“Blank Generation”: The long-lost 1980 film starring Richard Hell likely inspired HBO’s new “Vinyl” reissue

By on February 15, 2016

Last night (Sunday, February 14, Valentine’s Day) we watched the pilot episode of HBO’s new show “Vinyl,” and during the nearly two-hour premiere we were reminded more than a few times of a long-lost 1980 film called Blank Generation — directed by Ulli Lommel, produced by Andy Warhol, and starring Richard Hell — which showed Richard Hell & the Voidoids performing at CBGBs, just as you seen in this clip. Watch Blank Generation now on Night Flight Plus!

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Hell’s band was clearly an inspiration for “Vinyl”‘s fictional band, the Nasty Bits, whose front man “Kip Stevens” (played by Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall’s son James Jagger) even resembles Hell, although, as Robert Lloyd of the L.A. Times wrote the other day, he seems to “have arrived in New York 1973 from London 1975.”

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As it turns out, Stereogum recently asked Richard Hell (who was also a member of Television and the Heartbreakers too, once upon a time) to give what turns out to be a pretty good assessment of “Vinyl”‘s pilot episode. Here’s an excerpt:

“I want to be too hard on ‘Vinyl.’ I thought it was boring, I thought it was innocuous trash, but I may not be objective. A major selling point of the show is its setting in the 1970s New York music scene, wherein were born punk and hip-hop and much of disco. Fascination with down and dirty, crazed, but semi-glamorous, ’70s New York has been durable. I was a part of the punk emergence back then, and the main character in one of the many subplots of the series is partly based on me. That had a lot to do with my getting invited to write this review, and agreeing to.

But the show isn’t really about music, it’s about business, and business as understood by Martin Scorsese. Scorsese, along with Mick Jagger and Terry Winter, is the co-creator of the serial, and he directed the two-hour pilot episode I’m talking about. (Terry Winter is the show runner as he was for his brainchild ‘Boardwalk Empire’, which also involved Scorsese; Winter wrote Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street.)

As we know, Martin Scorsese is cynical about business, or organized crime, or the police force or whatever you want to call it. Also about everything except maybe the glory of movies. I respect and admire Scorsese, but I get tired of his relentless framing of life as nothing but competition among men for power — represented by money, willingness to betray and kill, cocaine, and pussy. Something like that. Granted, it’s a valid perspective, and a good pretext for entertainment, and God knows the music industry is a perfect illustration, but ‘Vinyl’is sleepwalking.

You come to the series looking for music and what do you get? Bulky Italian-American peacocks so crazed by craving for coke that one of them tears the rear-view mirror off his luxury car for a surface to snort from; or two of them excitedly bashing in the head of a vulgar ally before wrapping his corpse in a table cloth and driving it in a car trunk to a dump spot; a prolonged extreme close-up of a fizzingly dynamic cigarette lighter flame against darkness; nonstop soundtrack of rock and roll, soul, funk, blues, punk, and disco pop music. It’s all routine Scorsese shtick, but cheaper.

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Lommel’s Blank Generation, which takes place near the end of the first wave of New York City punk rock scene (it was filmed in January and February of 1978), wasn’t the first attempt at doing a fictional narrative film based on punks and new wavers (Carter Steven’s Punk Rock was likely the first, but it was also a porn flick) and it wasn’t even the first film to use the title of Richard Hell’s seminal songs; Ivan Kral’s and Amos Poe’s 1976 documentary The Blank Generation, which also featured Richard Hell as the doc’s central figure, came first.

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In the film Blank Generation, Hell plays up and coming punk rock star, Billy, who becomes involved in a volatile relationship with Nada (the luminous Carole Bouquet), a beautiful French journalist who has come to New York to track down the elusive Andy Warhol (playing himself). Hell has said about the film, “This long lost film is like a time capsule from pre-Disneynification New York City: sleazy, dirty and most importantly, real.”

Blank Generation was not just a song, of course, it was also the name of Richard Hell & the Voidoids debut LP — released on the Sire label in September 1977 — which featured Hell on the cover, shirtless, with the words “You Make Me ____ ” written across his chest in what looked to be red lipstick. Hell’s spiky hair, seen in the photo of the band on the back cover (taken by Kate Simon), was said to have been in tribute to French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who wore his hair the same way.

