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Punk pioneer Jonathan Richman looked small on the stage at Crescent Ballroom last December with an acoustic guitar and his drummer, Tommy Larkins. The crowd shouted requests at him in hopes that he would play something by Richman's seminal 1970s band the Modern Lovers. He appeased them by putting a flamenco spin on the 1972 song "Old World," then pressed onward with more recent output. It was a remarkable show, but the crowd obviously was disappointed.
Though they existed more than 20 years apart, the Modern Lovers share a similar career trajectory with Neutral Milk Hotel, which visits Crescent for two sold-out shows (a portion of the proceeds will benefit the charity Children of the Blue Sky). NMH's tour set lists contain selections from the band's legendary 1998 album, In an Aeroplane Over the Sea. Much like the Modern Lovers' 1976 self-titled debut album, Aeroplane was met with neither acclaim nor large sales. Neutral Milk Hotel's hectic 1998 touring schedule to promote the album, a lo-fi psychedelic take on the story of Anne Frank, took its toll on the band's leader, Jeff Mangum, and it went on indefinite hiatus.
In the ensuing two decades, Mangum would show up infrequently to play with other musicians, including Elf Power (which is joining NMH on its reunion tour). Aeroplane's popularity (the 2008 reissue was the top-selling vinyl album that year) grew as musicians cited it as an influence. The Decemberists, with their unique cover art and dream-like tales of butchers and crane wives, are an obvious example. Franz Ferdinand's Bob Hardy once said, "When I first started driving, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was the only cassette I had in my Ford Fiesta for two years. It is amazing. Friendships can be gauged on the mutual love of Neutral Milk Hotel."
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The Modern Lovers are still an influence on many artists, including Joan Jett, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Sonic Youth. Richman was inspired after seeing The Velvet Underground in the late '60s and recruited several musicians around Boston, including future Talking Heads member Jerry Harrison, to record an album with a noisy edge about subjects such as Pablo Picasso's ability to womanize. Former Velvet John Cale even assisted with the production.
A few years later, the band accepted an offer to play in Bermuda, and Richman became inspired by the local music. He started to move away from the album's Velvets-inspired sound and refused to play any of its songs. When the self-titled debut finally saw the light of day, Richman all but disowned it. Then the original band had broken up, but the album's reputation grew. The album's opening track, "Roadrunner," was famously covered by the Sex Pistols in The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle. Richman still doesn't cash in on his famous album's legacy. He knew before it was finished that he wanted to move on to something softer and more refined.
Mangum, with the exception of a few side projects, chose to finish what he started years ago. A box set of rare and unreleased Neutral Milk Hotel tracks is out. He told Pitchfork in 2002 about releasing new material, "I don't know. It would be nice, but sometimes I kind of doubt it. I just feel like these windows open up for something to be honest, and they don't stay open for very long. I guess my path feels sort of different now . . . I don't know what's going to happen, but I certainly want to make music a bigger part of my life in the future than it has been for the last couple of years."