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Richard Hell - Time

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Artist: Richard Hell

Album: Time

Label: Matador

Review date: Mar. 31, 2002

A brief history of one Richard Hell, for the uninitiated:

Born Richard Meyers in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Hell spent his youth, well, raising hell (or Cain, if you prefer) - listening to the Rolling Stones and the like, hitchhiking down south with his friend Tom Miller (later to be known as Verlaine), and slowly building the desire to move to New York City. He finally did, and there he began writing poetry and playing bass. Later, Miller moved up and became Tom Verlaine, and the two formed the Neon Boys, a band that would eventually become Television, arguably one of the most important American bands ever. Sadly, Hell split from the band after recording only the single "Little Johnny Jewel" and a demo tape for Island with Brian Eno (which has never really surfaced) due to Verlaine's unwillingness to share compositional duties. Hell quickly joined the embryonic Heartbreakers (which included former New York Dolls members Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan), but left that project rather quickly as well for similar reasons. His third stop musically in the '70s would prove not only to be his most fruitful, but also his last full-time gig: founding member, bassist, vocalist, and principle songwriter behind the Voidoids. After two full lengths (the incredible Blank Generation and the decent-to-great Destiny Street), the band disappeared, leaving a few odds and ends to be gathered later on the ROIR release RIP. Hell went on to pursue a career in writing (with the occasional acting gig - Desperately Seeking Susan - for one, and the Dim Stars project with Thurston Moore, Don Fleming, and Steve Shelley in the 1990s) and has rarely looked back since then. Got it?

This brings us to the present and Matador's sorely needed double disc compilation of Richard Hell material, Time. For those old school Richard Hell fans who remember the days when the East Village was still a punk rock ghetto (in the 1980s, no less, and not the years right before Il Guiliani), disc one of this set is nothing too new as it is a reissued version of the very same ROIR cassette-only release from 1984 (albeit with three unreleased tracks from that era). The disc starts with Heartbreakers tearing through four songs from 1975, including a version of the classic "Love Comes in Spurts". The sound is raw and a little patchy in parts, but the overall energy of the performance is almost overwhelming, proving that this lineup of the Heartbreakers could have been a scorching contender. Also included here are two tracks that would surface on Blank Generation as well - the new wavish "I'm Your Man" and the slowed down ballad of "Betrayal Takes Two". While not wholly indicative of the sped up, punked out sound that encompassed most of the rest of the album, these two tracks are still solid Hell rockers. Also included here are tracks from a 1979 session, some of which eventually found their way onto the 1982 release Destiny Street. "Crack of Dawn" swings along on Hell's buoyant bassline, while tracks like "Ignore That Door" and "Funhunt" are sped up blues-based rockers. Hell puts in an earnest cover of Bob Dylan's "Going Going Gone" as well, helping to show at least a tiny bit where some of his lyrical influences came from. "Time" is also included here, which is no doubt one of Hell's best recorded songs. It's a slow pop rock number carried mostly by Marc Bell's solid drumming and Robert Quine's chiming guitars, leaving Hell's intimate vocals to fill out the rest. The remainder of the first disc is dedicated to live performances, both from after the Voidoids had essentially collapsed. The tracks themselves are standard issue Richard Hell tracks, but suffer mostly from a pronounced lack of Robert Quine (one of the great unheralded guitarists of that time), and an odd inclusion of a saxophone.

Disc two is the one for the diehard fans out there, as its sixteen tracks are spread out over two unreleased and basically unheard live performances, the first in London in 1977, and the second at CBGBs in 1978. The sound is about as raw as it gets, and it's tough to make out distinct parts through the trebly mix, but if you're a fan, then these tracks are just what you need. There are the classics like "Love Comes In Spurts" and "Blank Generation" performed at breakneck speed, and a searing cover of the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog," done before Stooges worship was a pre-requisite for any punk rocker. Had it been recorded a bit better, this would undoubtedly stand as one of the best live performances from that era. The second disc concludes with tracks from New York City a year later. These sound better as a whole, but their overall intensity is dulled by pushing everything except for Hell's vocals to the back of the mix. It's great stuff, though, especially when Elvis Costello lends his trademark vocals and some guitar work to versions of "You Gotta Lose" and "Shattered" (although I could do without that peculiar voiceover near the beginning).

So there you have it. If you're new to Richard Hell, then you should start off by picking up the essential Blank Generation. When you want more, the kind folks at Matador have ensured that your needs will be fulfilled. It's great material no matter how slice it. In my opinion, Hell never got the credit he so richly deserved. Sure, the Voidoids albums were well liked at the time, but few if any mention them in the same breath as bands like Blondie or the Ramones. And for Hell, punk rock style was second nature - just check out the cover of Blank Generation for proof that he was donning the tattered shirts far before some would-be anarchists from the United Kingdom made it all the rage. Perhaps it's because Hell took himself off the musical radar relatively early that he gets glossed over as a sidenote to Television. It's a shame, though. Hopefully with the release of this set, as well as a collection of his writings published late last year, that will soon change.

By Michael Crumsho

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