The Modern Lovers
These legendary sessions, produced by John Cale for Warners in the early '70s but never released, still sound ahead of their time. Jonathan Richman's gift is to make explicit that love for "the modern world" that is the truth of so much of the best of rock and roll; by cutting through the vaguely protesty ambience of so-called rock culture he opens the way for a worldliness that is specific, realistic, and genuinely critical. Not that he tries to achieve this himself -- he's much too childlike. Sometimes his unmusicianship adds a catch to a three-chord melody and his off-key singing unlocks doors you didn't know were there. But other times he sounds like his allowance is too big, as worldly as Holden Caulfield with no '50s for excuse -- the first rock hero who could use a spanking. A
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
Inspired, Velvet Underground-style songs from Jonathan Richman's first group, including the bare-bones rock of "Girlfriend," "Pablo Picasso" and "Roadrunner," make this protopunk outfit an early proponent of seminal teen angst. Sure, the cute frontman went on to become a funny, dorky folkie, Dave Robinson co-founded the Cars and Jerry Harrison joined Talking Heads, but infatuated fans feel this infectious band before its time just didn't get enough credit. * * * * *
- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.
The Modern Lovers was chosen as the 381st greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.
- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.
Bostonian Jonathan Richman had been an avid Velvet Underground fan. Hence the stripped-down sound of his first band, The Modern Lovers, whose original recording lineup featured drummer David Robinson (The Cars), keyboard player Jerry Harrison (Talking Heads), and bassist Ernie Brooks. Live appearances around Boston elicited interest from Warner Bros., who booked the band into a California studio in 1973, for sessions produced first by John Cale then Kim Fowley.
His early work voiced a beautifully contradictory world view: he embraced the "Modern World" but would not dismiss the "Old World"; was attracted to self-destructive girls ("She Cracked," "Hospital") but sang of a new romanticism in the awesome "Girlfiend" and "Someone To Care About," songs that turned their back on the Sixties sexual revolution.
Most of all he had a penchant for modern hymns -- to the macho lifestyle of painter Pablo Picasso in a song covered by Cale himself and later Bowie, and to the eternally appealing call of the road on the two-chord classic "Roadrunner," covered by a legion of garage bands since, perhaps most famously in the Sex Pistols.
Warner then dropped the band. Three years later, Beserkley released the album, scoring a hit single with "Roadrunner." But Jonathan had split the band by the time the demos were finished, and had a new career in mind: he would downsize his sound to acoustic rock 'n' roll and sing, in his nasal tone, about insects, Martians, and rocking leprechauns.
- Ignacio Julià, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.
The delay can be attributed to typical music-business machinations -- and Richman's artistic evolution. According to the liner notes of this reissue, once the record was finished, the songwriter told his label, Warner Bros., that he'd grown sick of the songs and wouldn't perform live. The label then refused to release the album, and the band, which included future Talking Head Jerry Harrison and future Car David Robinson, broke up. The Modern Lovers was rescued by an enterprising small label, Beserkley, which reportedly bought the masters for $2,300 and put the recordings out, to considerable critical acclaim, in the heated punk explosion of 1976. By then, however, Richman had renounced rock, focusing on the insightful pop that has distinguished his subsequent career.
He might have changed horses too soon. The Modern Lovers is a thrilling slice of rock and roll, informed by equal parts suburban-kid anxiety and three-chord cool. Regardless of its place in the history of punk, this set of deliberately blunt songs produced by John Cale (The Velvet Underground was a huge influence on Richman) remains a delightful listening experience -- too smart for its own good sometimes, and just dumb enough to deliver wry appraisals of human nature while sounding like a kid who's just looking for the next thrill: When he sings "Some people try to pick up girls and get called asshole, this never happened to Pablo Picasso," there's admiration in his voice, and a little bit of wonder too.
- Tom Moon, 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, 2008.
Jonathan Richman moved from Boston to New York as a teenager in hopes of sleeping on Lou Reed's couch. That influence shows on the two-chord anthem "Roadrunner," where the Modern Lovers turned the raw Velvets sound into an ode to suburban romanticism.
Modern Lovers was chosen as the 288th greatest album of all time in a Rolling Stone magazine poll of artists, producers, critics and music industry figures in Oct. 2020.
- Rolling Stone, 10/20.
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