Jonathan Richman

Jonathan Richman

The inimitable Jonathan Richman formed The Modern Lovers in 1970, at age 19. And if the songs on that band’s self-titled album were the only ones he’d ever written and recorded in the realm of rock ‘n’ roll, his legacy would be as significant as Johnny Rotten’s, Richard Hell’s and arguably even Lou Reed’s.

But since walking away from the distortion-driven sound of that seminal LP, Richman has completely redefined himself with a largely acoustic style all his own and a cross-generational fan base rivaled by few. His singing, songwriting and guitar playing have been described as whimsical, innocent and childlike – positively by some, mockingly by others – and he’s known for the consistent optimism and romanticism of his tunes, which are rooted in standard rock but influenced by an expansive variety of other genres. When asked about his songwriting process in a 2015 interview, Richman’s reply was a far cry from introspective intellectualization: “I don’t write, really,” he said. “I just make up songs.”

Musical beginnings

Born on May 16, 1951, in Boston and raised in the metrowest suburb of Natick, Richman started playing guitar and writing songs in his early teens, making his first appearances at age 16 at open-mic nights at clubs including the Unicorn Coffee HouseThe Catacombs and Club 47. He also performed at a number of Cambridge Common Concerts, where he “played an out-of-tune, economy 12-string guitar, possessed a coarse and off-key singing voice and sang very odd and simplistic songs that were odes to the American pop culture of the day,” according to the late musician/writer Ted Scourtis, then an E.U. Wurlitzer employee who frequented the venues.

In 1969, soon after graduating from high school, Richman spent nine months in New York City, where he hung out with The Velvet Underground– whom he’d met the year before when they were based in Boston and a mainstay at The Boston Tea Party – and opened for them once and while living in the notoriously rodent-infested Hotel Albert.

The Modern Lovers

Upon returning to Boston he formed The Modern Lovers’ initial lineup of bassist Rolfe Anderson (later of Human Sexual Response), guitarist John Felice (later of The Real Kids) and drummer David Robinson (later of The Cars). In September 1970, they played their first gig, opening for Catfish Black (later renamed The Sidewinders) at the Cambridge YMCA. In early 1971, Anderson and Felice left, replaced by Harvard students Ernie Brooks (later sideman for David Johansen) on bass and keyboardist Jerry Harrison (later of Talking Heads). Though the group’s then-atypical sound made repeat gigs rare at first, eventually their popularity grew enough in and around Boston that Stuart Love of Warner Bros. Records booked time for them at Intermedia Sound Studios. Those sessions produced the version of “Hospital” that appears on their album.

In 1972, following a glowing a review of a Lovers gig by renowned rock journalist Lillian Roxon, A&M also took interest and in April that year the Lovers went to Los Angeles to make two demos: one for Warner Bros., produced by John Cale of The Velvet Underground, and another for A&M, produced by Allan Mason. All the songs on their eponymous LP were recorded at those sessions except for “Hospital.” The Cale sessions produced “Roadrunner,” “Pablo Picasso,” “Astral Plane,” “Old World”, “She Cracked” and “Someone I Care About” and the Mason ones yielded “Girl Friend,” “Modern World” and a track included on reissues only, “Dignified and Old.”

Warner Bros. signing

In mid-1973, the Lovers signed with Warner Bros. Before starting new sessions, however, they accepted a multi-week residency at the Inverurie Hotel in Bermuda, where Richman became enamored with the laid-back sounds of traditional steelpan and calypso – as memorialized in his 1991 song “Monologue About Bermuda” – and began his striking shift toward a more lyrical, world-music sound.

And that’s when the band started unravelling. Upon returning to the studio that September, Richman insisted on scrapping all existing tracks, an idea the others rejected immediately. All the material from the ensuing sessions was unusable, Warner Bros. decided, so the label had independent producer Kim Fowley oversee additional sessions with the band at Gold Star Studios in Cambridge before rejecting those tapes as acoustically sub-standard. In 1981, Mohawk Records issued them as The Original Modern Lovers.

“Classic” lineup disbanding, The Modern Lovers

In December 1973, the ultimate demise of the “classic” Lovers lineup began when Robinson left, replaced by Bob Turner, and Richman’s continued refusal to perform any of his previous material resulted in Warner Bros. cancelling their contract. By February 1974, the original band was finished – over two years before their debut disc hit the shelves.

