Jonathan Richman

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Jonathan Richman
Jonathan Richman at Ed's, Winona, Minnesota (2014)
Background information
Born (1951-05-16) May 16, 1951 (age 68)
Natick, Massachusetts, United States
Genres Rock, folk, new wave, proto-punk, garage rock
Occupation(s)Musician, singer-songwriter
Instruments guitar, vocals, saxophone
Years active1970–present
Labels Beserkley, Warner Bros.
Associated acts The Modern Lovers

Jonathan Michael Richman [1] (born May 16, 1951) [2] is an American singer, songwriter and guitarist. In 1970, he founded the Modern Lovers, an influential proto-punk band. Since the mid-1970s, Richman has worked either solo or with low-key, acoustic and electric, backing. Currently, he plays only acoustic to protect his hearing. He is known for his wide-eyed, [3] unaffected and childlike outlook, and music that, while rooted in rock and roll, is influenced by music from around the world.

The Modern Lovers was an American rock band led by Jonathan Richman in the 1970s and 1980s. The original band existed from 1970 to 1974 but their recordings were not released until 1976 or later. It featured Richman and bassist Ernie Brooks with drummer David Robinson and keyboardist Jerry Harrison. The sound of the band owed a great deal to the influence of the Velvet Underground, and is now sometimes classed as "proto-punk". It pointed the way towards much of the punk rock, new wave, alternative and indie rock music of later decades. Their only album, the eponymous The Modern Lovers, contained idiosyncratic songs about dating awkwardness, growing up in Massachusetts, and love of life and the USA.

Proto-punk is the rock music played by garage bands from the 1960s to mid-1970s that presaged the punk rock movement. The phrase is a retrospective label; the musicians involved were generally not originally associated with each other, and came from a variety of backgrounds and styles, but together they anticipated many of punk's musical and thematic attributes.

Rock and roll is a genre of popular music that originated and evolved in the United States during the late 1940s and early 1950s from musical styles such as gospel, jump blues, jazz, boogie woogie, and rhythm and blues, along with country music. While elements of what was to become rock and roll can be heard in blues records from the 1920s and in country records of the 1930s, the genre did not acquire its name until 1954.



Early life

Born in Natick, Massachusetts, into a Jewish family, [4] 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.

Natick, Massachusetts Town in Massachusetts, United States

Natick is a town in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, United States. Natick is near the center of the MetroWest region of Massachusetts, with a population of 32,786 at the 2010 census. Only 17 miles (27 km) west of Boston, Natick is considered part of the Greater Boston area. The center of population of Massachusetts in 2000 was in Natick. A 2014 census shows Natick's population was 34,230. This means between 2010 and 2014 Natick grew 3.6%, making it one of the fastest-growing towns in the Boston area.

The Velvet Underground American rock band

The Velvet Underground was an American rock band formed in 1964 in New York City by singer/guitarist Lou Reed, multi-instrumentalist John Cale, guitarist Sterling Morrison, and drummer Angus MacLise. The band was initially active between 1965 and 1973, and was briefly managed by the pop artist Andy Warhol, serving as the house band at the Factory and Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable events from 1966 to 1967. Their debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, was released in 1967 to critical indifference and poor sales but has become critically acclaimed; in 2003, Rolling Stone called it the "most prophetic rock album ever made."

Stephen Sesnick was a club owner who served as manager of the Velvet Underground after the band ended their association with Andy Warhol in 1967.

The Modern Lovers

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. [2]

Garage rock is a raw and energetic style of rock and roll that flourished in the mid-1960s, most notably in the United States and Canada, and has experienced a series of subsequent revivals. The style is characterized by basic chord structures played on electric guitars and other instruments, sometimes distorted through a fuzzbox, as well as often unsophisticated and occasionally aggressive lyrics and delivery. Its name derives from the perception that groups were often made up of young amateurs who rehearsed in the family garage, although many were professional.

Jerry Harrison American musician

Jeremiah Griffin Harrison is an American songwriter, musician, producer, and entrepreneur. He achieved fame as the keyboardist and guitarist for the New Wave band Talking Heads and as an original member of The Modern Lovers. In 2002, Harrison was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Talking Heads.

Talking Heads American rock band

Talking Heads were an American rock band formed in 1975 in New York City and active until 1991. The band comprised David Byrne, Chris Frantz (drums), Tina Weymouth (bass), and Jerry Harrison. Described by the critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine as "one of the most critically acclaimed bands of the '80s," the group helped to pioneer new wave music by integrating elements of punk, art rock, funk, and world music with avant-garde sensibilities and an anxious, clean-cut image.

