While waiting for the next interviewee to answer my questions, I will edit today some essay Barry Marshall had forwarded to me about the genesis of the Modern Lovers. It is a draft of a part of the chapter written by Barry, professor in musicology, for the New England version of the Greenwood Encyclopedia of Regional American Culture. Some of this was cut down in the published version and has never been issued before.
Aerosmith was undoubtedly the most successful rock band to come out of New England in the early seventies. I want to focus on two less successful bands during this period who had a tremendous impact on later acts, both locally and nationally.
The Sidewinders and Modern Lovers could both be looked at now as being ahead of their time: both were major influences on the punk rock and new wave scenes that developed in the mid to late seventies, and both had band members that went on to huge commercial success in later bands.
The Sidewinders’ guitarist Billy Squier had several hits under his own name in the eighties, bassist Leigh Foxx played with Patti Smith, Patty Smythe (could anyone else have bragging right s like that?), and Blondie, while singer Andy Paley produced and wrote songs with artists ranging from Brian Wilson to Madonna. Modern Lovers’ drummer David Robinson helped drive the Cars to multi-platinum success, sometime guitarist John Felice fronted seminal Boston group the Real Kids, and keyboardist Jerry Harrison became a key member of Talking Heads and is also a successful producer today. In the midst of the overplaying, pseudo-virtuoso, “boogie band” era of the early seventies Boston scene, the Sidewinders and Modern Lovers each established their own sound with a minimalist yet hard hitting approach that informed the playing of generations of bands to come, especially in the later punk rock and new wave music scenes.
The truly unique character and artist amongst these characters was Modern Lovers’ leader, guitarist and singer Jonathan Richman. His sensibility was simultaneously pure nineteenth century romantic and decidedly post-modernist (sans irony). In the midst of the drug-infused late-hippy era of the early seventies, Jonathan wrote songs that declared bluntly, “I’m straight! – Not like hippie Ernie” or “I don’t want a girl – to fool around with, what I want is a girl that I care about, - or I want nothing, at all, all right!” What he was looking for in his music was love, modern love, or at least his confused and sincerely tortured fantasies of it. He also (uniquely for a young musician in that era) wrote songs celebrating the new designs, architecture and societal structures of the “Modern World” and the traditions and social relations of the “Old World” (both were song titles) equally.
He formed a band, which, although influenced by obvious precursors like the Velvet Underground and the Stooges, created a unique sound which became so influential that it practically constituted its own genre. While many local audiences at the time thought that the band might be a joke or put-on, they were saying and playing something quite new and different. With the insistent beat of drummer David Robinson and bassist Ernie Brooks, Jerry Harrison’s Farfisa organ or Fender Rhodes (played often with heavy distortion) and Richman’s crazed guitar (a combination of lead and rhythm that was equal parts Chuck Berry, the Kingsmen, and Lou Reed) and his sincere, “pitch-challenged” vocals, the Modern Lovers created a completely new fusion, that, both in their music and in Jonathan’s lyrics, redefined the direction of popular music.
WBCN D.J. Maxanne Satori started playing the demo of Jonathan’s ode to driving the suburban highways of Boston, “Roadrunner”, in prime time afternoon drive-time in 1972, and soon it became the most requested song at the station. Maxanne was not only the first female jock in New England, she also played a key role in helping local bands (especially Aerosmith, the Sidewinders and the Modern Lovers, and later the Cars) by playing their demo tapes on prime time radio. This was part of a key role that commercial radio could play in the development of bands, one that doesn’t happen anymore.
The group spent time in 1971 and 1972 recording and performing in Los Angeles and Boston working with producers like John Cale (from the Velvet Underground, who had also produced the first Stooges album), Kim Fowley, and Allan Mason. Most of what became the band’s classic recordings were done in this period as demos. They signed to Warner Brothers Records in1973, and then attempted to really record their album, again with John Cale in charge. Jonathan was undergoing changes in his outlook and musical philosophy at this point and began to simultaneously reassess his musical approach (particularly with regards to volume – he wanted it much lower) and to question the possibility of success the band felt was imminent. The sessions fell apart, and although the band’s popularity and influence were still growing, they broke up by 1974. Jonathan started several other versions of the Modern Lovers in the years to come, many of which were also quite influential. The sessions from 72-73 were released finally in 1976 as The Modern Lovers on the Beserkley label “to a rapturous reception and have been regularly re-released since then. These tracks were a profound influence on both British and American punk rock, and cover versions of the songs have been recorded by artists as diverse as John Cale, the Sex Pistols, and Siouxsie and the Banshees and performed live by REM, Talking Heads and Alex Chilton.” In 2003, David Bowie covered “Pablo Picasso”, and artists as varied as Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen have performed Jonathan’s songs live.
Both the Modern Lovers and the Sidewinders were connected (and probably better received) in the New York City scene of the early seventies which revolved around Max’s Kansas City nightclub and Andy Warhol’s Factory / Interview Magazine. In fact Sidewinders’ lead singer Andy Paley was on the cover of the first issue of Interview in 1972. His group grew out of an earlier band of mostly Harvard students called Catfish Black. Besides Paley, the original lineup included Eric Rosenfeld (a talent still talked about in musician circles in Boston) on guitar, Mike Reed on guitar, Leigh Foxx on bass, and Henry Stern (brother of jazz guitarist Mike Stern) on drums. They impressed the Warhol crowd at Max’s gigs and were signed to RCA by Artists and Repertoire head Dennis Katz. Katz had also recently signed David Bowie, the Kinks, and the Velvet Underground’s Lou Reed to his first solo deal; Reed’s producer Richard Robinson was set to produce the Sidewinders first album. A last minute snafu caused the substitution of Lenny Kaye, best known then as a rock critic, but later to play with Patti Smith. The resulting eponymous album, although filled with potential pop classics (at least in terms of the songwriting) was under-produced, and despite excellent reviews in both the trades and Rolling Stone and Creem, never took off commercially.
Guitarist Billy Squier joined after the album was released, and, after Rosenfeld left, the Sidewinders entered another prolific period, with Paley penning classic pop love songs like “Rendezvous” and raunchy rockers like “Streetwalker” that should have been hits. They never quite made it, but their sensibility, so unlike the Modern Lovers, yet nearly as influential, made a strong impression on scores of Boston and New York bands to come.
The Sidewinders and Modern Lovers were strong rivals, and yet had shared many bills and several musicians. Andy Paley later became a major collaborator of Jonathan Richman’s, for a time becoming a member of various versions of the Modern Lovers and later producing many of Jonathan’s albums. He went on to become a staff producer for Warner Brothers and produced many albums and movie soundtracks, notably with Brian Wilson, Jerry Lee Lewis, NRBQ, and Madonna. He has recently been writing and producing music for the Sponge Bob television show.
Jonathan Richman eventually had some commercial success in the late seventies in Europe with “Roadrunner” (from the original Modern Lovers band), “Egyptian Reggae”, and “Morning of our Lives” (from the third version of the band) all hitting the top ten charts. He’s continued to record and tour.
He may have reached some of his biggest audiences in more recent years with regular appearances on the Conan O’Brien TV show and his humorous turn in the Farrelly Brothers movie “There’s Something About Mary” (he also wrote and performed most of the soundtrack). Ultimately his influence ran far further and deeper than did the influence of more commercially successful acts like Aerosmith and Boston.