Released in 1976, The Modern Lovers first album, and only album without Jonathan Richman &… preceding their name, is an underrated early punk influence on the same level as Marquee Moon and Blank Generation, both released a year later. But despite this it is rarely mentioned alongside these albums with the deserved enthusiasm.
The Modern Lovers originated in Boston as early as 1970, after Jonathan Richman returned to his hometown after a demoralising nine month stay in New York City. The Modern Lovers became a Boston live highlight for the next couple of years and made numerous demo recordings for numerous record labels but they never nailed a deal. This despite the production skills of reputable types on the scale of Velvet Underground’s John Cale and garage-psych godfather Kim Fowley. In December 1973, after a second studio stint with Fowley the Modern Lovers were toast. Richman was already recording demos on his own, guitarist John Felice formed the Real Kids, Bassist Ernie Brooks went to work with New York Dolls’ David Johansen, keyboardist Jerry Harrison joined Talking Heads and drummer David Robinson joined the Cars. Richman relocated to California to join up with the Berserkley record company. Berserkley’s first step with Richman on their roster was to pull the promising demos’ recorded by the Modern Lovers together and release them as an album.
The album opens with ‘Roadrunner’, an unabashed two chord proto-punk anthem, introducing you to the raw no-frills but somehow warm and welcoming production. “I’m in love with rock ‘n’ roll” drawls Richman and this is the kind of song that makes you remember how much you love it yourself. ‘Astral Plane’ and ‘Old World’ continue the party. And then ‘Pablo Picasso’ fades in and Richman starts to sound like Lou Reed about to crack up laughing, “Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole, not like you” he groans to the pulsating beat, another trick learnt from the Velvet’s. ‘She Cracked’ is another interminable rocker with a simple but catchy chorus.
Then everything slows down for ‘Hospital’, starting with a stirring organ then Richman “I can’t stand what you do, I’m in love with your eyes”. Here it is Richman’s honesty and resignation coupled with his sense of humour that is highlighted. The raw production is more effective than ever on this and the other ‘ballads’, coupled with the sensitive arrangements always allowing Richman to be at the forefront.
The rock ‘n’ roll is back for ‘Someone I Care About’, a gloriously dumb testament to shunning one night stands for something altogether more meaningful. ‘Girlfriend’ is another ballad but is more tongue in cheek than ‘Hospital’. ‘Modern World’ is a riotous teenage paean, “I love the USA, I love the modern world” goes the chorus, ironic but not cynical. The album is closed out by two more rockers in ‘Dignified & Old’ and ‘Government Center’, handclaps included, and another slowy, ‘I’m Straight’, with Richman sounding like he had a pretty bad cold at the time of recording, it all adds to the heart on sleeve rawness of the album though, makes you wonder how much of the time demo’s are of a higher quality than the ‘finished’ article, they certainly worked for the Modern Lovers.