The Modern Lovers (Spotify Link)
1976, Beserkley Records. Producer: Robert Appere, John Cale, Allan Mason.
In My Collection: Dubbed Tape, 1993; CD, 1994.
(5 min read)
IN A NUTSHELL: The Modern Lovers, by The Modern Lovers, is a record that may not be well-known by the general public, but is revered by critics and musicians alike. Singer/songwriter Jonathan Richman writes simple, catchy songs that pack an emotional wallop. His heart-on-his-sleeve, woe-is-me take on relationships is at the forefront of the album, but I prefer the songs that celebrate his quirky outlook on life. The record gets a bit monotonous, but the band is excellent and the grooves don’t stop, and that’s enough to carry me through multiple listens.
THEORETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 80
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Growing up in a small town in the 70s and 80s, new things were usually presented as scary. When the SooperDooperLooper opened at Hershey Park, in 1977, many kids I knew said their parents wouldn’t let them ride it. But it wasn’t because it was the first roller coaster at the park to send you upside down through a loop. It was because – apparently – this new, fancy, expensive ride was actually being run by … a computer! Nobody was going to trust their kids’ lives to some mindless electronic robot thing! (This same fear of computers was why for years my mom cut up her ATM cards and instead went inside the bank to visit a teller. I don’t think she concerned herself with whether or not the teller was relying on a computer.)
In my town, new ideas were always judged to be inferior to old ideas. Then, after enough time had passed, somehow the new idea became established among the old. In this way the culture in my area was always a year or two (at least) behind the times. It wasn’t just computers that caught on late. Fashion, haircuts, music … my town resisted every cultural change. I’d watch movies and TV shows and think “Nobody I know dresses like that,” and 18 months later everybody was. For this reason, I grew my mullet years after Bono did.
My friend Josh was very much resistant to new ideas. He scoffed at new styles, mocked most changes and identified almost any new idea as simply a fad, not built to last. His music choices reflected this traditionalism – through graduation (1985) he listened to Jimi Hendrix, and Jimi Hendrix only. (And maybe one Stevie Ray Vaughn album.) His assessments could be spot-on, as when he assured me during our senior year of high school that the new Robert Plant/Jimmy Page collaboration1 most certainly would NOT be as good as Led Zeppelin.
When he got to college, his musical tastes started to broaden. I had been a secret R.E.M. fan for years, but Josh discovered them in college (a few years after their 1982 debut EP, Chronic Town, so right on time) and our musical bond tightened. Around this time we started sharing new music – cassettes, through the mail. He was the first person to share a Mudhoney song with me. He loaned me my first Husker Du2 CD. And he sent me a tape of The Modern Lovers.
Granted, this was nearly 20 years after the record was released, after two other monumentally more successful bands featuring Modern Lovers members had already broken up3. But the music still sounded fresh and bouncy and interesting, and just like my years-too-late mullet, I rocked the CD proudly. It was new music to me.
But even by the time I got the record, it was new music to many people. The band wasn’t (and perhaps still isn’t) a well known act. The Modern Lovers was one of those records by which record store4 clerk snobs judged less-enlightened customers. The band is in league with acts like Big Star or The Soft Boys or The Raincoats, artists that rarely, if ever, got radio airplay, didn’t sell many records, who most folks never heard of, but whose legacy grew thanks to the constant mentions by music critics and appreciative later artists.
So in this case, my hometown wasn’t much later than anybody else in getting on the bandwagon. And it’s easy to see why The Modern Lovers wasn’t a big hit record. The singer can’t sing very well, the songs are not flashy, the sounds are quite basic. However, there’s an infectious groove that runs through every song, and there’s an earnestness, a soul, that’s audible in singer/songwriter/bandleader Jonathan Richman’s vocals. It’s a record that makes you want to hear it again and again. And with every listen you think, “Why do I like this song so much? There’s not much to it – there has to be more going on here …”
Take, for example, the unofficial State Song of Massachusetts, “Roadrunner.”
