Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Every gig I've Ever Seen #43 Jonathan Richman

Jonathan Richman. Hammersmith Palais. June 1984

I remember “Road Runner” in the summer of ’76, working for a fruit & veg Man, delivering produce around hotels and shops in the Trossachs. Great riff and cool lyrics, tooling about in beautiful scenary. Come 1983 and I’ve just started a degree in Stirling. Met Craig and Andrea and we shared a flat. They’ve been together 25 years now and have 2 lovely kids, my Godson Jack and Alice.

Anyway, one day we were looking at second-hand vinyl and came across “The Modern Lovers Live”. Andrea’s brother had been at the actual Hammy Odeon gig where the album was made. So we bought it. I loved it. It made me laugh. It was dumb but had cool tunes. After that first album I bought the back catalogue, scouring record shops and jumble sales. The original ”Modern Lovers” album recorded in 1972, with John Cale producing, but not released until 1976, is the missing link between the Velvets and punk. No lie. 

Then “Jonathan Sings” came out on Rough Trade in 1984. We loved it. He had a ragged-y little band with girl vocalists and he played his squonking sax on some songs. Funny,happy little songs. I was always amazed thatJonathan had followed the Velvet Underground as a teenager. His first album from the early 70s is still a cracker. Dark but poignant. And some great riffs. It’s up there with “Marquee Moon” and “Horses”. After that he sounded mello. There was a song on the new album about how he’d gone to Bermuda after that period and learnt to chill-out. I was a fan and that summer in London he was due to play his first UK gig in about 5 years! Craig & Andrea came down from Stirling.

Orange Juice  had asked him to support on their big end-of-tour London gig for them. They were fans too, led by Edwyn Collins and on Postcard Records - the Sound of Young Scotland. Their first album had some lovely tunes with wry lyrics about wearing their “fringe like Roger McGuinn”. Scots have always been good at recognising a cool tune, absorbing influences and coming up with something different: Rezillos; Jesus & Mary Chain; Aztec Camera; Hue & Cry; Teenage Fan Club etc. Orange Juice were probably just as thrilled as the audience to see Jonathan play. It was a glorious double-bill on paper.

The Hammersmith Palais was the venue. As in “White Man in…”. While writing this the Palais is due to be knocked down after 90 years. For more offices and Starbucks. Hooray. If it was a West End theatre it would have listed status but it’s been deemed “architecturally unimportant” and, anyway, it was always a bit, well, common. You know, pop music and such like.

It was/is a great venue. Not as opulent as the Hammy Odeon (or the Labatt’s Carling Hammersmith Apollo as it was renamed – tossers!) but it had a wraparound balcony and an enormous wooden dance floor.

Jonathan got an ecstatic reception that even took him by surprise. The drummer had a bongo with a splash cymbal strapped to it. An upright double bass. Ellie on backing vocals. And Jonathan. It was staggering. New songs, old songs. “I’m a Little Dinosaur” “Stop This Car” “Summer Feeling” “Hospital”. He acted out the songs, stepping back from the mic to dance, like a little kid. The voice like someone with a cold, but the words were so funny. And heartfelt.

During “Affection”, a quiet song about the need for affection, (none of this stuff was rocket science), I went “aah” in an exaggerated way. “That’s right, Pal! I’m serious.” I felt myself flush. My cool in-on-the-joke utterance had back-fired. He’d really pulled me up on it. He WAS serious! I felt shamed.

He only got 45 minutes and didn’t do “Roadrunner”. The crowd were stamping and screaming for more. Eventually Jonathan had to come out to quieten the crowd explaining they were running late and Orange Juice had to get on. Boos. Orange Juice came on and half the audience left. I’ve never seen anything like it since. And of those who stayed, half shouted for Jonathan during the gig. It was a real shame for Orange Juice who bravely plowed on. There was a definite dip of energy in the room.

We managed to get backstage to say hello to Jonathan. The band were buzzing at the reaction. We got a free beer. There’s Jonathan! By then the excitement was too much and I went bounding up to him. I was aware that I probably looked totally wired, all hot and sweaty and smelly. “That was amazing! I don’t know if you’re a genius or madman!”. I remember blurting that out. Can’t remember his response. He gave me a badge and didn’t seem displeased. In fact the overall impression was of a really nice person. Honest.

I wrote him a letter later saying how the gig had touched me. It was real, it wasn’t fashion, how he represented something good and honest and tapped into the joy of life etc. He actually wrote back saying he didn’t mind people laughing but he didn’t like the “cool” laugh… “they’re dead inside. Too many video-games. When they can really laugh, then they can really cry”. I was chuffed! I lost count after 20 gigs by Jonathan over the years. There was something that pulled me in, tho’ the magic dimmed over the years. I still play the “Rock’n’Roll With The Modern Lovers” to Hugo. What a great title. Years later I saw Orange Juice’s set from that night on TV. It looked like an amazing show with an adoring audience, but I knew different…



  1. Ha! Nice description. I remember seeing Jonathon Richman at UCL in London some time in the 80s, where he was definitely getting the 'cool' laugh, audience of (what seemed like) 14 year olds.

    Also in ?1984 in Sydney (can't remember the name of the place, on George St -- maybe what's now the Metro). While we were waiting for them to come on, I was smoking a cigarette (those were the days!) and some crazy guy came up to me and said 'You know you shouldn't be doing that, don't smoke!' Of course, it was JR himself...

  2. Hello Carl,
    Your memories of this gig are quite similar to mine. I also talked with Jonathan after the gig, but upstairs in the venue, not backstage.
    If you want to see my ticket for this gig and the reviews in the weeklies, head for Blogonzeureux!.