Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Modern Lovers

There are a TON of bands & songwriters that I love: The Dave Clark 5 and The Kinks and The Who and Paul Revere & the Raiders and Buffalo Springfield and Joni Mitchell and The MC5 from the 1960's; Mott The Hoople and Blue Oyster Cult and The New York Dolls and Richard Thompson and Patti Smith and Nick Lowe and about a hundred others from the 1970's, my all-time favorite decade of rock & roll.  There are a LOT of rock & roll acts I love - you've seen them sprinkled through the pages of this blog - but there are only THREE that have actually changed the way I look at the world: those three are Bruce Springsteen, Elliott Murphy, and The Modern Lovers.  I've covered Bruce and Elliott extensively in the past, today we'll be discussing The Modern Lovers.

I initially heard about The Modern Lovers from my first rock & roll best friend, Dave Blackburn.  (For an entire entry about Dave, back at the very beginning of this blog, please click here: Dave Blackburn.)  After Dave flunked out of Ohio State University (on purpose, mind you, he was WAY too brilliant to not hack a state school like O.S.U.) in 1972 and moved to Boston, one of the first letters he wrote me was about seeing The Modern Lovers in a high school gymnasium somewhere out in the Massachusetts suburbs.  (With youngsters Aerosmith opening the show, by the way, more on them later.)

I am in no way suggesting this image is the exact show Dave saw, but I love this picture.......

He wrote me that they were one of the five greatest bands he had ever seen.  And, mind you, he and I had seen The Who, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Doors, Cream, and Janis Joplin - among many others - together by the time we were 18 in 1970.  Plus Dave had seen The Velvet Underground at Columbus' Valley Dale Ballroom in November, 1966 before we even knew each other, so that five greatest bands thing was nothing to be taken lightly.  He wrote me that The Modern Lovers wore matching cashmere sweaters & brand-new jeans onstage that night, and this was in the middle of the oh-so-woeful-get-back-to-the-country-patched-jeans-'n'-flannel-shirts hippie heyday of 1972.

He further wrote that the band sounded like "The Beach Boys crossed with The Velvet Underground." Huh?  What?  Did Jonathan Richman, Ernie Brooks, Jerry Harrison and David Robinson enact sunny four-part harmonies on tunes about heroin & femme fatales?  That description puzzled me for the entirety of the next three years, until I sent away for Beserkley Chartbusters Volume 1 album in 1975, and finally got to hear some Modern Lovers songs.

The day it arrived in the mail I put it on my turntable and my head exploded.  There's no real way to explain lead singer Jonathan Richman to the uninitiated, so just give me two minutes, and listen to this.

Jonathan Richman (backed by The Rubinoos) playing "The New Teller"

In 1975 all of my standards of rock & roll BAND professionalism were based on Aerosmith.  The Who were long gone from my radar, I'd seen The New York Dolls at Vet's Memorial in 1974 and they sucked BADLY live, punk hadn't hit yet, and I didn't see Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band live until April of 1976.  Aerosmith were my yardstick/touchstone for rock & roll bands.

When the needle of my stereo touched down on "The New Teller" that afternoon in 1975, my first thought was, "Oh no, this is TERRIBLE."  I had been waiting YEARS to hear The Modern Lovers, and here was leader Jonathan Richman: out of tune, out of time, singing about the new teller at his bank (?), backed by handclaps and acoustic guitars.  I had been waiting for Velvet Underground drug-fueled noise aggro, for N.Y. Dolls decadence, for Aerosmith power & swagger; what I was getting was a song about waiting in line at a bank.  By thirty seconds in, though - right around the lines, "There's only three in the other line, but in my line, well I count eleven / Well that's fine, 'cause I'm in heaven" - I said out loud to myself, "Wait a minute, this is great."      

And then "Roadrunner" came on, and nothing was ever quite the same again.......

Jonathan Richman (backed by Earthquake) playing "Roadrunner"  

"Wait a minute," my 23-year old rock & roll brain said, "what if 1970's rock & roll doesn't HAVE to be just about drugs and honky tonk women?  What if it could be about drivin' past the Stop & Shoppe with the radio on?  What if I could think back past heavy metal and singer/songwriters and psychedelia and The British Invasion to riding in the back seat of my dad's Oldsmobile when I was 5 years old, trying to figure out what planet Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry were broadcasting from? What if there could be some Essential Innocence in rock & roll again?"  (All of a sudden the Beach Boys side of Dave's equation came clearly into view.   And when the largely John Cale-produced  Modern Lovers' demo album was released on Beserkley in August 1976 (see below), The Velvet Underground side clicked firmly into focus.)  

And the biggest "what if?" of all: What if Warner Brothers records had released The Modern Lovers' first album in 1973 as they were slated to do before they realized, "We have NO FLIPPIN' CLUE as to how to present & promote these guys to a rock & roll industry currently salivating for the likes of Black Sabbath and Van Morrison."  And what if - in one of those scenarios I only come up with given my early childhood addiction to "Imaginary Stories" in DC comic books - it was The Modern Lovers who scorched out of Boston and became the biggest American Band in the Land rather than Aerosmith?

What if "Roadrunner" and/or "Hospital" had become the FM & AM hits that "Walk This Way'" and "Dream On" did?  What if short, fast, hard, loud, INNOCENT rock & roll tunes took precedence over ponderous 10-minute guitar solos (and half-hour drum solos, God help us) in songs about coked-up musicians fucking groupies on the road?  What if songs about "going to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, to the room where they keep the Cezanne" held sway over Styx tunes about spaceships or Kansas encouraging/validating stoners to consider themselves just "dust in the wind"?  What if The Modern Lovers had naturally set the stage for The Rasberries, Blue Ash, Big Star, Elliott Murphy, The New York Dolls, The Dictators, The Patti Smith Group, The Ramones, The Clash and about a hundred others?

What if KISS never existed?  What if the great blue-jeaned masses of the Midwest went around proudly singing "I'm Straight" rather than "Rock & Roll All Night?"  What if they didn't swallow qualludes like they were penny candy and tap their feet to Journey?  What if Lee Abrams and Big Business never took control of rock & roll, strangled the radio, invented classic-rock and kept Baby Boomers forever chained to the yoke of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and The Allman Brothers?  What if we never had the albatross of a 70-year old Mick Jagger running around the world singing "Satisfaction" and making babies with 30-something year old models hung around our necks?

Was it Elaborate Rock Fantasies like these that kept my 1970's bands forever out of the mainstream of Midwest rock & roll?  Yeah.  Does that syndrome extend to this day?  Damn straight it does, and I couldn't be prouder.

Radio on.......



The Modern Lovers / demos recorded 1971-1973 / released August, 1976

The Modern Lovers / Live @ the Stonehenge Club / Ipswich, MA / 1970-1971


There's Something About Jonathan / Tim Mitchell / Peter Owen Publishing, 1999

c) 2017 Ricki C.

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