Listen to this track by Massachusetts quartet tagged by many as “proto-punk” and fronted by one Jonathan Richman, The Modern Lovers. It’s “Roadrunner”, a song about driving with the radio on featured on the band’s 1976 eponymous debut record. It was released as a single, and would be recorded over Richman’s career a few times with the band and without. There are a few versions floating around, but this one is my favourite, produced by John Cale in 1972.
Besides that, the song is pure magic to the point that it is amazing to me that it even exists. In some ways, it’s totally amateurish. But, that’s a big part of its charm. When Richman counts off “1,2,,3,4,5,6 …” you know you’re in for something eccentric and cool all at once. Unlike a lot of Jonathan Richman songs, this one is aligned with an expected rock ‘n’ roll subject; driving at night with the radio on, in love with rock ‘n’ roll and being out all night. But, it’s also about being in love with the place you’re from. In Richman’s case, that’s the state of Massachusetts, and the scenery along the way.
This is a song that’s been hailed by many as the first punk song. Where I don’t think I can agree with that (I personally think it was “Louie Louie” myself …), I can understand why people think that. This song has roots that are well known.
Jonathan Richman was drawn to New York from his home state of Massachusetts through his love of the Velvet Underground, for whom he opened when they played dates in Springfield and in Boston. He spent a brief period couch surfing and knocking around the city in a bid to apprentice with his heroes. One of their songs, “Sister Ray” is certainly an influence on “Roadrunner” which he wrote in 1970 at age 19. The song contains the same sort of tension-building two-chord energy (with a third chord making a brief appearance) that would fit so well into the nascent New York punk and art rock scenes that were building up steam by the early 1970s, and later to have an impact in the UK as well.
As far reaching as this is song would become in terms of musical spirit and influence, the thing that makes it the most punk rock besides its driving bare bones groove, is that it really is a song that can be described in 21st century parlance as being hyper-local. One of the defining characteristics of punk rock is that it concerns itself with the things that the writers and singers are dealing with in their lives directly, or in this case celebrating, while also identifying those very same things in the lives of an audience at the same time. This song certainly fits that bill, namechecking Route 128 and the Massachusetts Turnpike by name. But, it also evokes a decidedly suburban landscape, perhaps not as romantic as talking about the city as found in other pop songs, but with a level of familiarity that those buying records in the ‘burbs can understand; the Stop & Shop, the trees, the speed, and a night-time world sliding by as the radio plays your favourite songs.
One of the things I love about Jonathan Richman’s music is that it’s all about the details, the small things in life that go unnoticed by many songwriters. These are just the things which he turns into ecstatic expressions through his unique and famously childlike perspective. This ends up being another aspect that would be taken up by punk rock, too; that anyone can be a songwriter if they take time to notice the world around them, and have the creative spark to say something about it. In this case, it’s the simple act of driving at night, with the tunes blaring in the same thematic vein as Chuck Berry’s “No Particular Place To Go”, yet with his own suburban stamp on it. In other cases, he would focus on all kinds of subjects that appealed to his keen and sensitive eye, whether it was an expected subject for a pop song or not. Anything could be a song to Jonathan Richman.
This song would make a subcultural impact, with cover versions from The Sex Pistols and Joan Jett, among others. It would even be championed as a candidate for the official song of Massachusetts by State Representative Marty Walsh, even if Richman himself didn’t feel that his song was quite weighty enough to be a state anthem. By this time, it’s become an anthem far beyond any official lines on a map in any case. It is a song about simple pleasures through the eyes of a young man, and about how those things mean the world to him as small as they are, and to anyone who has driven around with friends while the radio is playing.
The Modern Lovers would be a sporadic and unstable unit. By the time their debut album was released, the line-up that created it were no more, having disbanded. They split over that old “creative differences” gremlin. But, keyboardist Jerry Harrison would go on to join Talking Heads, and drummer David Robinson would co-found fellow Bostonian band The Cars. Both would continue in the direct and effective playing in those bands that you’re hearing in this song.
Jonathan Richman would go on to have a storied and long-standing career with a small but dedicated fan following. Various line-ups of the Modern Lovers would back him on ensuing albums. His solo career saw him branching out stylistically with a sort of acoustic early rock ‘n’ roll feel, with several world-music references woven in, particularly Latin music. He would even cut a Spanish language record, ¡Jonathan, Te Vas a Emocionar!. Among other things, he would appear as a one-man Greek chorus in the Ferrelly Brothers’ 1998 film There’s Something About Mary. The Ferrellys are long time fans.
He is an active songwriter and performer today, often choosing dates that are far off the beaten path where rock ‘n’ roll shows are concerned. He’s usually found playing solo with just two mics, no amp, and a Spanish guitar, although often with drummer Tommy Larkins on a minimalist drum kit. To get a sense of what to expect at a show and for more of an idea of the Jonathan Richman worldview, take a look at this one hour long concert, Take Me To The Plaza from 2002.
And for a jump start on exploring a richly varied, prolific, and somewhat fragmented catalogue, here’s a Jonathan Richman ten best list from the Guardian.