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“Vinyl,” meanwhile, was created by four individuals who should probably have known better that they if they were going to take on the rock scene (and others) in NYC circa 1973, they had to get it right — director Martin Scorsese (who directed the pilot), longtime HBO showrunner/writer Terence Winter, Rolling Stone writer Rich Cohen, and Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, England’s oldest hitmmakers — and maybe that’s why it’s so disappointing that they seemed to have failed.

“Vinyl” tells the story of a record label honcho named Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale), who is trying to sell his record company to the German-based Polygram label at the same time he’s also trying to find new bands to prop up his failing imprint, American Century, which Richie tells his A&R staff has been derided of late with the nickname “American Cemetery” — a nod to the nickname for MCA Records, which went without any hits for such a long time that there were those who began called it “Music Cemetery of America.”

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If you’ve read any articles or books about the music business, or ever worked at a U.S. record label in the past forty years or so and heard all the stories, you likely recognize that Finestra is one of those typical Scorsese characters who is composite, and based on a lot of real record biz people (he did the same thing with multiple characters in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” and his film Casino, where Robert De Niro’s Sam “Ace” Rothstein was based on Frank Rosenthal, who ran several mobbed-up casinos on the Strip).

In this one, Finestra was likely inspired by many infamous record men like Walter Yetnikoff, who ran Columbia Records, and Neil Bogart, who ran Casablanca, but the creators of “Vinyl” have also made sure Finestra is seen dealing with the mob, just like Morris Levy, the founder and owner of Roulette Records, not to mention coked-out radio promo titans who won’t play his records (Andrew Dice Clay has a memorable role as Frank “Buck” Rogers in the pilot). Everyone’s pretty much playing a stereotype of one type or another.

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We were disappointed that the pilot plunged Finestra into the New York nascent punk scene just a few years too early. We’re really not sure what to make of the Nasty Bits being a facsimile of the Neon Boys, who as Hell points out, “never played live and were unknown to the public until the late ’70s,” and a club scene based around Hilly Cristal’s CBGB — which opened as CBGB & OMFUG — “Country, Bluegrass, Blues and Other Music for Uplifting Gormandizers” — in the Bowery district in 1973, one of New York City’s then-nastiest neighborhoods, as you can see in this clip (with subtitles) from Blank Generation:

It’s not even NYC’s rock ‘n’ roll music scene that they get wrong: during one scene last night, Finestra apparently has his driver detour through the South Bronx, where he happens upon DJ Kool Herc inventing hip-hop. That’s not inaccurate — DJ Kool Herc (teenager Clive Campbell) was spinning funk and soul records at a party in the community room of his Bronx apartment building at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue on a hot August night, August 11, 1973 — but the likelihood that Richie Finestra would be in the backseat of his car and hear the music as he was passing by and then ask his driver to stop is almost, well… laughable.

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They got some of it right, after all it’s not TV, it’s HBO — particularly the clothing, and the art direction overall — but without the scripts, “Vinyl” isn’t likely going to do for the 70s record biz what AMC’s “Mad Men” did for the advertising business in the 1960s.

L.A. Times scribe Robert Lloyd also points out a few of the positives:

“If the show regularly fails when it has actors imitate Real Rock Stars of History, including Robert Plant and Alice Cooper, the club and concert scenes are well staged and energetically handled. There are also decent, sometimes funny, pastiches of different sorts of period music, from pop to prog. The production designers and costumers and hair and makeup have spent some time in the archives as well. The colors and graphics feel right. Dead technologies — tape players, dial telephones — are pleasingly fetishized, and garbage-filled streets and graffiti-covered subway trains and stations reanimate a memory of New York City before it was cleaned up and made fit company for the only people who can afford to live there anymore.”

We’ll probably continue watching HBO’s “Vinyl,” just to see where it goes, but aren’t holding out much hope that they’re going to get any of it right.

Here’s a documentary about the making of HBO’s “Vinyl”:

“Vinyl” airs Sundays at 9PM EST on HBO. Richard Hell’s Massive Pissed Love: Nonfiction 2001-2014 is out now via Soft Skull Press.

(h/t Stereogum)

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • Bob

    Minor quibble: The “U” in CBGB & OMFUG is for “Uplifting”, not “Undernourished”.

  • Bryan

    I’ve since read that Hilly would always change what the “U” stood for in the “OMFUG” part of the name, telling different people different things… but hey, thanks for the minor quibble, we appreciate the feedback!