The Modern Lovers released their debut album The Modern Lovers in 1976. The album is notable for the fact that the recording process began a full four years prior to its eventual release with many of it’s songs dating back to at least 1970, mainly due to band line up changes, changes of producer (both John Cale and Kim Fowley were involved in the production at different times) and their record company, Warner Brothers, eventually withdrawing their support of the album. The recording sessions for the album was also said to deeply affected by the death of Jonathan Richman’s friend Gram Parsons. On the day before Gram Parson’s death, he and Richman had been playing miniature golf. The Modern Lovers was eventually released to rave reviews and the influence of what has come to be known as one of the greatest art rock albums of all time, could immediately be seen in aspiring punk bands on both sides of the Atlantic. Notably, the Sex Pistols covered The Modern Lovers’ Roadrunner, which can be heard on The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1980). The Modern Lovers’ original recording of the song became a UK hit in 1977.
One of the most notorious tracks on the album is Pablo Picasso, a song about the charismatic 20th century artist and his ability, despite his diminutive stature, to attract women. The song Pablo Picasso finds the artist re-imagined as a Cadillac Eldorado driving kerb crawler, who “never got called an asshole”, picking up women on the streets of New York. In an interview with Boston Groupie News in 1980, Richman explained that the song was inspired by his own adolescent self-consciousness with women:
“I read about him when I was 18. I moved to New York and was intimidated by these girls who thought were attractive. I was afraid to approach them. I didn’t have too high a self-image. I was self-conscious and I thought, “Well, Pablo Picasso, he’s only 5’3” but he didn’t let things like that bother him”. So I made up this song right after I saw those girls. You can picture it; I had this sad little look on my face and I was thinking, “Why am I so afraid to approach these girls?” That was a song of courage for me”.
Such was the arduous nature of the album’s recording process that the first version of Pablo Picasso to actually be released, a full year before The Modern Lovers’ version was eventually released, was an intense rendering by album’s producer John Cale on his 1975 album, Helen of Troy, resplendent with slide guitar and a gutsier sound than the original. Cale also plays the hammering piano part on the original Modern Lovers’ version.
Following his departure from The Modern Lovers, keyboardist Jerry Harrison played Pablo Picasso live in the early days of his next band Talking Heads, in which he played keyboards and guitar from 1976.
More recently, Pablo Picasso was given a rebirth after it was covered by David Bowie on his 2003 album Reality. Bowie had originally planned to record Pablo Picasso on his never realised Pin Ups 2 project way back in the 70’s. On the Reality version, Pablo Picasso was given a complete Bowie makeover with additional refrains and a newly imagined musical backdrop with neat Spanish guitar intro and outro and a big reverb laden sound. With this, The Modern Lovers and Pablo Picasso had entered the arena of stadium rock.