Jonathan in the echo chamber
I will make no apologies for coming on like Kevin Rowland, but I was just thinking about the summer of 1977. Two songs stand out for me from that summer. I used to come home from school and listen to Capital Radio. There is still a great story to be told about radio in London, and one day I may do just that. Anyway, despite what The Clash sang, Capital Radio then was fine, and every weekday evening I would listen to Roger Scott. Listeners would vote for their ‘People’s Choice’, and seemingly for weeks on end Mink Deville’s ‘Spanish Stroll’ and Jonathan Richman’s ‘Roadrunner’ were in that particular top ten. These were two very great reasons to be cheerful that summer.

Roger Scott each Friday evening used to dedicate the last hour to his Cruisin’ show, where he would play old ‘50s rock’n’roll and doo wop, and absolute classics like Danny & the Juniors, Hank Mizell, Johnny Allen’s ‘Promised Land’ and new stuff like Robert Gordon’s ‘Red Hot’. It seemed logical to make connections between the raw power of this music and the new punk sounds exploding all around. Which was odd as punks and teds were supposedly at war, but new rockabilly groups like Whirlwind were playing with Generation X and everyone was wearing brothel creepers.

Then in the wake of ‘Roadrunner’, Jonathan Richman gave us his Rock’n’Roll with the Modern Lovers set, and in the context of what I was listening to, and what people were getting away with, it all seemed perfectly natural and a lot of fun. Now with another reissue (courtesy of Castle) it really does strike me what a strange and wonderful record that was, and I didn’t even notice.

The big hit off the LP was ‘Egyptian Reggae’, and it was everywhere that summer. You’d seem to hear it wherever you go. And when I hear it now it is still hard not to break into a shuffling sand skank. We are all so wise now, and are aware the rhythm is adapted from Johnny Clarke’s ‘None Shall Escape The Judgement’. And the irony is that for those that know their Johnny Clarke, this Jonathan Richman set really was recorded in an echo chamber.

This really is an exceptional record. There are a few traditional folk song arrangements from around the world, a few heartbreaking ballads, a few fun rock’n’roll numbers (and that’s rock’n’roll as in Chuck Berry wit not Aerosmith cliches), and a couple of reggae adaptations. I would argue that songs like ‘Angels Watching Over Me’ and ‘Fly Into Life’s Mystery’ are as affecting and enriching as Skip Spence’s Oar and Wendy & Bonnie’s Genesis.

Perhaps what makes this music is its spartan simplicity. And that’s not an easy stunt to pull off. Jonathan’s been pulling it off ever since, and there are many reasons to love him. The last time I saw Jonathan was in New Cross, and there was some kind of “goth”/student rock disco upstairs at the venue. Me and my friend walked into the wrong part and ordered a drink. Some people will be fed up with hearing this, but I ordered a coke and a bitter lemon at the bar. I got a glass of coke. After a few minutes, I asked what happened to the bitter lemon. The barman pointed to the slice of lemon floating with the ice cubes at the top of my coke. Honest! Then on the way out we heard someone say: “Look! Accountants …” I think Jonathan, the short haired young man who defiantly sang I’m Straight in the hippy haze of the ‘70s, would have approved.

Rock’n’Roll with the Modern Lovers has been reissued concurrently with the slightly earlier (but released slightly later) Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers set. It is almost as essential, arguably bridging the gap between JR’s Velvets-fuelled Modern Lovers classics and the strange kaleidoscopic simplicity of Rock’n’Roll with …. What makes this salvaged set an absolute must are the four bonus tracks which were recorded for the Berserkley Chartbusters set (which also featured the occasionally great and equally odd Rubinoos). 'Government Centre' and 'New Teller' in particular are up there among my favourite JR numbers, and the cover of 'It Will Stand' (hear those guitars twang sharper than lightning!!) takes us back to the birth of Postcard Records, and the way this song was with the Lovin’ Spoonful’s 'Do You Believe In Magic?' the absolute rock’n’roll anthem. And that’s another story that needs telling properly! For right at the centre of that cyclone there was Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers.

And coming soon is the reissue of Modern Lovers Live with that heartbreaking version of 'Morning Of Our Lives'. All together now: “Our time is now and we can do anything…”

© 2004John Carney