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 (August 1976). [2] The album was strange for its time, featuring Velvets-influenced basic three-chord rock ("Roadrunner" — based on just two chords – is an homage to "Sister Ray") at a time when glam and progressive rock were the norm.

John Cale Welsh composer, singer-songwriter and record producer

John Davies Cale, OBE is a Welsh musician, composer, singer, songwriter and record producer who was a founding member of the American rock band the Velvet Underground. Over his five-decade career, Cale has worked in various styles across rock, drone, classical, avant-garde and electronic music.

Roadrunner (Jonathan Richman song) song by Jonathan Richman

"Roadrunner" is a song written by Jonathan Richman and recorded in various versions by Richman and his band, in most cases credited as the Modern Lovers.

"Pablo Picasso" is a song written by Jonathan Richman for the proto punk group the Modern Lovers. The song was recorded in 1972 at Whitney Studios in Los Angeles, and produced by John Cale, but was not released until 1976, on the Modern Lovers' self-titled debut album. The recording featured Richman, Ernie Brooks, Jerry Harrison (bass) and David Robinson (drums), with Cale playing the repetitive hammered piano part.

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. These stymied efforts to complete a debut album led to the breakup of the original Modern Lovers in February 1974.

Kim Fowley American musician

Kim Vincent Fowley was an American record producer, singer, songwriter and musician. He is best known for his role behind a string of novelty and cult pop rock singles in the 1960s, and for managing the Runaways in the 1970s. He has been described as "one of the most colorful characters in the annals of rock & roll," as well as "a shadowy cult figure well outside the margins of the mainstream."

A recording contract is a legal agreement between a record label and a recording artist, where the artist makes a record for the label to sell and promote. Artists under contract are normally only allowed to record for that label exclusively; guest appearances on other artists' records will carry a notice "By courtesy of ", and that label may receive a percentage of sales.

Bermuda British overseas territory in the North Atlantic Ocean

Bermuda is a British Overseas Territory in the North Atlantic Ocean. It is approximately 1,070 km (665 mi) east-southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina; 1,236 km (768 mi) south of Cape Sable Island, Nova Scotia; and 1,759 km (1,093 mi) northeast of Cuba. The capital city is Hamilton. Bermuda is self-governing, with its own constitution and government and a Parliament which makes local laws. The United Kingdom retains responsibility for defence and foreign relations. As of July 2018, its population is 71,176, the highest of the British overseas territories.

Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers

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

Beserkley Records was an American independent record label based in Berkeley, California, from 1973 to 1984. Beserkley is usually regarded as a power pop and rock and roll label. During the 1970s, the label released albums by Earth Quake, Greg Kihn, Jonathan Richman, and The Modern Lovers, the Rubinoos, and the Tyla Gang. Several other artists appeared on singles, or on compilation albums. From 1980 to its dissolution in 1984, Beserkley was a one-artist label, the artist being Greg Kihn.

Earth Quake is an American power pop band, formed in the San Francisco area in 1966, who released several albums in the 1970s, mostly on Beserkley Records, a company which they were involved in setting up.

In January 1976, Richman put together a new version of the Modern Lovers, which included original Modern Lovers drummer, David Robinson, former Rubinoos bassist Greg 'Curly' Keranen and Leroy Radcliffe on guitar. The new group, now billed as Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers, found Richman turning away from the harder, Velvet Underground-influenced electric rock of the original Modern Lovers, toward gentler sound mixing pop with 1950s rock and roll, and including a bigger emphasis on harmony vocals. During this period, Richman recorded a mix of original songs and material by other writers, such as Chuck Berry's "Back in the USA", the traditional spiritual songs "Amazing Grace" and "Angels Watching Over Me", and older pop songs like "Emaline", "Buzz, Buzz, Buzz", and "Lydia".

Richman's own songs continued to mix straightforward love themes with more whimsical themes like Martians ("Here Come the Martian Martians"), Leprechauns ("Rockin' Rockin' Leprechauns"), the Abominable Snowman ("Abominable Snowman in the Market"), and mosquitoes ("I'm Nature's Moquito"). Richman's 1977 recording of the children's music standard "The Wheels on the Bus" made explicit his interest in making music for listeners of all ages.

The album Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers was released in May 1976, three months before the older The Modern Lovers sessions were finally released. Drummer David 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 avant-garde jazz player on the Boston scene, who later went on to become a member of pianist Carla Bley's band.

