‘The Modern Lovers’ by Sean L. Maloney reviewed

Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series tells the story behind one of the ultimate cult albums of the 20th century.

“Electricity comes from other planets” – Lou Reed.

Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 range of monographs focusing on classic albums across the whole spectrum, has been flying the flag for quality, book-length music criticism and commentary for some time now, acclaimed for its “freewheeling and eclectic” (New York Times Book Review) approach to its titles, and dubbed “One of the coolest publishing imprints on the planet” (Bookslut).

Volume 119 in the series puts the self-titled debut by Jonathon Richman’s Modern Lovers under the microscope, and it makes for an interesting case study because Modern Lovers was never intended to be an album proper, being a series of demos that had passed through the hands of Warner Bros. and A&M.

However, upon its 1976 release, two years after its lineup had gone their separate ways and with Richman having moved on from garage rock, it became an integral touchstone of the emergent punk movement on both sides of the Atlantic, and a massively influential and inspirational album for generations of disenfranchised suburban punks with poetic souls – its influence can be distinctly heard (consciously or otherwise) in Courtney Barnett’s superb 2015 debut Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit.

Even if you’re not familiar with Modern Lovers, chances are you will recognise its lead-off track Roadrunner, a “clarion call for outsiders everywhere”, memorably demolished by the Sex Pistols on The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle, or the throbbing Pablo Picasso, as covered by Richman’s producer John Cale, Burning Sensations (on the Repo Man soundtrack), TV Personalities and David Bowie, who reconfigured it in 2003 as a companion piece to his earlier Andy Warhol.

As Sean L. Maloney writes, “For a collection of songs that were never meant to be released it has become one of the most beloved and revered in the rock canon.”

In Modern Lovers’ nine songs (or 11 or 12, depending if you own the 1986 Rhino CD or the 1992 Rev/Ola CD) the young Jonathan Richman exposed his soul, as a gawky, geeky, teenager with this series of diary entries that are funny, disarmingly honest, and intensely personal, standing apart from the rebellious degeneracy of Alice Cooper or the New York Dolls with his dispatches from suburban New England as a clean-cut advocate of health food, sobriety and monogamy – Maloney notes, “A strong anti-drug stance in the early ‘70s was a pretty huge fuck you to a lot of rock fans” – accompanied by a chugging garage band sound of horizontal shards of guitar, subway train electric organ drone (equal parts Sister Ray, 96 Tears and the Doors) against a grinding, economical, precise rhythm section.

Like the album itself, Sean L. Maloney’s The Modern Lovers is a compact journal of time and space: It tells the story of this cuckoo of an album by travelling down its timeline, a chronological history from 1966 to 1976, and situates it in the context of the environment that created it, the location its songs are a product of: the New England city of Boston. Mahoney, a Bostonite himself, describes the Boston of ’66 as “a city teetering on the brink of collapse, an ageing city grappling to define its identity in a rapidly changing world”, analogous with Richman’s own “search for self-understanding in the maelstrom of contemporary change.”

Maloney paints a vivid picture of Boston in the mid to late ‘60s as Richman comes of age, a city whose redesign under the Eisenhower administration was decimated by “white flight and urban renewal”, caught between the ‘Old World’ and the ‘New World’. We read of its heritage as the scene of early shows by Joan Baez and an unbilled Bob Dylan, marking it “A magnet for the country’s best and brightest, weirdest and wildest” while buckling against civic authoritarianism: Symphony Cinema will be busted on obscenity charges after showing Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls (earning it the marquee quote “Banned In Boston!”) just before Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, starring the Velvet Underground, roll up round the corner at The Boston Tea Party, “one of the first and most esteemed of the city’s psychedelic shacks.”  Elsewhere, Mayor Daniel J. Hayes announces his self-proclaimed ‘War on Hippies’, and the major labels try and fail to launch a new music movement ‘the Bosstown Sound’, a “cynical” music scene “pretending to be a naturally evolved organism.”

The Velvet Underground’s weekend-long engagement in May 1967 provides a Damescene conversion to a clean-cut geeky teenager: “When I was sixteen, I heard the Velvet Underground and everything changed.” Richman told Wax! Crackle! Pop! in 2014.

“Sometimes you just plain couldn’t figure out where on the stage those strange sounds and harmonics were coming from, because of the eerie calm with which they played and improvised in front of you, and because every time they’d come to town they’d introduce at least one new song that would, for better or worse, sound like nothing else that had gone before in rock music.”

In this painterly tale, Maloney not only gives the reader a broad overview of how this founding city found itself caught between the past and the future, but also how it inevitably influenced the philosophical outlook of Richman’s lyrics on The Modern Lovers. For example, Maloney quotes a famous Bostonian:

“The first thing we have to say respecting what are called new views here in New England, at the present time, is, that they are not new, but the very oldest of thoughts cast into the mould of these new times.”