In 1975, Richman signed with Beserkley Records, founded by ex-A&M promotor Matthew King Kaufman, who bought the 1972 demo tapes from A&M and Warner Bros. In August 1976, Beserkley released those tracks and the “Hospital” version recorded at Intermedia on its Home of the Hits label as The Modern Lovers, now universally hailed as a protopunk masterpiece, the epochal bridge between the Velvets and the punk explosion.

Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers, Other 1970s albums

One month before, Beserkley had released Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers, featuring guitarist Leroy Radcliffe (later of The Chartbusters), bassist Greg “Curly” Keranen and drummer Robinson (the only original Lover to record with Richman after 1973). The group was billed as “Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers” until 1988 and Richman never returned to his Velvets-inspired sound, instead writing songs crafted from a broad spectrum of folk traditions.

In 1977, Richman recorded Rock ‘n’ Roll with the Modern Lovers for Beserkley with Radcliffe, Keranen and drummer Denotra Sharpe. The album included “Egyptian Reggae,” which reached #5 in the UK and, after Asa Brebner  replaced Keranen on bass, the band toured the US, UK and Europe. Following the tour, Beserkley issued The Modern Lovers Live, recorded in Holland, followed by 1979’s Back in Your Life, featuring Brebner and guitarist Andy Paley of The Paley Brothers.

1980s Modern Lovers albums

In 1980, after Richman formed yet another Lovers iteration with Keranen, drummer Michael Guardabascio and singers Ellie Marshall and Beth Harrington, the band toured the US including gigs at The Channel in Boston and The Living Room in Providence before recording the critically acclaimed Jonathan Sings!, released by Sire Records in 1983. In 1985, when the band debuted at the Glastonbury Festival and the Iron Horse Music Hall, Twin/Tone Records issued Rockin’ and Romance, produced by Paley. In 1986, Upside Records released It’s Time For… and in 1988 Rounder Records issued the Lovers’ final album, Modern Lovers ’88.

1990s, 2000s solo albums, Take Me to the Plaza DVD

Since disbanding The Modern Lovers, Richman has recorded 18 solo albums, each featuring his singular blend of melodic, gentle songs with minimal instrumentation. While LPs have featured a blend of acoustic and electric instrumentation, in most recent years he’s performed and recorded unplugged only.

In the 1990s, Richman recorded four albums: the Spanish-language ¡Jonathan, Te Vas a Emocionar! (1994), You Must Ask the Heart (1995), Surrender to Jonathan (1996) and I’m So Confused (1998). In 1993, he contributed the song “Hot Nights” to the AIDS-benefit album No Alternative. In the early 2000s, he recorded Her Mystery Not of High Heels and Eye Shadow (2001) and Not So Much to Be Loved as to Love (2004) in addition to a live DVD, Take Me to the Plaza (2002). His most recent albums are Ishkode! Ishkode! (2016), SA (2018), Just a Spark, On Journey from the Dark (2021) and Want to Visit My Inner House (2022).

Modern Lovers covers

The list of artists who’ve recorded songs from The Modern Lovers’ iconic album is a long one because several of the tracks have become postpunk standards. The Sex Pistols and Joan Jett were among the first well-known acts to cover “Roadrunner,” though innumerable other acts have performed the song live.

Burning Sensations’ distortion-heavy version of “Pablo Picasso” was in the 1984 cult classic Repo Man, John Cale of The Velvet Underground included a punchy version of the song on his 1975 album Helen of Troy, Iggy Pop has performed it countless times and David Bowie recorded a sleek version for his 2003 disc Reality. In 1984/5, Echo and the Bunnymen’s live sets often included “She Cracked” and Siouxsie and the Banshees included their rendition in the 1984 box set Downside Up.

Television, Film appearances, Soundtracks

In the 1990s and 2000s, Richman expanded his popularity far beyond the well-established cult following he’s always had by making several appearances on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. He made a cameo appearance in the 1996 Farrelly Brothers film Kingpin and was in several scenes of the 1998 Farrellys’ film There’s Something About Mary, in which he and his long-time drummer Tommy Larkins sang the theme song in Greek-chorus style while making comments about the plot.

The Modern Lovers’ original version of “Roadrunner” was included in the soundtrack for the 2003 movie School of Rock, with the director, Richard Linklater, calling it “the first punk song” and saying it thus deserved to be included along with the other classic tracks in the film. Richman’s “As We Walk to Fenway Park” was on the soundtrack of the Farrellys’ 2005 comedy Fever Pitch and The Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner” plays in the opening sequence of the 2021 documentary Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain.

(by D.S. Monahan) 

Published On: September 8, 2021