Mark ‘Swish’ Schwerdt
Twin Street, Adelaide, 1979ish
I’m in my first year at Adelaide Uni. Like many of my peers, I’m the first from my family to taste tertiary life. My modest stipend, courtesy of a South Australia Public Service cadetship, allows me to spend up big on records even allowing for my daily currant bun and coffee breakfast from the Refectory, tired already after the long winding trip through north-eastern Vistas, Views, Farms and Plains on the 506 bus.
Adelaide has a new record store – Modern Love Songs, situated underground in Twin Street, run by a mysterious guy called Beau. It champions the previously hard to get and hard to hear but exciting to listen to artists such as Armand Schaubroeck, Suicide and The Residents.
Adelaide also has a new, national, music magazine, Roadrunner. It champions the New Wave but also local identities such as Nuvo Bloc and Rum Jungle (helllooo James Black). It also has great subscription benefits, mine being the Laughing Clowns’ Mr Uddich Schmuddich Comes To Town and the first Tactics release.
The intersection of Modern Love Songs and Roadrunner led me to discover The Modern Lovers.
First to hit my ears was the song Roadrunner, a shout out to the unbridled joy of herbing along Route 128 in Massachusetts, past the Stop n’ Shop with the radio on, travelling at faster miles an hour.
Had there been a more exuberant use of vinyl ever?
I had to hear more, so I bought the self titled album. This led to a number of discoveries.
Jerry Harrison, later of Talking Heads, was the mastermind behind the pulsating organ that fired up in the middle of the song (or was he?).
Dave Robinson, who went on to join The Cars, provided the cymbal crashes.
Bassist Ernie Brooks supplied Roadrunner’s background hum. Ernie didn’t find late 70s fame, but his curatorial efforts would later give life to some of the Lovers’ earlier works.
The album was released in 1976, but it took me a while to tease out the fact that it was really a grab- bag of demos, semi-produced by Velvet Underground’s John Cale five or so years earlier.
What gems lay inside. Songs like Hospital, She Cracked, Someone I Care About , Girlfriend.
Yes, to the nitpickers it sounded more like the Velvet Underground than the VU did, without the references to waiting on street corners with $26 in hand or mainlines or ding-dongs.
This was the sound of someone on the verge of mental collapse, with just enough restraint, or faith, to emerge at the other end, shaken but determined to continue, but never the same again.
And who else but Jonathan Richman would dare to rhyme “Picasso” with “Asshole”?
Or render the lines
I go to bakeries all day long,
There’s a lack of sweetness in my life
And there is pain inside
You can see it in my eyes
with throat-lump inducing heartache. Tears well up every time I hear Hospital.
The album remains my favourite album, ever.
Roadrunner itself spawned a number of versions with both lyrical and stylistic differences (one even managing to sneak into the British charts), variously credited to The Modern Lovers, Jonathan Richman, or Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers.
By the time the world at large became aware of their genius, it was too late. The Modern Lovers as they existed in the early 1970s were long gone.
With my degree finished, Modern Love Songs shut its doors and the last edition of Roadrunner hit the streets (I still have them all).
Jojo eventually tired of performing his best known work, reprising it for Joey Ramone’s birthday in 1998 and hardly ever again. But his body of work, in the remodelled Modern Lovers or in his own name continues to delight his legion of devoted fans (and new fans thanks to his Farrelly Bros movie appearances).
© Mark ‘Swish’ Schwerdt