Blank Generation by Pete Astor (Bloomsbury - 33 1/3 series)
Well, this is going to be interesting…
See, the Barman scores books by McGarretts, with three being the top score.
So, the book (one of the 33 1/3 series about "classic" albums) gets TWO separate scores, for two separate reasons. It’s up to you to figure out if I’m being fair or not.
However, I’m not quite sure how to imagine half a Steve McGarrett. Which would be the least offensive do you think, the top or the bottom half..?
You see, the reason Astor gets a half McGarrett is because it’s a bloody effort to read. Astor is now an academic, no longer an enthusiastic and rebellious teen, and there is way too much turf, not enough surf. Astor’s haphazard organisation is apparently designed to prevent you reading it, and he apparently has neither enough understanding of either the time (which is just plain weird) or the impact the LP had, and there is certainly too much literary analysis where it seems superfluous.
Ordinarily a minor gripe (which I admit I mention this here out of spite, because I had to wade through the bloody thing) is that it would’ve helped if Astor had expanded on his interviews with Hell and surely surviving bandmates Ivan Julian and Marc Bell should also have been approached.
Perhaps they were, I cannot tell; Astor’s several notes quoting ‘Personal Interview’ I would’ve liked clarified ‘Personal Interview with Dick Dickerton, and the date - why? Because people read the notes separately and do not wish to scamper back through the text to find the dratted note to work out which interview with who: Astor’s method may be academically correct, but it is not reader-friendly.
However, Astor certainly has done some homework, he’s done some primary research, he’s interviewed Hell (but doesn’t quote him too much) and around the band. The glimpses you get of Hell and his band make worthwhile reading, but by Christ I cannot emphasise how much this book is a chore to wade through. I rejoice in the bibliography and re-listen to the LP, then puzzle over the references to ‘personal interview’s in the Notes … wishing there were more of the band and less analysis.
Surely the one thing you gotta consider when you’re producing something you hope a large number of people will buy is: will people be able to respond? I mean, there was a market for Albert Ayler and for most people he’s bloody unlistenable, but he was hardly mass market. I love Monk, and most jazz musos I meet think that’s the hard stuff - but he still sells truckloads, and that’s because Monk knew he was making music for people to respond to.
However, given that we more or less seem to give out degrees to characters who’ve submitted an essay with some decent original research, from a modern academic standard, Astor certainly merits three McGarretts. And that’s why, if you think Blank Generation is an essential part of your collection, you need this book.
Let’s take a closer look.
Hell was a pivotal figure in the mid-to-late ‘70s NYC scene which later became identified as being the springboard for ‘punk’; Hell was articulate, well-read, mercurial, irritating, pretentious, vile, drug-afflicted and, as it happens, influential. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he did not measure up to the potential of this, his first LP, "Blank Generation". Part of this was the nature of the band, but Astor does not identify this, partly because, I suspect, he is over-focussed on Hell.
Secondly, Astor, a British teenager when he discovered the LP, provides a preface filled with youthful and necessarily nostalgic enthusiasm and, I’m terribly sorry to say, that’s the last we see of it.
Thirdly, the most heinous of crimes, is that either Astor has no bloody sense of humour or he doesn’t understand that Hell does (or did); “Love Comes in Spurts” is plain hilarious the first time you hear it, and always amusing thereafter. There is a savage, unpleasant and selfish humour on “Blank Generation”, along with the knowing references (which Astor spends time on), but X-Ray Spex’s “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” (1977) was ludicrous, far funnier than anything on “Blank Generation” (also 1977). The major points of the LP are threefold: 1) poke fun at the old farts (i.e. anyone over 30) in the music industry by inverting expectation and by implication, fuck shit up; 2) use the LP as a device for your sheer bloody ambition and make a determined splash, and 3) remake music in your own way.
Fourthly, Astor does not set the scene in a comprehensible way, and … what’s that ghastly term academics and people who weren’t there use? ‘Proto-punk’.
