The Modern Lovers – s/t

Part 28 of a series that will run every Friday throughout 2012 as I discuss records that have affected me throughout the years – Flashback Fridays

In the late 90’s I was working at a company in suburban Philadelphia that manufactured flat screen displays and monitors for mostly military related clients. I worked in the Quality Department as the QA Admin kind of guy. So basically, anytime something was damaged, it would come back to the company and I would write-up everything that was wrong with the machine. I’d then pass it on to the technicians. Not really the most exciting job, but it did pay for my obsessive music buying tendencies. One of the technicians was a really cool, musically inclined guy (I thought older at the time, but he was just a little older than me now. sigh.)

We would have endless debates over the merits of John Lennon vs. Frank Zappa (he being in the Zappa camp, me being in the Lennon camp. We were both confused about Sometime in NYC). I had recently done what all good wannabe hipsters do and purchased a turntable. He would lend me all of his records and I would love some of them, dislike some of them – but it was always interesting to me, just how deep and extensive his collection was. He got onto the topic of The Modern Lovers who I admittedly had never heard of. “What!! You, Mr. Music haven’t heard of a band that featured Jonathan Richman, a guy from The Cars and a guy from Talking Heads? Lame!”. Well, I think he said something like that. At any rate, he lent me the record, and I was absolutely blown away.

The record was cut in the early 70’s (approx. 1973) but not released until 1976. It features Jerry Harrison on keyboards (Talking Heads) and David Robinson on drums (The Cars). Rounding out the band is Ernie Brooks on bass (Elliott Murphy, various other projects). The 1st time I played it, I couldn’t really process what I was hearing – punk music filtered through a 50’s sensibility. The lyrics showcased a unique perspective, especially when set against the backdrop of the early 70’s. There is a reason why this record is always discovered by up and coming hipsters – it is absolute perfection and like no other from the era.

Someday I’ll be dignified and old…

Roadrunner – Made even more famous by The Sex Pistols when they covered this song for their record The Great Rock n Roll Swindle. The original hints at punk while remaining grounded in a classic rock vibe. The rhythm section is outstanding. Organ solo recalls The Velvet Underground. Key lyrics:

I’m in love with modern moonlight
128 when it’s dark outside
I’m in love with Massachusetts
I’m in love with the radio on
It helps me from being alone late at night
It helps me from being lonely late at night
I don’t feel so bad now in the car
Don’t feel so alone, got the radio on
Like the roadrunner
That’s right

Astral PlaneJust Jonathan Richman’s voice to start the song before the band joins in on a groove based jam. The title alone should tell you this isn’t your standard kind of song or album (the astral plane encompasses countless individual planes of life and reality). Noisy guitar throughout with perfectly embellished organ swells. The longing in Jonathan’s voice feels dangerous. Key lyrics:

Well we’ve known each other from other lives
I want to see you today
But I’ll prove my knowledge of what’s inside
When I intercept you on the astral plane
The astral plane for late at night
The astral plane or I’ll go insane

Old WorldA deeper cut that locks into an incessant groove and never lets up throughout its 4 minutes. Melodic guitar flourishes throughout with the bass slightly higher in the mix. Key lyrics:

Well I see a ’50’s apartment house
Bleak in the morning sun
But I still love the ’50’s
And I still love the old world
I wanna keep my place in the old world
Keep my place in the arcane
‘Cause I still love my parents and I still love the old world

Pablo Picasso – Later covered by Television Personalities and David Bowie – this is the original in all of its glory. Jonathan sneers his way though the song while nasty guitar and bass lend to overall vibe (it was strange to see this played live by Jonathan Richman on his acoustic guitar). Has an old school boogie feel about it, but filtered through a punk inspired sheen. Key lyrics:

Well the girls would turn the color
Of the avocado when he would drive
Down their street in his El Dorado
He could walk down your street
And girls could not resist his stare
Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole
Not like you

I’m Straight – the greatest straight edge song, as cut in 1973. Jonathan rails against the hippie scene and drugs throughout the song. The music meanders behind the story-telling vibe, with rhythm section preventing everything from falling apart. The song explodes into a slightly noisier section during the chorus before it returns to the story. Eerie keyboards embellish the song. It is amazing to hear the sneer in Jonathan’s voice as he makes fun of druggies. Now that is punk! Key lyrics:

