Like the “Roadrunner”

Is Modern Lovers' "Roadrunner" the greatest rock track of all time?


in Features • Illustrated by Bhavna Ganesan


When you get right down to it, so much of rock and roll (and pop music in general) is about fantasy. Imagining how the good life sounds, feels differently when you’re listening to a rock band. Let’s be real; you will probably never approach the hedonistic apex of, say, Led Zeppelin or KISS and if you really tried to “rock and roll all night and party every day,” you’d most likely collapse from sheer exhaustion, as many rock stars tend to do. And that’s probably a good thing; burning out isn’t necessarily more glorious than fading away.  

Rock and roll is an inherently democratic art form; you don’t necessarily need any specialized musical knowledge or skill to do it well. Virtuosity is certainly appreciated but not a prerequisite. If you — yeah, you — just step up and give it a try some time you might find yourself uncorking a style, a sound, a worldview you didn’t even know you had, which can be exhilarating and downright life-changing. Everyday life is what most of us are muddling our way through, with music’s spiritual booster shot keeping the blood pumping and the soul refreshed, makes life a little less ordinary, transforming the given through the alchemy of art.        

So it’s entirely appropriate, then, that the greatest rock song of all should concern itself with what the people in the audience actually do, speaking directly to and for the lives we actually live by, celebrating the act of listening itself. The cynics who claim that rock amounts to no more than adolescent self-obsession or mere hedonism are utterly missing the point.  

 And that’s why I submit that the greatest rock song of all time is “Roadrunner” by The Modern Lovers, written by the truly sui generis Jonathan Richman. Anybody can play it, for starters. And as Richman hoarsely enthuses about being in love with the picayune details of modern moonlight, cruising to the Stop & Shop at night with the radio blaring, anybody can live it. To adapt a line from the underrated band The Minutemen, “Roadrunner” could be your life.      

After counting off to an eccentric six beats instead of the usual four, “Roadrunner” opens with a bang, stealing the two-chord churn of his beloved Velvet Underground’s manic “Sister Ray.” The way Richman sets the scene, the song thrives on the space in which most of us grow up listening to music most passionately: in the car, at night, barreling down familiar highways and backstreets, with no particular place to go, in love with the music on the radio.

When Richman sings — I love the fact that all his vocals come out as an impassioned croak, which makes him sound hip but in truth was due to a head cold — that he’s “in love with Massachusetts / 128 when it’s dark outside” he’s talking about a specific place that anyone like him from the Boston suburbs knows very well. But the regional shoutout paradoxically enhances the song’s universality. New York or L.A. would have been a much more glamorous place to namecheck, which has been done a million times, but instead, the landscape Richman is singing about so passionately is — trust me on this — about as pleasantly ordinary as it gets. Which is precisely why he’s so in love with it. He honors his humble little life and the world around him.  

Despite the countless times I’ve heard it, I never fail to fall in love all over again with that surging momentum, the brisk head-snapping insistence of the backbeat, the song’s center of gravity always chugging relentlessly forward. Everyone feels utterly locked into that very simple but potent groove, synchronized like a well-oiled machine. Drummer David Robinson, who will later join The Cars, sets the pace and thrillingly tosses in some quick fills that keep the energy up between the extremely basic chord changes, D to A, as elemental as a beating heart or a sudden gear shift.  

As Richman talk-sings about the power of the AM radio and of the flash of suburban streets going by at top speed, he gets some stop-and-start support from the band: “Roadrunner once / Roadrunner twice / I’m in love with rock n roll / And I’ll be out all night.” Then future Talking-Head, Jerry Harrison, the band’s secret weapon, plays a keyboard solo that gracefully undulates over the churning rhythm like a hand waving out of an open window as the wind rushes past.  

Towards the end, Richman starts almost chanting in a stream-of-consciousness about everything that’s happening to him all at once: the radio, the night, the highway, the moonlight, the beauty of it all. The band encouragingly shouts, “RADIO ON!” behind him, punctuating his euphoria like the dorkiest pep rally ever, and the song finishes grandly with some final swipes at those immortal two chords. Richman’s satisfied voice bids us adieu with a casual “alright, bye bye” and informs us that we have reached our destination, wherever that may be.    

