my name and writing this whole meaning into the way I looked, didn't exclude realism, or the feeling of how it's stupid to assume that life is necessarily good."
It was largely this sense of reconciliation between the precocious, carefully self-induced alienation of intellectuals such as Hell, and the social exclusion or outsider status assigned to punks generally, that made the movement so influential. The other great influence was drugs. Hell was so addicted to them that he very nearly didn't survive the era that he'd helped bring about.
He rolls up his sleeve and shows me the weals on his arms from 25 years ago. "I abused myself viciously. I can remember there would be long stretches when I would be buying cocaine, adding water and injecting it. That's where all these bad track marks come from, because you had to do it every 15 or 20 minutes, sometimes for weeks at a time. I can distinctly remember when I'd get into these runs of really attacking myself, gritting my teeth and jamming the needle in. It was very close to conscious self-destruction, and a lot of people who didn't go to the lengths or the depths that I did, didn't survive. It could easily have happened to me, too. Whatever's left is gravy."
We part on St Mark's Place. I go off to buy secondhand records, while the man who invented punk goes home to write another novel.
"Blank Generation" by Richard Hell and the Voidoids is released on Sire/Warner Bros Records. Richard Hell's website is at www.richardhell.com
Phil Johnson is the author of "Straight Out of Bristol" (Hodder & Stoughton, 1997), and writes about music and the arts in the "Independent" and the "Independent on Sunday"