THE CURIOUS TALE OF MODERN ENGLISH

I’ve always been bemused by the fact that, in relative terms, Modern English were a bit of a flop in their homeland. I suppose they were just too poppy for the indie-kids and too indie for the pop-purists thus unable to satisfy any one demographic of a potential fan base. But there were plenty of similar sounding bands, some on small indie labels and some on majors, who somehow bridged the gap and enjoyed commercial success, even if it was on the basis of being one-hit wonders.

The band emerged, as did so many others, in the immediate wake of the post-punk/new wave era and they even had something of the DIY ethos which was so prevalent of the times, issuing a debut single in 1979 on their own label. They were soon on the radar of 4AD Records, signing to that eccentric and innovative label in 1980. Two singles were followed by a John Peel session before the release of debut LP Mesh & Lace in 1981. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in being interested in seeking them out on the basis of some of the musical press coverage in which they it was said they were heavily influenced by Joy Division; I’m sure I wasn’t alone in being bitterly disappointed when hearing them for the first time as they failed to generate any of the excitement that Curtis and co. had brought to my teenage ears.

The debut album sold a respectable number in the UK, reaching #5 in the indie-charts. I gave it a full listen again a few weeks back for the first time in decades, in the expectation that I’d find it more palatable given the expansion of my tastes over the ensuing years, but I still found it a difficult, uncomfortable and unpleasant listen. It just feels as if the band tried too hard to remain pure to their art, making uncompromising music that too often crossed over into the self-indulgent.

I’m not sure what it was that made the band reconsider things when it came to the follow-up; After The Snow in 1982 turned out to be as far removed from the debut as imaginable. Indeed, it could be argued that Modern English went too far and released a lightweight synth-driven pop album which made A Flock of Seagulls appear as innovative as Kraftwerk.

The sophomore album didn’t initially sell anything like as many copies in the UK as the debut. This well-crafted, clean and pop-friendly record seemed out-of-place on 4AD and the label wasn’t able to promote it via its usual channels and contacts, while they were out of their depth in trying to find ways to break one of their bands into the pop market. But salvation soon came in the shape of Sire Records who had no such problems in placing Modern English amongst the sort of UK acts that appealed to the college radio circuit and the newly emerging market via MTV. There was one song in particular which was doing the trick:-

mp3 : Modern English – I Melt With You

This album track was given the remix treatment, which, despite removing some of its dreamlike charm, went onto to sell enough copies to propel the 45 into the mainstream charts in the States and ultimately to help shift more than 500,000 copies of the parent album.

mp3 : Modern English – I Melt With You (7” mix)

Those who had fallen for the debut were left feeling let down by this about-turn in sound, but there’s no doubt that the band had somehow perfectly captured the moment when synth barged its way right into the pop world; the pity was that it opened the door for bland, indistinguishable acts such as Howard Jones and Nik Kershaw, as well as encouraging the likes of Simple Minds to follow suit.

They relocated from the UK to the USA shortly afterwards, enjoying financial rewards from touring on the back of the hit single. They were, however, unable to repeat the trick with the third album Ricochet Days, released in 1985, and before long the band split up, albeit they got together again before the decade was out since when they have made the occasional record without ever getting the sort of attention they did in the early 80s.

In the end, Melt With You became something of an albatross around their necks. Everything was compared to it and everything, in the eyes of the critics and the fan base, was left wanting. The impact of the big hit can be seen from the fact that the pop-orientated VH1 channel made it # 39 on its list of Greatest Songs of the 80s as well as #7 in its list of one-hit wonders of the same decade.

Here’s the two other tracks from After The Snow that were also released as singles:-

mp3 : Modern English – Life In The Gladhouse (12” single mix)
mp3 : Modern English – Someone’s Calling (single mix)

JC

7 thoughts on “THE CURIOUS TALE OF MODERN ENGLISH

  1. Not sure if I ever even heard a Modern English song besides I Melt with You. It got LOADS of airplay in the US and is still in heavy rotation on 80’s flashback shows, but this is the definition of the one hit wonder.

  2. I actually am really in to Modern English’ first 3 albums, how diverse the debut might be from the following releases. Lost them after those albums, tried Stop, but that didn’t do it at all for me and I got rid of it.
    The After The Snow album I have both the UK and US releases of as they differ a bit, not the least on the “monster in the cupboard” – I Melt With You. Still love them three, and chimed in a couple mof years ago when they crowdfunded a new album (Take Me To The Trees) through Pledgemusic.

  3. Modern English used to hang around the counter of record shop where I worked in the late 1970s and early 1980s and the sleeve for their debut 7″, ‘Drowning Man’, was designed by a guy I knew at the time. I can’t claim to have followed their career closely, but the most recent LP, 2016’s ‘Take Me to the Trees’ is very good. The single ‘Sweet Revenge’ sounds like something John Foxx-era Ultravox might have produced. Bloody awful video though.

  4. Got more love for Modern English here as well.
    While I agree there’s a big difference from Mesh + Lace to After The Snow, I never felt it was a jarring as most reviewers thought. I always look at After The Snow as being a bit more Goth than say, Post Punk, but at least in 82, that wasn’t yet a derogatory statement. For the most part, I find the addition of synths to be more atmospheric than primary.
    The third album, Ricochet Days, is very much a product of being on 4AD. The album track Machines is one of my favorites of their career. It was also to be a B-side to their final 4AD single which was shelved.
    I too “pledged” for Take Me To The Tree and got to see them is a ridiculously intimate setting here in Tampa in 2016. The album recaptures a lot of their earliest sound without sounding nostalgic, but certainly informed by time.

  5. The song “It’s OK” from the album ‘Soundtrack’ was one of my favorite songs of 2010. You are reading that right… 2010! I’ll put in additional support for ‘Take Me to the Trees’ too.

  6. I hear you on “Mesh + Lace.” I came across an inexpensive CD of that in 2002 and I thought I’d give it a try. I remembered reviews of it from the time of release, and was fully aware that it was a far cry from the sleek pop of “I Melt With You,” an American hit which I had always appreciated. Even so, I expected something that would be pleasant to listen to even if it was in a completely different [challenging] style. As you say, it was most certainly not that to these ears. I found it just an awkward, off-putting sound. I recycled that one pretty quick.

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