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:-
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.
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:-