The term implies the person referred to has foreknowledge of what is to come, and that they fit into what became punk later. Trust me, no-one was or is, ‘proto-punk’. It’s an insulting term: imagine telling someone, ‘you’re post-punk’ and having an argument about it. Definitions diminish us. That was one of punks’ points: form your own band, reinvent yourself, defy the definition. Astor uses the term ‘proto-punk’, and that, for me, is the kiss of death - because he should know better.
Fifth, Astor does not examine the fierce competition between the bands on either side of the pond, which became considerably fiercer after the Grundy incident.
See, while Hell had released the single Blank Generation in 1976, The Ramones had also released their first singles and LP in the same year, as had The Sex Pistols (“Anarchy in the UK” and “God Save the Queen”), a year in which the New York Dolls floundered and, at least to the public, lost their way. Certainly the New York Dolls tour of UK in 1973 was influential to an underground scene without too much cohesion; The Ramones gig at London’s The Roundhouse in July 1976 cemented things and there were now distinct scenes on both sides of the pond; so there developed a … different kind of tension…
Each city, New York and London, began to spread their musical viruses. While Hell had been working up The Voidoids, The Clash, The Buzzcocks, The Sex Pistols, The Damned were all gigging and working up their songs. Malcolm Maclaren, manager of the Pistols and former manager of the New York Dolls, knew all this and did his best to exploit and fester competition between NY and London (hence the Pistols song New York, and Sid Vicious’ later aggro toward the Dead Boys).
Then we have The Grundy Incident, which is hardly examined these days. In December 1976, the red-topped UK dailies effectively declared ‘punk’ to be the latest dangerous teen sensation in the wake of Grundy’s unwise imbibing before interviewing a bunch of street thugs in daft clothes; a dam, already filled to bursting, began to split.
1977 really was The Year Punk Broke. The Buzzcocks’ famous self-produced single, “Spiral Scratch” was the record (a 7” EP) which launched the do-it-yourself record label craze in the UK; it was released in January 1977. The Damned’s first LP (February 1977) ticks the three boxes above despite not being a particularly brilliant LP (though I loved it on release and would no more part with it than my copy of “Blank Generation”); however I loved the Damned’s second album more than their first (it was panned so badly the band broke up and I would imagine is still a sore point), and their third, “Machine Gun Etiquette”, is sublime, far more punk yet distinctly commercial and clever.
The band people most associate Hell with other than the Voidoids, Television, also released “Marquee Moon” in February 1977 - of the above three points, the second two are valid. With knobs on. And Talking Heads released their first single in the same month. The Clash’s first single, “White Riot”, was released in March, their first record in April, the same month the Stranglers’ first LP came out.
1977 was a great year for debut albums; The Ramones released their second LP in 77, as did Talking Heads, and The Stranglers, and The Damned and a host of others either released records, about to release or banging on the gates of the major labels and small independents. I know I’m leaving a lot of other bands out but - this is actually a review, or ‘sposed to be.
Here’s context: Maclaren urged The Sex Pistols to write “another Blank Generation” - and “Pretty Vacant” was released in July 1977…nearly a year after the Voidoids’ single, but still before the LP “Blank Generation”. The topic of Astor’s book was released in September 1977, when the surge of punk was already forming lines of predictability.
Here’s more context: the self-proclaimed punks of 1977 promptly responded to anything with a fast beat, a loud yelly voice, and stripped-down r’n’b. This was punk because the definition had abruptly, drastically altered extremely fast, week to week, day by day, over the next two and a half years or so.
But when the punks of the day, when this album was released, bought the LP with its fabulously perfect damaged boy punker cover and … let’s face it: they were DISAPPOINTED, by and large. It wasn’t like The Damned or The Clash or The Ramones, fast, nasty and furious. Most of it seemed pretentious and rather New Yawk Wank; all that guitar wreckage didn’t make sense, wasn’t funny.
Astor doesn’t understand this, so he can’t explain why Hell & Co were not well-received on their first live dates in UK: they didn’t fit the straightjacket (even though Hell wore, rather self-consciously, a black leather motorcycle jacket, already long in vogue in the UK).
