This is the 16th post in a weekly, yearlong series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song will be posted each Monday throughout 2016. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
Songwriters Jonathan Richman and John Felice became friends when they were neighbors growing up Natick, Mass., a suburb of Boston. Felice was the younger one by about four or five years, and held the musically knowledgeable Richman in high regard. “We used to get in the car and we would just drive up and down Route 128 and the turnpike,” Felice was quoted as saying in Tim Mitchell’s “There’s Something About Jonathan.” “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. We’d drive past an electric plant, a big power plant, with all kinds of electric wire and generators, and he’d get all choked up, he’d almost start crying.”
In the early ’70s, Richman and a still-teenaged Felice formed a band called The Modern Lovers. By then, Richman wrote “Roadrunner,” an ode to driving along Route 128 to experience the ordinary joys of Massachusetts. The pounding, two-chord song was very reminiscent of “Sister Ray” by The Velvet Underground, a band that Richman and Felice had adored. But “Roadrunner” had none of the darkness of The Velvet Underground, and instead expounded upon the song’s earnest through-line: “I’m in love with Massachusetts.” Beyond being about Richman’s home state, though, it was about the innocent, youthful joy that comes from aimlessly driving, listening to your favorite music.
Throughout the ’70s, Richman would record multiple versions of “Roadrunner” with various incarnations of The Modern Lovers. Notable Modern Lovers alums include Jerry Harrison, later part of Talking Heads, and David Robinson, later a member of The Cars. Most versions began with Richman shouting “One-two-three-four-five-six,” and they each contain references to Massachusetts-specific names, but some of them take detours to different parts of Massachusetts. More confusing is that the order in which these versions were recorded does not match the order in which they were released.
The most commercially successful, and maybe the most iconic version, was recorded in 1974 for Beserkley Records. Beserkley label head Matthew King Kaufman said, “To record Jonathan Richman’s ‘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.” Backing Richman was The Greg Kihn Band.
The first version recorded was with John Cale of The Velvet Underground as the producer, in 1972. It wasn’t released until 1976, when first Modern Lovers album was released. The Cale version sounded louder and messier, like a drunk college kid who has barged into a dinner party to which the Beserkley one was playing host.
A live version, spanning more than 8 minutes and called “Roadrunner (Thrice),” was released as a single B-side in 1977. This meandering version felt more like the Beserkley version in its speed and energy. There were several instrumental instrumental interludes, allowing the guitars to breathe. As he did with all the versions, Richman tweaked the lyrics, fleshing out some more locations around Boston. He mentioned the Prudential, the flashing red lights, Deer Island, all before pausing to say, “And I’m in love… With the land where I grew up.”
Two more versions, recorded in 1972 with Kim Fowley, were released on the 1981 album, “The Original Modern Lovers.” After listening to those three versions, it will sound like a variation of the same. There’s nothing remarkably different, except that it’s a little shorter. And, as is the case with all iterations of “Roadrunner,” Richman took liberties with the way he sang certain words.
The Sex Pistols recorded a rough demo of “Roadrunner” in 1976, and later appeared on the soundtrack for the band’s movie, “The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle.” In an interview in Spin in 1986, Johnny Rotten said, “I don’t listen to music. I hate all music.” When pressed if he didn’t have at least one favorite song, he said, “Oh yeah. ‘Roadrunner,’ by The Modern Lovers.” But in the Sex Pistols’ version, Rotten clearly didn’t know the words. He grunted along with the medley, and shouted out the few lyrics he did know. At the end of it, he said, “Do we know any other fuckin’ songs that we could do?”
Before the band Wire adopted an electronic, post-punk sound, it recorded a lo-fi version of “Roadrunner” that was louder and noisier than any recorded by Richman. The gritty and messy guitars overpowered the vocals, such that the lyrics were barely intelligible, sounding like an adult in a “Peanuts” cartoon. A screaming, snarling adult, that is.
The Greg Kihn Band, which had backed Richman on “Roadrunner (Twice)” and would ultimately best known for “The Breakup Song” and “Jeopardy,” recorded a version of “Roadrunner” on its 1979 album, “With The Naked Eye.” This version sounded cleaner and more polished than the other version on which The Greg Kihn Band had played. The guitars are more rocking on this version, but in a contained, late-’70s radio rock way, not different from The Knack or Bay City Rollers.
