Adrienne and I were asked recently to be guests on the Punk Lotto Podcast. Punk Lotto is hosted by two brothers, one in NC and one in Phoenix, AZ. They draw an LP and an EP from a single year, selecting the records chosen by a random number generator based on their numbered rank on the Rate Your Music Punk charts. A and I got the pick of the draw and chose the year 1976, and the LP we were to discuss was The Modern Lovers, released in 1976 on Beserkley Records and the EP Burn My Eye by Australians Radio Birdman (https://punklottopod.simplecast.com/episodes/the-modern-lovers-radio-birdman-w-singles-going-steady).
We clearly love this record as we have already featured Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers’ single ‘Roadrunner’ (tinyurl.com/zubrunner) on our Singles Going Steady Podcast, and it is a record that we are pretty familiar with. Still, wanting to be a good host, and being a fan of the 33 ⅓ book series (all about important albums) I got a copy of Maloney’s book. I also generally serve as the designated Zub reader for when A’s time is tight; it was almost compulsory that I add this to my reading list.
The book is structured along the songs on the record, but includes songs from the CD reissue that weren’t on the original LP (‘Dignified And Old,’ ‘I’m Straight,’ and ‘Government Center’), but that is a minor quibble. His conceit for the book seems to be “the struggle between the old and the new world,” a concept that’s the crux of Richman’s ‘Old World,’ a track featured on this album. As such, there's a LOT of discussion about the growth and gentrification of Boston in the 1970’s, with contemporary Mayor Kevin White a central figure in the book. The rock scene in Boston is well-covered; there are plenty of pages about Aerosmith and J. Geils and the Tea Party venue as well as the growth of free form FM stations such as WBCN.
I found the stories about Boston very interesting, as I was raised in the suburbs of the city (near Natick, where Jonathan is from) and remember a lot of the events involved in the story. As to the Modern Lovers LP itself, there is not as much information, as Richman himself is notoriously private. The facts are that the songs on The Modern Lovers are all demos, mostly recorded in 1972. The band was involved in a label bidding war, but Richman himself disowned the early recordings. They were never meant to be released as an LP; the songs were not recorded as a cohesive album. So, like most great things in rock, The Modern Lovers LP was a brilliant mistake.
Even so, there is no doubt that The Modern Lovers LP is a very influential recording. It’s often called the bridge between The Velvet Underground and The Sex Pistols. It is definitely a proto punk triumph. And for a seemingly cuddly guy, Richman himself is a contrarian and not at all willing to play the record business ’game;’ that’s pretty punk if you think about it.
If this is a record you love, you should get this book. If you don’t know the record, it is accessible and essential and the book a useful backstory to appreciating this seminal work. A great companion read is Ryan H. Walsh’s Astral Weeks, which covers the same era in Boston but through the lens of Van Morrison, who lived in Boston while recording the album in the title. Sean Maloney’s book, focused on The Modern Lovers, also has covered Boston rock from that angle for a similar time and place; he’s done a great job with this book. Read the book and spend some time with Jonathan. Stay in love with rock and roll.