Route 128 in the 1960s
Route 128 in the 1960s (photo by Alan Earls, author of Route 128 and the Birth of the Age of High Tech)

Several years ago I remember reading an article by Laura Barton in which the Guardian feature writer made a rock’n’roll pilgrimage, travelling Route 128 round the suburbs of Boston in Massachusetts to see for herself the urban landscape described by Jonathan Richman in his song ‘Roadrunner’, first released in 1976.

Laura Barton on Route 128
Laura Barton on Route 128

For Barton, ‘Roadrunner’ is ‘one of the most magical songs in existence’. This week I listened to the 15 minute prose-poem she has written being read by John Schwab on radio 4.  It was stunning, a panegyric to Route 128 in which Laura Barton gave voice to the road, telling of how it came to be built, how it spawned ‘the modern world’ of suburbia and shopping malls, high-tech industries and radio towers.

I was built to inspire a song. A love song for a road, for a car, for music and the modern world. A song about about going faster miles an hour. With the radio on.

Listen to it here: it’s a brilliant piece of writing.

‘Roadrunner’ was first recorded by Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers in 1972, though not released until 1977 due to legal hitches. Chosen as one of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, it’s a favourite of mine, too: along with ‘That Summer Feeling’ there are few songs so simple and naive-sounding, yet so successful in capturing the magic and the optimism of youth.

Jonathan Richman
Jonathan Richman: young and free

‘Roadrunner’ was described by Greil Marcus as ‘The most obvious song in the world and the strangest’. Laura Barton writes that:

It is a song about what it means to be young, and behind the wheel of an automobile, with the radio on and the night and the highway 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.

128 Tech
America’s first hi-tech industries were established along 128

Richman was 19 years old when he wrote the song in 1970 and began performing it in public with his proto-punk band the Modern Lovers. John Felice, the band’s guitarist, later recalled that as teenagers he and Richman ‘used to get in the car and just drive up and down Route 128 and the Turnpike. 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’.

radio towers
Radio towers, beacons flashing

AllMusic describes the song as ‘a garage band classic … it mostly jams on one driving chord, with a cheap-sounding organ droning away, before the band pounds on a second chord to emphasize the main refrain, ‘Radio on!’ It is a chant more than a song; an anthemic ode to the highway in the great rock & roll tradition of Chuck Berry’.

stop & shop 1957
A Stop ‘n’ Shop in 1957

The song is full of specific references to suburban Massachusetts, and in July 2007, Laura Barton wrote in The Guardian about how she had attempted to visit all the places mentioned in the various recorded versions of the song, including the Stop & Shop at Natick, Massachusetts, the Howard Johnson’s restaurant, the Prudential Tower, Quincy, Cohasset, Deer Island, Route 128, and Interstate 90.

One two three four five six!
Roadrunner, roadrunner
Going faster miles an hour
Gonna drive past the Stop ‘n’ Shop
With the radio on
I’m in love with Massachusetts
And the neon when it’s cold outside
And the highway when it’s late at night
Got the radio on
I’m like the roadrunner!

I’m in love with modern moonlight
128 when it’s dark outside
I’m in love with Massachusetts
I’m in love with the radio on
It helps me from being alone late at night
It helps me from being lonely late at night
I don’t feel so bad now in the car
Don’t feel so alone, got the radio on
Like the roadrunner
That’s right!

Well now
Roadrunner, roadrunner
Going faster miles an hour
Gonna drive to the Stop ‘n’ Shop
With the radio on at night
And me in love with modern moonlight
Me in love with modern rock & roll
Modern girls and modern rock & roll
Don’t feel so alone, got the radio on
Like the roadrunner
O.K., now you sing, Modern Lovers!

(Radio On!) I got the AM
(Radio On!) Got the car, got the AM
(Radio On!) Got the AM sound, got the
(Radio On!) Got the rockin’ modern neon sound
(Radio On!) I got the car from Massachusetts, got the
(Radio On!) I got the power of Massachusetts when it’s late at night
(Radio On!) I got the modern sounds of modern Massachusetts
I’ve got the world, got the turnpike, got the
I’ve got the, got the power of the AM
Got the, late at night, rock & roll late at night
The factories and the auto signs got the power of modern sounds

See also

2 thoughts on “Roadrunner: a love song for a road, for music and the modern world

  1. Yes it was a great piece of writing and I remember the article very well.
    I still have my vinyl copy of the single which I think I bought from Penny Lane Records when they were down in the basement in Leigh Street round the corner from Binns department store.
    The manager used to lend me Bruce Springsteen bootlegs.

  2. Very good writing indeed. Unfortunately the pronunciation went astray with “Natick.” That is how it is spelled, but it is pronounced “Nadeick.”

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