Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lover's "Roadrunner" single.
Jonathan Richman was born on May 16, 1951 in Natick, Massachusetts and began playing and writing his own music in the mid-1960s. He became infatuated with the Velvet Underground, and in 1969 moved to New York City and lived on the couch of their manager, Steve Sesnick (later moving to the Hotel Albert), worked odd jobs, and tried to break into the music industry. Having failed at that, he moved back to Massachusetts. In Boston, Richman formed The Modern Lovers. Also in the band were guitarist John Felice, bass player Rolfe Anderson, and drummer David Robinson (later of The Cars). In 1971, both Anderson and Felice left the band and were replaced by bassist Ernie Brooks and keyboardist Jerry Harrison (later of Talking Heads). In April 1972, The Modern Lovers went to Los Angeles and recorded two demo sessions: the first for John Cale (ex-Velvet Underground) and the second for A&M Records. In early 1973, the band was signed by Warner Bros., but by the end of the year, Richman wanted to scrap their recorded tracks and start anew with a mellower, more lyrical sound. As a result, Warner Bros. withdrew their support and the original Modern Lovers broke up in February 1974. In 1975, Richman moved to California to record as a solo artist with Beserkley Records. Several of his tracks appeared on the “Beserkley Chartbusters” (1975) compilation LP. In January 1976, Richman put together a new lineup of The Modern Lovers, with Greg “Curly” Keranen on bass, Leroy Radcliffe on guitar, and David Robinson returning on drums. Two albums were released in 1976: “The Modern Lovers”, which consisted of material recorded by the previous incarnation of the band (with six of the nine tracks taken from the John Cale sessions), and “Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers”, recorded by the new version of the band. In 1977, a single from the first album reached #11 in the U.K.: “Roadrunner (Once)” b/w “Roadrunner (Twice)”. This is today’s featured single.
“Roadrunner” is a garage rock classic, one that features three chords (D and A, and only two bars of E), and, by most accounts, is a nod to the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray”. Supposedly, Richman wrote the song by 1970, and began performing it in public. John Felice recalled the original inspiration for the song: as teenagers he and Richman “used to get in the car and just drive up and down Route 128 and the Turnpike. We’d come up over a hill and he’d see the radio towers, the beacons flashing, and he would get almost teary-eyed. He’d see all this beauty in things where other people just wouldn’t see it.” The can be thought of as almost a one-chord song, as it leans very heavily on D throughout the song, which in some ways is more of a chant, a Chuck Berry/Bo Diddley-style rock anthem. The lyrics almost seem to be improvised: “Gonna drive past the Stop ‘n’ Shop/With the radio on/I’m in love with Massachusetts/And the neon when it’s cold outside”, and there are slight differences between the lyrics in this version and the ones in “Roadrunner (Twice)”. The lyrics also seem somewhat nonsensical, suggesting that the content is of secondary importance. Nevertheless, the song has an endearing quality, with it’s introductory count off (“One, two, three, four, five six!”), and its lyrical refrain of “radio on”. “Roadrunner (Once)”, recorded in late 1974, stands as one of the great precursors to punk rock; ironically, by the time this song was released, Richman had moved on to more laid-back, acoustic music.
The B-side of the single, “Roadrunner (Twice)”, is the version of “Roadrunner” that was recorded at the Cale sessions in 1972 (and had been previously released on “The Modern Lovers” LP, entitled “Roadrunner”). This version is considered by many to be the stronger take, with Richman sounding someone more passionate and less disaffected than on the 1974 version. (This version was also released on the “Berserkley Chartbusters” LP.) Although the A-side is the better-known of the two, both takes are worth a listen.
The single (catalog #: BZZ 1) was released in June 1977. The Modern Lovers subsequently released “Rock ‘n’ Roll with the Modern Lovers” (1977), “Modern Lovers ‘Live’” (1978), and “Back in Your Life” (1979). The band subsequently broke up, after which Richman took a sabbatical before forming a new Modern Lovers lineup in 1980. This lineup released “Jonathan Sings!” (1983), after which the band broke up again. Richman again formed a new lineup up the band, releasing “Rockin’ and Romance” (1985) and “Modern Lovers 88” (1988) before retiring the moniker Modern Lovers and embarking on a “true” solo career.