I’m now going to use Bob Short to demonstrate punk. Hello, Bob.
Filth were Sydney’s first actual, self-declared punk rock band. They appeared in 1977. They were appalling. They baited the audience and, if the audience did not provide a riot, the band did their best all on their own. They were named by a member of the horrified public - not at a gig, but at a hamburger joint. They were violent in their personal lives and inflicted this in their performances on an unwary, often uncaring, public. Their spectacle was soon forgotten. They were a Jarryesque joke. Astor really doesn’t get the determination to rub people’s face in the unpleasant world they lived in, he makes literary comparisons instead. Part of the attitude long before punk was declared after The Grundy Wars was to aggressively offend through intelligence. This is why The Ramones only later became a punk band; they had the attitude, but predominantly, they also wanted to be a successful pop band.
Blank Generation’s self-knowing cover featuring Hell half-naked, threatening yet vulnerable in a kind of rent-boy, 53rd&3rd way which got your attention in the record shop, his idiotic arrogance and clear intelligence attracted, repelled and mystified. “Blank Generation” was one of the sensations of its season, and certainly did have an impact. As Bob explains: “No other band had that angularity, that fractured, distorted damaged jazz sound which so many people took to afterwards, from The Pop Group to the No Wave in New York (see James Chance and the Contortions).”
Much of this was down to the interplay between The Voidoids’ guitarists, Robert Quine (RIP) and Ivan Julian (which I would’ve liked to read more of). While Astor tries to explain a bit of this interplay, he just doesn’t seem to get it: this is the musical, visceral shock, that common or garden pop-style songs were being invaded by a barbarian horde. The lyrics themselves came more or less second.
Hell was not a particularly exceptional or exciting bass player, but it’s to Marc (later Marky Ramone) Bell ’s credit that he maintained those complex rhythms in the face of an aural blizzard. Astor spends far too much time attempting to validate Hell’s literary lineage to assorted French philosophers, absurdists, doomed Romantic poets and so on. No-one then or now gives much of a stuff. The LP’s impact then and now has nowt to do with Hell’s imagined or self-proclaimed literary intentions, because intention is not reality.
Astor also doesn’t emphasise punk’s promise of ‘something different’ enough, and the reality of the jeanstshirtblackmotorbikejacketandsingleearring uniform which stifled so much. Given that three page stuff about the history of the record (FFS!), I also would’ve thought he would’ve known about all the homosexual elements punk pinched from the gay underworld: the leather jackets, leather jeans, the single earring, coded hankies, Tom of Finland T-shirts, pervy leather and plastic and vinyl gear (c.f. New York Dolls and Zena Perrett thence Vivienne Westwood and Malcky Maclaren). Particularly since the cover of the fucking lp was what attracted Astor in the first place, a more vulnerable and approachable, tangible version of the Iggy on the cover of “Raw Power” (which Astor explains early on).
Forty years on, do I still love “Blank Generation”, the LP? Yes. But even so, it’s not something I would want to put on every day or indeed, every year. There are some great songs there; I’d put several on a mixtape … ah, you’re getting it. Yes, the LP was quite significant - for its possibilities. In context, there were a lot of albums which did this at the time. Hell’s LP wasn’t Hell’s LP, it belonged just as much to Bell, Julian and of course the extraordinary Quine. Astor can’t quite explain the LP’s impact outside of his own immediate teen reaction, it seems.
Right, that’s got that somewhat out of my system.
Let’s go over a few things. You can construct a book any old way you like, but for most of us, picking up a slim volume on a favourite LP, would expect to see something along the lines of who the participants were, how they came together, the scene at the time and its relevance, and how things grew around them, how the record was recorded and what was expected, and what happened next.
