The Modern Lovers were a super group of not-yet-knowns in the 1970s. The band that played on their classic debut consisted of Jonathan Richman on guitar and vocals, Jerry Harrison on keyboard, Ernie Brooks on bass and David Robinson on drums. They disbanded after two short years in 1973 and the album itself wasn’t released until three years later. Richman went on to have a successful (albeit sappier) solo career keeping the band name as his back-up band, Harrison became the keyboardist for the Talking Heads, Brooks started playing bass for former New York Dolls’ leading man David Johansen and Robinson drummed for The Cars.
Five seconds into The Modern Lovers self-titled debut and it’s clear that this album is something special. Jonathan Richman playfully surpasses the typical rock & roll count-off singing “1-2-3-4-5-6” in his nasally voice followed by two crashing beats of guitar and drums on “Roadrunner.” Richman has a near-beatific love for just about everything from Massachusetts to modern moonlight, but first and foremost he’s in love with rock & roll past, present and future – the album’s curtailed credo which he expands upon later.
The Velvet Underground is a clear influence on The Modern Lovers’ sound. Obsessed with The Velvet Underground, Richman moved to New York City after graduating high school in 1969 and was able to observe The Velvets up close, sleeping for a time on their manager Steve Sesnick’s couch. The Velvet Underground’s multi-instrumentalist John Cale also ended up producing the majority of The Modern Lovers. Their sound may be steeped in Velvets with its plug & chug chord progressions and feedback, however Jonathan Richman’s songwriting is the antithesis of Lou Reed’s.
Richman is perhaps America’s most wholesome rock n’ roller. Instead of heroin and leather-clad mistresses, he sings about being straight-edge and dreams of walking with a girlfriend around the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. He’s a self-conscious square but his image and sound make him cool in spite of himself.
On “I’m Straight,” he calls a girl on the phone trying to convince her to date him instead of her stoner boyfriend, Hippie Johnny, because unlike her current beau he can “take this place and take it straight.” The back-to-back “Someone I Care About” and “Girlfriend” show Richman’s startling chivalrous side. “All I want is a girl that I care about / Or I want nothing at all.” His lyrical persona has been echoed by numerous bands over the past three and a half decades, particularly power-poppers like The dB’s and Weezer.
Richman’s lyrics can also be biting and funny. “Pablo Picasso” humorously describes the late artist’s womanizing infamy, although he was able to pick up women without being called an “asshole…not like you.” Richman describes the faults of an ex-girlfriend on “She Cracked”: “Well she cracked, I won’t. / She did things that I don’t. / She’d eat garbage, eat shit, and get stoned. / I stay alone, eat health food at home!” Richman has a disdain for the party girl, evidenced once again by the darkly comical “Hospital.” Richman is frustrated by his affection for a girl who parties too hard; although he can’t stand the way that she behaves, he’s still “in love with this power that shows through in [her] eyes.”
The crux of the album is the old world versus the modern world. Richman appropriately has two songs titled to embrace each era. He maintains that he has to “keep [his] place in the old world” but at the same time he has to say “bye bye” to the old world and “help the new world.” In “Modern World” Richman reaffirms that he has a foothold in the musical past, but the times are changing and he is eager to face music’s future. At the same time that The Modern Lovers pay homage to the rock & roll of Elvis Presley and the edgier Velvet Underground, they also set the stage for acts as diverse as Talking Heads, Elvis Costello and Sonic Youth. Perhaps that’s why the album still sounds fresh today.
The Modern Lovers – The Modern Lovers tracklist:
- “Astral Plane”
- “Old World”
- “Pablo Picasso”
- “I’m Straight”
- “Dignified and Old”
- “She Cracked”
- “Someone I Care About”
- “Girl Friend”
- “Modern World”
- “Government Center”