Jonathan Richman
& The Modern Lovers

TrackAlbum / Single  
RoadrunnerThe Modern Lovers
Pablo PicassoThe Modern Lovers
Government CenterThe Modern Lovers (CD bonus track)
Roadrunner (Twice)Beserkley BZZ 1 (UK)
New EnglandJonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers
The Wheels On The BusRock 'n' Roll With The Modern Lovers
Egyptian ReggaeRock 'n' Roll With The Modern Lovers
Ice Cream ManModern Lovers 'Live'
The Morning of Our LivesModern Lovers 'Live'
Abdul & CleopatraBack In Your Life

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Contributor: Peter Viney

I’m being quite cunning here. I’m sticking to The Modern Lovers and Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers, so leaving the field open for a deserved Jonathan Richman solo Toppermost, just covering the last 35 years. I’m counting anything post Back In Your Life as solo, even if ‘and The Modern Lovers’ finds its way onto the sleeve. That seems to be the consensus among retrospective album compilers.

For me, Roadrunner conjures up Snowdonia in Wales. 1977. We were on holiday, just a year before we had kids. We stayed in a vegetarian guesthouse in Llandudno which was weird as apart from us, the guests were elderly people taking colonic irrigation. It was also strictly teetotal, and we’d sneak out after dinner, buy rude seaside postcards (we built up a fine collection – Llandudno was the Louvre and Uffizi of dirty postcards) and drink Royal Silver Jubilee strong ale in the pub. Then we’d return at nine (dinner at six, doors locked at nine) and the proprietor, who was a chiropractor, would insist we sat and drank cocoa with him and discussed the state of the world, completely unaware that late 20-somethings might have other evening activities in mind. In the daytime, we drove miles around the hills and the constant “radio on” was Roadrunner … no cassette player in the car. It has been noted that Greg Kihn’s backing vocals sounded as much like “Radio One” as “Radio On” which is why BBC Radio One wouldn’t stop playing it that week, and joking about it every single time. We bought the single to take home. OK, it’s heavily derivative of the Velvet Underground, especially the Loaded album, but it’s also a perfect example of the style. It should be. Richman was such a fan of the VU that he went from Boston to New York and slept on their manager’s sofa. The first version of the song Roadrunner (Once) was written in 1970, and produced by John Cale in 1972. It’s one of seven officially released versions. The one we knew and loved in Snowdonia is Roadrunner (Twice) which dates from 1976, and was a UK #11 hit in that Jubilee summer of 1977. The much longer Roadrunner (Thrice) was a B-side.

The thing about Roadrunner is it takes all the sound and style of the VU, but inverts it. Instead of talking about Sister Ray or Sweet Jane or Heroin, it’s about the sheer joy of driving around innocently at night in ‘the modern world’ with the ‘radio on.’ The Sex Pistols played it at their early rehearsals (having two chords only may have appealed), and a few months after the hit, The Jam called their album This Is The Modern World. Roadrunner has been called the first punk record, but that’s nonsense … if you don’t think that was The Kinks (I do and so does Ray Davies), or various 60s garage bands, then there’s a lot of VU to choose from.

The Modern Lovers is a moveable feast, whatever Jonathan Richman wanted it to be, and much of their released material was recorded between 1970 and 1974, but only saw the light of day later. The 1972 John Cale session became their first album. The band was fluid, but consider that keyboard player Jerry Harrison went on to Talking Heads, drummer Dave Robinson helped found Cars, and bass player Ernie Brooks recorded with David Johansen. The album got shelved during the alleged 1973 vinyl shortage crisis. War in the Middle East brought about a petrol crisis. In Britain, petrol ration coupons were issued, and in the USA, the major labels shelved lots of speculative projects as tax losses, using the crisis as an excuse. The Modern Lovers was a victim.

By 1976, Richman had joined Beserkley Records, and The Modern Lovers was released, compiling their earlier recordings. Every reissue has added a bonus track or three from the wealth of early recordings.. This album includes the original Roadrunner, which I have to have as well, even though I met it after the more languid and nasal Roadrunner (Twice). It’s notable for its cheesy organ solo by Jerry Harrison. Comparing the two versions, the 1972 one is thrashier, the voice semi-buried. The later hit version has the voice forward and crystal clear, the backing is turned right down, there is a voice + drums only section. The lyrics come out much better.

Pablo Picasso wears its John Cale influence, and Cale liked the lyric so much (Pablo Picasso is never called an asshole) he covered it himself in 1975 on Helen Of Troy. John Cale’s distinctive fierce rhythm piano playing is added to the group. No wonder it also sounds like the VU. I have seen Cale playing it live, and it’s grown over the years.

Girlfriend is an excellent example of why they were thought of as punk, or pre-punk. I’m choosing Government Center which indicated the love of novelty, spoken voice intros, frail wobbly vocal and (You what?) lyrics. The Government Center is where the chorus is They put the stamps on the letter and then they write it down in the ledger. It’s reaching for the minimal backing.

I’m Straight is a song about “Hippy Johnny” who’s stoned but has the girl the singer wants. The singer (in a stoned voice) sings I’m straight and I want to take his place. Richman has a wonderful sense of humour and this is a major piss-take of early VU. I think he was listening to a lot of Zappa too. Astral Plane moves back to The Doors as the influence (Break On Through To The Other Side?), and again the lyrics are definitely amusing. Jerry Harrison’s Doors style organ again leads the song.

