Music/Lyrics: Jonathan Richman
Original Artist: The Modern Lovers
Original Album: Modern Lovers (1975)
Historian: Jeremy D. Goodwin
"Roadrunner" opens the offhandedly-brilliant debut album by The Modern Lovers. A simple song about the pleasures of driving down the highway with the radio on (in this case on Route 128 in Massachusetts), the theme and musical content of this song prove the power that is latent within simplicity.
This self-titled album is the link between the work of The Velvet Underground and the New York punk bands of 1975 and beyond. It has been called proto-punk, but the sound is not punk rock proper. Rather, it was the clear and simple aesthetic of The Modern Lovers’ work that inspired the future punks of New York, who searched for a musical path that bypassed the convoluted, conceptual, ego-drenched rock in fashion at the time and for much of the decade. Here was a band quite obviously having fun – singing about girlfriends, mostly – while exhibiting a raw garage sound that had everything to do with The Velvets. In fact, John Cale produced some tracks for the band, and the Lovers covered VU’s obscure song “Foggy Notion” in concert more than a decade before it was actually released.
Some of the band’s mythical status comes from the fact that its debut album was the only one with the original members. In fact, even this was not a proper album; it is composed mostly by demo tracks that were cut in a Warner Brother’s studio in 1972, and later purchased by independent label Beserkley and released in 1975. Frontman and songwriter Jonathan Richman continued to perform and record under the name The Modern Lovers with different musicians, and has been officially a solo artist since the eighties. As Richman floated on into a peculiar mixture of irrelevancy and iconic status, the other original members of The Modern Lovers went on to inhabit different corners of rock and roll history. Keyboardist Jerry Harrison had Talking Heads a few years around the corner, and drummer David Robinson would surface in The Cars. Bassist Ernie Brooks rounded out the group. The later success of these musicians only serves to highlight the improbable importance of the album The Modern Lovers.
Richman was introduced to a new generation of cultural consumers interested in jokes about tits and shits when he appeared as the Chorus in the Farrelly brothers’ movie, There’s Something About Mary. His quirky brilliance continues to surface in such tunes as “I Was Dancing At the Lesbian Bar” and “Our Swingin’ Pad.” His current releases are available on Rounder.
Phish’s choice of “Roadrunner” to open the first of two nights at Great Woods (a.k.a. Tweeter Center, a.k.a. Comcast Center) on the “farewell” tour of fall 2000 was an obvious nod to the Massachusetts audience, recalling the breakout of Boston’s “Foreplay/Long Time” when the band returned to the venue in 1999 after four years. The performance was musically similar to the album version, but Trey inserted several hilarious lyrical ad-libs, referencing people in the Phish universe who hail from the land of the Puritans.
For those interested in playing “Roadrunner” very loud while driving very fast, you don’t have to be in Massachusetts. Research has revealed that it also works particularly well on Route 75, in the flatlands between the Utah state line and Grand Junction, Colorado.