When he blurts out “I love the USA!” it’s not about flag-waving patriotism; it’s about adventure, newness, and fresh possibility. These are all part of what America has represented to many (though, of course, not everyone) from the beginning. There’s nothing provincial about his vision: Richman started doing eccentric open mics in Boston and hung out with his adored Velvets in New York, went on to a long and sterling solo career, recorded country songs and folk tunes, and has lived in California for many years while singing songs in translation from all over the globe. Route 128 was merely the launching pad for his fertile imagination — he might as well be getting his kicks on Route 66 or out on Dylan’s Highway 61.  

In terms of rock history, “Roadrunner” simultaneously points towards the past and future. Those two chords hearken back to the raucous bang and clang of the garage rock of the past (the tune also name-checks Bo Diddley’s lively “Roadrunner,” the chorus of which is rumored to be the inspiration for the Warner Bros. cartoon’s signature “beep-beep”) while anticipating the primal shape of the punk rock to come shortly thereafter, perfected by the likes of The Ramones. Then there’s also a wink at Chuck Berry’s witty takes on “motorvatin’ over the hill” in a Cadillac, of course.   

Richman’s a very passionate fellow but he’s not a slick, cocky player like Diddley and Berry. All he’s aiming to do is “drive to the Stop & Shop, with the radio on” but that midnight snack attack carries a little extra swagger when the radio’s on full blast. He doesn’t need the decadent life; he’s resolutely following his own idea of bliss.  

Despite a million sullen teenage suburbanites complaining about how there’s nothing going on, Richman challenges us to find something worth singing about anyway. I used to bemoan the fact that plenty of my youthful nights were just like the lyrics in the That ’70s Show theme song: “hanging out / down the street / the same old thing we did last week / wish we had / a joint so bad.” Little did I know this was, in fact, a cover of a song by the wonderful and unappreciated band, Big Star — a near contemporary to The Modern Lovers, and if they saw fit to write and perform anthemic songs about such suburban ennui, then maybe it wasn’t so bad after all.  

This might be what Richman is gesturing towards when he murmurs that “the highway is your girlfriend as you go by quick / suburban streets, suburban speed / and it smells like heaven.” As a record, The Modern Lovers paved the road that Jonathan Richman has been driving on ever since: Taking the road less traveled by openly embracing an almost childlike innocence and earnestness that, given our cynical hyper-ironic age, almost seems like a put-on until you see the look in his eyes. It’s too bad that the lack of hip marketability hurt the band’s chances of survival and success — at the time, an often predatory record deal was pretty much the only way to get on that sacred radio.  

The Modern Lovers were a unique band for a number of reasons, not the least being there’s so little of their work that survives. Aside from some live bootlegs, it’s mostly just one self-titled record which was cut in the early ’70s only to be released in 1976, which has a diary-like intimacy partially because it was initially intended to be demos for a record that was never to be made due to the band breaking up. The instrumentation is potent but unfussy, vibrant but minimalistic, which is an ideal backup for Richman’s earnest tour through his deeply personal but all-too-human joys and sorrows.  

Name me another band, especially one from the bloated, hairy mid-70s whose songs celebrate the joys of monogamy (“Someone I Care About” and “Astral Plane”) or being proud not to do drugs (“I’m Straight” and “She’s Cracked”) and offered some of the most heartbreakingly naked love songs (“Hospital” and “Girlfriend”) ever. These songs are about the kind of vulnerability that most rock songs can only hint at, where egomania tends to carry the day.      

