The Modern Lovers – The Modern Lovers: Round 31 – Tom’s Selection

Although I had been intending to treat the record club to the delights of the debut album by The Modern Lovers for some time now, a recent posting at the seminal sickymouthy blog site (if you don’t already follow this, you really should…it’s awesome stuff!) got me thinking that the club should be introduced to Jonathan Richman sooner rather than later.

As it happened, it complemented Nick’s album of choice (David Bowie’s Low) very well – on both albums it is possible to detect faint echoes of a Germanic sound within the songs (presumably, what with the chronology of The Modern Lovers – it was recorded some years before it was released –  this would be because the key Krautrock players were similarly influenced by the Velvet Underground), both albums were released at the point when punk rock was gathering its head of steam and both albums made us question whether punk was really as necessary, or as groundbreaking, as the ‘I was there’ crew make out. Low and The Modern Lovers both sound as (if not more) revolutionary today than the majority of punk rock records I know but they are revolutionary for very different reasons and whilst the two albums share some common ground they are VERY different beasts.

Whereas Low is beautifully constructed, wonderfully played and impassively glacial, The Modern Lovers is a scuzzy mess of irreverence, bad singing, corny wordplay and fuzzy production. And yet it works brilliantly- if Nick can listen to it in its entirety and not be moved to comment (or talk at length) on the production values, it must be doing something right! Jonathan Richman’s biggest trick is to take the sound of the Velvets and remove it from its pretentious arthouse origins to…somewhere much less self-reverential and MUCH more fun. This is not an album for chin-strokers and pipe smokers; this is an album that will get you tapping your feet, nodding your head…hell, you could even dance to it if you felt so inclined! And by popping the pomposity of the Velvets, he creates a new environment for a familiar sound which alters the way you listen to and hear his music. To me the Velvets always sound claustrophic, urban, paranoid…and often threatening. In contrast, The Modern Lovers is inclusive, expansive and vaguely pastoral heralding America’s wide open spaces as traversed by Roadrunner’s main character.

Although the album kicks off with The Modern Lovers most well known (and most loved?) song, there is no drop in quality over the course of the record’s nine tracks. Despite the inclusion of a couple of slower songs, the overriding musical theme is the pulsating chug of the rhythm section that provides the backdrop to Richman’s songs. It’s a great sound on which to hang some idiosyncratic lyrics, some simplistic but deft melodies and some wonderfully messy guitar lines. And as the head bobbingly magnificent Modern World draws to a close (in which you’re asked to ‘share the Modern World’ with Jonathan – inclusive or what!) you can reflect that sometimes the simple pleasures in life really are the best.

Nick listened: This was great, just what I was hoping for after listening to Roadrunner a few times in my quest for songs featuring the motorik beat. I’ve bought a copy. Not much more to say.

Rob listened: Great record. I only really knew ‘Roadrunner’ ahead of time and subconsciously had Richman filed under literate troubadour, somewhere West of Robyn Hitchcock. This was great, driving rock and roll with a sense of economy which concentrated the groove and an attractive East coast who-gives-a-fuck drawl. I’ve listened to it a couple of times since and it’s irresistible, bridging 20 years of music and reducing them down to a powerful essence. I don’t, however, think it says anything one way or another about punk. The music of 76-78 was always part of a continuum that included this, the Velvets, Nuggets, Stooges, Bowie, MC5, New York Dolls, Pub Rock, Black Sabbath, Beefheart and on and on and on.

Tom Responded: With regard to your final sentence Rob: I know this, you know this but there are plenty of people who would have you believe that music was rotten in the mid 70s and that punk represented some sort of year zero. To my mind, records like Low and The Modern Lovers blow this theory out of the water and suggest that punk was far less essential than is often made out.

Rob responded, even though he shouldn’t and we’re all seeing each other again on Wednesday anyway: Tom, I know you know, and I know you know I know. Anyone who thinks 76 was a total year zero is a total zero, but it did change some things. We talked a little about how the Velvet Underground seem to be afforded less influence these days, and that’s perhaps so. Influences change, and the Jesus and Mary Chain went off the boil in 1988. Perhaps the same is happening with punk. We have another 30 years’ worth of music history to pile on top of it now, so of course its overall influence has diminished, washed out by hip-hop, techno, rave, whatever. But at the time it changed some things and it was, in its own way, important. Things just happened the way they did. Clearly this is a fascinating debate which we can continue next week when I bring along my ‘Best of Sham 69’.

Graham listened: Now Rob and Tom seem to have finished I suppose I should commit my thoughts. There were a few moments on this record where I wondered if the looseness/messiness/corniness were steering it near to rubbishness. It just about gets away with it, but I sensed some laziness.


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