The Modern Lovers – Roadrunner

20th October 2021 · 1970s, 1972, 1976, Music

The Modern Lovers’ only album is, for me, one of the greatest albums ever. Roadrunner is pretty much a standard now. It’s astonishing that this song, which most of us only heard years later, was recorded back in 1972.

While it draws its music from the Velvets’ Sister Ray, turning three chords into two, it could not be more different in tone.

Jonathan Richman replaces Reed’s dark tale of debauchery and perversion with a joyful, almost childlike celebration of suburbia.

As a teenager, Richman used to drive up and down the state highway, Route 128, near his home in Boston. Enchanted by the banality, he wrote a song about the landmarks he saw along the way.

I first heard it on The Modern Lovers’ album when it was released in 1976. Yet it dates all the way back to 1970, when it was first written and performed by a teenage Jonathan Richman. Two years later, in April 1972, he went to Los Angeles to record some tunes, produced by John Cale, but they sat on the shelf unreleased.

In 1975 a newly recorded version, with a completely different backing band, was included on a compilation album put out by his new label, Beserkley. The Modern Lovers album, with the original John Cale version, didn’t follow until August 1976 and it was a year later before Roadrunner was released as a single, combining both versions.

By then the band that recorded them – Richman (guitar, vocals), Jerry Harrison (keyboards), Ernie Brooks (bass) and David Robinson (drums) – had long since broken up and would never perform together again. In the meantime, Richman had reinvented himself playing a very different style of quieter, simpler music.

There are three different versions: Roadrunner (Once) was recorded in a single take in late 1974 with Richman backed by The Greg Kihn Band, his labelmates at Beserkley Records, produced by label boss Matthew Kaufman, who says he spent 30 minutes adding backing vocals and another 90 minutes mixing it.

That’s the version that first appeared on Beserkley Chartbusters Vol.1 and was released as a single in 1977 with this version – the Cale-produced original one recorded four years earlier and included on the Modern Lovers album released in 1976 – on the B-side as Roadrunner (Twice).

To make matters more confusing, there is also an eight-minute live recording called Roadrunner (Thrice), which appeared later in 1977 on the B-side of a different Richman single, The Morning Of Our Lives. And, if you’re still following, you can also find a 1971 demo version on YouTube.