Richard Hell on Blank Generation and Destiny Street
When considering iconic record covers that came out of New York's early punk scene, several pictures come to mind: Robert Mapplethorpe's starkly androgynous portrait of Patti Smith on Horses; Debbie Harry, leaning from the hood of a patrol car in a hot pink Anya Phillips dress on Blondie's Plastic Letters; Tom Verlaine's peering, anemic figure on Television's Marquee Moon; and Joey, Dee Dee, Johnny and Tommy - dressed down like a gang of high school burnouts, slouching before a graffiti covered wall, on their debut, Ramones.
While all of these diverse images would significantly influence everything from successive punk and alternative styles to high fashion, perhaps the most potent representation of the genre's visual aesthetic is Roberta Bayley's shot of Richard Hell on the Voidoids' Blank Generation album. Hell's cropped, spiky hair, destroyed black jeans and jacket, detached gaze, and bare, lettered chest embodied many elements that had captured Malcolm McLaren's attention prior to the release of the album. McLaren went on to appropriate Hell's look and attitude for punk's most notorious ambassadors, the Sex Pistols.
Hell developed his flair for presentation during his early years in New York as an underground publisher: designing, typesetting and printing poetry pamphlets that featured pieces by his literary contemporaries, alongside his own writings and graphics. That small press, DIY approach informed the image Hell cultivated during his later vocation as a musician.
After the dissolution of the Voidoids in 1983, Hell returned to writing. Over the last thirty years, his critical pieces have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies. Notable other published works include a compilation of essays, poetry and journals (Hot and Cold), novels (Godlike, Go Now), and his recent autobiography (I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp). In October 2015, Soft Skull Press released Massive Pissed Love, an updated collection of cleverly written essays and reviews on everything from fashion, film, contemporary art, music and literature. Among Hell's astute contemplations on Orson Welles and Marilyn Minter, the book includes a few pieces that look back on - and maybe even dissect - his experiences as a writer and pioneer of the punk movement.
Hell is currently working on a new novel, but was gracious enough to take time out to talk to Cover Our Tracks in detail about the making of the artwork for Richard Hell and the Voidoids' Blank Generation (1977, Sire) and Destiny Street (1982, Red Star) albums.
LK: I'm going to first ask you about Roberta Bayley, who shot the covers for both Blank Generation and Destiny Street. Her work with you, Blondie, The Ramones, The Heartbreakers, as well as for PUNK Magazine is some of the most widely recognized from the early CBGB's era. She pretty much chronicled the scene as it was unfolding. I was surprised to read in your recent autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, that she was not a photographer when you met.
RH: No, she wasn't. As I say in the book, the first pictures she ever took professionally were of the Heartbreakers, the band I had with Johnny Thunders. I can't remember what the arrangement was as far as terms or whatever. I had this idea for a picture I wanted to make for a Heartbreakers gig flyer. It was probably just a favor, really, but then she had the pictures to do with as she wished. Those were the blood pictures, one of which appears on the cover of (Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil's) Please Kill Me. Since that photo was used for the cover of the book, it ended up having a really long life. That was the first picture she took. I had known her for maybe a year at that point.
LK: Was that first collaboration with you and The Heartbreakers what inspired her to pursue photography?
RH: It was more indirect. Shortly after we met she started running the door at CBGB's. She was there every night and became friendly with everyone. She had been taking pictures as an amateur, as many people do, for years. I knew she’d used a camera so I asked her to take that picture I wanted. But she responded to the happenings percolating at CBGB's and she started taking pictures of that. You'd really have to speak with her to get the story. I am just telling you the way it looked to me.
LK: She's taken a lot of photographs of you over the years. What was it about her approach that you responded to? Did you feel a level of comfort with her more than other photographers?
RH: Yeah, and she was competent and organized, so you could rely on her, and that wasn't that common in those days at that place. Also, she was a friend and there was no ego involved. I've done a lot of photo sessions and often the photographer will want you to conform to their aesthetic. I'm very rarely happy working that way. Certainly not if it's for a specific purpose of mine. Or you could say I liked Roberta’s aesthetic. I can do a portrait session with someone and be fairly flexible. But if it's for a specific end, like an album cover or a poster or some such that's basically my conception, I need a photographer who is going to work with me.
