Richard Hell can walk down the street in New York City’s East Village without being recognized. He rides the subway, eats at understated restaurants populated by regular folks, reads his poetry (these days he’s mainly a writer) to modest crowds at even more modest venues. His name is hardly as well-known as Sid Vicious or Joey Ramone. Even to those with more than a cursory knowledge of punk rock might have no idea who he is or what he’s done.
But, without question, Hell was one of the most important figures in New York punk of the late 1970s. After brief stints in Television and The Heartbreakers, he formed The Voidoids and recorded 1977’s Blank Generation, an album that encapsulates the thrill, style, and ethics of that era as definitively as any other recording of the time. Though he went on to record very little after that landmark LP, in those heydays, he was as critical to the movement as Tom Verlaine, the Ramones, or Patti Smith. Time, then, is an incredibly important compilation for anyone who claims any interest, past, present, or future, in punk music.
Composed of rarities, live tracks, and previously unreleased material, Time opens with a bright version of “Love Comes in Spurts”, also the first track of Blank Generation but here recorded with his 1975 group, The Heartbreakers. Opening with an almost cutesy drum solo, Hell comes in wailing in his signature rockstar warble, ejaculating lyrics as he’s backed by the fireworks of rocketing guitar. The song showcases Hell’s flair for ballsy, baldy emotional lyrics — an attitude that he would keep in all of his writing throughout his career. “Love comes in spurts / Sometimes it hurts!” Hell cries, agonized, without a hint of irony or regret. He’s as driven and serious on “Can’t Keep My Eyes on You”, another frantic, punked-out bastardization of a love song. Its guitars screwed up and sentiments inverted (“I’d like . . . to tear you apart”), Hell is capable of paying aural homage to the terrifying emotions that often go along with attraction. In fact, with the exception of perhaps Elvis Costello, no other artists of the time better delivered the raging veracity of the punk love ballad — heartsickness at its most erudite and adrenalized, impaled on guitars, aching as much as burning. “Betrayal Takes Two”, recorded with the Voidoids, is a telling example; on Time it diverges from the version on Blank Generation to exude more guilt and confusion. “Betrayal takes two/ I did it to you / I’ll do it again / If I have to,” Hell spews, over tame guitar and bass that flare up only when Hell is not singing.
Beyond these “standards” (relatively speaking — Hell’s work has never received the attention it deserves) are lesser-known tracks included on his second release with the Voidoids, the 1982 Destiny Street. (Note: the renditions on Time are earlier recordings than what eventually ended up on Destiny Street.) Though his later album had neither the distribution nor accolades of Blank Generation, it includes the jewel “Time”, a song that shows off both Hell’s keen observation and, in the end, sentimentality. In a musical movement categorized by its nihilism and destruction, “Time” begins by talking bleakly of the ruthlessness of time, but ends very much at a place of acceptance. (In the album insert, Hell speaks at length about “Time”, remarking that the song ends on a “Zennish” note.)
The compilation also includes some remarkable covers, including Bob Dylan’s “Going Going Gone”, Fats Domino’s “I Live My Life”, and a live version of Stooges “I Wanna Be Your Dog”. The Stooges track comes at the heart of Disc II, a collection of live recordings from the Music Machine in London and CBGBs. Though much of the quality is poor (the Music Machine show is transferred from cassette tape), its power is so genuine and real that it hardly matters. From the devastating version of “Blank Generation” to the overwhelming “You Gotta Lose” (with vocals and guitar by Elvis Costello), Disc II makes you feel like you’re the dedicated fan who snuck in a mini recorder, hoping to capture the energy in order to relive it again and again.
Like the infamous club CBGBs which centered that scene, Richard Hell has become an indelible, though at this point perhaps taken for granted part of the landscape of New York City. And like the late ’70s punk movement he helped create, his influence remains audible and strong; the postpunk movement that’s currently ransacking the indie scene owes much of its life and vigor to him. Time is a welcome addition to Hell’s all-too small body of musical work, and a tribute to a time when music was infuriating and invigorating, infused with style, fury, passion, and guts.