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. Read more
Listen to this track by rock ‘n’ roll throwback eccentric Jonathan Richman and his band the Modern Lovers with their ode to the symbol of suburban gentrification. It’s ‘Rockin’ Shopping Center’, as taken from the band’s 1977 self-titled LP Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers.
There is perhaps a fine line between earnest songwriting and ironic songwriting. The great thing about Jonathan Richman is that you’re never really sure. With this tune, Richman asserts his approach that anything can be a subject of a song if you choose to write about it. And there is something innately endearing about this, and a lot of his other work that often sounds like wacked out children’s music written on the spot more so than planned out beforehand.
Yet, Richman’s music is clearly in the traditional rock ‘n’ roll tradition, with a stylistic nod to the Velvet Underground too, which makes Richman something of a forerunner to both punk and post-punk. Richman’s ‘Roadrunner’ would be a touchstone for punk rock bands from the mid-70s and onward.
I personally love this tune, perhaps because it evokes a landscape of my childhood, the ‘burbs where shopping malls were like little cultural Meccas, characterized as they are by little details that are not really noticed on any conscious level. Yet, Richman is able to connect just by bringing those details out. Much like kindred spirit Robyn Hitchcock, Jonathan Richman’s strength as a writer lies in his ability to avoid cliches, simply by writing about subjects that other songwriters don’t generally identify as topics for songs.
And often what comes out are statements that make a point, without necessarily being the intention of the song on its surface. On this one, the shopping center represents (maybe) the homogeneity of shopping malls, and the death of the main street in America. Or, maybe he’s just talking about a specific day he spent thinking about malls. Or, maybe one day he went shopping and this song popped into his head. And of course, it could be all three. His almost childlike approach to songwriting and performing is so disarming, that it almost pays better dividends not to worry too much about what the songs are supposed to mean, or what he intended when he wrote them.