Modern English Is Getting Even Wilder

Modern English
Modern English Mike Hipple
Modern English is best known for its hit single “I Melt With You,” from the 1982 album After the Snow. The song was in heavy rotation in the early days of MTV and served as an anthem for those struggling to find joy and hope in the dismal age of Thatcher and Reagan. With that album and that song, Modern English helped to reconcile the brooding experimentalism of post-punk and the melodic songcraft of new wave.

The musicians in the band came from working-class families in Colchester, Essex, in England. The bandmates were university students when they got their start, and it's hard to imagine that having a hit single was on their minds.

Sadly, the band is remembered as just a one-hit wonder. But it wasn't. Modern English was part of the British post-punk explosion of the late ’70s and early ’80s. The act's peers included luminaries such as Joy Division, Public Image Ltd. and Wire, the latter of which proved most influential on the direction of Modern English's music.

“We went to see them play live at our local university, and it was just amazing,” says singer Robbie Grey. “They played about 700 songs in about twenty minutes.”

Grey is humorously referring to Wire's debut album, 1977's epochal Pink Flag, which is a furious barrage of inventive ideas and sounds that was an amalgam of ’70s ambitious art rock like Pink Floyd and King Crimson and punk's distillation of rock to its essential elements. At 21 tracks over 35 minutes, the record is dense and furious.

As Wire did on its following two albums, 1978's Chair's Missing and 1979's 154, Modern English incorporated keyboards and synthesizers into its stark, brooding early sound. The debut Modern English album, Mesh & Lace, is today considered by younger post-punk aficionados one of the classics of the era. So much so that Portland, Oregon-based production company Forbidden Colors approached the band about performing the record in its entirety for a U.S. tour in 2016.

Currently, Modern English is part of the Retro Futura tour, which showcases other ’80s artists who had mainstream hits around the same time in the early part of the decade, including Howard Jones, English Beat and Paul Young. Naturally, for that audience, “I Melt With You” will be the centerpiece of Modern English's set, and the act won't play much from its 2016 album Take Me to the Trees. The latter represents a kind of hybrid of the band's dark, experimental leanings heard on Mesh & Lace and the more traditionally cohesive songwriting on After the Snow.

Supported by fans through PledgeMusic, a crowdfunding site for musicians, Modern English didn't have the pressure to re-produce another “I Melt With You"; thus Take Me to the Trees doesn't sound like a retread of completely familiar territory. And Modern English has garnered a new generation of fans who were not even born when the band enjoyed its first wave of popularity.

“I understand there's been a post-punk resurgence that's been going on now for a few years,” says Grey. “I don't understand why that is unless it's just kids rejecting all the mainstream rubbish they're being fed all the time. Lyrically, post-punk is quite introverted and soul searching, and that's why I think younger people are getting interested in it, because they're fed up with all these banal lyrics that are out there. It's nice to know that kids aren't being too programmed, do you know what I mean?”

On its recent tour, Modern English played SXSW for the first time in its career, but unfortunately had to cut some of its dates at small clubs, its natural environment, because guitarist Gary McDowell had to have emergency medical treatment. Grey says the band feels that its music overall is perhaps best experienced in the more intimate environment of small theaters and clubs, but finds a way to enjoy an ’80s cruise the group played in 2016 and the larger, arena-sized shows as part of a package tour like Retro Futura.

“There's a lot going on for us,” says Grey. “Some of it's mainstream and some of it's not, and it's not a problem for us to do either. But our hearts are with the creative, artistic side of it. The fun side of it is to do those ’80s tours and have a laugh and get paid well. But those won't involve music from Take Me to the Trees. We just sometimes get asked to do them, and we play 'I Melt With You' and get paid well to do so. It's amazing to see the reaction when you come out in these big arenas, which we don't do when we do the Mesh & Lace type stuff. The new stuff we're writing now is even more left-field. I'm hoping we get to record another album, if we stay alive long enough, and give you more stuff that's even wilder.”

Retro Futura: Modern English, Howard Jones, Paul Young, English Beat, Katrina (ex-Katrina and the Waves) and Men Without Hats, 7 p.m. Monday, July 24, Bellco Theatre, 303-228-8000, $39.50-$79.50, 16+.
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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.