The Modern Lovers: The Modern Lovers

There's not a dud among all nine tracks here, declares Steve Sutherland as he listens to the recent 180g reissue of Jonathan Richman's proto-punk debut LP

According to that top old egghead Brain Eno, 'The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band'. One of those is a weird young man from a place called Natick, some 17 miles West of Boston, Massachusetts. The little guy's name is Jonathan Michael Richman and he was once so obsessed with The Velvet Underground that he quit school and skipped off to New York to seek them out.

He crashed for a while on their manager Steve Sesnick's sofa, then moved into a fleapit of a hotel for a few months from whence he kind of stalked Lou Reed & Co until the Big Apple and lack of funds drove him back home. Here he decided to form his own band because 'I was lonely and figured that way I'd make friends'.


I guess you've surmised already that this Jonathan chap is no ordinary wannabe rock star. The friends he makes, after a false start or two, are well matched as bandmates if short-lived as close buddies. There's Jerry Harrison who plays ace garage rock keyboards and soon moves on to join Talking Heads, then Tom Tom Club. And there's David Robinson, a crisp drummer who winds up in The Cars. In the short time things are working out between them in Boston, Jonathan calls them The Modern Lovers, a well-thought-out name for a group obsessed with romance and cultural motion.

Lou Reed has quit The Velvet Underground in a huff after the recording of their fourth LP, Loaded, and Jonathan determines to grab the baton and further their legacy, with a splash of Iggy & The Stooges, his other main musical squeeze, on the side. Jonathan is drawn to the light and the themes of his songs take on wholesomeness, respect for the past, abhorrence of drug-taking – which makes his Modern Lovers the ultimate outsiders in an era when getting blitzed and proselytising about year zero are all the rage. It's an attitude that's neatly summed up by a wonderful number called 'I'm Straight' which fingers one of his earliest bandmates, John Felice, as Hippie Johnny. However, the song doesn't make it onto the album we're here today to eulogise, so we'll let that one lie.

Crazy Move
The Modern Lovers play gigs on the local circuit incongruously supporting Aerosmith and the like, and pretty soon they've gained the kind of reputation that attracts the attention of record companies on the look out for the next new thing – or, failing that, the thing that does what they've already got but even better.


Jonathan's bunch fall into the first category and, after a local critic writes: 'Their music is… powerful, danceable, sinister and funny all at the same time', A&M and Warner Brothers start sniffing around, both financing the group to demo in Los Angeles. The A&M sessions are helmed by in-house producers, but Warners put them in with ex-Velvet Underground founder John Cale. Both sessions go well enough and Jonathan decides, not surprisingly really, to sign with Warners and continue to work with Cale.

So far so hunky dory. But then something freaky happens. Jonathan gets it into his head that the sounds they've been making are too aggressive, too loud. So when the group returns to record, Jonathan moves into Emmylou Harris' house in Van Nuys and steadfastly refuses to revisit the songs he'd demo-ed, driving Cale and his bandmates crazy.

There were some other sessions with Kim Fowley who, characteristically, declares he's going to make them 'a nerdy Led Zep'. But that's all hot air. Warners insists the group play their old numbers live, especially the one they'd planned as a single – a rocker called 'Roadrunner'. But Jonathan stands firm and when the record company execs haul their suits down to see him at The Bottom Line, he stands at the mic and refuses to sing a note. One by one everyone splits; Jonathan's LA golfing buddy Gram Parsons fatally overdoses in the desert, Jonathan gets sad and Warners loses interest… bye bye Johnny.