One of the landmark gigs of 1976 was Patti Smith at the Roundhouse in London. I’ve written about Patti before, in fact I’ve even written about seeing her at the Roundhouse 40 years later, treat yourself and dig it out of my archives free of charge. The support band 40 years ago were no less than the Stranglers, perhaps not the obvious choice for a feminist poet but times were hard and Eddie and the Hot Rods were probably busy somewhere else that night.Just to add to the sense of time, the DJ was apparently John Peel. This being pre punk proper the audience were sprawled about hippie style while they waited for the live music to begin. According to one eyewitness (ear witness?) account I heard recently Peel played one record that was so amazing that the audience actually stood up and applauded when it finished.
And that record was ‘Roadrunner’ by Jonathon Richman.
Richman was only in his mid 20’s by this point but he belonged to another era. While in his teens he had caught the Velvet Underground playing his home town of Boston (Massachusetts not Lincolnshire) and was captivated by something other listeners had missed, the beauty of their sound. Richman’s own music became almost the negative of the Velvets, where they saw darkness and pain Richman saw optimism and light. It’s fair to say that by the time of their third studio record The VU themselves were a far more positive band, they even recorded a song called ‘Jesus’ for Rod’s sake but Lou was never going to give optimism a totally free reign.
Richman achieved a cult status by moving to New York and forming a band, The Modern Lovers. His keyboard player was no less than Jerry Harrison later of Talking Heads. On drums was David Robinson whose name means very little in Britain but he later formed The Cars who actually did conquer America in a way that the likes of Television could only dream of. The Modern Lovers sounded great, a kind of cross between the Velvet Underground and The Doors fronted by Richman’s adenoidal vulnerable vocals. They had recorded with John Cale but by this point Richman wanted a lighter, more acoustic sound and the original band fell apart. (Robinson apparently stayed on for a while but finally quit when Richman told him to get a smaller drum kit)
This led to some confusion as to who the Modern Lovers actually were as Richman formed a new band of the same name who released an album a couple of months before the Cale demos were finally made into an LP. And so we had ‘Roadrunner’, a heavier distorted piece with organ solo, a kind of jollier ‘Sister Ray’, and Roadrunner twice, a lighter more controlled version which is the one most of us know best.
In Britain both versions were released on one single which was so great I actually bought it, and played It to death.
Quite why the record captured our imaginations is unclear. Richman is basically telling us how great it is to drive about ‘with the radio on’. It’s essentially an extension of the Beach Boys and Chuck Berry and the American Dream. This was a time when America actually did have a dream though and cars were part of that. Back in Britain I didn’t know many people who could even drive let alone own a car, if I did radios were an optional extra, even in the 80’s I knew people who would chuck a transistor radio into the passenger seat if they were going on a journey.
Musically it touched more of a nerve, there were only really two chords. Apparently it was recorded pretty straight which took as long as the actual song. Further costs were incurred by adding backing vocals and then mixing. I wasn’t the only fan, Johnny Rotten also loved the song and on the final Sex Pistols reunion insisted on the band playing it (badly!) But it wasn’t just me and Peel and Rotten, the public loved it enough it get it to number 11 in the UK singles chart in 1977.
It wasn’t long before Richman was over in Britain with his new Modern Lovers featuring a stand-up bass and a tiny drum kit. Instead of ‘Pablo Picasso’ (he was never called an asshole) or ‘she cracked’ there were songs about an Ice Cream man and an abdominal snowman in a supermarket.
Some thought Richman had lost it but I found his wide eyed innocence and enthusiasm was really engaging. At a time when a druggy pall hung over music Richman was happy to sing ‘I’m straight’ and play music that connected with a more innocent time, a time when rock and roll and do wop could be performed by anyone with a bit of enthusiasm and a knowledge of three chords. He has carried on in the same vein for 40 years and still puts a smile on my face anytime I hear him.