Friday, 22 June 2012

Modern Lovers: Live!

It's often been said about The Velvet Underground that they didn't sell many records but everyone who bought one of those records started a band. I can understand that. Their songs were simple but had a sexy swagger. If you were a budding guitarist The Velvet Underground represented the link from learning old folk songs like 'I've Been Working on the Railroad' in your 'How to Play Guitar: Volume One' book, to actually playing modern songs with some modern relevance.

If you want to be a songwriter, though, The Velvet Underground lyrically represent a problem. Sure, if you're a transvestite heroin addict living on the lower east side of New York in the 1960s and hanging out with Andy Warhol, then a lot of Lou Reed's words would probably resonate with you.

I, alas, wasn't.

I grew up just a kid living in outer-suburban Brisbane in the 1980s. I had some songwriting aspirations and knew some rudimentary guitar, but the missing link I didn't really discover until my late teens - The Modern Lovers. They had the sexy swagger of The Velvet Underground but lyrically had something I could relate to (as well as a wicked sense of humour).

The Modern Lovers' lead singer Jonathan Richman possesses what can only be described as a guileless honesty. He grew up in suburban Boston in the USA. The songs on the self-titled Modern Lovers LP concerned subjects such as 'pretending to like modern art to impress pretty girls' - (Girlfriend), 'hippies who get high to appear deep' - (I'm Straight) and 'driving around aimlessly in your car to try and escape loneliness' - (Roadrunner - The group's most recognisable 'hit'). In short, they were songs that a suburban kid such as myself could relate to.

The first Modern Lovers album was cobbled together from demos recorded in the early 1970s (some produced by The Velvet Underground's John Cale), but it didn't receive a release until the late seventies, by which time Richman was hailed as a proto-punk hero. Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers recorded a live album in the seminal punk year of 1977, but by this time things had changed.

On 'Modern Lovers Live', Jonathan Richman is the only remaining member of the original line-up. No songs on the album are from the initial stages of the band's career and the songs are quieter with more of a rockabilly and folk feel. Much of the material could be described as children's songs and many of them feature the word 'little' in the title. 'I'm a Little Dinosaur', 'Hey There Little Insect', 'I'm a Little Airplane'. It's not what I signed up for when I first got into The Modern Lovers, but it's still one of my favourite live albums and made me appreciate one of Richman's greatest attributes as an artist - the giddy thrill he gets from the wilful defiance of audience expectations.

Some of the stage-banter on the album is hilarious. Jonathan responds to taunts from the audience about wearing 'the same shirt as last night' and mishears someone from the audience accusing them of 'standing for luxury items'. There's also a bizarre patience-testing version of Ice-Cream Man with multiple reprises. It's a fun, joyful performance... or is it?

While the audience appear overwhelmingly appreciative, you can sense an element that is there wanting to hear the original Modern Lovers material. By performing at low volume, adopting a child-like view of the world and performing multiple reprises of 'Ice Cream Man' he is both rewarding the true believers and punishing the detractors. This 'audience duality' is what really makes the album interesting.

This duality is most evident at the end of the record. Jonathan tells the audience it's going to be the final song. From the audience you can hear people yelling 'play Roadrunner!' Jonathan politely announces that the final song will be 'The Morning of Our Lives'.  The same audience members then yell a resounding 'Nooooooo!' - Jonathan ignores them and plays on regardless.

It's funny, but this presumably 'punk' element of the audience dismissed the song that sums up the punk ethos most completely. There's a line in 'The Morning of Our Lives' that goes:

"There's no need to think that other people can do things better than you can do 'em, 'cause you got the same power in you."

and then it continues with:

"Now's the time for us to have faith in what we can do."

What is that if not the punk DIY ethic?

Sex Pistols' svengali Malcolm McLaren once said in 'The Filth and The Fury' documentary that punk was meant to be about self expression, where heart and passion were more important than ability, but it got co-opted by the media where it became just a short-hand term for people with leather-jackets and mohawks. I would argue that 'Modern Lovers: Live' is more punk than most of that first wave of bands who wilfully adopted that moniker. Jonathan was certainly taking a risk and challenging people with his singular and uncompromising perspective on the world, but Jonathan is so punk that he even rejected the 'punk' tag.

I suppose the lesson I learned from this album is to appreciate people who 'have a bash' and try something new rather than pandering to some corporate model and seeking approval from washed up hacks on shows such as 'The Voice' and 'American Idol'. Jonathan would never appear on any of these shows and he certainly wouldn't win. I can imagine if he did appear on 'American Idol' it would be with a mischievous grin on his face and a giddy giggle as the judges looked on shocked and bemused.

Of course Jonathan wouldn't take any of their criticisms to heart, because they don't understand what he's trying to do. He doesn't need their approval to have faith in what he can do. Like those punks in the audience during 'Modern Lovers Live', the judges on 'American Idol' also don't understand that 'now is the morning of our lives'.

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