With washed-up bands from the Seventies reuniting faster than you can say "Fiddler's Green," perhaps it's only fitting that Modern English, a seemingly washed-up band from the Eighties, should also be in search of a nostalgia wave to ride. But unlike many of his classic-rock predecessors, Robbie Grey, the only remaining original English-man, is fairly honest about his situation. "I suppose we are a one-hit band," he acknowledges, adding, "I think that song will be a thorn in our sides for the rest of our lives. But on the other hand, I got a gold and platinum album because of it--so I really don't have a problem with it."
For those of you who don't already have its nagging hook running through your brain right now, the tune to which Grey refers is "I Melt With You," Modern English's sole stateside hit. Originally released on the 1980 album Mesh & Lace, the track was among the first singles that the fledgling MTV cable channel flogged into a smash.
In retrospect, the initial success of "Melt" isn't all that difficult to understand: Although the ditty is utterly lacking in either depth or substance, it's a generally enjoyable pop ready-made. What astounds, however, is how well this throwaway has stuck. Even today, the cut remains a favorite among untold thousands of college-educated white folks now facing the business end of their thirties. Recognizing this fact, programmers at radio stations catering to the demographic in question apparently have dedicated themselves to ensuring that its members will hear "Melt" once a day for the rest of their lives.
Not surprisingly, Grey sees the continuing popularity of "Melt" as a pleasant bonus rather than proof that civilization as we know it is ending. He reports that American fans frequently approach him in public to say, "I made love to my girlfriend to that song," or, "We got married to that song"--which he feels is "pretty amazing." He elaborates, "Every time it's played in concerts, people go crazy. For some reason, in America everyone just sort of took it to heart. I don't know why--it just happened."
Citizens of the United States, and the world in general, proved far more able to resist the rest of Modern English's catalogue, which has collectively received about as much airplay as the post-"I Ran" offerings by A Flock of Seagulls. So Grey came up with a novel way to hype Pillow Lips, a 1991 disc issued on the TVT imprint: recutting and rereleasing "I Melt With You." He rationalizes this cash-driven decision by noting, "The first time around, it wasn't actually a hit--even though it was, like, the people's song. So we put it out hoping that we would get loads of extra sales. But it didn't work like that."
True enough: The second "Melt" flopped, perhaps because the new version was simply a technically advanced regurgitation of its predecessor. ("We pretty much copied the old one," Grey confesses with a laugh.) TVT subsequently attempted to pump some life into this dead horse by releasing a handful of lengthy remixes that recast "Melt" as a dance track, but they stiffed, too. Grey now regards this experiment as a mistake: "It only really works as it is," he notes.
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As "Melt" circa 1991 evaporated, so did TVT's enthusiasm for Modern English. Company types turned thumbs-down on the demos the combo recorded for a Pillow Lips followup, precipitating a five-year quest for a new label deal. Everything's Mad, a new CD recently released by Imago, is the fruit of that labor. When asked about it, Grey says that he and his current associates (guitarist Ted Mason and keyboardist Matthew Shipley) added Indian and ambient instrumentation to Modern English's verse-chorus-verse pop formula, resulting in what he sees as a fresh approach for the Nineties. "I don't know how to describe it to you," he insists.
One word others attempting to do so aren't likely to use is "good." For example, "I Don't Know Anything" is an inoffensive two-and-a-half-minute reincarnation of the group's familiar recipe that nonetheless is unlikely to distinguish itself with anyone outside Grey's immediate family; "Elastic" offers a purportedly edgier version of the band's style that suits Modern English about as well as one of Madonna's bullet bras; and "The Planet" is listenable only because it manages to rip off both Love & Rockets and Michael Jackson at the same time. Worst of all is the beyond-sophomoric "Waves (When I Cum)." The skin-crawling nature of this composition is so overwhelming that it's impossible to fully comprehend its awfulness without actually hearing it--something I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy.
In short, "I Melt With You" remains pretty much the only reason anybody would have an interest in seeing Modern English. Given that, what makes the act's comeback any different from that of, say, Foghat? "I don't know who that is," Grey claims. "But I suppose what makes it different is that it's Modern English, you know?"
Modern English, with the Extinct. 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 21, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $12.60, 447-0095.