This is not the voice of Richman, but the transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, speaking at the Masonic Temple, Boston in 1842. Insights such as this and Maloney’s overview of Boston as a city caught in the counterculture wars, ties Modern Lovers’ outlook definitively to Richman’s cultural heritage, and also the dialogue that plays out throughout many of the songs on Modern Lovers: In Old World, he sings, “It’s bleak in the 1970s sun but I still love the old world” and elsewhere rues the struggle of being in love with a “sensitive” wild child who still “understood the European things of 1943”.

The parallels between Emerson and his kind, Boston’s cultural and social history and Richman’s mindset offer a context to Modern Lovers beyond the universal suburban angst; in the author’s own words, finding a “third way” when “countering the counterculture, rebelling against the rebellion and splintering off of (sic) the splinter groups” and how songs such as Pablo Picasso create “a narrative with multiple viewpoints.”

Against this backdrop, Maloney goes on to chronicle the evolution and dissolution of the Modern Lovers Mk. I that for rock historians offers an appreciation of their stillborn career in the wider context of the early 70s rock scene. The dramatis personae includes not only the Velvet Underground who inspired Richman and whose founder member, John Cale, produced the group’s demo recordings, fellow musicians David Robinson, Ernie Brooks and Jerry Harrison (later of Talking Heads, after leaving Modern Lovers to study architecture), scenesters and tastemakers Danny Fields and Kim Fowley,fellow Boston bands J. Geils Band and Aerosmith and cameos from the GTOs, New York Dolls, Jayne County, Jackie Curtis and Patti Smith.

Suitable page space is also devoted to the significance of rock journo Lillian Roxon, who made the Modern Lovers a hot property. Maloney is keen to note that the music press was “an old boys club populated by new school freaks still steeped in machismo and male gaze despite otherwise progressive ethics” and Roxon is afforded full credit for her significance in the annals of rock journalism, “New York’s top taste maker” with an “unfailing ear for great songs”. Lillian Roxon, Maloney notes, “had taken rock music seriously before anyone in the mainstream media.” Look her up.

The actual construction and recording of the songs that comprised Beserkely’s 1976 Modern Lovers album pass by in a flash, suitably enough for the band’s “liminal existence”, finding themselves at loggerheads with John Cale who was keen to recreate the violent energy of the Modern Lovers ’72 incarnation (“darkness against light”) while Jonathan retreated into “a mythical time before the amplification wars of the late ‘60s”.

It’s a now all too familiar tale of a garage band finding themselves no longer on the fringes of the biz but staring right into the pit of the volcano; tensions exacerbated by negotiating with band mates, producers and record labels, and they disbanded before “most of the music world was even aware that they existed.”

As the early ‘70s turn into the mid 1970s, the demos sit in the vault, as the record industry becomes serious business – “Gone are the days of anarchy and marginality”, Maloney writes – and the Modern Lovers’ counterparts rise to the ascendant: The J. Geils Band hit paydirt with Nightmares…and Other Tales from the Vinyl Jungle and Aerosmith join forces with Jack Douglas (the man behind Alice Cooper and New York Dolls), developing their reputation as a wild live act but still to overcome the cynicism of the music press (“Too much sameness, creatively pale” – Boston Globe) but soon to become stadium rock legends.

Everything changes in 1976 when Richman records with Matthew Kaufman’s Beserkely Records, donating Roadrunner and Government Center to the label’s cheekily titled Chartbusters No.1, soon appearing in the Sex Pistols’ repertoire of garage band covers, and the Lovers’ demos finally appearing on album. By this time, their ex-producer John Cale had already covered Pablo Picasso on Helen Of Troy, which “put Richman’s work on te stereo of art-rock fans all over the world.”

Too cool for its time, The Modern Lovers may not have been the sound of Jonathan Richman Circa 1976, but it arrived on wax just in time “to predict and participate in a cultural moment”, as Maloney writes. Melody Maker approved it as “an astonishing piece of vinyl”, just as Danny Fields (who first discovered Richman) struck gold with the Ramones, who also knew a thing or two about count-ins, suburban malaise and being cute and geeky.

It had, Maloney writes, “an energy, an intimacy and vibrancy that has been increasingly marginalised since Sgt. Pepper ushered in the modern recording era.”

Richman had been punk before punk: His music was not about adherence to discipline, but – to quote Lou Reed in the liner notes of Metal Machine Music – “Passion – realism – was the key”. David Robinson: “Jonathan didn’t have a standard voice. He just wanted to show the world that anyone could do it. All you had to have was feeling.”

This book is certainly one of the most memorable and rewarding additions to the 33 1/3 canon; it takes a much loved album that for many is a solitary love affair, so intimate are its songs, and does not dispel its magic but offers the reader a greater appreciation of its merits, an understanding of its cultural DNA, and an admiration of how what is basically an official bootleg created “an alternative universe where White Light/White Heat was bigger than Sgt. Pepper’s and the world is overrun with overdriven electric piano.”


❉ ‘The Modern Lovers’ by Sean L. Maloney was published by Bloomsbury Academic’s 33 1/3 series on 9 February 2017, RRP £10.99

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