Richard Hell & The Voidoids - Biography

By Oliver Hall


           Richard Hell walked through the legendary New York bands Television and the Heartbreakers like a ghost.  He helped found both bands and left before either made its first record, then explained on the opening lines of his first release, the single “Blank Generation” (Ork 1976): “I was sayin’ let me outta here before I was even born.”  Hell’s debut album Blank Generation (Sire 1977) is a classic of American punk, featuring some of the defining songs of the genre played with skill and frenzy by Hell and the unsurpassed original line-up of Voidoids: guitarists Robert Quine and Ivan Julian and drummer Marc Bell (later Marky Ramone of the Ramones).  It is often said that Hell single-handedly invented what came to be known as the punk look, and that his ripped clothing made a particularly strong impression on Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren.


            Born Richard Meyers in Lexington, Kentucky, October 2, 1949, Hell left school and home for New York in late 1966.  At some point — when exactly is unclear — Hell’s high school friend Tom Miller, later known as Tom Verlaine, joined him in Manhattan.  In 1973, the Neon Boys, a trio consisting of Hell on bass and vocals, Verlaine on guitar and Billy Ficca on drums, recorded two songs in a psychedelic garage rock style that recalls the 13th Floor Elevators and the Rolling Stones: “That’s All I Know (Right Now)” and and early version of Hell’s “Love Comes in Spurts.”  Initially available on a 1980 Shake Records ep (which included a third Neon Boys song, “High Heeled Wheels”), these songs are included in Hell’s career-spanning Spurts (Sire/Rhino 2005).  Hell and Verlaine also collaborated on the book Wanna Go Out? (Dot 1973) under the psuedonym Theresa Stern.


            Impresario Terry Ork, the manager of the film memorabilia shop where Hell and Verlaine worked, introduced the band to guitarist Richard Lloyd and gave the band a place to practice.  In its first incarnation, Television — Hell, Verlaine, Ficca and Lloyd — played as many of Hell’s songs as Verlaine’s.  The 1974 Television performance of “Blank Generation” at CBGB that closes Spurts is the only legitimate document of Hell’s time in the band, though a number of Hell’s unrecorded Television songs (“Eat the Light,” “Fuck Rock and Roll,” “Excitement”) survive on bootlegs.  Hell famously created — though may have been too scared to actually wear — a t-shirt reading “PLEASE KILL ME,” decorated with a bullseye.


            After leaving Television, Hell formed the Heartbreakers with former New York Dolls Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan.  The Heartbreakers was something like the antithesis of the direction Verlaine was heading in: unlike the austere, crystalline guitar rock Television plays on Marquee Moon (Elektra 1977), the Heartbreakers pursued a synthesis of bubblegum and hard rock closer in spirit to the Ramones.  Hell’s Time (Matador 2002) includes four Heartbreakers demos from 1975, among them the Heartbreakers version of “Love Comes in Spurts.”  This “Spurts” is a straight-ahead 70s punk romp that sheds the psychedelic, Stonesy moves of the Neon Boys’ version; after Hell’s departure, the Heartbreakers would continue to play “Love Comes in Spurts” with new, considerably less poetic lyrics as “One Track Mind.”  Time also features the Heartbreakers doing “Chinese Rocks,” a song about heroin Dee Dee Ramone asked Hell to finish because the other Ramones didn’t want to sing about drugs (other than Carbona).  Both the Heartbreakers and the Ramones would eventually record “Chinese Rocks.”


            Hell left the Heartbreakers in 1976 to front his own band, the Voidoids, who shared their name with the “novelina” Hell wrote between 1972 and 1973, The Voidoid (published by the British publisher Codex in 1996).  The Voidoids were an exceptional, versatile punk group.  Guitarist Robert Quine, nephew of the philosopher W.V. Quine, was a 33-year-old scholarly record collector and Velvet Underground fanatic — the Velvet Underground’s 3CD Bootleg Series Volume 1: The Quine Tapes (Polydor 2001) consists entirely of Quine’s 1969 audience recordings — who developed a highly disciplined, original guitar style that made Hell’s punk songs quiver with the atonality and instability of 60s free jazz.  Quine, hunched forward, bald-headed in sunglasses and a suit with a cigarette hanging from his lip, did not fit the pervasive image of punk rockers as teenaged white people; nor did dexterous African-American guitarist Ivan Julian, who had played with the Foundations (“Build Me Up Buttercup”).  Julian fits something like the function of a rhythm guitarist in the Voidoids, though his and Quine’s guitar parts are not always separable into the traditional categories of lead and rhythm.  Quine, like Hell and Verlaine, worked at Cinemabilia, the store managed by Terry Ork.  Ork Records, the same label that released Television’s “Little Johnny Jewel,” issued Richard Hell and the Voidoids’ debut 45 “Blank Generation” (Ork 1976). 


