Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Jonathan Richman
It's Time For Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers

Released 1986 on Rough Trade
Reviewed by banjo, 25/06/2005ce

Most of us are familiar with the classic first Modern Lovers album. Produced by John Cale and containing numbers like Roadrunner (covered by The Sex Pistols), Pablo Picasso and I'm Straight, that 1st album is a logical add-on for anyone enamored with the raw human/humane spirit of pre-glam Lou Reed and the redemptive power of 3rd/Loaded era Velvets. Of course, ‘The Modern Lovers’ is a towering achievement in its own right and will likely be influential for years to come.

The myth goes that Jonathan Richman had this one great, amazing album in him and then went totally soft and childlike, never capturing the imagination of cool rock critics again forevermore. Well, it's true somewhat. The bulk of Richman's post-Original Modern Lovers solo work can often be so unbearably cute as to beggar belief. Also the production of some of his solo albums can at times sound inappropriate, doing nothing for the simple nostalgia of his songs.

Which is why I've chosen to review Richman's 1986 album 'It's Time For...' in Unsung. Because Jonathan Richman did have one other real McCoy masterpiece up his sleeve. And it’s no longer available.

What sets 'It's Time For' apart from Jonathan's other solo albums mainly is its production. Produced by Andy Paley (who also plays on it) , the album was recorded with what can best be described as an early ‘60s Folk aesthetic. Jonathan may have used an old Harmony or Stella archtop as his main guitar and it sounds like most of the record was recorded 'Live in Studio' with maybe one or two old tube microphones. The drums are magnificently played and toneful as is the guitarron (Mexican acoustic bass). All this makes for a charming nostalgic '50s feel, without actually pandering to the past in any way. In no way is it a send up of the ‘50s or tongue-in-cheek (I’ve noticed a baffling tendency of some fans to think otherwise). Performances are top notch all around and there is a beguiling warmth to the album that, armed with such memorable songs as opener 'It's You', makes for a lifelong keeper.

I bought 'It's Time For' in 1986 when I was 16 and I was startled then by how 'old' it sounded. Remember this was a time of synths and gated snares. There was a healthy underground happening of course and it was on publicly sponsored radio late at night that I heard the beautiful doo-wop of ‘Corner Store’. I remember the DJ introducing the record as being by “one of Lou Reed’s best creations: Jonathan Richman”. You can never say too much about instant Like. After all, who needed time to appreciate The Beatles? You heard ‘We Can Work It Out’ and right away knew what good music was supposed to sound like. It’s the reason small children universally like The Beatles. Outside of thought and discourse, there is a universal truth that good music will get across. So I was hooked the moment I heard Jonathan’s ‘Corner Store’. I hadn’t heard the cultish first Modern Lovers album yet. I had no idea how angular sounding and forward-thinking Jonathan was in the past. It didn’t matter. I put ‘It’s time For..’ on my shopping list and picked it up later that Summer.

"I don't care if I have to walk further; I'll walk further, I'll pay more...
I don't really want what the new mall's got; I want what they got in that Corner Store..."

As luck would have it, I would go to see Jonathan Richman promote the album at a show not long after. He was to play 2 concerts, a regular night show and also an afternoon all-ages one for kids. I opted for the former and ended up seeing one of my all-time favorite performances by anyone, ever. On stage, he played the new album almost in its entirety as well as classics from before but with the same stripped down early rock and roll trio that had worked so well on the recording. A natural performer, he had the audience hanging on his every word and action. For those of you who have maybe wondered if Jonathan, the author of ‘I’m Straight’ had ever secretly inhaled, he made an interesting comment: Stepping out from backstage, he took a swig of what looked like water saying “This is cod liver oil; They’re all smoking ugly hash smoke backstage. I need to lubricate my throat!” Make of that what you will. At least we can’t rule out the possibility of a contact high.

Kidding aside and back to the point, ‘It’s Time For’ represents a definite career peak for Jonathan Richman in my opinion. Long out of print, its songs are all well above par. If Jonathan Mach II had ever sounded over-the-top on his post ML work, here he sounds right at home, totally believable and direct.

“Why does the desert make my heart go thrum, well the Martians land there and they’re not dumb”

A good friend of mine is right into Jonathan and she even had opportunity to meet the man when he dropped by a local community radio station. I had asked her to tell Jonathan that a fan of his held ‘It’s Time For…’ in the highest regard. His response was apparently quite nonchalant, even suggesting that he didn’t really hold the record that highly himself, if he even thought about it very much at all. Whatever, we know that he cared enough about the righteously political ‘Corner Store’ as it has been re-recorded as a Country arrangement on Jonathan Goes Country and it was also featured in the comedy ‘Kingpin’ (same version).

The sentiment expressed in ‘Corner Store’ is the same as the one put across in the ML classic ‘Old World’ (I still love the ‘50s and I still love the Old World…I wanna keep my place in the old world…). This time, it’s the encroachment of generic big box mega-stores that Jonathan wished to keep at bay by vowing his allegiance to the old wooden floored Mom and Pop-owned Corner Store. The thing is, Jonathan really connects with his audience with these sentiments. Like many other successful pop orators, he’s reminded us of Important Things; things just down the street in our own neighborhoods. It’s a recurring theme in much of his work but nowhere is it as succinct than in this original, doo-wop version of ‘Corner Store’.

No Jonathan Richman collection is complete without this enduring set.

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