Jonathan Richman was born in Boston on 16 May 1951. Raised in Needham, Massachusetts, he dropped out of school, whiled away some time in Andy Warhol‘s formative Factory as a messenger, and then returned to his beloved Boston.
After seeing The Velvet Underground more times than any of its members, he decided that his future lay in rock ‘n’ roll, and he formed The Modern Lovers in September 1970.
In early 1971, the band’s membership was settled as Richman, Jerry Harrison (keyboards), Ernie Brooks (bass) and David Robinson (drums), with Richman’s next-door-neighbour and original band member John Felice joining them occasionally as his school commitments allowed.
By the autumn of 1971, through their live performances in Boston and New York, they had begun to attract the attention of several record company A&R men, including Stuart Love at Warner Brothers and Alan Mason and Matthew Kaufman at A&M.
The band made their first recordings for Warner Brothers at the Intermedia studios in Boston in late 1971.
In April 1972, The Modern Lovers travelled to Los Angeles where they held two demo sessions. The first was produced by The Velvet Underground‘s John Cale for Warner Brothers, while the second was produced by Alan Mason and Robert Appere for A&M. Both sets of sessions yielded tracks which, although originally recorded as demos, eventually found their way onto the album.
The Cale sessions produced Roadrunner, Astral Plane, Old World, Pablo Picasso, She Cracked and Someone I Care About. The A&M sessions yielded Girl Friend and Dignified and Old.
The band were initially undecided over which record company to sign with, returned to Boston, and also did some recordings organised by Kim Fowley and produced by Stuart “Dinky” Dawson.
Eventually, in early 1973, they signed with Warner Brothers and agreed that John Cale should produce their debut album. Returning to California in the summer to work with Cale, it became apparent that there were personality clashes between some of the band members and that Richman now wanted to take a different approach to his songs – much more mellow and easy-paced rather than the earlier aggressive hard rock.
The sessions with Cale were terminated before any new recordings were completed. Warner Brothers then engaged Kim Fowley to work with the band, but by this time Richman refused to perform some of his most popular earlier songs live.
The sessions with Fowley were aborted, although two tracks, I’m Straight and the original recording of Government Center, were later issued on CD versions of The Modern Lovers. Warner Brothers withdrew support from the band, and early in 1974, the original Modern Lovers split up, with Jerry Harrison moving on to Talking Heads.
After the split in February 1974, Jonathan Richman continued recording on his own, eventually moving to California in 1975 to begin working with Beserkley Records. While Richman never returned to the Velvets-inspired sound of the original Modern Lovers, the demo recordings made with that group eventually surfaced in various formats.
The first of these releases came in 1976 when Beserkley Records compiled a posthumous LP from the first demo two sessions, issued on Beserkley’s Home Of The Hits subsidiary. The album was simply titled The Modern Lovers and included celebrated tracks such as Roadrunner, She Cracked and Pablo Picasso.
Richman did not recognise this compilation as his “first album”, preferring to consider 1976’s Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers as his debut, as it pursued the lighter, softer direction he had in mind with a completely different band.
In early 1976, Richman put together a new version of The Modern Lovers, with Leroy Radcliffe (guitar), Greg “Curly” Keranen (bass) and Robinson (drums). They recorded the album Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers, but Robinson left after Richman persisted in reducing the size and volume of his drum kit and was replaced by D. Sharpe. Robinson ended up in The Cars. Keranen also left and was replaced by Asa Brebner.
This band recorded the album Rock ‘N’ Roll With The Modern Lovers and toured, but finally split up at the end of a UK tour in 1978.
Henceforth, Richman spent most of his time performing his idiosyncratic and honest compositions to a small, devoted following.
The hit 1998 film There’s Something About Mary introduced the music of Jonathan Richman into the mainstream. Whenever one of the soundtrack’s more intimate songs struck up, the camera would pan away from the action to show Richman and his drummer, Tommy Larkins, nearby – sitting in a tree, manning a hot-dog stand – playing it.
Greg ‘Curly’ Keranen