The Modern Lovers - The Modern Lovers - Classic Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

The Modern Lovers - The Modern Lovers

by Mark Moody Rating:9 Release Date:1976-08-03
The Modern Lovers - The Modern Lovers
The Modern Lovers - The Modern Lovers

In a sense, this album The Modern Lovers by the like named group doesn’t actually exist, at least not as most albums ordinarily exist as an intentional act.  The album on hand consists of nine reworked demos by the band, which at the time consisted of Jonathan Richman (lead vocals, guitar), Ernie Brooks (bass), Jerry Harrison (yes, that Jerry Harrison later of the Talking Heads on keyboards), and David Robinson (no, not that David Robinson that won two NBA titles, but the one that went on to join The Cars on drums).  The demos were recorded during two sessions in 1972, one for Warner Brothers with John Cale at the helm and the other for A&M with two other producers.  A final ninth song (‘Hospital’) was from a session tape Harrison had lying around from 1971.  The “album”, as it were, was ultimately released in 1976 on a third label, Berserkley (technically under the label's earlier name Home of the Hits), whose biggest artist ever was Greg Kihn.

So, as the story goes, then things get weird.  Before this album was released in August 1976, this version of the band was long gone and the month prior Berserkley released another album entitled Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers.  Aside from Richman, Robinson was the only remaining member and there was an entirely new batch of songs and a totally different sound.  Also, Richman had released another slower version of ‘Roadrunner’ (differentiated as ‘Roadrunner (Once)’ in some camps) as a solo artist well before The Modern Lovers was ever released.  And sometime after the album reviewed here was released, even more demos recorded by yet another producer, Kim Fowley, surfaced on an album entitled The Original Modern Lovers.  Same guys this time, recorded in same era and even mainly the same tracks, but clearly inferior but for a few new tracks that ultimately got appended to later editions of The Modern Lovers album.  Further, Richman continued to record well into the late 80’s under both his own name and as Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers.  He still tours and records under just his name which keeps things a lot simpler.  Confusion abounds, and maybe I didn’t even get all that correct, but suffice it to say if you want to hear the best this band had to offer in their earliest incarnation this is the album to listen to in either its original or expanded editions.  

Fortunately for us all, the music on display is much more straightforward and enjoyable than trying to figure out the band’s or Richman’s history.  Boston born and bred, Richman as a teen became infatuated with the Velvet Underground to the point of moving to New York, sleeping on the Velvet’s manager’s couch and trying to break into the music business.  Returning to Boston, Richman managed to assemble a band and dumbfoundingly ends up getting produced by the Velvet’s John Cale.  The original nine track version of this album launches straight off with the classic garage/punk song ‘Roadrunner’.  Forever and always this will be the consummate driving fast with the windows down anthem.  With its odd six-count start and non-sensical “goin’ faster miles an hour” lyric aside, it’s four minutes of driving drums, vocals and guitar spiked with Harrison’s sturdy garage-y organ backbone.  The made for each other rock ’n’ roll and driving fast will appeal to anyone who has applied foot to pedal and you can easily substitute your town for Richman’s to drive around in.  The two other songs that rock the hardest are ‘Old World’ and the less organ heavy ‘Modern World’.  This trio of harder charging songs borrow most heavily from the Velvet's simpler repetitive riffs found on White Light/White Heat and Loaded.

For pure punk stance which blooms into the best guitar workout here, look no further than ‘Pablo Picasso’ which tries to rhyme the artist’s last name with “asshole” to great effect.  The grating interplay here between Harrison’s keys and Richman’s guitar as the song rumbles forward is a thing of beauty and pairs off brilliantly with Richman’s most lethargic vocal, sounding as if he can barely be bothered to recount his tale.  Here also surfaces the theme of all the other remaining songs - trying to get a girl.  Though Richman describes the girls' envy towards Picasso it’s obvious the storyteller is most jealous of Picasso’s way with the ladies.  ‘Astral Plane’, ‘She Cracked’, ‘Hospital’, ‘Someone I Care About’, ‘Girlfriend’, and the best of the added tracks, ‘I’m Straight’ (with Richman at his nasally best), all deal in different desperate ways to get a gal to call his own.  Rock ’n’ roll of course, particularly in its male dominated earlier days, has cranked out many a guy loves girl song or vice versa, but Richman’s are of a different ilk.  You get the sense that when he wrote these songs he’d never talked to a girl, much less had a date and that palpable sense is what makes these songs work.  He can’t even spell ‘Girlfriend’ on the most beautiful song here much less get one and unable to source on planet Earth looks to the otherworld on ‘Astral Plane’.  In spite of claiming a girlfriend is all he understands it’s more concept than reality.  Most of the other girls of his dreams are of the damaged goods variety, at least to Richman’s pious mind - whether drugs, junk food, mental breakdowns, or just hanging out with the wrong type of boyfriend, Richman is waiting in the wings for any of them if they will have him.  From calling on the phone and hanging up repeatedly to walking up and down her street, he paints the perfect picture of the creepy yet persistent hormonal teen.  Thematically, maybe there’s a reason Richman has tried to distance himself from these songs, but they are classics for what they portray - precursors of Pere Ubu’s similarly minded early songs ‘Modern Dance’ and ‘Non-Alignment Pact’ or just about any song you can think of by the Buzzcocks.  Funny how in the current day the themes run more towards bragging on sexual conquests vs admitting one’s failings in the arena of love, but maybe that’s life in the post-Tinder world.  Teen angst used to be so simple and made for great music.  Thankfully these demos survived and have been preserved to evidence a very unique slice in rock ‘n’ roll history.

Note:  Aside from ‘I’m Straight’ which was mentioned above and is the best of the Fowley produced tracks (its four minutes gloriously feel like eight and the tale of wanting to take Hippy Johnny’s girl stands easily with the original nine songs) there have been versions of this album that stretch to 17 tracks.  Three are alternate tracks and there are up to five other tracks, including ‘I’m Straight’.  They are fine, but not essential, though I’m not as enamored of ‘Government Center’ as some so opinions may vary.                            


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