The Modern Lovers, 'Roadrunner'
Info: There's not a lot to say about Jonathan Richman's early life that would differ much from many other burgeoning musicians of the 1970's. Born in Massachusetts in 1951, began playing the guitar at the age of 15 and he was a massive Velvet Underground fan. After making a handful of appearances in Boston in his teens he decided to move to New York in 1969 to pursue his career as a musician, working odd-jobs to support himself while he looked for venues to perform in, however, his unique vocal style and music were not received well and he returned to his hometown for one last crack of the whip. It was at this stage that he formed The Modern Lovers, after a few line-up changes, along with future Talking Heads keyboard player, Jerry Harrison and future Cars drummer, David Robinson.
The Modern Lovers one and only album had a fraught beginning, recorded in 1973 on the Warner label, Richman told them that he was so sick of the songs on the album that he was unwilling to perform them live. As a result, Warner Bros. refused to release the album, and it wasn't until 1976 that the small Beserkly label purchased the master tapes for $2,300 and put the recordings out. The album was a critical success despite the time lapse, and it was also unusual insofar as The Modern Lovers were considered the original punk pioneers, and by 1976, the punk era was in full swing. To give an example or two, The Sex Pistols almost immediately added 'Roadrunner' (above video) to their setlist as a cover and track 4 on the album, 'Pablo Picasso' would later be covered by David Bowie and John Cale himself, one of Richman's Velvet Underground idols.
I first came across 'Roadrunner' back in April, 2003, when Mojo magazine issued a booklet with their monthly issue titled 'Ultimate Jukebox', featuring the 100 best 45's singles, with The Modern Lovers hit coming in at number 11 on the list, squeezed between The Beatles' 'Paperback Writer' and The Byrds' 'Eight Miles High'. Back then I attempted to collate all 100 singles, which I managed bar one or two songs, but it wasn't for a long while after that I actually heard the full Modern Lovers album. You can certainly hear The Velvet Underground influence throughout, it's quite pared down production-wise and Richman's vocals would not be out of place on a VU album, but there is also a feeling at times, such as 'Astral Plain', of early 1950's rock n' roll and even The Doors in other parts. Track 8 is one of my favourites, 'Girl Friend', a much faster pace than the previous tracks and very much having that punk sound that would be developed into a manic wall of sound by later bands. Ultimately though I can't get it out of my head when I listen to this album that vocally and at times musically it really reminds me of Joe Strummer on 'London Calling'. This once off album is certainly a piece of rock history, and while it's not a perfect album by any means, Richman's child-like persona is enjoyable and he doesn't take himself too seriously, unlike his music.
2. Astral Plain
3. Old World
4. Pablo Picasso
5. She Cracked
7. Someone I Care About
8. Girl Friend
9. Modern World