Richard Hell 2xCD review [Matador]

Music Reviews
Richard Hell 2xCD review [Matador]
Mar 19, 2002, 01:33


Time revisits a magical moment where “punk rock” was a philosophical/aesthetic stance first and foremost: a dedication to change, experimentation and exploration with a drop of good-natured contrariness thrown in for good measure. Applied by various parties, the results could sound like any and everything imaginable, from the pithy prog-inflected powerdrone of Pere Ubu, to the sparkling pop-tastic nuggets of The Nerves. That “punk” should ever have devolved into the tightly constrained, utterly predictable pigeonhole it did, was unimaginable at its inception. So I thinks nostalgia's defensible in this case, as it evokes open-endedness, liberation and invention; a widening of possibilities—always a good thang.

Richard Hell & the original Void-oids were one of the early punk movement's apogees: as viscerally potent as The Stooges, as stylistically visionary as Captain Beefheart. And led by an unapologetic poet! Damn!! Time compiles Hell's back pages from a variety of eras. Some are revealing, some are handily explicatory. Some are simply synapse-overloading rock 'n' roll, no matter the context.

The first disc of this double CD set reprises the ROIR release RIP with a couple additional tracks. It opens with Hell leading the Heartbreakers—one of the strangest couplings in the history of rock: professional guttersnipe Johnny Thunders cranking it alongside obsessive poet-on-duty Hell, the latter having just jumped ship from one of the most intensively arty bands in rock history, Television. The recording quality's pretty dodgy—the guitar sounds wobble as forcibly as if it were being running thru a phase shifter effect. And the repertoire's so-so. Hell's just a bit too knowing and mischievous for the songs that would soon become staples of the Heartbreaker's set list and on the other hand their bluntly rocked version of “Love Comes In Spurts” lacks the surreal spikeyness the Void-oids would later give the song.

Matters improve drastically in terms of sound quality and writing as we proceed to the Void-oids' era. Two studio demos feature the original line-up of guitarists Bob Quine and Ivan Julian, Marc Bell (the future Marky Ramone) on drums and Hell on vocals and bass. “I'm Your Man” and “Betrayal Takes Two” are among the most sedate and subtle numbers this crew ever recorded, but still boast stunning prickly guitar soloing and some strange yet lush chord changes. Next come the efforts of an expanded Void-oids; Hell, Quine and Julian are supported by a different rhythm section. And while the newbies don't add much, they don't need to.

At the heart of the great Void-oids outings is the individual guitar work of Quine and Julian, and even more important is their interaction. Quine's aggressively-pointed, consciously-lopsided playing—all obtuse angles and funhouse mirror reflections—obviously stands out. Julian wasn't far behind in terms of originality, certainly not technically, and in many cases Ivan's somewhat more important contributions were precisely the foundation and foil that Quine needed to play as freely and imaginatively as he did. Unquestionably this pair produced one of the most puissant, immediately recognizable, ambitious and profoundly original guitar oeuvres rock music has ever known, dancing on a hi-wire that'd been coated in napalm and set alight. This was the perfect setting for Hell's best songs which often start from a vintage rock 'n' roll vocabulary (hearing him with the Heartbreakers is a perfect opportunity to appreciate how traditional the basis of his songs actually were) then abruptly and decisively twist overall song structures—as well as individual instrumental lines—to and fro, back and forth. The six songs here, “Crack Of Dawn” through “Funhunt,” are among Hell's more relaxed, less idiosyncratic compositions but the consistently fierce, fiercely unique guitar on display on all these tracks more than redeems them.

The first CD ends with a rambunctious if decidedly conventional live rendition of “I Can Only Give You Everything” by a Void-oids sans both Quine and Julian. Four studio recordings follow, done in New Orleans with local musicians. The writing approximates classic Hell and clearly these players knew the Sire album and display its due respect , but overall, this lacks the passion and also the artistically reckless artistry of preceding output.

Disc two is ALL previously unreleased live recordings from London's Music Machine in '77 and from CBGB's in '78. This is utterly essential from start to finish. Take the praise I've proffered so far and multiply that by a factor of 10,000. Hell's most challenging, visionary writing is attacked with the utmost feral brutality and fierce determination to render it still more stylistically extreme and unprecedented by his guitar henchman and ramped up to almost unendurable intensity and aesthetic singularity. That Quine and Julian were able to invest these songs with this much raw energy, and play this as wild and free and keep it all coherent and focused is one of the most impressive achievements in rock history. The London set features the original band and the CB's set sees Hell, Quine and Julian joined by yet another rhythm section plus special guest Elvis Costello who turns in a brilliant, frantic reading of Richard's “You Gotta Lose.” Their revamp of the Rolling Stones “Ventilator Blues” evolves into an explosively spastic St. Vitus' dance that's worth the price of this collection all by itself.

As a study of one of the most original and powerful yet criminally under-appreciated figures in underground rock history, Time is revealing at worst, while the best studio material and all of the live disc is simply some of the most liberated and liberating music the rock thang every produced. [Matador]

-Howard W.

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