Richman’s band The Modern Lovers first recorded “Roadrunner” with producer John Cale (previously of the Velvet Underground) in 1972. This version was first released as single and in 1976 on The Modern Lovers' long-delayed but highly acclaimed debut album (originally Home of the Hits HH019).
As a teenager Richman saw the The Velvet Underground perform many times, and the format of “Roadrunner” is derived directly from the Velvets’ song “Sister Ray”. “Roadrunner” is based on two chords (D and A) rather than “Sister Ray”’s three, but they share the same persistent throbbing rhythm, and lyrics which in performance were largely improvised around a central theme.
However, in contrast to Lou Reed’s morally detached saga of debauchery and decay, Richman’s lyrics are passionate and candid, dealing with the freedom of driving alone and the beauty of the modern urban environment, specifically the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts.
Richman wrote the song by 1970, when he began performing it in public. Former bandmate John Felice 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."
In July 2007, journalist Laura Barton wrote an essay published in the Guardian newspaper on her attempt to visit all the places mentioned in Richman's 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. Barton described "Roadrunner" as "one of the most magical songs in existence".