Modern Lovers - The Modern Lovers
published: 23 / 3 / 2007
In the latest in our Re : View series, in which our writers look back on albums from the past, Sarah Maybank assesses Jonathan Richman and his band the Modern Lovers massively influential, but still under rated posthumous only album 'The Modern Lovers'
Your attention please, indie boy. When you say your bedtime prayers tonight give special thanks for Jonathan Richman. Because he’s the reason that hot-panted Kate Jackson lookalike keeps "accidentally" bumping into you in your local independent record shop. In fact he’s one of the major reasons you’ve got an independent record shop to go to. By the time he was 21 (about five years younger than the Beatles when they made 'Sgt Pepper') Richman had invented straight edge, set the foundations for punk and, more importantly (yes, really), made misery strangely sexy. The Fabs might have changed the course of popular music forever, and punk ignited a generation of angry young musicians, but Richman is the reason blokes most generously described as "wallflowers" ever got to populate the empty side of their double bed with someone who didn’t pity them/require payment. Go on – go and ask them what they think’s more important. Massachussetts-born Richman rocked up to New York at the dawn of the 70's, an outsider even by outsider standards. An adenoidal, defiantly substance-free wussy boy, his chastely romantic lyrics recalled despised 50's vanilla crooners such as Bobby Vinton and Ricky Nelson. At that time cutting-edge culture was straight-jacketed into its own set of conventions, meaning if you were creative and owned a guitar you had to be a: S&M-obsessed heroin addict (Velvet Underground); a revolutionary, potty-mouthed heroin addict (MC5); a semi-naked, self-harming heroin addict (Iggy and the Stooges); a be-platformed Rolling Stones-esque heroin addict (New York Dolls). Or recently dead (Joplin, Morrison, Hendrix). He shouldn’t have stood a chance. But Richman had the sense to realise that hijacking ‘sensitive’ from the likes of Nick Drake and Joni Mitchell would have the life-scarred, sensation-seeking urbanites he courted laughing in the aisles if it was served straight up. His genius stroke was to twin his yearning lyrics with simple, chantable melodies, and beef them up with driving, Velvets-style riffs. 'Someone I Care About', 'Girlfriend', and 'Astral Plan'e might have catalogued his loneliness and desperation to connect with anything female, and 'I’m Straight' his unfashionable drug-free stance, but 'She Cracked' and 'Hospital' added a perverse twist of mental illness, and Pablo Picasso was plain perverse. His vulnerability came with a major personality disorder. With the impetus provided by feverish gigging, the underground tastemakers lapped it up. Richman and his band the Modern Lovers went into the studio several times between 1972 and 1974, and recorded a bunch of garagey, John Cale and Kim Fowley-helmed sessions that were promptly shelved by their record company. With the Velvet Underground in pieces, the Dolls in freefall and the CBGB's crowd yet to emerge, the Modern Lovers' aesthetic fell into a musical dead zone and they imploded amidst rows about what direction they should take. Too weird, too uncommercial, too ahead of their time, the tapes gathered dust until mad, bad and dangerous, punk came along four years later to make sense of what Richman was about. Compiled by Beserkely, the band's posthumous album Modern Lovers hit the zeitgeist running, finally rewarding Richman with the recognition he merited. And with the metronomic 'Roadrunner', which shared with punk an obsession with lowbrow culture ("I’m in love with the Stop ‘N’ Shop"), it even boasted an instant classic that so impressed the Sex Pistols they covered it. Perverse as ever, Richman "capitalised" on all this by turning his back on his hard-earned fame, assembling a new, flares and kaftan-attired Modern Lovers, arming himself with a beatific smile and penning nursery-rhymish ditties about ice cream vans and abominable snowmen. Since then he’s gone acoustic, gone Spanish-language and even appeared singing under a lamp post in 'There’s Something About Mary.' He’s never succumbed to fashion, burn-out or wrinkles (he’ll never see 55 again despite looking fresh as a high school graduate). Like a rogue planet he spins on his own orbit. He might look the same as the rest of us but he isn’t even in the same solar system. As far as Richman’s concerned, Modern Lovers the album might have been a one-off, post-adolescent outburst, but its matter-of-fact sentimentality, unashamedly heart-on-sleeve approach and guileless honesty mean it’s ended up Ghengis Khan-like in the DNA of any musician who ever rejected the macho, sock-down-the trousers approach to matters of the heart – meaning pretty girls have been lining up to ‘comfort’ emotionally troubled troubadours such as Morrissey, Kurt Cobain, Belle and Sebastian and their ilk ever since. Like we said: indie boy, you’ve got a lot to be grateful for.
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