The Return of eLf ideas

ideas of an eLven being in Canada

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Melt with Them Over and Over Again

(On the New Wave band Modern English)

This English band may be regarded paradoxically as popular and obscure at the same time—popular because their 1982 single “I Melt with You” continues to be a favorite radio staple in many countries; obscure, for many people recognize the song but not the band and usually dismiss them as a “one-hit wonder” despite their seven-album discography that spawned several radio singles.

Without further ado, here's the official video of "I Melt with You," the song that catapulted Modern English into international popularity but which also overshadowed the rest of the band's beautiful discography

Personal Discovery
I discovered Modern English in the summer of 1983. I was on a vacation at the house of my Aranzamendez uncles and aunties in Better Living Subdivision in Bicutan, Parañaque, Philippines, whose friends were into Punk Rock and New Wave. I was only 12 years old! It was the era when youngsters preferred house parties powered by mobile music over going to clubs. It was also the time when movies could be watched at home by way of Betamax films. There were no VCDs, DVDs, nor even VHS tapes yet. One day, my Uncle Edmon's friend Rey Aguila came over with a new Betamax tape in hand. It was the 1983 film Valley Girl, starring Nicolas Cage (as a romantic New Waver who lived downtown) and Deborah Foreman (as a happy-go-lucky girl who lived in the valley). More importantly, the movie featured as the main theme song a track called “I Melt with You,” by a band known as Modern English.

Here's the trailer of the 1983 film Valley Girl, which introduced me to the song "I Melt with You," as well as to the English band Modern English.

Formed in Essex, England, in 1979, Modern English may have eventually become more known especially in the 1980s as a Pop-leaning New Wave group alongside the likes of A Flock of Seagulls, ABC, Duran Duran, and Kajagoogoo; but it actually started as a Gothic-sounding band in the league of Joy Division and Bauhaus.

Mesh and Lace (1981)

You didn’t know how much I wanted you
You didn’t know how much I needed you
Shadows on the wall, staring from the bags
Pent-up frustration, failed to explode

1. Sixteen Days
2. Just a Thought
3. Move in Light
4. Grief
5. The Token Man
6. A Viable Commercial
7. Black Houses
8. A Dance of Devotion (A Love Song)

After watching Valley Girl, I craved for more of Modern English. Beginning in 1985, I finally acquired cassette-tape copies of the band's albums. The first of these was Mesh and Lace, originally released in 1981 on 4AD Records. It introduced me to the Postpunk/Gothic sound of Modern English—dark lyrics and haunting vocals on a backdrop of low-register bass, pounding tribal beats, angular guitars, and synthesizer drone. 

Tracks that best represent this description are “Just a Thought”; “Move in Light”; A Viable Commercial; “Black Houses”; and “Dance of Devotion (A Love Song),” a regular staple on WXB 102 during this Philippine FM radio station’s heyday in 1986.

The title of this track, "Move in Light," is a reverse of the song's mood...dark, aggressive, cunning, calculating, unyielding, and relentless until the end.

"Black Houses" exemplifies Modern English's beginnings as a Postpunk/Gothic-driven band in the veins of fellow English bands Bauhaus and Joy Division.

After the Snow (1983)

Dream of better lives the kind which never hates
Wrapped in a state of imaginary grace
I made a pilgrimage to save this human’s race
Never comprehending a race that has long gone by

1. Someone's Calling
2. Life in the Gladhouse
3. Face the Wood
4. Dawn Chorus
5. I Melt with You
6. After the Snow
7. Carry Me Down
8. Tables Turning

This contains the song that catapulted Modern English into massive, commercial popularity—“I Melt with You.” I regard this album as the band’s transition from its Gothic beginnings to its eventual New Romantic predilection. While the brooding theme of the lyrics remained, the instrumentation had become upbeat and more intricate and the melodies more catchy and engaging.

My other personal picks off this album are “Someone’s Calling” (another WXB 102 airplay regular in 1986), “Life in the Gladhouse,” “After the Snow,” “Carry Me Down,” and “Tables Turning.”

"Someone's Calling" may be found in the same album that contains the massive hit "I Melt with You." This song used to be a regular staple on the Philippine FM radio station WXB102 during its heyday in 1986.

The trademark tribal drumming style in Modern English's music is highlighted in "Life in the Gladhouse."

Another distinct aspect of the music of Modern English is the chorus-and-flanger effected bass, which served not only as a backbone to many of their songs but also as a substantial component of their music's instrumentation. The characteristic of the bass playing, particularly in "After the Snow," may be described as a subtler take on the style of Peter Hook (Joy Division / New Order).

