Countless singers initiate their songs with a count-off to 4, essentially a timing device to activate the band, and certainly none more prolifically than Bruce Springsteen.¹ Millions of soon-to-be Beatlemaniacs first encountered the Fab Four with the sound of Paul McCartney’s voice opening ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ with a prodigious “One, Two, Three, FOUR!” One rock oldie notably did so in multilingual fashion, the Sam The Sham and the Pharaohs tune ‘Wooly Bully’ which begins “Uno, Dos…One, Two, Tres, Quatro,” while Bono famously kicked off U2’s ‘Vertigo’ with the slightly perplexing Spanish sequencing of “Uno, Dos, Tres, Catorce” (which translates, of course, to “1, 2, 3, 14”²). In any language, however, it’s 4 beats to a measure, and the count goes to 4. Except for one: ‘Roadrunner’ by Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers, which, for no discernible reason, starts with a count-off…to 6. As best as I know, it’s the only song ever to do this, though surely this can’t be verified; like most things with the enigmatic Jonathan, it’s probably not worth even trying.
‘Roadrunner’ was recorded in 1972 – produced by John Cale of The Velvet Underground – but not released until 1976. A straightforward two-chord churner that begins with the Richmanian phrase, “Roadrunner, roadrunner / Going faster miles an hour,” it’s an ode to the sights and simple joys of driving around the outskirts of Boston. The song was written by Richman, a proud Natick, Mass. native, and recorded in various versions by he and his band, though most often attributed simply to The Modern Lovers – a grouping which, in addition to Jonathan, included future Talking Heads member Jerry Harrison and Cars drummer-to-be, David Robinson. Though perhaps overlooked by many, Rolling Stone has ‘Roadrunner’ ranked #274 on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time, and filmmaker Richard Linklater (“Dazed and Confused,” “Boyhood”) described it as “the first punk song” while including ‘Roadrunner’ alongside manifold other seminal rock selections in his uniquely educational movie “School Of Rock” by way of the unorthodox teaching methods of Ned Schneebly/Dewey Finn. As for the singer/writer himself, where might one even begin to describe the peculiar genius of Jonathan Richman, for whom “quirky” is a start but seems wholly insufficient. In what became an impactful 2007 review in The Guardian, critic Laura Barton wrote, “If you want to know what Jonathan Richman is about, first think of the Velvet Underground, and then turn it inside out. Imagine them singing not about drugs and darkness, but instead about all the simple beauty in the world.” That’s it, really. It’s Jonathan’s unabashed innocence that most color his songwriting and bandleader persona. Some kind of a rock and roll Andy Kaufman, creating brilliant pop hooks through a childlike outlook and an oddly pleasing nasal delivery. That same essay perhaps captured this particular tune best. “‘Roadrunner’ is one of the most magical songs in existence,” Barton wrote of the record that was also later covered by the decidedly less angelic Sex Pistols. “It’s about what it means to be young and behind the wheel of an automobile, with the radio on and the night stretched out before you. It is a paean to the modern world, to the urban landscape, to the Plymouth Roadrunner car, to roadside restaurants, neon lights, suburbia, the highway, the darkness, pine trees and supermarkets.” In fact, years later, indirectly inspired by the Guardian article, a movement was spawned by the state legislature to make ‘Roadrunner’ the official rock song of the commonwealth of Massachusetts (it already had an official state folk song, Arlo Guthrie’s ‘Massachusetts’). Notwithstanding popular bi-partisan support, as of this writing, that institutionalization sadly remains stalled in the halls of government. For his part, Richman, referring to what he terms his “geographical love song,” commented with characteristic lack of guile, “It’s very flattering, but I don’t think it’s good enough to be a Massachusetts song of any kind.”
Regardless of Jonathan’s own opinion nor its potential future classification, ‘Roadrunner’ remains a sensational song for countless reasons, not least of which its unprecedented starting count. Like the “Spinal Tap” amp that goes to 11, Jonathan Richman has got the only opening count-off to 6. It could be that when you’re already going “faster miles an hour” it’s just too tough to stop at 4.
¹the king of count-offs?
²thus meaning…who knows? But, 12 + 22 + 32 = 14, or so say the illuminati
Thom HickeyMarch 21, 2020 5:06 am
What a great song.
You might enjoy the immortal Jukebox article on roadrunner.
Bill G.March 21, 2020 10:26 am
Thanks, Thom. Just checked out your blog and LOVE it (and started following immediately). Great writing, history, insights and, of course, music! I’d love to be able to connect with you somehow to discuss it in more detail, and perhaps take steps to try to bring mine up to your level..if you were willing (my contact info. is listed on my site). Best, and thanks much in advance.