Richard Hell and the Voidoids: Destiny Street Complete

Forty years in the life of an album

After being in the thick of New York’s underground scene with the Neon Boys, Television and the Heartbreakers, Richard Hell founded the Voidoids with guitarists Robert Quine and Ivan Julian, and future Ramones drummer Marc Bell. The quartet’s 1977 debut was headlined by Hell’s anthem “Blank Generation,” and became a touchstone for the nihilistic themes, cynical attitudes and rejection of societal norms that would come to define the scene’s musical, intellectual and sartorial aesthetics. Hell’s disenchantment with touring, the music business, and a deepening drug addiction led to a four year gap before he and the reformed Voidoids (then consisting of guitarists Quine and Juan “Naux” Maciel, and drummer Fred Maher) recorded this second and final album.

By the time of the album’s 1982 release, Richard Hell was thirty-two, punk rock had been supplanted in public spaces by the more commercially digestible new wave, and the underground had morphed into indie and hardcore scenes. The reactionary societal repudiations of the debut had given way to more ruminative views, but Hell had become impaired by addiction, and his sporadic involvement in the sessions led to disappointment in arrangements and production that didn’t match his conception of the songs. Upon regaining rights to the album some years later, Hell removed it from print, with a wish to remix it more to his liking. But with the original multitracks having been lost, his wish was put on hold until he discovered a cassette of the album’s rhythm tracks. This opened the door to re-record the album with new vocals, and new guitar leads by Bill Frissell, Marc Ribot, and original Voidoid Ivan Julian.

The results of these sessions were released in 2009 as Destiny Street Repaired. “Repaired” is a figurative description, since the album’s breakage was in Hell’s artistic soul, and the repair was more of a reimagining. Think of Brian Wilson finishing the Beach Boys’ Smile,  rather than Paul McCartney stripping Phil Spector from the Beatles’ Let It Be. The urge to revise strikes artists of many media, and the twenty-seven year gap between the original album and the remake created interesting artistic resonances. The almost-sixty-year-old Hell revisited works from his thirties with new compadres and a guitarist who’d accompanied him in his twenties. Further twisting the timeline, the title track features a narrator visiting himself ten years earlier, a song that Hell himself was revisiting many years later.

A decade after repairing the album, three of the four original 24-track master reels were found, and together with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner, Hell indulged his original desire to remix the original performances. With only three-fourths of the masters available, tracks from Repaired were used to fill in the holes. This Remixed version provides a halfway house between the Remastered original and Repaired revision. Fans of the original album get (mostly) the original performances they grew to love, while Hell gets closer to the sonics he’d originally envisioned. And if three different versions of the album isn’t enough, this set adds demos, the original Nick Lowe-produced single versions of “The Kid With the Replaceable Head” and “I’m Your Man,” the 1980 single of “Time” b/w “Don’t Die,” and a live recorsing of “Time.” When they say “complete,” then mean “complete.”

So how do they compare? The original album still stands strong, Hell’s dissatisfaction notwithstanding. Quine and Naux took Hell’s absence as an opportunity to cut loose, and despite the songwriter’s reservations, his writing was strong enough to withstand the guitar and sonic assaults. If Hell was impaired by despair and drugs at the time, it seems to have fueled passion in his vocals, both on the original songs and covers of the Kinks’ “I Gotta Move,” Dylan’s “Going Going Gone,” and Them’s (by way of the Little Boy Blues’) “I Can Only Give You Everything.” The Remixed edition widens the original’s near-mono soundstage, and unlike stereo renderings of powerhouse 1960s singles, the expansion offers more instrumental detail without dissipating the punch of the performances.

The Repaired edition offers the biggest changes, with guitar parts that are informed by the originals, timeboxed by the vintage rhythm tracks, and exciting in original ways. Hell’s vocals are born from the original writing and cover selection, but with decades more experience, and vocal chords that weren’t worn out by a lengthy music career. Hell’s singing is strong throughout, and while the original vocals often feel reflexive and instinctual, the new recordings seem to be informed by additional decades of perspective. More ego, less id, and in some ways like alternate takes made after a twenty-seven year smoke break. Perhaps the best test of the Repaired versions is how seamlessly these versions fill the holes in the Remixed edition – sonically, they’re a close match, and attitudinally they still seem to capture the earlier zeitgeist.

Hell’s most covered song, “Time,” provides the album’s most poignant moment, as the then thirty-something songwriter opined, “Only time can write a song that’s really really real / The most a man can do is say the way its playing feels / And know he only knows as much as time to him reveals.” Listening to him sing the lyrics nearly three decades later on Repaired is to hear a writer taking a note from his younger self, a reminder that every age is a way-station, informed by life to that point, but never fully realized. It’s a fascinating example of prophecy colliding head-on with memory.

The bonus tracks include the Nick Lowe-produced B-side “I’m Your Man,” the 1980 single version of “Time” and its flip “Don’t Die,” an unreleased album version of “Don’t Die,” demos of album tracks (“Going Going Gone” and “Ignore That Door”) and songs that didn’t make the album (including a cover of Fats Domino’s “I Lived My Life”), and a teary live take of “Time” performed by Hell and guitarist Ivan Julian at Robert Quine’s 2004 memorial. Altogether, this is a well-deserved accounting of an album that was well reviewed upon release, but overshadowed in public memory by its predecessor. The original retains its primal charm, Remixed refines the sound, Repaired layers the artist’s memories of his vision upon the foundation, the bonus tracks add color, and Hell’s liner notes tie it all together. This a must-have for Richard Hell fans, as well as those just discovering the original gem. [©2021 Hyperbolium]

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