40 Years Ago: The Modern Lovers’ Release Their Debut After Breaking Up
By the time their debut album came out in August 1976, the Modern Lovers had been broken up for more than two years. What’s more, the music contained on that debut had been recorded at least four years prior. Although it was practically an artifact, The Modern Lovers was still ahead of its time, influencing punk bands, new wave acts and alternative rockers to come.
Jonathan Richman formed the Modern Lovers in Massachusetts in 1970, having been inspired by the grimy vigor of the Velvet Underground. Within a year, the group had built a lineup of Richman on guitar and vocals, David Robinson on drums and Harvard students Ernie Brooks and Jerry Harrison on bass and keyboards, respectively.
Playing a ton of gigs in Boston and New York, the band’s unfettered, energetic sound began to gain the notice of other bands. It wasn’t just the Lovers’ sound; Richman presented a skewed, yet passionate perspective of the world, whether he was cruising on the turnpike (“Roadrunner”) or expressing sympathy for the past (“Old World”). The band started turning heads at record companies, too.
Between late 1971 and early 1972, the Modern Lovers recorded a cluster of demos for Warner Bros. and A&M. The sessions began in Boston and continued in Los Angeles, where the Warner demos were produced by Velvet Undergrounder John Cale. After nearly a year of indecision, the band decided to sign with Warner Bros. with the plan that Cale would helm their first release.
But then, things started to go wrong. Relationships between band members frayed and, after a residence in Bermuda, Richman decided that he favored a softer, laid-back approach to his music – in direct contrast to the hard-charging songs that first drew so much attention. When the Cale sessions fell apart, the band took another shot with Kim Fowley behind the boards. That attempt didn’t go much better, although the Lovers tracked a couple songs before Warner pulled the plug. The band broke up in 1974.
Free to work as a solo artist, Richman signed with a new label run by Matthew “King” Kaufman – the soon-to-be-called Beserkley Records. While Richman recorded new versions of old material and assembled a new band (now called Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers), Kaufman began to assemble a 10-track album from remixed versions of the Lovers’ demo recordings. Keyboardist Harrison had possession of “Hospital,” which he was credited with donating in the liner notes.
So, The Modern Lovers was released on Beserkley in 1976, preserving the raw exuberance of Richman’s early compositions and growling power of the Lovers’ sound. Although the album was far from a hit, it received a fantastic reception from the music press and became an instant influence on many punk bands. Richman’s childlike, yet sage, lyrics seemed to presage the streetcorner wisdom of the Ramones, while the Sex Pistols covered “Roadrunner” within the year.
The legacy has lasted. The Modern Lovers is now perceived as one of the great entries in proto-punk (a genre made up by critics to describe the rock ’n’ roll that influenced punk rock) and frequently makes lists of the best albums ever. “Roadrunner” remains a rock ’n’ roll classic and Richman’s sly ode to a lack of confidence, “Pablo Picasso,” has been covered by Iggy Pop, David Bowie and, on the Repo Man soundtrack, Burning Sensations.
Although the Modern Lovers would never fully reunite, each member went on to have major success in the music industry. Richman earned fame as an indie singer-songwriter (and the “Greek chorus” troubadour that appears throughout There’s Something About Mary). Keyboardist Harrison joined Talking Heads for most of their run and then produced records by No Doubt and Live. Bassist Brooks moved on to collaborate with David Johansen and Elliot Murphy. And drummer Robinson co-founded new wave superstars the Cars and designed many of their album covers.
25 Bands You Won't Believe Aren't in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Yet