The Modern Lovers were an early 70s band that shouldn’t really warrant more than the tiniest of mentions in the history of Rock.
Their recording career never managed to get beyond the demo stage. And no material of any kind - not even a single demo - was released during their 5-year long existence.
And if that wasn’t enough, they were a band that, by their own admission, were created with just one goal in mind - to replicate the sound of their heroes, the Velvet Underground. Their obsession even led them as far as hiring VU co-founder, original bassist and viola-wielding musical terrorist, John Cale, as producer of one of their demo-recording sessions (at which this version of ‘Pablo Picasso’ was created).
Five years spent trying to replicate another band’s sound without a single piece of vinyl to show for it isn’t perhaps the stuff of dreams. So it’s a little surprising then that the Modern Lovers actually ended up being an enormous influence on Punk. And even more of a surprise that they were perhaps more influential for many punk bands than - heresy upon heresy – the Velvets themselves.
For two reasons:
Number 1: Timing.
Lead singer/guitarist/song writer, Jonathan Richman, was as stubborn as he was talented. After four years of gigging and recording a stream of demos that most bands would have killed for, he took a trip to Barbados and came back having had his head completely turned by the music he heard there. So much so that he decided that he would change musical style, completely and immediately. From that moment on, he stubbornly refused to plug in his fuzzy, feedback-drenched, homage-to-the-Velvets guitar ever again, let alone play any of the songs the band had spent the last five years or so demoing and perfecting.
Unsurprisingly, the rest of the band weren’t at all pleased that their hard work and imminent success were to be binned and they deserted Jonathan in 1974 when they finally realised he was serious and that none of their fantastic material would ever be recorded for vinyl release.
Jonathan eventually made it onto vinyl proper as Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers performing, as promised, in a far more jovial and mellow style and sounding nothing like the original Modern Lovers. And true to his word he never played any of the songs committed to demo tape by the original Modern Lovers ever again.
However, the original Modern Lover demos which were recorded in 1971 and 1972 were far too good to be suppressed forever. They finally saw the light of day (presumably against Jonathan’s wishes) in 1976 when they were released on vinyl for the first time as the ‘Modern Lovers’ album.
Of course, by then there was revolution in the air and nascent Punks around the globe were eager to discover an alternative Rock history to that being served up by the stars of the day and to get their hands on anything that sounded rough, simple, unpretentious and, just as importantly, nothing like Yes or The Eagles. The Modern Lovers’ demos - which I’m sure most Punks had no idea came from 1971 and 1972 - were all of that. And because they had just been released for the first time – even though they were in reality five or six years old – they sounded even more fresh and of the moment than the Velvets’ and other earlier groups pre-1976 calls to action. ‘Roadrunner’, the most famous demo of them all, recorded in 1972, proved so ‘of the moment’ in 1977 that it even charted. And, along with the rest of the demos, was essential listening - and learning - for any wannabe Punk.
Number 2: The Realisation That, Brilliant As They Were, Listening To The Velvets Everyday Is Actually Quite Hard Work.
In reality Jonathan Richman was the most unlikely of Velvets’ obsessives. Although he left his native Boston to be closer to his heroes in NYC, became friends with the band and even opened for them, he was chalk to Lou Reed’s cheese. Instead of Lou’s preoccupations with heroine, ambiguous sexuality, sado-masochism and death, Jonathan wanted to sing about innocent, adolescent love, nostalgia for the 50s and the joys of driving around Boston’s ring roads, late at night, with the car windows open, listening to the radio and gazing at the stars because, despite his Lou Reed hero-worship, he lived for these more joyful and uplifting moments in life far more than he ever wanted to be waiting for the ‘man’ in a stairwell in a dangerous Harlem tenement block.
And while his music borrowed tremendously from the Velvets’, his eternally positive attitude to life gave that too, just like his lyrics, a more optimistic tone.
So the Modern Lovers, despite their ambitions, never became Velvets copyists. Instead they became the Velvets’ happier, more upbeat, less sinister, less arty, easier to grasp, sometimes genuinely funny and, occasionally, equally brilliant sibling. The Velvet Overground perhaps.
But of course, even the early, groundbreaking, card-carrying, Punks found that snarling for the cameras, trying to look really really cool and pretending to be angst-ridden, angry and unhappy with the World, all the time, was actually quite hard work.
And when they came up for air, they also found that listening to, and taking lessons from, the recent Modern Lovers album of demos was as inspirational as, and more fun than, going back to the Velvets’ wonderful but fairly hard-core source material. Just ask Mr. Angry himself, Johnny Rotten, and the Pistols who managed to avoid snarling for a full five minutes when they recorded a version of the ever-so-happy ‘Roadrunner’, almost immediately after it emerged from the vaults in ’76.
Available on the CD, ‘The Modern Lovers’: Amazon