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The Modern Lovers Biography

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Birth Place: Natick, Massachusetts, USA
Years Active: 1970-1974, 1976-1988 (as Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers)
Genres: Rock, Protopunk, Garage Rock

The Modern Lovers were an American rock band led by Jonathan Richman in the 1970s and 1980s. The original band existed from 1970–74 but their recordings were not released until 1976 or later. It featured Richman and bassist Ernie Brooks with drummer David Robinson (later of The Cars) and keyboardist Jerry Harrison (later of Talking Heads). The sound of the band owed a great deal to the influence of The Velvet Underground, and is now sometimes classed as “protopunk.” It pointed the way towards much of the punk rock, new wave, alternative and indie rock music of later decades.

Born in Natick, Massachusetts, Richman began playing music and writing his own songs in the mid-1960s. He became infatuated with The Velvet Underground, and in 1969 he moved to New York City, lived on the couch of their manager, Steve Sesnick, worked odd jobs and tried to break in as a professional musician. Failing at this, he returned to Boston.

While in Boston, Richman formed The Modern Lovers, a proto-punk garage rock band. Other notable members of the group were keyboard player Jerry Harrison and drummer David Robinson, who later joined Talking Heads and The Cars, respectively. Many of the group's songs featured Boston-based topics.

In 1972 they recorded a series of demos with producer John Cale (formerly of the Velvet Underground). Among these songs were the seminal “Roadrunner” and “Pablo Picasso” which were eventually released on the group's post-breakup album, “The Modern Lovers,” released in August 1976. The album was unique for its time, featuring Velvets-influenced basic three-chord rock at a time when glam and progressive rock were the norm.

Later in 1972, the group also recorded with producer Kim Fowley. These demos were eventually released in 1981 as “The Original Modern Lovers.” Despite playing live regularly, The Modern Lovers had a difficult time securing a recording contract. By late 1973, Richman wanted to scrap the recorded tracks and start again with a mellower, more lyrical sound, influenced by the laid-back local music he had heard when the band had a residency at the Inverurie Hotel in Bermuda earlier in the year. This stymied efforts to complete a debut album, and led to the breakup of The Modern Lovers in February 1974.

In 1975, Richman moved to California to record as a solo singer/songwriter with Beserkley Records. His first released recordings appeared on 1975's “Beserkley Chartbusters” compilation, where he was backed by members of Earth Quake and the Rubinoos.

In January 1976, Richman put together a new version of The Modern Lovers, which included original The Modern Lovers drummer, David Robinson, along with former Rubinoos bassist, Greg “Curly” Keranen and Leroy Radcliffe, on guitar. The albums produced by the new group found Richman turning away from electric rock music towards gentler acoustic textures, with a strong rooting in 1950s rock and roll.

The album, “Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers,” was released in May 1976 but Robinson left the group soon thereafter, due to frustration with Richman's quest for lower volume levels, and joined with Ric Ocasek in forming the band The Cars. After several months as a trio, Richman found a new drummer, D. Sharpe, an accomplished avant garde jazz player on the Boston scene, who later went on to become a member of pianist Carla Bley's band.

Drawing inspiration from such artists as the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Paul Motian and Anthony Braxton, D. Sharpe replaced the traditional rock and roll drum kit with an eclectic assortment of percussion instruments, including a large African three-legged drum covered in zebra skin, a 1947 De Soto automobile hub-cap, a rack full of various pot lids and bells hanging on strings among many other items.

“Rock and Roll with the Modern Lovers” was released in 1977 and, just as this record began to climb the charts in Europe, Keranen left the group. A subsequent live album, “Modern Lovers Live” was released in 1978, featuring Asa Brebner on bass.

In the United Kingdom, Richman was recognized as a progenitor of the punk rock scene, and several of his singles became hits. “Roadrunner” reached #11 on the U.K. Singles chart, and its follow-up, the instrumental “Egyptian Reggae,” made #5 in late 1977. “Egyptian Reggae” was a version of Jamaican musician Earl Zero's reggae song “None Shall Escape the Judgment,” Zero was credited as co-writer on Richman's later versions of the track.

“Back in Your Life” was released in 1979 under the Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers moniker, but only about half the disc featured a backup band. The rest was Richman solo work. Following the Modern Lovers' final breakup, Richman went on sabbatical for a few years staying in Appleton, Maine and playing at a local diner in Belfast, Maine, called Barb's Place.

He returned in 1983 with “Jonathan Sings!,” followed by “Rockin' and Romance.” These were followed up with a brace of pop efforts “It's Time for Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers,” and “Modern Lovers 88” from 1986 and 1988 respectively. After the latter release, the “Modern Lovers” moniker was finally retired.