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Richard Hell



Richard Hell was the great punk peripatetic of the late '70s, drifting from one great band to the next in search of the perfect sonic fix. Or so it seems. In fact, he didn't stick around long enough to make much of an impact with either of his first two seminal bands, Television and The Heartbreakers, leaving both times in search of greater creative control. Finally, in 1976, he founded his own seminal band, The Voidoids, which released two great albums. Hell kept a much lower profile throughout the '80s and '90s, but continued to surface from time to time, collaborating with members of Sonic Youth and Gumball in a project called Dim Stars, occasionally reforming the Voivoids, and becoming a published author.

Hell grew up with Television singer/guitarist Tom Verlaine in Lexington, Kentucky and the two of them ventured separately out to New York City to seek their musical fortune. Soon the two of them were playing together as The Neon Boys with Verlaine on guitar and Hell on bass, changing their name to Television when second guitarist Richard Lloyd and drummer Billy Ficca signed on. As soon as they began performing it was clear that this band was something special, and indeed the combo's iconic brand of spidery, jammy, dark-hued proto-punk would become perhaps the defining sound of the '70s NYC rock underground. But Hell had different sounds in mind and was frustrated by the fact that the group rarely used his compositions, so he jumped ship (and was replaced by Blondie bassist Fred Smith) more than a year before the group released their landmark 1977 debut, Marquee Moon.

With his next band, The Heartbreakers, Hell achieved the kind of sound he was looking for, playing a raw and immediate brand of rock much closer to what would come to be thought of as punk than Television's detached downtown cool. But here again, Hell found himself at odds with another charismatic co-frontman, New York Dolls alumnus Johnny Thunders, so again he jumped ship before the group released its debut record, in this case L.A.M.F. in 1977.

Clearly Hell's ego required that he be the uncontested leader of whatever band he was in, so he formed his own, recruiting the talented and forceful guitar player Richard Quine (who would later go on to make appearances on albums by Lou Reed, Material, Matthew Sweet, Lloyd Cole, John Zorn, and countless others), plus second guitarist Ivan Julian and drummer Marc Bell to play in the Voidoids. Now at last he could put all those unused songs he'd written for Television to use. The group released one of the great early punk records in Blank Generation (featuring "Love Comes in Spurts," a great tune he'd penned with The Heartbreakers) and opened for The Clash on a disastrous English tour before disappearing from view (at least to those outside New York) for the next half decade while Hell struggled with heroin addiction and a reluctance to perform live until he had to pay bills. But in 1982 he revived the band with Quine and a new rhythm section of bassist Naux and drummer Fred Maher, and recorded a second album, Destiny Street, another raw and strong effort which, like the band's debut, featured an instant classic in "The Boy with the Replaceable Head."

The band performed on and off into the mid '80s, but after that Hell made more noise as a writer than as a musician, releasing several books of poetry and prose. While a number of archival releases have appeared over the years dedicated to Hell's various '70s musical involvements, Matador's 2002 double album Time may be the definitive Richard Hell document. The first half is for the most part a re-release of a 1984 cassette-only ROIR release of Hell odds and ends, R.I.P., which stretches from 1975 Heartbreakers demos to 1984 live material. It does feature a few songs not from that ROIR release, including the previously unreleased "Chinese Rocks," which Dee Dee Ramone gave to Hell to finish because the Ramones wouldn't do a song about heroin (though they later changed their mind and recorded the song without giving Hell a shared songwriting credit). The second disc features a pair of explosive vintage Voidoids live performances, an entire 1977 set opening for The Clash at the Music Machine in London, and a four-song appearance at a 1978 CBGB's benefit featuring two songs with Elvis Costello on guitar (plus the song "Don't Die," so new at the time Hell couldn't remember the lyrics). It's an essential document not only for Voivoids fans and punk rock completists, but also for anyone with a passion for raw, immediate, idiosyncratic rock and roll.

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