The Modern Lovers

Pablo Picasso

Composed by Jonathan Richman

Song Review by

Just a spoken word lyric over a "Peter Gunn" riff, but "Pablo Picasso" is one of the best self-deprecating songs in pop music. The Modern Lovers provided the link from the intelligent art rock of the Velvet Underground to new wave bands, punk rock bands, and the irony-fueled minimalists of the no wave scene of the late '70s and later groups. Talking Heads (featuring Jerry Harrison, formerly of the Modern Lovers), Television, They Might Be Giants, even the gag popsters Barenaked Ladies all owe something to Jonathan Richman and his band. Produced by the Velvet Underground's John Cale (who went on to cover "Pablo Picasso"), the 1976 album Modern Lovers was mostly a collection of demos the band had recorded with Cale five years prior. A deal with Warner Bros. fell through and the record sat for years. "Pablo Picasso" typifies much of the record; Richman has a similar dry speak-sing delivery to that of Lou Reed, but Richman displays little of the seriousness and gravity of Reed's lyrical matter. Rather, Richman makes good use of a detached, ironic, wry sense of humor, while also trying to retain some of the wide-eyed innocence of childhood. He spits out the lyrics of "Pablo Picasso" like he does with other songs on the record, awkwardly, nervously, almost stuttering -- as David Byrne would do years later: "Well some people try to pick up girls/And get called assholes/This never happened to Pablo Picasso/He could walk down your street/And girls could not resist his stare and/So Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole." On the next refrain, Richman adds a "not like you," suggesting that he realizes it is not just Richman who is uncool; it's just that he, as the ultimate contrarian of rock & roll, acknowledges it while everyone is concerned with passing themselves off as hip, but they are just "bellbottom bummer or asshole." The Modern Lovers members dispersed after their now-legendary first record. Harrison went on to join Talking Heads, David Robinson eventually landed in the Cars, and Richman nurtured a solo career with a worldwide cult following. Aside from Cale's electronically dense cover of "Pablo Picasso" on his 1977 Guts LP, the song had a semi-famous revival as part of the Repo Man soundtrack, an excellent collection of mid-'80s L.A. punk rock bands. Burning Sensations covered it in the film, infusing the exaggerated spy film riff with extra percussion and saxophone.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
The Modern Lovers 1976 Universal Distribution
Precise Modern Lovers Order: Live in Boston, 1971 and Berkeley, 1973 1994 Rounder Select / New Rounder / Rounder 5:03
Roadrunner, Roadrunner: The Beserkley Collection 2004 Sanctuary 4:22
blue highlight denotes editor's pick