I never tried to put my finger on what it is about Roberta's pictures that made them work for me, but I think she'd say this herself: it's mostly about her rapport with the artists. Almost always she takes pictures of people she knows well. Nobody's inhibited, and you also know that she's not going to sabotage you in any way. I've done sessions with photographers who more or less deliberately printed a less flattering picture. That’s not common, but it happens. It's like any other kind of collaboration. You need to be comfortable with the person. You need to trust them. You have to be flexible and respect each other. That’s what it was like with Roberta.
LK: On Blank Generation, Sire Records gave you complete artistic control on the packaging. In the seventies it was slightly unusual for a record label not to bring in their own industry photographers and their own designers for a debut.
RH: I think there were a few factors going on there. I have to admit that back at that time, and even subsequently, I viewed Sire as the conservative corporation that was looking to profit from these young bands. I had this built in suspicion of them. The business world is the opposite of my world, and so it was kind of reflexive for me to feel that way. But when I think back and look at it with hindsight from this distance, you’re right. It is pretty impressive and surprising. Basically, I completely designed it. They did what I asked. For the inner sleeve, I had all of the band members gather scraps of graphical material and photos and anything whatsoever. Then I gave this box of scraps to Sire's designer to combine into the collage you see on the inner sleeve. I kind of took it for granted and insisted on all that control. I considered it my right. But I don’t think that there are very many record companies that would have gone along with that. I should have had more respect and gratitude for Sire allowing that.
LK: Did Sire explain why they decided to defer to you on the cover?
RH: No, but I do think that it was in their own interest. They knew that whatever sort of appeal somebody like me had—and this new music that was coming out of CBGB's—whatever appeal it had came from the fact that it was new and there were sensibilities at work from musicians that they didn't really understand. They recognized that it had potential to sell records, and so they knew it was in their best interest to accept the artists' ideas about how to present them. Sire didn't understand us; they didn't understand the band. They didn't know how to package it.
LK: Did they make any suggestions to you on the concept?
RH: The only strong effort they made ended up being pretty pathetic. They tried to impose the term "new wave" on all of us, instead of "punk", because they thought there were too many bad connotations with the word "punk." They tried to persuade people to call it "new wave" instead.
LK: Did you know from the outset you wanted to appear by yourself, as the face of the band, on the cover? Kate Simon took the group shot of The Voidoids that appears on the back, but had you made the decision beforehand to appear solo on the front cover, thinking that would make the strongest impression?
RH: It could have been a picture of all of us on the front cover with me alone on the back cover. I was working in the tradition I knew, which was having a picture of the artist on the cover. That was so universal as an idea for an album cover, I just assumed that that’s what I was going to do. But I also intended to do it in a new way. I wasn’t going to do the traditional glamour picture.
I mention in Tramp that in The Rolling Stone Book of Rock Lists, Lester Bangs named it the worst cover ever by a “major artist,” but I've always been satisfied with it. There could have been a better-looking cover, if I had had a really great designer, like the way it worked with the Sex Pistols. They had this genius, Jamie Reid, who came up with a graphic equivalent of what they were doing in music and with their ideas. That was far more subversive than what I did. They completely ditched that whole tradition and had the balls to do this day-glow set of colors and lettering, which rejected the conventional way of doing album covers where you try to make stars of the artists. It was a perfect embodiment of their whole approach to being a rock 'n' roll band: being opposed to that kind of star system. Especially given how powerful the pictures of the band were back then, for them to forgo that was radical.
So, I'm not saying Blank Generation is the best album cover ever made, but given the situation, it definitely was more appropriate than anything else I could have gotten from Sire.
LK: Speaking of tradition, you also mention in your autobiography that you had Barbara Troiani, who designed some clothing for the New York Dolls, make you a purple sharkskin suit based off one Wilson Pickett was wearing on an album cover. I went online looking to see if I could find which album it was.
RH: I think it’s The Sound of Wilson Pickett. He was always dressed pretty much the same. He had a kind of style, these great suits. But by the time the Blank Generation album cover was made that jacket, that whole suit, was in rags. I don't know how well you can tell because the picture is dark, but the lining is kind of falling out. The suit was two years old by then. I wore it a lot. It was a pretty good version of the suit from the cover of The Sound of Wilson Pickett, but dark purple sharkskin. By the cover of Blank Generation, the pants were completely destroyed... unwearable—worn, frayed and torn. So on the cover I wear black Levi’s, not the suit pants.
