Friday, August 19, 2011

The Modern Lovers CD

Once again I am astonished to discover another ground-breaking record that I have never written about here. As I’ve said, I’ve been fascinated with the Lovers since the 70’s and this record has enough darkness and madness from the usually child-like Jonathan Richman to ensure its place in my r’n’r heart.

Besides Jonathan, the band consisted of Ernie Brooks on bass, Jerry Harrison on keyboards (later of the Talking Heads) and drummer David Robinson who left when Richman continued to ask him to play quieter and removed his drums until he had only one left that he had to cover with a towel to decrease the volume! From here he went on to the garage-punk band DMZ (where he could – and did – play loudly and viciously) before fame and fortune in the Cars.

This record opens with Jonathan’s classic tune – with its classic opening of 1-2-3-4-5-6! – “Roadrunner”. This has been covered by many bands including the Sex Pistols (they, along with many early punk bands, cited the Modern Lovers as an important influence) and Joan Jett. A paeon to the joys of rock’n’roll and driving through the emptiness of New England. Fueled by Robinson’s insistent drumming, Harrison’s fuzz-tone organ and Jonathan’s cool lyrics with chants of “radio on!” by the band, this blasts out right from the start and never lets up.

A bit darker is “Astral Plane” – a minor key fantasy of stalking, but never getting, a girl in the real world, but meeting her in another dimension and discovering their shared past lives. Richman’s solo work is rudimentary, but highly effective and piercing in a Velvet Underground kinda way (he was a huge fan and friend of the band), and he intertwines with the keyboard to create multiple levels of sound.

Unlike many of the time, he was not afraid of proclaiming his love for days gone by, which is the basis of “Old World” and one of his many departures from other young people. This has a fine guitar/keyboard harmony solo and more Velvet rhythms. Oddly, the cool, staccato ending of “bye bye bye bye old world” is only heard at the end of the fade out. This was only meant to be a demo, so maybe there was a technical issue, but weird none-the-less.

One of his better-known tunes – and one that he continued to play throughout his career, unlike many of the Lovers’ songs – is “Pablo Picasso”. Wicked fuzz-tone guitars come and go through pounding keyboards (again, not unlike “Waiting for the Man”) as Richman sings, spits and slurs through lyrics of the famous artist, with the memorable lines “some people try to pick up girls and get called an asshole, this never happened to Pablo Picasso”. Of course, producer John Cale later did an frighteningly powerful take on this, which would become even more extreme in live situations.

His awkward insecurities are firmly in place in “I’m Straight”, where he tries to convince the girl that he would be a better beau because of his lack of drugs. Funnily, he changed the name of the girl’s boyfriend from “hippy Ernie” to “hippy Johnny” so as not to offend his bass player! Still eerie enough to know that though he didn’t take mind-altering items, Jonathan was certainly not normal! Of course, this was a highly unusual position to take and sing about at a time when very few kids were straight – and it goes without saying that this was long before the punk “straight-edge” movement.

Looking to a future where his problems of the day are resolved is another unconventional message song, “Dignified and Old”, where he again bucks the then-popular youth message. It can also be seen as an anti-suicide tune, telling kids that things will get better with time. Propelled by a single persistent chord, “She Cracked” ironically follows with a tale of a drug-addled girl who ends up institutionalized. This actually sounds psychotic, especially in the dissonant chord bashing middle section. “Hospital” logically comes next, with a sad, quiet tune of hope for the girl that he still loves. Another wonderful line: “I go to bakeries all day long, there’s a lack of sweetness in my life”. While it never gets manic, there is also a nod to the Stooges’ “1969” in the break.

Practically reprising the rhythms of “Old World”, the guitar drives “Someone I Care About”. Here he craves a girl he can truly care about, not a “cocaine sniffing tramp” who “appalls” him. Once again, the song is based on rhythms, not leads, and there are compelling changes within the unrelenting beat along with terrific lyrics, which are sung by the entire group to great effect at the end. Continuing in this lyrical line is “Girl Friend”, again detailing his hopes for the right girl – “g-i-r-l-f-r-e-n” – and including a truly lovely, harmony guitar lead.

From that ballad the band moves into another driving rocker, “Modern World”, showing that he cares about the present as well as the past. Lyrics move from being in love with the USA, to “put down that cigarette and act like a true girl” to shouts of “drop out of high school” and entreaties to “share the modern world with me”.

The CD closes with a tune that did not appear on the original album (which came out long after the recording, since these were only meant to be demos) but was from a later session with Kim Fowley (as was “I’m Straight”) and is much more indicative of his later, solo work. “Government Center” talks of bringing the band to this building to bring some much-needed joy to the employees’ drab lives. This is much more light-hearted than most of the other tunes and shows a bit more of his child-like charm that is highlighted in his solo work.

Absolutely a classic album that should be owned by everyone who loves real rock’n’roll made by true eccentrics.