The Modern Lovers  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Led by Jonathan Richman, the protopunk band The Modern Lovers came out of Massachusetts in the early 1970s. Their classic debut album, the eponymous The Modern Lovers contained heartfelt songs about dating awkwardness, growing up in Massachusetts, and love of life. Many feel their best work is the first album and the outtakes from those sessions. The sound of the band owed a great deal to the influence of The Velvet Underground, but also pointed the way towards much of the punk, New Wave and indie rock of the following decades.

Richman became enamored with the Velvet Underground while he was still in high school, and after graduating in 1969, he moved to New York City where he became personally acquainted with the band. Richman spent a couple of weeks sleeping on Velvets lead singer Lou Reed's sofa before moving into the Hotel Albert, a residence known for its poor conditions. After nine months in New York, Richman moved back to his native Boston and organized a band modeled after the Velvets. Christening themselves "the Modern Lovers," the group included Richman's childhood friend John Felice as guitarist, David Robinson on drums, and Rolfe Anderson on bass. The Modern Lovers played their first date in September 1970, barely a month after Richman's return to Boston. By this time their setlist already included such classic Richman songs as "Roadrunner", "She Cracked" and "Hospital".

In early 1971 Anderson and Felice departed; they were replaced by bassist Ernie Brooks, and keyboardist Jerry Harrison, completing the classic lineup of the Modern Lovers. This new configuration became very popular in the Boston area, and by the fall of 1971, enthusiastic word-of-mouth led to the Modern Lovers' first exposure to a major label when Stuart Love of Warner Bros. Records contacted them and organized the band's first multi-track session at Intermedia Studio in Boston. The demo produced from this session generated more attention from the industry, and soon A&M Records was interested in the band as well.

In April 1972, the Modern Lovers traveled to Los Angeles where they held two demo sessions; the first was produced by the Velvet Underground's John Cale for Warner Bros. while the second was produced by Alan Mason for A&M. In June 1972 producer Kim Fowley also courted the band, traveling to Boston to produce some poor-quality demos. A later session in 1973 with Fowley was later released in 1981 on an album misleadingly titled The Original Modern Lovers" (reissued on CD by Bomp Records in 2000).

Despite their continued success as a live act, the Modern Lovers had a difficult time securing a record deal. Cale produced another session for the band in Los Angeles in September 1973, but nothing usable was recorded. Soon after, Fowley produced yet another sessions with the band, this time at Gold Star Studios with much better results than he'd had in Boston, but by this time Richman was pushing for a drastic, new direction. Richman wanted to scrap all of the tracks they had recorded and start over with a mellower, more lyrical sound. The rest of the band, while not opposed to such a shift later, insisted that they record as they sounded now. These issues stymied efforts to complete a debut album, and, eventually, led to the band's breakup in February 1974.

Richman continued recording on his own, eventually moving to California in 1975 to begin working with Beserkley Records. While Richman never returned to the Velvets-inspired sound of the original Modern Lovers, the demo recordings made with that group eventually surfaced in various formats. The first of these releases came in 1976 when Beserkley compiled a posthumous LP from the first demo two sessions produced by Cale and Mason; issued on Beserkley's Home of the Hits subsidiary, the album was simply titled The Modern Lovers and included celebrated tracks such as "Roadrunner", "She Cracked", and "Pablo Picasso". Richman did not recognize this compilation as his "first album," preferring to recognize his debut as 1977's Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers, an album pursuing the lighter, softer direction he had in mind with a completely different band. However, The Modern Lovers was given an enthusiastic, critical reception, with critic Ira Robbins hailing it as "one of the truly great art rock albums of all time," and it influenced numerous aspiring punk rock musicians on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Sex Pistols (who covered "Roadrunner" on The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle).

Despite the original group's premature break-up, many of its members found considerable success elsewhere: founding member John Felice formed the seminal Real Kids, Jerry Harrison later joined Talking Heads, David Robinson co-founded the Cars, and Ernie Brooks would later work with David Johansen, Elliott Murphy, and Gary Lucas.

In early 1976, Richman put together a new version of the Modern Lovers, with Leroy Radcliffe (guitar), Greg "Curly" Keranen (bass) and the returning David Robinson (drums). Keranen had previously played with The Rubinoos, and Radcliffe with Todd Rundgren. They recorded the album Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers, but Robinson again left after Richman persisted in reducing the size and volume of his drum kit, and was replaced by D. Sharpe. Keranen also left and was replaced by Asa Brebner. This band recorded the album Rock and Roll with the Modern Lovers, and toured, but finally split up at the end of a UK tour in 1978. In 1980 Richman again formed a new Modern Lovers, with Keranen, drummer Michael Guardabascio and backing singers Ellie Marshall and Beth Harrington. This group ended in 1984, and the final version of the Modern Lovers, with Andy Paley, Brennan Totten and (initially) Asa Brebner again, toured and recorded between 1985 and 1988.

Richman continues to perform, often solo and preferring acoustic instruments, and currently has no plans to undertake another group like his original band. A tribute album comprised primarily of Modern Lovers songs, If I Were a Richman: a Tribute to the Music of Jonathan Richman, was released by Wampus Multimedia in 2001.



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