“Roadrunner” is the subject of a recent book-length study by the poet and academic Joshua Clover, paying tribute to the universality and vitality of Richman’s song while occasionally veering off into unnecessary, if informative, detours. Clover accurately remarks that Richman’s career really isn’t like anyone else’s. Even if he’s the leader of a band with plenty of garage rock edge, he never presents himself in the usual egocentric way of lead singers and principal songwriters — pretty much all of his songs are about being lovelorn, vulnerable, anxious, and yet still ready for a good old fashioned rave up. One ’70s-era journalist described the vibe perfectly: “Richman looked like Dustin Hoffman but he moved like Mick Jagger. Clover admires the fact that Richman doesn’t pretend not to care about mainstream success; if anything, he couldn’t be bothered.  

An academic as well as a poet, Clover’s detailed and informed aesthetic-socio-historical analysis of “Roadrunner” veers off into many interpretive directions and varying degrees of success. He connects “Roadrunner” to the aforementioned American tradition of early rock songs that celebrate the open road and were consciously created to appeal to a youth culture besotted with disposable income, vehicles of their own, and the exhilarating autonomy they offered.  

When Richman says he’s “in love with modern world” he’s not applauding a lifestyle that is out of the reach for ordinary people like him. He just wants to make it new, which is pretty much what Modernism was about in the first place. Clover perceptively emphasizes how postwar suburbanization changed the face of American life forever, spreading it out from the density and unease of the city into the kinds of spacious highways Richman celebrates.  

The reverberations of that social and economic policy are still being felt today, especially in Richman’s home turf of Boston, gentrifying like crazy through what used to be called “urban renewal” all over again, pricing out all the gifted weirdos who make it special, like Richman. Suburbanization is by no means always for the best, and, historically, it has very much excluded people of color. Clover’s radical politics make him especially sensitive to the ways in which capital and urban planning changed the landscape of America during the postwar boom. In some ways, Clover’s historical analysis is quite sharp and certainly relevant to today’s concerns. Yet it’s somewhat misplaced since politics were never really Richman’s bag. Richman has never written what Bob Dylan once referred to as “finger-pointin’ songs.”   

Where Clover especially gets a bit carried away is when he starts to go off on a tangential discussion of the song “Brimful of Asha” by the band Cornershop. It’s a fine song, but there’s not much connective tissue between it and “Roadrunner.” Clover gets closer to the mark when he goes deep on the brilliant M.I.A.’s smash record Kala and its breakout single “Paper Planes” which actually does reference Richman’s tune, citing the “RADIO ON!” chorus, and takes the possibility of the open road in a more politically potent direction.  

M.I.A. offers catchy, edgily Swiftian satire on the xenophobe’s caricatured attitude towards immigrants (“all I wanna do is / bang bang bang bang / and take your money”) which is ironically the least American attitude there could possibly be. The gunshots, so potently used in the song’s chorus, were censored when performed on network TV. For that matter, the insistent beat of “Paper Planes” is more heavily indebted to The Clash’s superb, “Straight to Hell,” which is also a pro- immigration song, and which deserves a book-length treatment all on its own.  

Explaining why he wrote so much about Dublin while spending his life in self-imposed exile, James Joyce once wrote that “in the particular is contained the universal.” He ambitiously assumed that if “I could get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities in the word.” That’s exactly it: Wherever you are, whatever you know best, no matter how humble or nondescript, contains multitudes, if we can only learn to see rightly. Art helps us to do that. The greatest songs change lives by giving the listener back what is truly and uniquely theirs, allowing them to experience it anew and take off in their own directions.  

“Roadrunner” is a song for all of us, whoever and wherever we happen to be, and whatever frequency you’re on. “Roadrunner” reminds us of the elemental truth that you can feel the universe flowing through you even when you’re doing nothing more noteworthy or dramatic than sitting in a car, cruising through your familiar suburban streets, hitting up the Stop & Shop, in love with rock and roll, out all night, with the radio on. •


Matt Hanson lives in New Orleans and is contributing editor at The Arts Fuse and American Purpose. His work has also appeared in The American Prospect, The Baffler, The Daily Beast, The Guardian, LARB, The Millions, The New Yorker, and elsewhere. He Tweets at: @MattHansonAF. He can usually be found in the nearest available used book store.