Joan Jett & The Blackhearts covered “Roadrunner” for the 1986 album, “Good Music.” The version left in “Stop & Shop,” but took out all other Bay State references, changing “I’m in love with Massachusetts” to “I’m in love with the modern world.” The only city name-dropped in this polished rock version was New York.
Jett re-recorded the song for her 1990 covers album, “The Hit List.” Instrumentally, “Roadrunner USA” sounded almost identical to her previous version, but a wider scope in lyrics, mentioning Boston, California, Little Rock, Texas. In that regard, it was more like a “Route 66” than any regional song.
Yo La Tengo released a covers album in 2006, called “Yo La Tengo Is Murdering the Classics.” The album comprised more than two dozen covers recorded between 1996 and 2003 at WFMU in Jersey City, New Jersey. To show support for the station’s fundraising efforts, the band would visit annually. Anyone who pledged money during Yo La Tengo’s visit to the studio could then request a song and the band would try to play it. Yo La Tengo’s version of “Tighten Up” sounded more like a jam session than actual music, but its “Roadrunner” sounded more organized. Ira Kaplan fumbled with some of the lyrics, but not nearly as epically as Johnny Rotten did. Kaplan made some seemingly intentional tweaks, including changing “I’m in love with Massachusetts” to “I’m in love with modern rock and roll.”
In 2007, Laura Barton, a writer for The Guardian, traveled to Massachusetts to visit the locations mentioned in “Roadrunner.” Her piece about the experience caught the attention of Boston publicist Joyce Linehan, who formerly had been the manager of the Lemonheads and an A&R rep for Sub Pop Records. Linehan got the idea to campaign that “Roadrunner” should be made the official rock song of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. She didn’t pursue that idea in earnest until some years later, when Boston.com’s online radio station Radio BDC asked listeners which song to play for its first broadcast. “Roadrunner” came in second to the Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ “I Want My City Back.” Linehan was “incensed,” later telling James Reed of The Boston Globe that “the song that represents Massachusetts to its core clearly is ‘Roadrunner.'”
Linehan reached out to Martin “Marty” Walsh, then a representative in the Massachusetts legislature. Inspired by Linehan’s pitch, Walsh filed a bill to make “Roadrunner” the official state song. Through a publicist, Richman told the Globe, “Thank you so much, it’s very flattering….but I don’t think the song is good enough to be a Massachusetts song of any kind.”
Walsh left the legislature when he was sworn in as mayor of Boston in January 2014. State Senator Robert Hedlund of Weymouth kept the effort going, but the bill languished in the legislature in January 2015. Competing efforts to make Aerosmith’s “Dream On” the state rock song didn’t help the cause, nor did those efforts have any more success. In October 2015, Hedlund and state Representative David Linsky of Natick co-sponsored a new bill to make “Roadrunner” the official state song. According to the state legislature’s website, the most recent action on the item was on October 29, when the bill was “referred to the committee on Senate Rules.”
“Roadrunner” is a song like “Tighten Up” in that none of the covers sound the same. And that’s not meant to say, “Each version is unique, like a snowflake.” None of the versions of “Tighten Up” sound the same, because none of the versions used the same lyrics as the original. In the case of “Roadrunner,” none of the covers use the same lyrics, but then again, none of Richman’s versions of “Roadrunner” are consistent on lyrics, either. It’s hard to decide which version is the original, because as we said earlier, the order in which the various versions were recorded did not match the order in which they were released. The Beserkley Records version of “Roadrunner” was released first, but “Roadrunner” produced by John Cale was recorded first. But whatever is truly the original, the Beserkley “Roadrunner” is the standard bearer for the song, as it was the first version that many heard. And like “Tighten Up,” “Roadrunner” is a song that’s about the feeling and vibe, rather than specific details. As long as you’re going “faster miles an hour,” it doesn’t really matter which locations you pass along the way.
You can listen to these songs and previously discussed cover songs in a Spotify playlist.