In 1969 he moved to New York City, where he spent time living on the couch of The Velvet Underground's manager and working odd jobs while trying to break in as a professional musician. Failing at this, he returned to Boston. Having moved back, he formed The Modern Lovers. Other notable members of the group were keyboard player Jerry Harrison and drummer David Robinson, who later joined Talking Heads and The Cars, respectively.
In 1972 they recorded a series of songs with John Cale producing, including the seminal "Roadrunner," which were eventually released on the group's sole album, Modern Lovers, in 1975. Shortly after these recordings were made, Richman broke up the band and embarked on his long and eclectic solo career. For a while he continued recording under the "Modern Lovers" name (or rather, the more telling "Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers" appellation), but all the members were different, and in the new incarnation were essentially his backing band. The sound of the new group was considerably different as well, focusing on acoustic instrumentation rather than the prior electric guitars and drums. The album Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers was released in January 1977, Rock and Roll with the Modern Lovers followed a month later, and Modern Lovers Live in 1978. In 1979 Richman finally went completely solo.
That year's Back in Your Life was released under the "Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers" moniker, but this was true of only about half the disc—the rest was solo work. This album was probably the most extreme detour by Richman into eclecticism; after the odd but traditional acoustic rock of the previous albums, this one's solo tracks showed off a string bass and Glockenspiel as main instruments.A few years' hiatus ended in 1983 with Jonathan Sings!—memorably featuring a cover with Richman serenading a crowd wearing nothing but a guitar and neck strap. This was followed up with a series of pop efforts (Rockin' and Romance, It's Time for Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, and Modern Lovers 88 from 1985, 1986 and 1988 respectively). Soon after, he returned to swooping madly around the musical landscape: country music with 1990's Jonathan Goes Country, and Spanish translations of his earlier work (as well as traditional Spanish songs) with 1993's Jonathan, Te Vas a Emocionar! Always possessing an ardent cult following, Richman has become better known in recent years thanks to a series of appearances on fan Conan O'Brien's show; also helping was a major part in the 1998 movie There's Something About Mary, where he played half of a two-man Greek chorus that commented on the movie while performing in the framed action itself. He has continued his release schedule all along, with You Must Ask the Heart in 1995, Surrender to Jonathan in 1996, I'm So Confused in 1998, Her Mystery Not of High Heels and Eye Shadow in 2001 and Not So Much To Be Loved As To Love in 2004.
In 1998 a live album of Modern Lovers recordings from the early '70s was released, Live at the Long Branch & More. There is also a DVD of a live performance Take me to the Plaza 2002. A tribute album, If I Were a Richman, was released by Wampus Multimedia in 2001. In live 'solo' shows, he frequently tours with drummer Tommy Larkins, the other part of the two-man chorus mentioned above.
He is a tremendously charismatic stage presence, and this has helped maintain his dedicated cult following. 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". 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 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. As a producer himself, Richman and drummer Tommy Larkin 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 soundtrack of School of Rock. 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. Read more on Last.fm.
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