LK: Where was the photo taken?
RH: We shot it at Debbie Harry’s and Chris Stein's loft. I was against a white brick wall. In fact, the original picture has been reproduced pretty often now, where the bricks are still there. I asked Sire to change it into a flat, flesh-colored background. Then I scratched the band name and Blank Generation across the top.
LK: The strongest component of that cover photo, what grabs you, is how you have YOU MAKE ME ____________ scrawled across your chest and the way you have the jacket open to reveal it. You couldn't see that shot immediately, the way you can now with digital, but did you have a sense after it was taken, that that image would likely be used for the cover?
RH: It’s hard for me to remember. It wasn’t some big idea that I was possessive about where I thought I hit on the plan. It was one of a few things I experimented with doing that day. I am ninety-nine percent sure I went into the session with a big marker and the idea that I was going to try writing some things on my chest, and I'm pretty sure I experimented with writing other things. I can't remember how confident I was that using that drawing on my chest would be the cover, or at what point I made that decision, and how many other types of pictures and variations I had to choose from.
I still like how weird and enigmatic the whole thing is. It doesn’t look like anything else. It could have been really silly and pretentious, but I look so indifferent, so comatose in the picture. That has a lot to do with making what could have otherwise just been annoying come off, and makes it succeed. I am sorry I didn’t use it on the CD cover.
LK: Why did you change the entire cover for the 1990 CD reissue?
RH: When they brought it out as a CD, I had been out of music for while. I didn’t think about it very much and I wasn’t making very much money from it. I'm actually making more money now from that record than I was in 1990. My mind was elsewhere. But it was actually my initiative to change the cover when they asked for permission to release it on CD. As a kind of a half-assed collector of books and things—but mostly books—it was always interesting to have variations and different editions of things. You'd have one edition that would look different from the other edition. It was a chance to have more variety. So I asked them to use a different picture, that I chose, on the CD cover. At the time it was all sort of casual and meaningless to me. I didn't follow up in any way on how the graphic design looked.
LK: With the pink background and blue-green lettering. That does read as "new wave."
RH: I had nothing to do with that. It looks corny to me. It’s just generic quote, unquote new wave, and tropes of new wave design you saw with the first kind of slick bands that came after punk that were trying to look quirky and youth culture. I don’t mind the photograph. I wish I had had them bring out a CD version of the original LP cover, because for me that jacket really is the moment. That cover and recording belong together in one piece.
A kind of unfortunate thing happened with the vinyl re-release they brought out maybe fifteen years ago, but it's still in print. The record company issued a version that purports to feature the original artwork. When they reproduced the artwork, some uninformed, distracted person in their offices apparently found in some file connected with the album an incorrect version of the lettering that's on the cover, but they didn’t notice it was incorrect. When I did the lettering on the original cover, I experimented with doing it two different ways. They found some rejected version. They spell out the word “and” in the band name instead of using that ampersand, which is kind of a shame. I don't like the way that looks. Anyway that's just a little footnote. So, the re-release of the vinyl version has that mistake about the cover.
LK: Let's talk about the Destiny Street cover. When I put the covers side-by-side, what stands out is the contrast. Blank Generation has an aggressive tone, but on the Destiny Street cover photo you are in a much more relaxed pose. And it was shot in the same apartment you live in now?
RH: Yeah, it’s the bedroom.
LK: So the setting is more intimate. But you talk in your bio about how the making of Destiny Street was fraught with stresses: lineup changes, a label change, and you were wrapping up filming on Susan Seidelman's debut film, Smithereens. Also, you were dealing with some drug problems. Did any of that impact how you approached creating the cover for this album?
RH: Not that I can remember, and I'm happy with the photo. There are a couple things about the cover that really bug me that weren’t my doing. Mainly, that the record company and designer are responsible for doing that skewed thing, where it's not just the picture printed straight like with Blank Generation. They shifted the picture a few degrees and added the red around the edges, which to me is just wrong. The photo should have been upright and taken up the entire jacket, like a full bleed. The other dumb thing they did was that they put a period after Destiny Street. Typical art department people having to assert themselves by doing silly shit in order to feel like they are fulfilling a function.
