“One, two, three, four, five, six”—bomp, bomp, bomp—“Roadrunner, roadrunner”. In a matter of six seconds, you’ll be ensnared by the infectious sounds of one of the greatest and most influential albums of all-time, The Modern Lovers. In 1976, the hippest punks on both sides of the Atlantic all fell in love with this LP. The Sex Pistols would later cover “Roadrunner”, while original Television member and key New York art punk Richard Hell was inspired by these sounds, which were so contrary to the extravagance of mid-1970s arena rock, the too-pretty sheen of disco, and the dullness of soft rock.
Incredibly, this seminal album was released as something of an afterthought. The Boston band that recorded the songs on The Modern Lovers had already dissolved by the time indie label Beserkley decided to cobble together some old songs and call it an LP. The classic Modern Lovers line-up existed from only 1971 to 1973. And what a line-up it was! Jonathan Richman on vocals and guitar, future Talking Heads member Jerry Harrison on keyboards, Cars drummer David Robinson, and bassist Ernie Brooks (who would later play with New York Dolls frontman David Johansen). This super-group-in-hindsight cut four demo sessions during their tenure, including one with producer John Cale. This must have been a dream come true for Richman, who was hugely inspired by the Velvet Underground’s melding of the classic girl group sound to late 1960s experimental rock.
This, largely, is the same sonic template employed by the Modern Lovers, but with less emphasis on the VU’s artiness. Like Lou Reed, Jonathan Richman isn’t exactly a singer’s singer, but his vocals are unique, full of personality, and seem to perfectly match the mood of his subject matter. By contrast, while Reed was a conduit for the marginalized freaks and junkies of the big city, Richman was kind of a square, writing lyrics about loving his parents and not being on drugs. His gift has always been his ability to crack even the jaded hearts of safety-pinned punks with his wide-eyed and utterly genuine affinity for simplicity in life. While everyone from Norman Rockwell to “family values” advocates have made these same ideals seem offensive, Richman simply says what he feels: “I still loves the ‘50s / And I still love the old world”.
Not that he’s entirely stuck in the past. Jonathan also appreciates “The Modern World”, proclaiming over a steadily driving rhythm section, “I love the USA / And I love the modern world / So put down your cigarette / And drop out of BU”. Hey, he’s not completely square after all. Timothy Leary would have been proud unless, that is, he heard “I’m Straight”. Using an ironically druggy sounding track Richman presents himself as a better boyfriend choice because, unlike “Hippie Johnny”, he isn’t stoned. That sentiment may not be very punk rock but “Pablo Picasso” is. At least, Burning Sensations thought so when they recorded a cover for the soundtrack to Repo Man. And the song contains one of the coolest lines ever: “Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole”.
I could easily type on and on about every other cut on this fantastic album, but the true joy is in the listening. Suffice it to say, each song is great. “Astral Plane” is an organ-fueled trip to heaven. “Hospital” is a tender and fragile dirge that manages to avoid being maudlin and sad. “Girlfriend” is goofy fun and “Government Center” is a reverb-drenched ode to office work that makes it sound like fun to “put those stamps on the letters”. I couldn’t help myself but that was at least a mercifully short sampling of synopses. When the music is this uniformly excellent, it’s hard to hit the brakes. Man, I’ve “got the radio on / I’m like the roadrunner”. Yes!
Let’s get back to the nitty-gritty. On this version of The Modern Lovers,(which has finally landed on US shores), Castle has re-sequenced the tracks to their correct order. Castle pushes “I’m Straight”, “Dignified and Old”, and “Government Center” into the realm of bonus tracks, where five additional numbers further embellish the CD. The most rewarding of these is “I Wanna Sleep in Your Arms”, an up-tempo, garage-pop ditty that would’ve been many a 1977 punk band’s best song. Less enthralling is the creeping, crawling, and awkward “Dance with Me”. The other three are alternate versions of cuts from the album, with both “Someone I Care About” and “Modern World” sounding heavier and more fuzzed-out than the LP selections. The alt-take on “Roadrunner”, meanwhile, is thin and distorted, like something from the Nuggets box sets.
The Modern Lovers is the direct link between the proto-punk of the Velvet Underground and the new wave era. Later, the album would influence countless indie and alternative acts. Good, lean, catchy rock ‘n’ roll has always sounded great, and it still does today. It doesn’t hurt that the crew behind this reissue did a terrific job of adding warmth and punch to the mix, finally updating the slapped-onto-polycarbonate sound of Rhino’s 1989 CD version. On any format and regardless of track order, The Modern Lovers is a timeless classic and one of the best albums of any world, modern or old.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.