It’s a two-chord song with barely a melody that repeats forever, and yet … it has such a groove! Jerry Harrison’s organ sometimes tootles above the chords, but other than that there’s not much going on. It’s just Jonathan Richman’s charisma and David Robinson’s beat and somehow that’s enough. Of course the lyrics, a paean to the Bay State5 and rock and roll, are full of childlike enthusiasm for Route 128 and Stop and Shop. It goes to show you don’t need much to make a great song.
Jonathan Richman idolized Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground, and so he was probably familiar with Reed’s quote about Rock and Roll: “One chord is fine. Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.” Take a song like “Old World,” a salute to days past. It’s basically one chord having a brief dalliance with a second chord. Yet it has enough of a drive, with cool drumming from Robinson, and guitar to make it bop along nicely. Then there’s “Astral Plane,” which has the same musical features but adds a cool guitar duet at 1:20. Richman’s sad-sack delivery (on “Astral Plane” the theme is poor luck with girls, which recurs on The Modern Lovers) helps give the songs an identity. They can become repetitive over an album’s worth, but individually they really kick ass.
Richman and the boys eschew that second chord on what is perhaps their most famous song, “Pablo Picasso.”
It’s (somewhat) well-known because it was featured in the 1984 film Repo-Man, as performed by Burning Sensations. The Modern Lovers’ version is so much better because it leans into the dark, bluesy riff. Plus, Richman’s woeful voice communicates the frustration of being the outsider, the guy who’s bound to get called an asshole by girls, and not understanding why. And there are gorgeous dueling guitars throughout, including some noises that would make Sonic Youth proud.
“Pablo Picasso” has a slow groove, and Richman turns things down even more on “Girlfriend.” It’s a sad, beautiful song about this young dork who thinks he’ll never find a girlfriend. And as a former young dork who thought he’d never find a girlfriend, it really resonates. (Plus there are more Boston references!) Richman never shies away from exposing his vulnerabilities, as on the lament “I’m Straight.” In it, he complains to his love interest about her current boyfriend, “Hippy Johnny,” who can’t take the world unless he’s stoned. Richman can’t understand why this guy would ever be a superior choice – another sentiment to which I, who vehemently avoided alcohol and drugs as a teenager (to my social life’s detriment), could relate.
Then there’s the haunting “Hospital.”
It’s a love-letter to an ex who’s currently laid up. It almost seems stalker-ish – I get the sense that the woman is unconscious and if she knew he was there she’d be pissed. There’s a fine line between shlubby loser and restraining-order-recipient. But what is clear about this song – and many of these Modern Lovers songs – is that it’s easy to see why they didn’t catch on in their day. I mean, nobody is confusing this stuff, lyrically or sonically, with “We’re an American Band.”
Sometimes Richman does give his loneliness more of a backbeat, as in the groovy “Someone I Care About.” In a similar vein is the one-chord rocker (it does include a couple other chords in the chorus) “She Cracked,” in which once again our hero doesn’t get the girl. But he never gets too down about it – in “Dignified & Old” he sings that despite being lonesome, he’ll keep on living.
The regrets and woefulness can get to be a bit much. I prefer the pieces about other aspects of his life. For example, how much he likes the “Modern World.”
It’s got excellent guitar throughout as Richman paints a lovely picture of early 70s Boston – Boylston St., Route 9, and a plea for her to “drop out of BU!” And the Modern Lovers, as usual, provide great backing shouts. I also dig the 60s-style, organ bounce of “Government Center.” There’s no word of Richman’s love life, just a quirky salute to the office drones.
It’s these fun songs that are the reason I love the record. Richman’s pinings for indifferent women get to be a bit monotonous after a while. As good as the songs sound, at times they seem almost indistinguishable, interchangeable. I like to put this album on in a mix with other records so that I can enjoy each song without having to consider how similar it is to the previous one. Still, it is a record I return to. To this day I’ll ride the SooperDooperLooper, ignoring my friends’ moms’ worries. And I still listen to The Modern Lovers.
TRACK LISTING (1989 CD Reissue by Rhino Records):
“Dignified and Old“
“Someone I Care About“