The new all-acoustic rock and roll album by Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers—Rock ‘n’ Roll with the Modern Lovers—has met with something less than universal acclaim. In fact, I don’t know anyone who likes it very much; some Richman fans, who would probably agree that “Roadrunner” is one of the great significant philosophical statements of our time, positively hate it. Too cute, one hears. Sloppy. Self-Indulgent. Boy’s betraying his talent. Etc. Friends to whom I’ve passed on the record suspect my motives. Rock ‘n’ Roll with the Modern Lovers is the purest rock and roll album I’ve heard this year, rooted as it is in the idea that as long as you keep a good beat, rock and roll is what you can get away with.
Thus, in the spirit (not the form) of the earliest each and roll records—those Sam Phillips made with Elvis on Sun, those Buddy Holly cut in Clovis, New Mexico, or those Frankie Lymon waxed in New York—Richman and his little rock trio (Leroy Radcliffe on guitar; D. Sharpe on the smallest kit any rock drummer has used since Charlie Watts’s equipment failed to arrive at a San Diego gig on February 6, 1964; Curly Keranen on stand-up bass; one of them or maybe someone else on sax) offer an LP that combines Chinese and South American folk songs, an instrumental called “Egyptian Reggae,” the old children’s song “The Wheels on the Bus” (“Go up and down/All around the town”—there’s also a monster on the bus, however), “Angels Watching Over Me,” plus tunes about leprechauns getting back into rock and roll, the ice cream man, a rollercoaster, and a car called a Dodge Veg-0-Matic—marvelously funny numbers no one else in rock and roll but Richman would have written. The result is not just good rock, but music that sounds like rock and roll in the process of being invented—for the first time or all over again, it doesn’t much matter.
The playing is what first attached me to this record: the band has a natural sense of momentum, orchestrating Richman’s wild, scatter-shot vocals with what sounds like (and can’t be) spontaneous back-up singing, brightly strummed guitar, cracked sax work, and a light, utterly perfect rock and roll beat. The music makes sense of the sometimes crazed stories Richman is telling—why is there a monster on the bus? Why did leprechauns abandon rock and roll in the first place? The loose grasp on reality implicit in a number of the stories makes the music sound rational, though in truth it is just as nervy as Richman’s complete willingness to expose his weirdness to the crowd.
After a bit, nothing on this record sounds “cute.” The leprechauns are just people relating to… anything; the sudden passion that lifts Richman’s singing in the middle of “Rockin’ Rockin’ Leprechauns” simply refers to the possibilities of passion in the rock and roll vocal. “Roller Coaster by the Sea,” with Richman’s neat asides (“Whee!” “Hmmm, scary”) is on the third time around merely a brilliant rendering of one of the fundamental themes of rock and roll, and of most popular American music, the search for peace of mind. “Dodge Veg-O-Matic,” while an act of real genius in terms of conception—not to mention execution: “I’m gonna tell you ’bout a car that you won’t like,” Jonathan promises, “It’s my Dodge Veg-O-Matic, there in the parking lot/I like It, I like to watch it rot”—is traditional rockabilly absurdity on the level of “Tongue-Tied Jill” or “Miss Froggy.” Not only has Richman recreated rock and roll, he has recreated for the listener the purity of the original response to rock and roll. I found the appeal of this album obvious when I first heard it, because it seemed to me what rock and roll was supposed to sound like. The very first rock and roll records sounded like that too, to people who heard them in the early fifties, even though at the time those people had likely never heard of “rock and roll.”
Still, I don’t feel entirely comfortable understanding Rock ‘n’ Roll with the Modern Lovers so easily. When I first listened to Elvis sing “Hound Dog” I heard nothing but a fierce joy, an unbounded sense of delight; the racial contradictions inherent in the music went right past me, and I didn’t catch up with them for close to 20 years. On Rock ‘n’ Roll with the Modern Lovers I hear insanity shaped, by a shared musical tradition, into an authentic style of freedom that is capable of creating delight as intense as that offered by Clyde MePhatter on “Money Honey” or “Honey Love.” That pleasure obscures the troth that the insanity may well be real; that, back in the corners, this may be a very dangerous album—for Richman, if not for me or you. The good beat of the music covers up the fact that Richman’s vocals are flights over the cuckoo’s nest; there is a monster on his bus, and it may catch up with him someday; the leprechauns may give up on rock and roll again, and Jonathan might find himself deserted by the fairy-tale audience that lives in his head, the audience to which his songs are ultimately addressed. If that happens, he might well fly tight off into life’s mystery, as he sings at the close of side one of Rock ‘n’ Roll with the Modern Lovers, and just not show up for side two. If the search for peace of mind is a basic theme of rock and roll, that only means that rock and roll is basically a response to chaos—the world’s, or one’s own.
For the moment, none of this matters. Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers have made an epochal album, and I think those who cannot hear it now will find their way to it as time goes by. Regardless of what the consumers are doing, the leprechauns are applauding, and, as Jonathan growls at the end of “The Wheels on the Bus”—“Ha! We got rid of that monster!”
Village Voice, July 25, 1977