            Blank Generation (Sire 1977) is one of rock’s most elegant concept albums.  Hell and the Voidoids present Hell’s case for his refusal of the world — pleasure’s no good because it doesn’t last; people become monstrous in their search for new pleasures; life itself is just another addiction — in performances that deliver the pleasures of the 3-minute single, and yet suggest the total inadequacy of the pop single form to provide the pleasures the band can imagine.  Yet a third version of “Love Comes in Spurts” opens Blank Generation, and this version is a classic, crazed, inspired rock performance.  While Hell and Bell pound out the punk song on bass and drums, Quine and Julian dismantle the four chords of the Heartbreakers’ version, reassembling them as obsessive, broken riffs that turn the song upside-down and inside-out.  Quine takes solos that seem to be musical expressions of the desire never to have been born.  Over the song’s two minutes of panic, Hell screams out a cogent poetic argument against love, setting the stage for the argument Blank Generation’s songs will make against life.


            “Basically, I have one feeling. . . the desire to get out of here,” Hell told Punk interviewer Legs McNeil in 1976.  On “Blank Generation,” the Voidoids bash out Hell’s rudimentary jazz riff as if they are trying to get out of the song, transforming the cool novelty tune into something that stands up to “Anarchy in the U.K.”  It might be worth noting that songs like “Blank Generation” and “Who Says? (It’s Good to be Alive?),” the jolly funk tune of which makes the song’s chorus sound as harmless as a nursery rhyme, have little in common with the agonized posturing of today’s nihilistic rock acts — Blank Generation is too much fun to provide a suitable occasion for suicide.  The Voidoids’ music is a grotesque, jerky caricature of life, and Hell’s lyrics cut up his perceptions into cartoonish slices: “Down at the Rock and Roll Club,” one of the few songs on the album that acknowledges worldly pleasures, ends with “Everyone you ever saw indulgin’ in squeeze.” 


           Hell and the Voidoids toured England opening for the Clash in 1977.  Time (Matador 2002) includes a crude recording of a 12-song Voidoids set from London’s Music Machine at the end of that tour that should bulwark the original Voidoids’ live reputation.  It’s difficult to imagine the set being physically performed.  Johnny Rotten can be heard on the microphone demanding an encore between Voidoids versions of the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and the Stones’ “Ventilator Blues.”  Jerry Antonius took over bass from Hell so that he could focus on singing, and Nick Lowe produced a great pop-punk single, “The Kid with the Replaceable Head / I’m Your Man” (Radar 1978). 


          Hell increasingly withdrew from recording and performing over the following years, due at least in part to his acknowledged heroin habit at the time.  He had initially been famous for, among his other prodigious talents, his animation and enthusiasm onstage — “writhing, twisting, lunging, smashing into his guitar players like some wounded dervish” was critic Lester Bangs’s eyewitness account — but in filmed performances from 1978, he seems unwilling or unable to move.  Between 1978 and 1982, Hell and the Voidoids only released two new songs, “Don’t Die” and “Time,” on the Neon Boys / Richard Hell and the Voidoids split ep (Shake 1980).


