Thursday, November 3, 2011

November 3: Jonathan Richman, "Roadrunner"

Artist: Jonathan Richman
Song: "Roadrunner"
Album: Various
Year: 1972

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Though it came to the forefront of music near the end of the decade, there is no question that there was punk rock in its most pure form all across the beginning of the 1970's.  While some of the bands who whose music would become the building blocks for the genre live among the most highly revered names in all of music history, there are equally important groups that tend to be overlooked for their own contributions.  In many cases, this is due to the band in question being rather short-lived, and yet one can often see more impact from these smaller acts than those that garnered far more commercial success.  Standing high atop the list of such groups, there are few single performers who shaped the punk rock sound as much as Jonathan Richman, and a majority of his musical brilliance was conveyed through the rather brief initial incarnation of his band, The Modern Lovers.  Taking heavy influence from The Velvet Underground, many of Richman's finest songs were written and recorded while he was still a teenager, and this fact alone sets him far apart from almost every other musician in history.  While a handful of these early recordings have in themselves become cornerstones of various offshoots of the hard rock sound, there is no question that his finest work lives within the vibrant and completely captivating 1972 recording with The Modern Lovers, the absolutely unparalleled "Roadrunner."

While the song title has been used for a number of recordings throughout music history, it is the version created by Jonathan Richman that stands as the finest, and yet it took nearly four years before the track was released to a larger audience.  In many ways, the key to the appeal of the song is the brilliant tone that comes via production work by none other than former Velvet Underground member, John Cale.  There is an edge within the mix that is completely unique, and the entire song is driven by the guitar work of Richman.  The simple chord progression found on "Roadrunner" bears an uncanny resemblance to that of "Sister Ray" by The Velvet Underground, and yet Richman manages to give this arrangement a fresh kick, stripping it down to a more basic and powerful sound.  As the chords ring across the track, one can almost hear him "creating" the punk rock style that would explode a few years later, and in many ways, punk rock was never better or more pure than this single performance.  However, it is the way the rest of the band fills out the track which makes "Roadrunner" such an amazing musical experience, as the keyboards from Jerry Harrison give the song a classic, almost rockabilly tone.  The rhythm second of bassist Ernie Brooks and drummer David Robinson create a tight groove all across the song, and it is the fast-paced bounce that they provide which gives "Roadrunner" is distinctive sense of movement and in many ways makes the song the classic recording that it remains to this day.

Along with creating the entire musical arrangement and providing the iconic guitar work on the song, Jonathan Richman also uses "Roadrunner" to define what the punk rock vocal style would sound like for the next few decades.  His somewhat detached, spoken style was not the first time someone had taken this approach, and yet there is a certain tone and angst within his performance that sets it far apart from the singing of his peers.  It is the raw, almost plain style with which he sings that makes "Roadrunner" so captivating, and yet it is also the quick movement within his performance that adds to the sense of speeding movement that makes the track so unique.  In fact, one can cite this song as one of the most accurate representations of the emotion and theme of any song in history, as the lyrics themselves were created out of a fast-paced drive along Route 128 in Richman's Boston, Massachusetts home.  As the various landmarks fly by, one can feel the intensity growing, and yet it is the outright freedom that comes across simultaneously that is in many ways the most pure representation of rock and roll of the entire era.  The way that it becomes almost irresistible to not turn up the volume is perhaps the most telling aspect of the overall power of "Roadrunner," and it also becomes a song that demands to be sung along with, proving just what a uniquely brilliant songwriter and performer lived within Johnathan Richman.

Perhaps the most telling sign of what a monumental recording one can find in "Roadrunner" is in the fact that since its release, it has been covered countless times by a massively wide range of musicians.  With artists ranging from The Sex Pistols to Yo La Tango all recording their own takes on the song, there is no question that it stands as one of the most important recordings of all time.  Yet there are also a handful of different versions that one can find from The Modern Lovers or different incarnations of backing bands behind Jonathan Richman.  The original take was recorded in 1972 and release a few years later on the debut album from The Modern Lovers.  However, later in 1972, a pair of alternate studio versions were recorded, with the next year seeing the release of a live take on the song.  Finally, in 1975, the most well-known version of the song was created and largely credited to Richman as a solo performer.  On each of these different versions, there are large variations in how the music is arranged, as well as changes in lyrics and vocal delivery from Richman.  However, regardless of which take one hears, the energy and urgency within the music is never lost, and in many ways, this is the most undeniable sign of what a truly special musical creator one can find in Jonathan Richman.  While he continues to be denied the massive amount of credit he deserves for inspiring an entire movement within music, there is no question that Jonathan Richman created one of the greatest songs of all time in his extraordinary 1972 single, "Roadrunner."

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