Ricochet Days (1984)

Is it something in the water
Did it fall from out the sky
I've never known a feeling like it
I wonder why

1. Rainbow's End
2. Machines
3. Spinning Me Round
4. Ricochet Days
5. Hands across the Sea
6. Blue Waves
7. Heart
8. Chapter 12

As Modern English progressed, its music became more instrumentally intricate and Classical-inspired. To classify the band at this point as New Romantic is very befitting. The third album, Ricochet Days (1984), may be regarded as the peak of the band’s musicality—a bittersweet mélange of basic Rock tools (electric guitars, bass, drums, and synthesizers) and Classical instruments (piano, violin, cello, oboe, and horns); the song structures were well-arranged and the instruments meticulously layered. The album featured also Kate St. John (on oboe), a primary member of another Classical New Wave group, The Dream Academy.

My favorite songs in this album are “Rainbow’s End,” “Spinning Me Round,” “Hands across the Sea,” “Blue Waves,” and “Heart,” which best represents the band’s New Romantic sound.

Only one-hit listeners would claim that "I Melt with You" is the only great song of Modern English; "Hands across the Sea" is, in fact, a far more romantic and better-arranged song in my perspective.

Many music reviewers and even so-called fans dismiss Ricochet Days as a lackluster albumI wonder whybecause the album is obviously well-crafted and full of catchy and meticulously instrumentated but easily digestible tracks. "Spinning Me Round," for instance, is such an attractive song.

When I first heard "Blue Waves" in 1985, I knew right away that this is the trademark sound of Modern Englishangular rhythm guitars, repetitive and patterned lead-guitar melody lines, melodic bass lines, catchy choruses, and memorable keyboard lines intricately woven into each other.

No doubt, "Heart" is where one can find Modern English in their most graceful New Romantic state.

Stop Start (1986)

Well there it is in black and white
No need to read between the lines
You made it clear to the letter
You’re breaking off the chains that bind

1. The Border
2. Ink and Paper
3. Night Train
4. I Don't Know the Answer
5. Love Breaks Down
6. Breaking Away
7. The Greatest Show
8. Love Forever
9. Start Stop / Stop Start

The fifth album geared toward an edgier type of Rock, emphasized by the dominance of the guitar and the drums and by the obvious absence of Classical instruments aside from the horns. The structures of the songs were also simpler, not much instrumentation and mood changes. Nevertheless, the Postpunk angularity of the guitars, the keyboard melodies, and the catchy choruses remain. In some degrees, the changing tide of what’s commercial in the Alternative Rock scene in the tail end of the 1980s has affected the musical direction of Modern English; but remaining members Robbie Grey (lead vocals), Gary McDowell (guitars), and Mick Conroy (bass, guitar) were somehow able to maintain the trademark danceability and sing-along hooks of the band’s music. It is also worth mentioning the fact that there were three guitar players in this album—McDowell, Conroy, and new member Aaron Davidson, and this explains why the sound became edgier and more guitar-oriented.

Recommended songs are “The Border,” “Ink and Paper,” “Night Train,” "I Don't Know the Answer," “Breaking Away,” and “The Greatest Show.”

"Ink and Paper" and the rest of the album Stop Start (1986) may find Modern English in an edgier and more Rock-oriented style, but the whole album still carries the melodic catchiness and meticulous instrumentation the band's previous music was known for.

The opening track of Modern English's fourth album, "The Border," is an urgent cue to the band's shift to an edgier kind of New Wave.

Many music listeners focus their attention exclusively on the singles, failing to discover the beauty of entire albums. "I Don't Know the Answer" is a gem even many self-proclaimed fans of Modern English tend to ignore.

Pillow Lips (1990)

As we move through cruel waters
Give me strength to be by your side
It’s so difficult sometimes to be human
The years they leave us your side

1. I Melt with You
2. Life's Rich Tapestry
3. Beauty
4. You're Too Much
5. Beautiful People
6. Care about You
7. Let's All Dream
8. Coming Up for Air
9, Pillow Lips
10. Take Me Away

In 1990, Modern English released its fifth album, which contains a re-recording of “I Melt with You.” Pillow Lips was supposed to be the album that would market the band to the so-called U.S. audience, thus the new version of their most popular song. However, by the entry of the new decade, the Alternative music landscape had also shifted from the melodic and romantic New Wave to the heavier and rugged Grunge. Modern English was one of the casualties. Before Pillow Lips could even make a mark on the scene, many of those who used to laud them had already written off not only them but also the entire New Wave genre. Because of this, many people who used to love Modern English failed to discover the beauty of this album. This was inevitable for it was released during the pre-Internet ’90s, when music fans were virtually slaves of commercial media, a time when the taste of many music lovers was still greatly affected by the radio and TV. The songs in this album were Synthpop-oriented, had less guitar works and sprinkles of Reggae and Dubstep.

Personal favorites are “Life’s Rich Tapestry,” “Beautiful People,” “Care about You” (which I regard as the twin song of “I Melt with You”), and the slow ballad “Pillow Lips.”

I regard "Care about You" as the twin song of "I Melt with You" in terms of title, song structure, and melody. My only complaint about it is its having been titled as "Care about You," instead of "I Care about You" to make it more parallel with the title of its predecessor.

