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Modern English

Modern English

The glowing hooks and optimistic, romantic lyrics of "I Melt with You" might leave the impression that Modern English are an upbeat pop act, but that single, one of the most distinctive songs of the new wave era, is rather anomalous in the discography of a band whose sound is rooted in dark, driving post-punk. Hailing from Colchester, Modern English took the D.I.Y. approach with their 1979 debut single, and from 1980 through 1984, they were key members of the early 4AD roster, releasing Mesh & Lace, the Hugh Jones productions After the Snow and Ricochet Days, and a handful of singles, all of which routinely hit the U.K. indie charts. "I Melt with You," recorded for the second album and featured in the film Valley Girl, provided the band with an international breakthrough, particularly in the U.S., where it cracked the Billboard Hot 100 and eventually went gold. Through the remainder of the '80s and next two decades, frontman Robbie Grey led various configurations of Modern English over four albums for the same number of labels. Since the tail-end of the 2000s, the lineup has featured Grey beside fellow 4AD-era members Gary McDowell, Michael Conroy, and Stephen Walker. They've independently released the albums Take Me to the Trees (2017) and 1 2 3 4 (2024), and have consistently toured, celebrating a body of work that would be significant even without their biggest hit.

Modern English were preceded by the Lepers. Including vocalist Robbie Grey (aka Jack Midnight), guitarist Gary McDowell (aka Justin Sane), and drummer Richard Brown, the Colchester-based Lepers performed mainly at parties, though their first gig was in support of Siouxsie and the Banshees and Adam and the Ants. In 1979, at some point after bassist Michael "Mick" Conroy joined, the Lepers became Modern English -- their meat-and-potatoes punk developed into to artier post-punk inspired by the likes of Joy Division and Wire -- and completed their quintet lineup with the addition of keyboardist Stephen Walker. That year, they self-released their lean and ominous debut single entitled "Drowning Man." Subsequently signed to the nascent 4AD label, Modern English released the singles "Swans on Glass" and "Gathering Dust" in 1980, and appeared on Presage(s), the first 4AD compilation. Before the end of the year, the band also recorded their first of two sessions for John Peel's BBC Radio 1 program, and took that opportunity to play material that hadn't yet seen commercial release. Three of the four songs transmitted would also be recorded for Mesh & Lace, the band's debut LP, which landed in April 1981. Full of raw anger, hurtling rhythms, and swirling electronics, the album received mixed critical reception but reached number five on the U.K. indie chart, thanks in part to Peel's continued support. The non-album single, "Smiles and Laughter," containing the B-side "Mesh & Lace" -- the fourth song the band previewed with their first Peel session -- was out later in the year.

Mesh & Lace was produced by the band. For their follow-up, they streamlined their layered sound with help from Hugh Jones, a producer whose strong reputation was established with Modern English contemporaries such as Echo & the Bunnymen, the Sound, and the Teardrop Explodes. While the resulting May 1982 release After the Snow featured the driving and slashing post-punk classic "Life in the Gladhouse" (remixed for 12" release by labelmate Martyn Young of Colourbox), the album was comparatively softer and brighter, exemplified by the inviting "Someone's Calling" (remixed for the same 12" by New York DJ Mark Kamins) and open-hearted "I Melt with You." In early April the following year, the latter single entered the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S., where it was licensed to Sire, and peaked a couple weeks later at number 78. Near the end of that month, the romantic teen comedy Valley Girl was released Stateside with "I Melt with You" prominently featured, and the accompanying video was placed in rotation on MTV. An enduring minor hit of the new wave era, "I Melt with You" pushed After the Snow to number 70 on the U.S. album chart and eventual sales in excess of 500,000 copies, acknowledged near the end of the decade with a gold certification from the RIAA.

A second album produced by Hugh Jones, Ricochet Days, entered the U.K. indie chart in March 1984 and peaked at number five (number 93 in the U.S.), promoted with the amiable singles "Chapter 12" and "Hands Across the Sea." The same year, Robbie Grey was involved with This Mortal Coil, the studio project of 4AD head Ivo Watts-Russell; he fronted a version of Colin Newman's "Not Me" that appeared on TMC's It'll End in Tears. (TMC had debuted the previous year with a single containing a medley of Modern English's "16 Days" and "Gathering Dust" -- with Michael Conroy on bass and Gary McDowell sharing guitar duties with Cocteau Twins' Robin Guthrie.) Ricochet Days would be the band's last album for 4AD, and was followed in 1986 by Stop Start, their last work for Sire in the U.S. Produced by Stephen Stewart-Short while Alan Moulder assisted at the mixing desk, Stop Start was recorded without Richard Brown or Stephen Walker and featured a handful of session musicians, as well as new member Aaron Davidson playing keyboards and extra guitar. The band's most mainstream-sounding effort, it peaked in the back half of the Billboard 200. "Ink & Paper," its only single, was co-written by the Rubinoos' Tommy Dunbar. The band split afterward, but Grey and Conroy resurfaced in 1990 on the TVT label with Pillow Lips. That July, the album's re-recorded version of "Melt with You" managed to slightly eclipse the original by peaking at number 76 on the Billboard Hot 100. Label conflict prompted another period of inactivity -- Conroy responded by playing with Stereolab and Moose -- until 1996, when Grey, joined by Matthew Shipley and Ted Mason, returned with Everything's Mad, issued on Imago.

Grey continued to lead Modern English and, in 2009, was reunited with the majority of his fellow original bandmates. Soundtrack, which Grey had recorded earlier in the decade with Hugh Jones, Matthew Shipley, Nik Williams, Jon Solomon, and Steven Walker (a guitarist, not to be confused with keyboardist Stephen Walker), was issued on Darla the following year. Revitalized, Modern English toured extensively, then recorded Take Me to the Trees, featuring Grey, Michael Conroy, Gary McDowell, and Stephen Walker, and produced and mixed by the temporarily unretired Martyn Young. The album was released in February 2017. Although they had to cancel a 40th anniversary tour of North America in 2020, the band livestreamed a London performance that September and the following year issued the resulting CD/DVD package After the Snow Live from Indigo at the 02. The band made their next album, 1 2 3 4, after spending more time on the road, and recorded it primarily live in the studio to capture the energy of their gigs. Weeks before the album's February 2024 release, "I Melt with You" earned an RIAA gold certification. ~ Andy Kellman

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