Certain Songs #1185: The Modern Lovers – “Old World”

Album: The Modern Lovers
Year: 1976

Most of the songs on The Modern Lovers were produced by John Cale. Or really, in the tradition of Steve Albini, recorded by John Cale. Since they were originally conceived as demos, there really weren’t a lot of overdubs, or even going back to fix mistakes. At that time — 1972 — The Modern Lovers were being being courted by both Warner Brothers and A&M, and one can imagine an alternate world where they went back and re-recorded these songs for either label and the Modern Lovers were suddenly a huge deal.

Which is weird to imagine: would “official” versions songs of like “Pablo Picasso,” “Astral Plane,” “She Cracked,” etc. released in late 1973 have broken through on FM radio, with a 3:33 version of “Roadrunner” scraping the bottom of the top 40, fighting for AM radio space with “We’re An American Band” and “Smoke on the Water?”

And would the re-recorded versions have the raw immediacy that made The Modern Lovers an eventual classics, relegating the versions of these songs we know and love to whispered-about bootlegs that would have eventually surfaced on a CD reissue in 1991? Maybe. After all, they were going into the studio with John Cale, not Bob Ezrin. But still, it’s entirely possible that something would have been lost, especially given Richman’s change of heart about electric music.

My guess is that the 1973 The Modern Lovers debut would have been a bust like contemporaries like Big Star & The New York Dolls: music that never quite connected with the masses when that was still the only acceptable path for a musician.

Either way, it’s clear that Jonathan Richman still would have done what he did in 1973 — which scuttled the deal they eventually signed with Warner Bros., as well as the band itself — turn his back on the Velvets-inspired music he’d been making. Just like that, he didn’t want to make hard rock anymore. He wanted to strip his music down to the essentials: his voice, an acoustic guitar, a bass and a small drum kit.

Pretty much forever, as it turned out: none of the music Jonathan Richman made after 1973 even came close to sounding like The Modern Lovers, even though he’s kept the name attached to his brand ever since.

But, of course, nobody knew this in 1976, when Modern Lovers was finally released, and looking back at it all these years later, it strikes me that as an artist whose career has at least partially rested on his eternal youthful enthusiasm, Jonathan Richman was an awful old 20-year-old, as many of the songs on Modern Lovers were steeped in nostalgia.

No more so than “Old World,” where Richman is already feeling different from pretty much anybody else in his generation, and to prove it he’s going show us just how uncool he actually is.

Oh, I had a New York girlfriend
And she couldn’t understand how I could
Still love my parents and still love the old world
So I told her:
“I want to keep my place in the old world
Keep my place in the arcane
Cause I still love my parents
And I still love the old world”

No one admitted to loving their parents in 1972. It just wasn’t done: parents were objects of ridicule and scorn, at best. Ewww! Of course, just like “Roadrunner” which somehow flipped the dark sound of “Sister Ray” on its head to produce one of the most uplifting songs ever written, the music in “Old World” is the coolest thing ever, with drummer David Robinson & bassist Ernie Brooks locked in a groovy beat, Brooks adding sweet runs throughout.

And it would have to be, to combat lyrics like:

I see the ’50s apartment house
It’s bleak in the 1970’s sun
But I still love the ’50s
And I still love the old world
I wanna keep my place in this old world
Keep my place in the arcane knowledge
And I still love the ’50s
And I still love the old world

Of course, throughout all of this, album MVP Jerry Harrison is swirling around the rest of the band like a genie looking for a place to land his carpet. Then, about halfway through “Old World,” there is a guitar/organ duel between Richman and Jerry Harrison where they’re trying to play the same solo at the same time, like they’re Ritchie Blackmore and Jon Lord.

But they aren’t, and unlike the near-clockwork precision of one of the Blackmore/Lord duels, there are so many missed notes — especially by Richman — it’s incredibly humanizing, on a par with the very personal lyrics and the even more personal vocals. They probably would have gotten it much more correct for the official version, except it probably wouldn’t have been as right.

In the end, though, Richman realizes that he can’t live in the old worlds, and as his guitar and Harrison’s organ swell, he bids it bye bye, bye bye.

“Old World”

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