Now I’ve watched you walk around here.
I’ve watched you meet these
boyfriends, I know, and you tell me how they’re deep.
Look but, if these guys, if they’re really so great,
tell me, why can’t they at least take this place
and take it straight? Why always stoned,
like hippie Johnny is?
I’m straight and I want to take his place.
Oh I’m certainly not stoned, like hippie Johnny is.
I’m straight and I want to take his place.
I said, I’m straight
I said, I’m straight

Dignified and Old – the song begins with driving rock n roll sound, darkness surrounding the generally upbeat outlook. Jonathan’s vocals are perfect, conveying his heartfelt intentions. Jerry Harrison’s keyboard stylings are subtle but effective. The last verse of lyrics in particular are some of my favorite words laid to tape:

Well now, see the desert
I sit all alone in the desert
And no girl understands me
But I can see through this bleakness and grey and sadness
And well I won’t die now
Someday I’ll be dignified and old
I say, you, don’t die now
Someday we’ll be dignified and old together

She Cracked – A punk song cut at least a year before The Ramones hit the scene in the mid 70’s. Motorik beat propelling the song forward with Jonathan spouting off what seemed to be very anti-punk lyrics about eating health food. But isn’t that spirit punk, in reality? The chorus is shouty and stocked full of melody. Song starts to fade out on waves of noisy guitar before coming back for one last sing-a-long. Key lyrics:

Well she cracked, I won’t
She did things that I don’t
She’d eat garbage, eat shit, get stoned
I stay alone, eat health food – at home!

Hospital – mournful organ fading in before Jonathan’s emotionally distraught voice enters. The band joins in with a melancholy vibe as Jonathan sings his heart out. The music builds towards a faster paced bridge before everything slows down again. Some of the saddest lyrics Jonathan Richman would pen for over 25 years until his late 90’s album I’m So Confused. Important words:

I go to bakeries all day long
There’s a lack of sweetness in my life
And there is pain inside
You can see it in my eyes
Oh there is pain inside
You can see it in my eyes
Makes me think about me
That I’ve lost my pride
But I’m in love with this power that resides in your eyes

Someone I Care About – nasty rock n roll vibe, recalling the 50’s set to the darker underbelly of the early 70’s. Lyrics are again a highlight – completely original and stand in stark contrast to the popular songs of the time talking about machismo exploits of sleeping with women. In fact – this song is pretty much the antithesis of that scene. The snarl in the vocals in tandem with the driving guitar is a wonder to behold. Key lyrics:

Well I don’t want some cocaine sniffing triumph in the bar
Well I don’t want a triumph in the car
I don’t want to make a rich girl crawl
What I want is a girl that I care about
Or I want no one at all
Alright, listen to this now

Picture this:
I’m walking with my girlfriend
28 misguided souls combined say, “We’re moving in”
There’s a certain kind of girl that you care about so much
You say, “I don’t care what you guys do to me, but her, DON’T TOUCH!”

Girl Friend – A touching ballad type song with steady drums by David Robinson holding everything down. Boston-based landmarks are shouted out as Jonathan sings about things that he understands and correlates them to having a girlfriend (or girlfren as he spells out). Key lyrics:

If I were to walk to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston
Well, first I’d go to the room where they keep the Cezanne
But if I had by my side a girlfriend
Then I could look through the paintings
I could look right through them
Because I’d have found something that I understand
I understand a girlfriend.

Modern World – Earlier in the record Jonathan sang about the Old World – now he flips that to sing about things of a more modern era. I’m not sure if the sound on this one is proto-punk, post-punk, or just really fucking great. Actually I’d probably go with the latter description. Snotty vocals inspired by Jonathan’s idol, Lou Reed, with the music racing towards a cliff. Killer organ solo that really compliments the tone. Key lyrics:

Well listen
Well the modern world is not so bad
Not like the students say
In fact I’d be in heaven
If you’d share the modern world with me
With me in love with the U.S.A. now
With me in love with the modern world now
Put down the cigarette
And share the modern world with me.

Government Center – A throwaway track concludes the album. It is a sing-a-long kind of track that looks towards the past whilst also pointing towards where Jonathan would go in his solo career. After the depth that came before this it can feel mildly like a letdown – but open your mind a bit and appreciate it for what it is – a fun track to end an amazing album. Key lyrics:

Well we’ve got alot alot alot of hard work today
We gotta rock at the government center
Make the secretaries feel better
When they put those stamps on the letters

If you’ve never heard of this record, RUN do not walk to your nearest record store and buy it. Or I suppose you could download it from Itunes – that’ll work too. One note – this album has been reissued and has a slightly different running order. I went with the version of the album that I first heard and own. Join me next week as I discuss the self titled debut by Rage Against The Machine.

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