I was glad that on Destiny Street Repaired (Hell's 2009 re-recorded release of the Destiny Street material), I was able to have the picture the way it was intended by filling up the whole cover. I love how that came out. An artist friend of mine, Jim Lambie, did a few versions. I sent him a bunch of prints of the original cover and asked him to do whatever he felt like doing. I love that cover.
LK: It's beautiful how he incorporated flowers. Unexpected, and somehow it totally works.
RH: Yeah, it's great. … But back to the original cover. Yeah, I like all of the components of it. The thing on the bed...
LK: That's a spray-painted sheet, right?
RH: Yeah, it’s a sheet. You can see it in print in Tramp, but you can't see it very well. There's a picture from 1982 of me playing with the line-up that recorded Destiny Street, and the backdrop there is what I used as the bed sheet in the photo. I mean it originally was a sheet. The thing that's on the sheet is a giant enlargement of a little colored pencil notebook drawing I’d done. I knew this guy who was really good with spray-paint. He's actually an actor—he was in Smithereens, he's the guy that is supposed to be my roommate—I think his name is Roger Baker in real life. He had to make up a name for the movie (Roger Jett) for technical reasons, but he was a really good actor. He's the guy who has red hair and he's in the bathroom when (the main character) Wren goes into the bathroom, and then he's in bed with Wren and me later. I found out that he was really good with spray-paint, so I asked him if he could do an enlarged version on a king-sized white bed sheet of this little. You can see it in that live shot of the band from the book, behind the drum riser. For the Destiny Street photo shoot, I put it on the bed.
LK: Your eye goes right to it. I remember wanting something like it when I was younger.
RH: He did an amazing job reproducing the drawing. It's exact. The colors and the proportions and the way the lines come out. He was skillful. Then there’s the girl and the globe and the human skull.
RH: The origin of that skull was that it was a gift from these two adorable teenage girls who were fans of the Voidoids. They were both in high school. They were best friends and used to come to CBGB's all the time. After a gig one night, they came backstage and brought me that skull they said they’d stolen at school. It was nice.
LK: Who is the woman on the cover?
RH: Her name is Anne Milittello. I write about her in Tramp, but I don’t mention that she appeared on the front of the record. She was my girlfriend and coke dealer. The way I remember it is that I didn't originally intend to have her in the picture. I think she happened to come by, so we included her in a few of the pictures.
LK: I've seen one of you standing up without the bass. And another similar to the cover in which you are wearing a jacket.
RH: Right. The one of me standing is on the big poster that's included in Destiny Street Repaired. That was taken from inside the room. The picture I liked best was the one that had her in it, but it wasn’t originally intended.
Another thing about that picture… In Tramp I mention that I only had three albums when I was a kid, I had The Rolling Stones Now, Kinks-Size and Bringing It All Back Home, the Dylan record. Then when I set up that picture for Destiny Street, not till years after, I thought, "Wow, was that some kind of subconscious attempt to reproduce the look of the cover of Bringing It All Back Home?" But then, I don’t think I’d planned to have Anne in it… I don’t know.
LK: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me about Blank Generation and Destiny Street. Your earlier comments on the Never Mind The Bollocks cover were so insightful, I'm going wrap this up by asking if any personal favorites came to mind while we were planning this interview.
RH: I have to confess I didn't give that any thought, but let me think now!
What comes to mind as far like smart, appropriate, imaginative, successful record cover making by artists...it's pretty predictable and ordinary, but the artworks that stand out to me are the Rolling Stones covers, period. It's not like picking out a particular record. They have been—and I think it's mostly Jagger who influenced the pattern of making those decisions—but they are consistently good. Exile On Main Street was brilliant, and where else are you going to see that mix of ideas, including Robert Frank.
For one particular album cover that's not the Rolling Stones...the Velvet Underground & Nico banana is pretty cool, but I don’t really love that one. God, there's lots of great old soul and funk shit from the fifties and sixties. I don’t know what I'd pick out, because I don’t really know them that well. I'm picturing this sort of cavalcade in my head, like the Wilson Pickett cover, where you just get some amazing peacock of a performer in some fantastic outfit.