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 to attend college. A subsequent live album, Modern Lovers Live, was released in 1978, with Asa Brebner on bass. [2]

Jonathan Richman, live at the Soft Rock Cafe, Kitsilano, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada (1983) Jonathan-richman.png
Jonathan Richman, live at the Soft Rock Cafe, Kitsilano, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada (1983)

In the United Kingdom, Richman was recognised as a progenitor of the punk rock scene, and several of his singles became hits. "Roadrunner" reached Number 11 in the UK Singles Chart, and its follow-up, the instrumental "Egyptian Reggae", made Number 5 in late 1977. [5] "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. [6] [7]

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 balance of the album was Richman playing solo. Following this version of The Modern Lovers' final breakup, Richman went on sabbatical for a few years, staying in Appleton, Maine, and playing at local bars in Belfast, Maine.

By 1981, Richman was recording and touring once again with various combinations of musicians under the band name Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers. The touring band was as large as five backup musicians during parts of 1981, when the group had bassist Curly Keranen once again, along with drummer Michael Guardabascio, keyboard player Ken Forfia, vocalist and guitarist Ellie Marshall, and vocalist Beth Harrington for a gig at New York's Bottom Line. This expanded Modern Lovers group would go on to record much of the music on the Jonathan Sings (1983), Rockin' & Romance (1985), and It's Time for Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers (1986) albums.

From 1981 to 1984, Richman most often played live in a trio with Keranen and Marshall. In 1985, the group was reconfigured, and consisted of bassist Asa Brebner and drummer Andy Paley. From 1986 to 1988, most of Richman's concerts were played with guitarist Brennan Totten and drummer Johnny Avila. Signing with Rounder Records in 1987, Richaman recorded his final album using the "Modern Lovers" group name (Modern Lovers 88). After this, the "Modern Lovers" moniker was retired.


Richman singing solo in 2014 JonathanRichman2014.jpg
Richman singing solo in 2014

From 1988 to 1992, Richman performed mostly as a solo act to support his Rounder albums Jonathan Richman (1989), Jonathan Goes Country (1990), and Having a Party with Jonathan Richman (1991). Around the time of his I, Jonathan album (1992), he formed his performance duo with drummer Tommy Larkin, who would continue to play and record with Richman for more than 25 years.

In 1993, he contributed the track "Hot Nights" to the AIDS-Benefit Album No Alternative produced by the Red Hot Organization.

Always possessing an ardent cult following, Richman has become better known in recent years thanks to a series of appearances on Late Night with Conan O'Brien .

Another career boost came in the form of the Farrelly Brothers' 1998 film There's Something About Mary , where Richman played half of a two-man Greek chorus with Tommy Larkins, commenting on the plot while performing in the framed action itself. He also appeared briefly in a bar scene in a previous Farrelly Brothers film, Kingpin , and performed the song "As We Walk to Fenway Park" for their 2005 comedy, Fever Pitch .

Richman has continued his release schedule all along, with the Spanish-language ¡Jonathan, Te Vas a Emocionar! (1994), You Must Ask the Heart (1995), Surrender to Jonathan (1996), I'm So Confused (1998), Her Mystery Not of High Heels and Eye Shadow (2001), and Not So Much to Be Loved as to Love (2004). In 1998, a live album of Modern Lovers recordings from the early 1970s was released, Live at the Long Branch & More. A live filmed performance, Take Me to the Plaza, was released on DVD in 2002.

His most recent albums are on the Cleveland, Ohio based Blue Arrow Records: 2016's Ishkode! Ishkode! and 2018's SA. [8]

Richman's minimalist songwriting style has been described as whimsical and childlike. [9] He himself has stated, "I don’t write, really. I just make up songs." [10]

Musical instruments and technique

Richman has played a variety of electric and acoustic guitars throughout his career. In promotional and concert photos from the early 1970s (such as those reproduced in the album Precise Modern Lovers Order), Richman is frequently seen using a white Fender Stratocaster. He later wrote a song ("Fender Stratocaster") expressing his affection for the Stratocaster design.

In the late 1970s, working with his group The Modern Lovers, Richman often played a Fender Jazzmaster. He can be seen playing this guitar in the Dutch TopPop TV program filmed on September 16, 1978. [11] A contemporaneous stage photo used on the cover of the "Egyptian Reggae" single shows Richman playing sunburst Stratocaster.

Late-1970s studio recordings, such as the Rock and Roll with the Modern Lovers album, also featured Richman playing nylon-stringed acoustic guitar. On a 1979 performance on French television, and in the cover photo of The Best of Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers, Richman plays a late-1970s Ibanez model 2453CW hollow-body electric guitar, a guitar similar in style to the Epiphone he would use extensively a decade later. [12]

In the early- and mid-1980s, working with The Modern Lovers, Richman was frequently photographed playing a Harmony Hollywood hollow-body electric guitar. This guitar is seen on the back cover of Richman's It's Time For album. By the late 1980s, Richman was frequently performing solo concerts using a blonde 1980s Epiphone Regent hollow-body electric guitar. He can be seen holding this guitar on the back cover of the Having a Party with Jonathan Richman CD.