          Destiny Street (Red Star 1982) features a new incarnation of the Voidoids, introducing Fred Maher on drums and Naux on guitar; Quine remains.  New material is slim — “The Kid with the Replaceable Head” and “Time” are rerecorded, and the album includes four classic rock covers.  While there are exciting moments, the chemistry of the original group is gone, and Quine’s heroic labors on guitar do not compensate.  In his 1992 liner notes for the Destiny Street cd, Hell remembered:  “I was insane and desperate and riddled with drugs and lonely and despairing and didn't know how to make a record sound good. Didn't know how to sing or play, but refused to leave the house for the studio except when I felt like I could maintain the illusion that I could, which was rarely. (That's half the reason the record is so heavily guitar-laden--when I couldn't muster the self-possession to leave the house I'd call the studio and tell them to lay down another guitar track.)”  Quine joined Lou Reed’s band in 1982, and played on Reed’s The Blue Mask, Legendary Hearts and Live in Italy; the 1983 live video A Night with Lou Reed features Quine, though not nearly loud enough.  In 1983, Hell assembled an entirely new Voidoids that survives only in a live recording of “I Can Only Give You Everything,” one of the 60s covers that had appeared on Destiny Street.


          The cassette R.I.P. (ROIR 1984) laid the Richard Hell persona to rest.  The banner headline above the liner notes, credited to “Lester Meyers” and presumably written by Hell himself, announces: “HE’S TIRED OF HELL AND MOVING ON.”  Comprising unreleased recordings of Hell with the Heartbreakers, several versions of the Voidoids, and several new songs from a band called Hell in New Orleans, the tape represents some of the previously undocumented periods of Hell’s career.  The 1979 Voidoids material is particularly good, though R.I.P. curiously omits the incandescent version of “Time” that lineup cut, one of Hell’s best.  The 2-cd Time (Matador 2002) corrects this mistake, reissuing R.I.P. with “Time” and liner notes by Hell that include not only the song’s complete lyrics but the author’s patient verse-by-verse explication of his short magnum opus, a stoic epigram inspired, Hell says, by the great author Jorge Luis Borges.  But Quine’s guitar, as usual, has the last word; when he ends his first guitar solo on “Time” by transposing a lick from Roger McGuinn’s solo on the Byrds’ “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better,” he challenges Hell’s argument that there can be no “song that says it all at once” in the upcoming verse.  Time also includes two other songs not on R.I.P. and a bonus cd of live performances from 1977 and ’78.  Funhunt (ROIR 1989) provides more lo-fi recordings of live Voidoids sets at Max’s Kansas City and CBGB, including a great version of Hendrix’s “Crosstown Traffic.”


            Hell popped up in various movies througwhout the 80s: as himself, more or less, in Susan Seidelman’s Smithereens (1982); as “The Rawhide Kid” in Nick Zedd’s Geek Maggot Bingo (1983); and even briefly in the Madonna vehicle Desperately Seeking Susan (1985).  Artifact (1990), one of Hanuman Books’ series of small (2.75" x 4.125”) paperbacks, reproduces Hell’s writing from a notebook Patti Smith gave him in 1974.  Hell resurfaced in the early 90s with Dim Stars (Thurston Moore and Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth with then-ubiquitous producer and Gumball member Don Fleming), a thoroughly enjoyable downtown NYC take on garage scuzz rock that more closely resembles Hell’s work with the Neon Boys than his work with the Voidoids.  Dim Stars (Caroline 1992) romps through the fine originals “All My Witches Come True” and “Baby Huey” as well as an unhinged cover of T. Rex’s immortal “Rip Off” with ½ Japanese’s Jad Fair on saxophone.  Quine adds guitar on several songs.  Hell’s first novel, Go Now, appeared in 1996.


            The original Voidoids reunited in 2001 to record the gentle new song “Oh” for Beyond Cyberpunk, a compilation cd produced by Wayne Kramer of the MC5.  Quine’s wife, Alice, died of a heartattack in August of 2003.  Quine, despondent, committed suicide in June 2004.  The obituary headline in the New York Times ran: “Robert Quine, 61, Punk Rock Guitarist.”  “Oh” also appears on Spurts: The Richard Hell Story (Sire/Rhino 2005), which Hell “conceived as his only recording, as if he’d never put out anything else.”  The collection includes samples of Hell’s work with the Neon Boys, Heartbreakers, Voidoids and Dim Stars.  Hell published his second novel Godlike in 2005; in 2008 he released the book Psychopts, followed in 2009 by The Voidoid, and in 2013 I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp and Punk: Chaos to Coture.



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