Even if you stick to that formula, too much analysis (and yes, I know I can be guilty of it) will kill your narrative. Astor takes the view that we either know a lot about the lp and the period, and can therefore leave stuff out, with the result that (for example) I either think he knows little about what life in NYC was like in the late ‘60s early ‘70s, or that it’s not important, which of course it is. It’s bloody pivotal. Particularly when the back cover blurbs ‘Astor’s portmanteau approach uses objective and subjective perspectives to articulate the meaning of the album, combining academic rigour with the reception-based subjectivities that are key to understanding our relationships with popular culture.’
Which sounds terribly important and intullekshul, but has the effect of dumping a pile of clothes on the floor and, without touching them, expect us to be able to guess the name and address of the owner. Look, in writing there are no real rules, just like there are no real rules in music. But if you want us to read and enjoy the book, unless we understand we’re in for a slog, don’t make us slog. If this book hadn’t been about an lp important to me and rather a lot of my friends, I would’ve chucked it at the wall by page 7 or 8 - the chapter called ‘Culture’, because the entire chapter has scant value.
Here’s another example: in a small thin book a shade over 110 pages (around 30,000 words) we cop nearly three pages of the history of vinyl. It’s not necessary. Astor’s personal asides far too frequently seem not to have any real relevance concerning the LP itself, much less the band, other than to occasionally emphasise that many people were sufficiently galvanised to get up and make (usually) crappy music. Most bands like this of the period floundered at some point; some members went on to have scrappy careers, others (such as the U2s of the world) had a bit of luck and combined that with self-determination … and I really didn’t need quite so much detail about Astor’s own musical career - he’s now ‘a Senior Lecturer in Musicology at the University of Westminster, UK’.
Astor doesn’t mention Hell’s famous 1980 letter to the NME claiming to have invented punk rock - here’s a more current link - nor the impact of the letter (the immediate response was hundreds of letters, one of which - from memory - said, ‘I tore my shirt at rugby in 1974, I didn’t invent punk rock’). This letter and its aftermath leads you to a clearer idea about what Hell is.
He’s ambitious, arguably creatively lazy, and profoundly internalised - and, if we consider the lyrics to two songs alone (“Another World” and “I’m Your Man” are repulsively misogynistic), quite unpleasant, even taking into consideration Hell’s evident determination to shock. Remember this is the bloke who, with the young Tom Verlaine, set fire to someone’s field for fun. We’re not talking writing on walls or shooting out streetlights with a catapult, this is a seriously bad thing.
Quite a lot of what Hell has said over the years gives the impression of someone who reinvents themselves and their motives. This isn’t really that surprising, as many people in the public eye have done so and will continue to do so. (Bertoldt Brecht is one such prime prick, as far as I can see). So whenever I encounter Astor’s points about Absurdism (and so on) in Hell’s work, I think, ‘fine, but so what?’ What was the impact of these lyrics, this stance..? It’s just not spelled out.
Hell’s famous quote about the ‘Blank’ Generation, that you’re supposed to fill in the blank … no, children, he’s not that naive. Hell really meant it as a pun; he really was insulting the generation he was associated with, and he backed down because he realised it could be detrimental to his career, associating him instead with the new generation of pointlessly self-loathing UK punks, and he didn’t want the stick of being thought to piss on the scene which set him up.
Funny how punk was so modern back in 1976, and now it’s still perceived as modern, when it’s so … fucking yesterday. In 1975, if you were 19 and wearing a 1935 suit, you would have been ripe for a bashing on general principles. That’s 40 years difference, right? Punk’s 40th anniversary comes up next year… isn’t it time we reinvented the world again instead of sticking our heads down rabbit holes..? Isn’t it time the modern world became modern instead of so fucking condescending, self-righteously nostalgic and condemnatory and culturally xenophobic? Dear me, is that the ghost of what-1976-actually-wanted calling?
Pete Astor’s book is, unfortunately, a useful if not essential appendix to Richard Hell and The Voidoid’s “Blank Generation”. So, 3 McGarrett’s.
But it’s a fucking bastard to read and you’ll be extremely annoyed, partly because you’ll feel the writer has wasted too much of your time for so little reward, and partly because there should’ve been much more of those slim pickings. Thank God there’s a bibliography.