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My favourite count off* beginning one of my very favourite songs on one of my very favourite albums, I don’t get much happier than this. Yes, behold my happy face ye mortals! Substances don’t get much more mood-altering than The Modern Lovers on vinyl, a quick glimpse of the op art cover and I’m in happy pants heaven, one side of it and I grin for a whole day, play both sides and I just levitate with joy unbounded. True story.
It astonishes me daily that this was the LP that Jonathan Richman never really wanted us to hear, it astounds me daily that it is in fact a cobbled together collection of demos from two abortive recording sessions 3 and 4 years before the LP escaped captivity and it amazes me daily that when The Modern Lovers was released in 1976 it wasn’t immediately acclaimed as the greatest cultural event in all of recorded history. This album has it all, great musicians under the leadership of a slightly cracked creative maverick, churning arty rock and roll, mixed with a rather touchingly vulnerable romanticism and my favourite ever song about Pablo Picasso.
Like every horrid little urchin under the sun my introduction to the joys of The Modern Lovers came through the Sex Pistols wonderfully disrespectful cover; ‘I don’t know the fucking words!‘. I loved it, even without any meat on the bones you could sense the excitement and power of ‘Roadrunner’. It is quite simply the best song ever about driving around at night** that there will ever be, don’t bother trying to write one, that box has already been ticked on Mount Olympus. It has it all, that feral excitement of the holy triumvirate of rock and roll, freedom, the radio and the promise of more; more what, doesn’t matter daddio, it’s the more that’s needed here. To make it even better its proto-punk shuffle, sounds like a fuzzed-up cover of something that could (and should) have been written in ’56, equally it sounds like something we haven’t got good enough to produce yet. Richman’s half sneery, half naïf vocals are pitched just right and the fact that the song is tied so strongly to Boston, MA just makes it even better; it was often introduced live as ‘our geographical song’.
I’m in love with Massachusetts
And the neon when it’s cold outside
And the highway when it’s late at night
From there we get slapped around the face by ‘Astral Plane’, which is a hell of a song. It sounds like a particularly overwrought spectre of Jim Morrison jamming with the VU, Jerry Harrison’s organ playing being a dead ringer for Manzarek at his very best, except Richman is a little more pointed and grounded than Big Jim, even on the Astral Plane (‘I’ll go insane if you won’t sleep with me’). ‘Old World’ is a delicious combination of Loaded-era VU and Patti Smith in a romantic mood, telling a tale of Boston v. NY living, parents v. self and idealised 50’s v. bleaker 70’s. Most artists out there never bang out anything this good, it’s a great song but nowhere near an album highlight in the company it finds itself in here^.
I first heard ‘Pablo Picasso’ on a brilliant TV series by Matthew Collins in 1999 called This Is Modern Art and he used it to illustrate the tenets of Post-Modernism, heady stuff for me back then. Essentially droning away in E minor, with barely a chord change but a great low squall of guitar noise at one point, the lyrics are intoned rather than sung and the total effect is mesmerizing and slinky. The lyrics are deliberately meaningless, falsely meaningful maybe and empty; to quote Mr Collins ‘the meaning was something other than the meaning’. This song also has my favourite EVER rhyme in it^^, see if you can spot it:
Well some people try to pick up girls
And get called assholes
This never happened to Pablo Picasso
He could walk down your street
And girls could not resist his stare and
So Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole
If this is Post-Modernism then sign me up please, I’m no asshole.
The Modern Lovers hurtles onwards with the wonderful pulsing edgy new-wave-before-new-wave-existed ‘She Cracked’, all angular guitars and ‘tude. I got told off by my daughter for playing this too loud last night^*. Ha! #Rebel@45. The lack of sympathy jarring with the strange, mawkish sensibilities of ‘Hospital’, another wonderful tale of wandering the streets and suburbs, trying to recapture memories and feelings, but why is the other party in hospital? self-harm? overdose? suicide attempt? chronic flatulence? it is never fully explained to us, he doesn’t owe us that.
Of the remaining three tracks ‘Someone I Care About’ is a real blast, with a great sentiment behind it (‘Well I don’t want just a girl to fool around with / Well I don’t want just a girl to ball all night / What I want is a girl that I care about, or nothing at all’); I may well have it as my first dance the next couple of times I get married. ‘Modern World’ is a great raggedy groover too, with Richman sounds so blasé he can barely be arsed enough to enunciate clearly enough to finish his seduction. It’s all topped off for me with ‘Girl Friend’, a beautiful hymn to the idea of a, as Mr Richman helpfully spells it for us, ‘a G-i-r-l-f-r-e-n’, rather than to someone in particular. The music is just sunny and perfect, the vocals plaintive and questing, it all melds rather splendidly indeed into an unworldly lovelorn confection. A perfect hymn for any of us who have been rather prone to over-pedaestalizing our crushes at one time of another.
Ah music. I should mention here that, The Modern Lovers were just a gloriously talented band, not just a backing act for Richman – I mean come on, Jerry Harrison, David Robinson were in the band – that’s a Talking Head and a Car! Okay so Ernie Brooks, the bassist, never went on to fame and fortune elsewhere but that wasn’t any reflection at all on his tight playing here*^. The production is remarkably coherent for an LP that was bolted together from offcuts and there is no discernible drop off from the John Cale produced tracks (6 of the 9) to the Robert Appere and Alan Mason tracks, ‘Hospital’ doesn’t seem to have been produced by anyone, it was ‘donated by’ Jerry Harrison’.
Of course The Modern Lovers were no more, almost as their debut hit the racks. By the time of Richman’s first solo LP (confusingly released a month before The Modern Lovers, time travel fans!) only David Robinson was still playing with him. I don’t think it’s a shame, even. The best bands all sputter out fairly early in my view, being edgy arty pulsating types with an over-romantic streak probably doesn’t set you up too well for the long haul, but what a trip they had.
And I say roadrunner once…
Roadrunner twice …
I’m in love with rock & roll and I’ll be out all night
**sorry Chuck Berry.
^ sorry ‘Old World’.
^^sorry Bob Dylan.
^*sorry mini 1537.