Richman was still using his Ephiphone Regent on stage when he began performing as a duo with drummer Tommy Larkin in 1992. After a short stint playing other electric guitars on stage including a Gibson SG, Richman switched to exclusively playing nylon-stringed acoustic guitars (of the classical and flamenco styles) in concert. Richman has played a number of different nylon-stringed guitars since the mid-1990s.

After switching to nylon-stringed acoustic guitars, Richman initially used a pick and played in a style close to that of his electric guitar playing. Eventually, he stopped using both a guitar pick and a guitar strap in concert, preferring to play only with his fingers, and to move frequently between playing guitar, dancing, and playing percussion instruments. [13] [14]

Richman has also been photographed playing a Fender Telecaster and other electric and acoustic guitars, and he does not consider any specific instrument to be essential to his sound. In a 2006 interview with musician Chuck Prophet, Richman said "It's not the guitar, it's the player. In fact, my most recent Flamenco guitar isn't even a real Flamenco guitar. It's not made out of the right woods. Made out of walnut. It's twangy. I bought it and I like it." [15]

During the early- and mid-1980s, Richman frequently played tenor saxophone during his concerts with The Modern Lovers. He can be heard playing the instrument on "California Desert Party", a song on his Modern Lovers 88 album. The album also shows him holding the instrument in the cover photograph.

Personal life

His first marriage was to Gail Clook of Vermont, in 1982, with whom he has a daughter, Jenny Rae, and son, Jason (Gail's son from a previous relationship). This marriage ended in divorce sometime shortly before the release of Surrender to Jonathan (1996).

In 2003, Richman married Nicole Montalbano of Chico, California. [16] [17] She contributed backing vocals to the album Not So Much to Be Loved as to Love (2004).


Richman in Barcelona, 2009 Jonathan Richman of the Modern Lovers, 2009.jpg
Richman in Barcelona, 2009

Richman's work with the first incarnation of Modern Lovers is a major influence on punk rock. One critic called him the "Godfather of Punk". [18] Artists as diverse as the Sex Pistols and Joan Jett have covered "Roadrunner". Boston ska-punk band Big D and the Kids Table have covered "New England" live and on their Gypsy Hill EP. A version of "Pablo Picasso" performed by Burning Sensations was included in the 1984 cult film, Repo Man . David Bowie covered "Pablo Picasso" on his album Reality . Velvet Underground founding member John Cale has a version of the song on his 1975 album, Helen of Troy , and continues to include the song in his live shows. Iggy Pop has performed "Pablo Picasso" live and wrote an extra verse for it. Echo and the Bunnymen covered "She Cracked" in concert in 1984 and 1985 and Siouxsie and the Banshees have a version of the song on Downside Up .

Richman's music has set the tone for many alternative rock bands, such as Violent Femmes, Galaxie 500, They Might Be Giants ("Roadrunner" reportedly inspired John Flansburgh to become a musician), Weezer, Tullycraft, Jens Lekman, singer Frank Black (who composed the tribute song "The Man Who Was Too Loud"), Brandon Flowers, Art Brut, Craig Finn of the Hold Steady & Lifter Puller, Mac DeMarco and Nerf Herder who composed a song about him, titled "Jonathan", which appeared on the band's second album How To Meet Girls . British country rock band the Rockingbirds released the single "Jonathan, Jonathan" in tribute to Richman in 1992. The Silos also covered the Modern Lovers' "I'm Straight".

As a producer himself, Richman and drummer Tommy Larkins produced Vic Chesnutt's final album Skitter on Take-Off in 2009 which appeared on Vapor Records. Chesnutt opened for Richman at concerts many times during his later years.

"Roadrunner" is on the School of Rock soundtrack. In the commentary, director Richard Linklater mentions it is often called "the first punk song" and wanted to include it for that reason, along with all the other seminal rock songs in that film.

A tribute album, If I Were a Richman: a Tribute to the Music of Jonathan Richman, was released by Wampus Multimedia in 2001.

Rapper M.I.A. featured the opening lyrics from "Roadrunner" in the song "Bamboo Banga" on her 2007 album, Kala .


Studio albums

Jonathan Richman in Tokyo, in the late 1980s, playing an Epiphone Regent Jonathan-Richman.jpg
Jonathan Richman in Tokyo, in the late 1980s, playing an Epiphone Regent
Ann Arbor, Michigan JonathanRichman.jpg
Ann Arbor, Michigan

The Modern Lovers

Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers

Jonathan Richman

Live albums

(These last three live albums are from the same three 1971-3 performances, but add and subtract a few different songs. The last two, combined, contain all the songs.) [2]



US issues except where stated

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Further reading