The Modern Lovers had done two sessions in LA in 1972. As well as working with John Cale at Warner, they did sessions with Kim Fowley for A&M which were also unreleased at the time. The Kim Fowley sessions included Roadrunner #1 and Roadrunner #2 (to distinguish them from Roadrunner (Once) and (Twice), and several of the same songs: Astral Plane, Girlfriend (now spelled Girlfren), She Cracked, Pablo Picasso. The Kim Fowley set was finally issued in 1981 as The Original Modern Lovers.

The second album, Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers was not the next UK release, though imports were available. In Britain, the third album, Rock ‘n’ Roll With The Modern Lovers beat it to the shops by a couple of months.

Rock ‘n’ Roll With The Modern Lovers is a major album of the 70s. Just as punk was taking off, someone who’d been playing something seminal to it for years, unplugged the whole band and went acoustic, with stand-up bass. There’s enough chatter and vague starts to make it sound as if recorded in one take right in front of you. Not that I believe it was for a moment. Jerry Harrison left, because Richman sought quieter drums, and kept removing parts of the drum kit until all he would accept was a starter kit of snare, small bass drum and hi-hat. Richman replaced Harrison with D.Sharpe, who appealed because he had broken his arm, so could not play the drums remotely vigorously. First he did three children’s songs: Ice Cream Man, Rockin’ Rockin’ Leprechauns, and the perennial The Wheels On The Bus. The Wheels On The Bus and Ice Cream Man have been enjoyed by two generations of our offspring, and they got annoyed at school because only they knew the verse about The monster on the bus is gonna scare you. And that you count it in French.

Then to compound it, he did a quick tour of world music. The Sweeping Wind is a Chinese tune, then there’s South American Folk Song, and the Jamaican Coomyah, a Desmond Dekker song played with surprising authenticity, in spite of the stand-up bass. The Modern Lovers had done a Caribbean residency in 1973. Roller Coaster By The Sea is late 1950s American teen group. Angels Watching Over Me is an a capella simple kiddie prayer plus finger clicks and handclaps. The bonus long version of Dodge-Veg-O-Matic starts off with Zappa-esque band chatter (cf. Uncle Meat) before going into the song, which sounds as if it was an outtake from The Mothers of Invention’s Ruben & The Jets.

The centrepiece was Egyptian Reggae combining the mood of the famous Wilson, Keppel and Betty sand dance routine (see at 54 secs) with clamshell percussion and a great bass line. It was their biggest hit (UK #5). Summer Morning is a spoken recitation with bowed bass that manages to touch on both John Cale and Astral Weeks if you can imagine that. Then you get a doo-wop chorus as it breaks into singing. Fly Into The Mystery is another fine melody stripped right down. The more I listen, the more I think how he influenced both 69 Love Songs by The Magnetic Fields and Sufjan Stevens.

So for the British, the 1976 album Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers appeared after the 1977 one. Even though earlier, it also had surprise covers in Back In The USA and Amazing Grace. New England would have easily fit on the third album: long chatter at the beginning, light backing, prominent backing vocals. Abominable Snowman In The Market is another cheerful ditty in the same kiddie mode as the third album. Lonely Financial Zone is slow portentous, with just bass and vocals at first, then guitar accents. Another contender.

Modern Lovers ‘Live’ was the fourth album. I could have taken Ice Cream Man in its earlier studio version, but longer is even better. The live version of the earlier New England was released as a single. It also contains Richman’s third hit The Morning Of Our Lives (Live)It hurts me to hear you have no faith in this song …

Back In Your Life in 1979 had two singles released from it, Abdul & Cleopatra, quite unlike Egyptian Reggae in spite of its title, and Buzz Buzz Buzz. Buzz Buzz Buzz is a children’s song which develops into a love song. I have both 45s. It’s a hard choice. I’m going to appeal to our webmaster for an eleven, on the grounds of having Roadrunner twice. i.e. Roadrunner (Once) and Roadrunner (Twice). Party In The Woods and I’m Nature’s Mosquito continue the offbeat kiddie theme.

Jonathan Richman’s lineage reaches back to unexpected influences: Woody Guthrie, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Pete Seeger. Guthrie wrote This Land Is Your Land as a song that every voice could sing, even those who are very poor singers. If you’ve ever tried to sing The Star Spangled Banner you’ll know the difference. Jack Elliott and Pete Seeger inherited the interest in honing songs down to simplicity and clarity. Both did records of children’s songs. You can’t get simpler than old children’s songs, and that’s what Jonathan Richman managed to create anew. To those surprised at the inclusion of Ice Cream Man and Buzz Buzz Buzz in a Toppermost, finding something that simple is the hardest trick of all.

 

The Jonathan Richman Unofficial Fan Blog

Jonathan Richman Recordings Database

Jonathan Richman biography (iTunes)

Peter Viney writes on popular music and the arts at his website.

TopperPost #407

2 Comments

  1. Bob Fino
    Feb 1, 2015

    Peter, loved your list and write up. I would have included ‘Hospital’ which is my favorite Richman after ‘Roadrunner’. You got me listening to The Modern Lovers all day. Been awhile. Thanks for that.

  2. Keith Shackleton
    Feb 1, 2015

    Super job, Peter. I’d have to find room in my ten for I’m Straight, for sure. A few weeks ago I heard Modern World on the radio, played on 95bFM over here (which is a pretty neat NZ independent station to be fair), and it just stood out so much from the usual indie landfill.

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