It's a story that's probably as old as recorded music; just because somebody writes and maybe even records a song doesn't mean they own it. In the early days of popular music unscrupulous white producers would pay black writers a pittance up front only for the musician to discover later that he had signed away ownership of a song by accepting that cash. As the years went by they'd have to watch as other people made money off their creations while they lived in poverty. Even in later years when you'd think things would have improved, musicians can still wake up and find their music being sold without them receiving a penny in return.
For Richard Hell, former lead singer of the New York City punk band the Voidoids, it was a recording he released in 1982, Destiny Street. Not only had he been unhappy with what had been released, but he had to spend most of the 1990's and early part of this century watching as an illegal copy of the recording was being sold world wide without him receiving a cent in return. For once this story has a happy ending as not only was Hell able to regain ownership of his music in 2004, he's also been able to rectify what he saw as the mistakes of the past by re-issuing a version of the album that's more to his satisfaction.
Destiny Street Repaired, on the Insound label goes on sale September 1st/09 and can be purchased either directly from the label or from Hell's site (see link above). Taking a two track recording of the original rhythm tracks, Hell has re-recorded the vocals, hired guitarists Marc Ribot, Bill Frissel, and Ivan Julian to lay down new leads, and then mixed it down with Robert Quine and Naux's guitar, Fred Haher's drums and his own bass work from the 1982 sessions.
Now this might seem like a lot fuss to make over an album by a band that only released two albums in total anyway, but Richard Hell and Voidoids struck a chord with a lot of people with their first album, The Blank Generation. The title track became a type of nihilistic anthem for those looking for some sort of philosophical justification for knocking themselves silly dancing to music and shooting up. In an effort to distance themselves from the "hippies" of the previous generation, many punks thought it was cool to act like they didn't care about anything. What was the point, you couldn't make a difference, so fuck it, may not have been what Hell had intended the song and the album to communicate, but a lot of people took it that way and started to refer to themselves as being part of The Blank Generation.
There were also a couple of movies released under the same name, the second of which was released in 1980 and co-written (and co-starred) by Hell with German director/writer Ulli Lommel. Naturally this was a sign to certain type of person - what I used to call the intellectual punk - that they could start analysing Hell's lyrics for deeper social/political significance, instead of merely enjoying the music. However none of that diminishes the fact that Hell and the Voidoids created some really great music on their first album.
Now I never heard Destiny Street, by 1982 when it was released I had moved in other directions, so I can't compare Destiny Street Repaired to the original. However, I can tell you that Richard Hell has done the impossible and recreated the energy and spirit of the times perfectly on this disc. Listening to this I had to remind myself that he had recorded the vocal tracks in the past year, not twenty-seven years ago, because it doesn't sound like someone trying to sound like a punk - it is punk. I know you can do all sorts of things in a recording studio these days to change what a person's voice sounds like or make one instrument sound like another, but there's no way you can re-create the raw energy that had distinguished punk from the sludge on the radio in the 1970's.
Aside from the fact that the vocals were so good, what surprised me the most about his disc was the length of the title track. Punk songs weren't usually longer then the standard pop song you'd hear on the radio, about two to three minutes in length, but "Destiny Street was over seven minutes long. Well it turns out this track is much more like a piece of poetry than a song per se, and it's an indication of where Hell was going with his career anyway. He has since gone on as a writer, leaving music in 1984 to concentrate on that instead. It's a strange track, which Hell doesn't sing, but recite, and it opens with him saying that one day he stepped off the curb and found himself ten years younger.
There he was twenty-one again, and he realized he'd already done this once before, jumped back in time ten years. Talk about living your life in circles. It was kind of fun though because he talks about how he has to look after the younger guy, because he's the only one who is going to know how to make him happy. Which sounds reasonable until you stop and remember he's talking about himself - one person - not different people. I guess people could make a big intellectual deal out of this song if they wanted - but Hell is sounding like he's having far too much fun for us to be taking this song overly seriously. Destiny is a funny street to be on and walking along it can be filled with all sorts of surprises - is as far as I'd want to take analysis of this song.
Destiny Street Repaired is a classic punk album, filled with great guitar work, crisp vocals and driving beats that captures the spirit of the times perfectly. Not many of us have the opportunity to go back and fix our mistakes from decades past, and even if we did I wonder how many of us could do as good a job of it as Richard Hell has done in this instance. For those of you who remember and liked Richard Hell And The Voidoids you'll be pleased to know their second album has finally been released - it may have taken nearly a quarter century, but it's worth the wait.
(Originally posted August 2009)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.