These days, we think of The Modern Lovers’ self-titled 1976 album as an obvious classic. It may come as some surprise, then, that Jonathan Richman and his band were recording for five years before they found a label to release their material. Despite interest from A&M and Warner Brothers as early as 1971, The Modern Lovers’ music remained unreleased until Richman struck a deal with Beserkely Records in 1975. Even then, the resulting album was a bit like Frankenstein’s monster. Beserkely cobbled together the debut release from a series of raw-sounding demo sessions, produced mostly by John Cale in 1972. To this day, Richman doesn’t even consider The Modern Lovers a proper album.
Sanctuary Records’ expanded reissue ups the Frankenstein quotient, adding eight additional tracks to Beserkely’s nine. The new material is culled from The Modern Lovers’ first sessions, in late 1971, and later demos recorded in 1973 and 1974. While labels looking to sell fans on a reissue often dilute the original by tacking on any old outtake or B-side, Sanctuary’s choices are sound. Many of the extra songs are every bit as good as the core material, and even the three alternate versions of songs appearing on the Beserkely version (“Someone I Care About,” “Modern World,” and “Roadrunner”) are different and interesting enough to earn their keep.
The Modern Lovers’ oft-covered first track, “Roadrunner,” might be the best rock ‘n’ roll song of all time. Competitors like The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” and The Who’s “My Generation” just don’t sustain multiple listens the way “Roadrunner” does. One can only take so much of Mick Jagger going on about sexual frustration, but “Roadrunner” somehow never gets old. Like the vast majority of timeless rock songs, “Roadrunner” is nothing more than a few simple guitar chords, with upbeat carnival organ harmonies elevating the singer’s slacker drawl. We find its narrator speeding down the Massachusetts highway, his blasting stereo plowing through feelings of isolation. Everyone who’s been 18 in American can identify with the pure love of freedom behind lyrics like, “I’m in love with rock ‘n’ roll/ And I’ll be out all night.” When Richman says, “Now you sing, Modern Lovers,” and the entire band joins in for the scraggly but spirited chorus, “Radio on!,” it feels like a mantra, or a manifesto.
If this makes The Modern Lovers seem like something of a ‘50s throwback, that’s only part of the paradox that makes them exciting. The album mixes old-fashioned romanticism and “Roadrunner”’s brand of Rebel Without a Cause fantasy with the ironic, irreverent asides of a band known for presaging punk. The Modern Lovers contains a song called “Old World” and a song called “Modern World,” both of which were recorded during the 1972 Cale sessions. The former praises Richman’s parents and insists, “I want to keep my place in the old world/ I want to keep my place in the arcane”; in the latter, he sings, “I’m in love with the USA/ I’m in love with the modern world” and advises anyone who doesn’t agree to “Put down the cigarette/ And drop out of BU.” What Richman shares with both ‘50s rock and ‘70s punk is a deep-seated disdain for hippies and pseudo-intellectuals. He’s no philistine, as we discover on “Pablo Picasso” (“The girls would turn the color of an avocado/ And he would drive down the street in his El Dorado”), but his aesthetic is decidedly working class, and he likes it that way.
Though The Modern Lovers are best known for their raucous rock songs, their quieter moments are also worth a listen. When he slows down, Richman can be hilarious and insightful at the same time. On “I’m Straight,” a 1973-4 demo track, he vaunts his own clean lifestyle in an attempt to woo the girl he likes away from her stoner boyfriend, “Hippie Johnny.” “I’m straight,” he sings, over minimal, muted guitar and drums, “And I want to take his place.” The song is an indictment of constantly-stoned flower children, but it goes a step farther, making the emphatically uncool claim that drugs are mere escapism. “I think if these guys, if they’re really so great/ Tell me why can’t they at least take this place/ And take it straight?” he wonders in his rambling, monotone fashion. “Why always stoned?”
But Richman’s lyrical talents extend beyond humor and social critique. “Hospital” is a delicate, mournful love song that begins with the arresting words, “When you get out of the hospital/ Let me back into your life.” Richman sings slowly and earnestly, as though he doesn’t know from moment to moment what he’ll say next. Occasionally, his voice explodes in a barrage of organ-backed doubt and confusion. As in most of the band’s love songs, including “She Cracked” and “Someone I Care About” on The Modern Lovers, physical and mental illness, as well as loneliness, figure prominently.
The idea that a great album must be the product of a singular vision has produced some of the tackiest concept records of all time. The Modern Lovers, one of the most influential albums of the past 50 years, proves that something as uncomplicated as a stable of rough but inspired rock songs can be more effective than all the studio-slick song cycles in the world.