The Modern Lovers: self-titled

Brian James

The Modern Lovers

The Modern Lovers

Label: Beserkley
UK Release Date: 1969-12-31

Last Halloween, I made a mini-pilgrimage from Chicago to Madison, Wisconsin to a small and strange theater. The room hosting the event I was attending was located back through the twisting hallways of what looked like some abandoned antebellum mansion, and when I finally arrived, the auditorium was barely adequate for a suburban junior high school. Yet in its own way, it was a wholly appropriate place to see Jonathan Richman for the first time.

Other than a couple of microphones, the only thing adorning the stage was a bizarre drum kit with a floor tom that doubled as a bass drum when struck from underneath by an inverted pedal. After what seemed like an endless wait, I heard a voice call from the wings, "Alright, you've waited long enough," and out bounded Richman. Segueing messily from one song to the next while his drummer struggled to follow, he played as if no one was watching but danced, gyrated, and strutted like these things were the real purpose of the show. With more spontaneity than the combined total from all the other concerts I've ever seen, Richman dazzled me as much as I could've possibly hoped for. During our call for an encore that never came, I looked down at my watch to see that he had played for all of 45-minutes. It was perfect.

Not once during that marathon of music did Richman play a song from The Modern Lovers, the nominal subject of this essay and my favorite album, but for once, I wasn't disappointed. Would I have wet myself with glee to hear the ageless manchild himself shout out "1-2-3-4-5-6" before launching into "Roadrunner"? You bet. Why didn't it really matter? By way of an answer, I can only offer up my vague disappointment at hearing Bob Dylan sleepwalk through "Blowin' in the Wind" the night before in a hockey arena, surrounded by the aging faithful who piously chanted along between hits on the predictable hash pipe. Something was very wrong about it all. He played his beloved tunes, but rather than bringing them to life before our very eyes, he slaughtered them by turning fine works of art into lazy, used thrills. How "Desolation Row" was honored by the bland, medium-rock jaunt he took it on that night is beyond me. But Jonathan Richman, being slightly less legendary, can do what he wants and play to whatever fans might be left, risking it all and winning a great deal more than Mr. Zimmerman can these days.

You might be wondering at this point when I'm going to get around to talking about The Modern Lovers, and with good reason. But I have more trouble isolating it for the purposes of dissection than I would've thought considering how it was the only album in Richman's career that sounded remotely like it, and how he made as clean and purposeful a break with his past as you can find in the rock world. Talking about The Modern Lovers cut off from everything else seems as if it would serve only to perpetuate myths about the man and the record that are better off dispelled. Richman is still very much alive and well, still writing songs and staying far from the shores upon which so many of his contemporaries have washed up. His concert was as fiercely alive as anything I've seen on a stage, which is exactly what I would've wanted from the man who made an album like this, even if it was three decades ago.

What is contained therein and what continues on today is a sense of hard-won gratitude. Despite optimism that often looks like sheer obliviousness, Richman has certainly contemplated the miseries of the world. Listening to "Hospital" or "She Cracked" is easy enough to learn that. But he carries some luminous shard of joy around with him that makes it all seem wondrous to him in the end. "Roadrunner", that deathless distillation of Richmanism, has a rightful place in the hearts of most who hear it, but "I'm Straight" has always struck me as the Rosetta Stone for this enigmatic figure. Lonely, awkward, and supremely nasal, Richman calls up a girl with a stoner boyfriend and declares his intentions to take Hippie Johnny's place, not because he's the better druggie but because he's straight, proud to scream it when few others would dare admit it. Richman isn't confident because he's found a way to mask his geekiness; he's confident because he knows it makes him no worse than anyone else, and because he knows accepting it gives him a kind of strength that reveals all the compensatory posturing for what it is. Richman is one of the few artists I can think of -- one of the few people I can think of -- who presents himself without any artifice. He is who is he is, and no outside opinions will change that.

When I stepped outside the now-glowing theater in Madison, a mass Halloween party from the University of Wisconsin was in full swing, and despite how overwhelmingly obnoxious it was, I felt somehow safe and protected walking amongst the teeming throng of rowdy students. I hardly even minded when a diaper-clad co-ed drunkenly and repeatedly bounced his ass off the hood of my car. It was awful, of course, this conformist collegiate pseudo-rebellion, but it wasn't everything. Right in the middle of this congregation that turned into an honest-to-God riot soon after I left, there was something right and true and joyous. It was nothing more than a 50-year-old man playing sloppy guitar and singing off-key, but it was enough to make the discord of the world look like a part of some weird miracle. In the memory of that event and in the grooves of this record that I've barely discussed is the ability to impart that feeling anew. And if that isn't worth fifteen dollars, nothing is.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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