Roadrunner (Jonathan Richman song)
Cover of the 1977 Netherlands single
|Single by the Modern Lovers|
|from the album The Modern Lovers|
Origins of the song
As a teenager Richman saw the Velvet Underground perform many times, and the format of "Roadrunner" is derived directly from the Velvets' song "Sister Ray". "Roadrunner" mainly uses two chords (D and A, and only two brief uses of E) rather than "Sister Ray"'s three (which are G, F, and C), but they share the same persistent throbbing rhythm, and lyrics which in performance were largely improvised around a central theme.
However, in contrast to Lou Reed's morally detached saga of debauchery and decay, Richman's lyrics are passionate and candid, dealing with the freedom of driving alone and the beauty of the modern suburban environment, specifically the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts. The introductory countoff, "one - two - three - four - five - six!", and lyrics about "going faster miles an hour" with the "radio on" have endeared the song to many critics and listeners since it was first released.
Richman wrote the song by 1970, when he began performing it in public, aged 19. Former bandmate John Felice recalled that as teenagers he and Richman "used to get in the car and just drive up and down Route 128 and the Turnpike. We'd come up over a hill and he’d see the radio towers, the beacons flashing, and he would get almost teary-eyed. He'd see all this beauty in things where other people just wouldn’t see it."
Recordings by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers
Richman's band the Modern Lovers first recorded "Roadrunner" with producer John Cale (previously of the Velvet Underground) in 1972. This version was first released as a single and in 1976 on the Modern Lovers' long-delayed but highly acclaimed self-titled debut album (originally Home of the Hits HH019). Being a rock and roll standard, the song is also regarded as a garage band classic and proto-punk anthem.
Later in 1972, the group recorded two more versions with Kim Fowley, which were released in 1981 on the album, The Original Modern Lovers (Bomp BLP 4021). A live version from 1973 was also later officially released on the album Live At Longbranch Saloon.
The most commercially successful version of the song, credited to Richman as a solo artist, was recorded for Beserkley Records in late 1974, produced by label boss Matthew King Kaufman, featured Jonathan backed by The Greg Kihn Band and released at the time on a single (Beserkley B-34701) with a B-side by the band Earth Quake. Kaufman stated: "To record "Roadrunner" took the 3 minutes 35 seconds for the performance, about another 30 minutes to dump the background vocals on, and another 90 minutes to mix it". Actually Kaufman was mistaken - this version is listed on the UK release of the single as being 4:40.
This version was reissued in 1975 on the album Beserkley Chartbusters Vol. 1 (Beserkley JBZ-0044). In the UK, where Richman had received substantial and very positive publicity in the music press, it was released in 1977 as a single (Beserkley BZZ 1), known as “Roadrunner (Once)” and credited to Jonathan Richman, with the Cale-produced “Roadrunner (Twice)” on the B-side, credited to the Modern Lovers, and lasting approximately 4:06. This single reached number 11 in the UK singles chart in August 1977. Also in 1977, a live version titled “Roadrunner (Thrice)” lasting 8:24 was released as the B-side of the UK single "The Morning Of Our Lives" (Beserkley BZZ 7).
The differences among all these versions are in the lyrics, the duration, the instrumentation (electric garage rock vs. acoustic rock) and the way Richman sings them.
A version of "Roadrunner" was recorded by the Sex Pistols as a rough demo in 1976, seemingly in a spontaneous transition from Chuck Berry's legendary "Johnny B. Goode", which is in the same key and a similar tempo. This recording was then overdubbed upon in 1978, and released in 1979 on The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle album. Pistols' vocalist Johnny Rotten has said that although he "hate(s) all music", "Roadrunner" is his favorite song. This did not mean, however, that he took the time to learn the lyrics before recording his vocals.
Another punk cover was done by the British band Wire in their early days, before they diverged from punk into their more electronic, post-punk sound. Their version of "Roadrunner" can be found on the album 1976 Demo, which is a collection of bootleg tracks that was released in 2010.
The Jazz Butcher released "Roadrunner" as a single in 1984, which got to number 50 in the British independent charts.
Uses in popular culture
"Roadrunner" is featured on the Motion Picture Soundtrack to Mad Magazine's 1980 movie Up the Academy, in the movie School of Rock, in the 2012 movie Not Fade Away, on the radio in the movie PCU, and an episode in Season Two of the HBO series The Wire.
During a scene in the first episode of season two of HBO's "The Deuce," Maggie Gyllenhaal is listening to "Roadrunner" while splicing a porn scene she had shot earlier that day.
In addition to being ranked #269 on 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, Guardian journalist Laura Barton has described "Roadrunner" as "one of the most magical songs in existence". In July 2007, Barton wrote an essay published in the newspaper about her attempt to visit all the places mentioned in Richman's recorded versions of the song, including the Stop & Shop at Natick, Massachusetts, the Howard Johnson's restaurant, the Prudential Tower, Quincy, Cohasset, Deer Island, Route 128, and Interstate 90.
On February 13, 2013, then State Representative Marty Walsh introduced a bill to have "Roadrunner" named official rock song of Massachusetts. Richman however came out against this saying, "I don't think the song is good enough to be a Massachusetts song of any kind." Comedian and Massachusetts native John Hodgman came out in support of Walsh's bill, saying the song was, "woven as deeply into the cultural landscape of Massachusetts as the Turnpike itself. It is the pulsing sound of the night and the future. It connects the midnight ride of Paul Revere with the dream of every Massachusetts teenager who has just gotten their license and is discovering the Freedom Trail that is Route 128 after the last movie lets out." An Act designating the song “Roadrunner” as the official rock song of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was proposed by David Paul Linsky and Denise Provost and ordered to a third reading on 2019-04-19.
- Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century, ISBN 0-674-53580-4, 1989
- Tim Mitchell, There's Something About Jonathan
- "Roadrunner" at AllMusic
- Simon Reynolds; Joy Press (1996). The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion, and Rock 'n' Roll. Harvard University Press. p. 80. ISBN 978-0-674-80273-5.
- SPIN Media LLC (September 2007). SPIN. SPIN Media LLC. p. 127. ISSN 0886-3032.
- Adam Hansen (25 November 2010). Shakespeare and Popular Music. Bloomsbury Academic. p. 106. ISBN 978-1-4411-2698-6.
- "The Beserkley Story". Archived from the original on March 13, 2007. Retrieved April 26, 2007.
- Cohen, Scott (June 1986). "Funny How Love Is". Spin. 2 (3): 26. Retrieved 2010-03-02.
- "September 11, 2000 Setlist > Phish.net". Phish.net. Retrieved 17 January 2015.
- Laura Barton. "The car, the radio, the night - and rock's most thrilling song". the Guardian. Retrieved 17 January 2015.
- "Representative Marty Walsh wants "Roadrunner" named official rock song of Massachusetts". Boston.com. Retrieved 17 January 2015.
- Greg Cook (2 November 2013). "Arts And The Next Mayor: What Boston Wants And What It May Get". Artery.wbur.org. Retrieved 17 January 2015.
- "Bill 1683: An Act designating the song "Roadrunner" as the official rock song of the Commonwealth". Retrieved 7 September 2018.