I think "Pillow Lips" is a song that even many fans of Modern English had overlooked for many years. Should we blame it on the massive appeal of "I Melt with You"? Nah, I blame it on the short attention span of many music listeners, who could not hold their loyal interest in bands that they claim they love, ready to move on as soon as commercial media begin to cast their spotlight on another new band. "Pillow Lips" is a slow somber ballad, in which Robbie Grey's vocal sounds like that of Tony Hadley of Spandau Ballet.

In "Life's Rich Tapestry," someone familiar with the band's entire discography could easily describe Modern English as being in their most Synthpop preoccupation.

Everything's Mad (1996)

I’ve read your books
And seen your films
I’ve lived this life
And tried everything
But I don’t know anything

1. The Planet
2. That's Right
3. Waves (When I Cum)
4. Heaven
5. I Can't Breathe
6. Here We Go Again
7. I Don't Know Anything
8. Elastic
9. Flim One
10. The Killing Screens

Most likely because of the failure of Pillow Lips to crack the U.S. market, Modern English went on a hiatus soon after the release of the album. In 1995, the band became active again but with only vocalist Grey as the remaining original member, supported by musicians Ted Mason on guitars and Matthew Shipley on keyboards; and in the following year released the sixth album, Everything’s Mad. By this time, even many of the band’s long-time fans had no idea that Modern English was still performing, much so that there was a new album. Musically, this album may actually be considered a return to the band’s Classical roots. After the Rock-heavy Stop Start and the Synthpop-oriented Pillow Lips, the band had again beefed up their music in this album with string instruments such as the cello, violin, and viola and even adding a touch of Hindustani with the tabla and sarangi.

My favorite tracks are “I Don’t Know Anything,” “The Planet,” “Heaven,” and “That's Right.”

The melody of the strummed guitar in the intro of “I Don't Know Anything” had a ring of The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun.” 

"Here Comes the Sun" is one of my favorite songs by The Beatles, included in the band's 11th studio album, Abbey Road (1969).

For “Heaven,” Modern English obviously used as a springboard the song “Cheek to Cheek” written by Irving Berlin and first performed by Fred Astaire in 1935. 

Here is Fred Astaire's performance of the Berlin composition, "Cheek to Cheek," in the 1935 movie Top Hat.

In between low-key concerts in the United States, the band began recording new songs in 2001 for a new album; but because of difficulty in securing a record label, they were able to release the album, entitled Soundtrack, almost a decade afterwards.

Soundtrack (2010)

There’s such a lot of tension
It’s almost everywhere
A sharp increase in volume  
It fills the air

1. It's OK
2. Blister
4. Soundtrack
5. Call Me
6. Here Comes the Failure
7. The Lowdown
8. Up Here in the Brain
9. Deep Sea Diver
10. Antique Future
11. Fin

The sound of Modern English in this album is somewhat similar with that of Stop Start—edgier kind of Rock, guitar-oriented, steady bass lines, simple song structures, with a very minimal use of the keyboards. Overall, the music has the sensibilities of '90s Alternative Rock. I could hear traces of Gin Blossoms, The Lemonheads, The Replacements / Paul Westerberg, and Toad the Wet Sprocket in some of the songs and also echoes of Ned's Atomic Dustbin. I don’t mind the simplicity; but because I know that Modern English could be really musically creative and intricate—best exhibited in 1984’s Ricochet Days—I am still yearning for yet another Classical-rooted album of new materials. I hope this is not only wishful thinking.

Recommended tracks are “It’s OK,” “Here Comes the Failure,” and “Up Here in the Brain.”

I couldn't find on YouTube an uploaded video of any song from the album Soundtrack, so I decided to make a simple one myself just to be able to represent this album of Modern English in this article I've written. I am hoping that Modern English will include this on their playlist at their forthcoming concert in the Philippines, to dispel the criticism that they are only as good as their old songs.

According to the band’s website, a new album is soon to be finished. During their 2012 U.S. tour, the band previewed one song, entitled “Moonbeam.” If the sound of this song is to be taken as a cue for the rest of the album, then the sound of Modern English is definitely back to its dark Postpunk beginnings. Meaning, I have to wait for two more albums before I may get something that would sound like my favorite Modern English album.

"Moonbeam," a new song by the all-original-members-present Modern English, apparently included in the band's soon-to-be-released eighth album. If this is a cue to what to expect to the sound of the entire album, their music is certainly back to their humble beginnings...Gothic and Postpunk. The circle would have then been completed.

Final Note
Modern English is currently comprised by the reunited original members Robbie Grey (vocals), Gary McDowell (guitar, vocals), Michael Conroy (bass, vocals), and Stephen Walker (keyboards) with additional musicians Steven Walker (guitar) and Ric Chandler (drums). The reinvigorated group is actually performing in the Philippines with another classic Postpunk band, The Alarm, on May 3, 2013, at SM Mall of Asia Arena. And this is the primary reason I decided to push through with my plan to visit home again—I am watching these bands live! I will also make sure that I get to have pictures with them taken and that my Modern English and The Alarm records get autographed.

I'm ready with my stuff for possible signing for my trip to the Philippines to watch the concert of the NewWave / Postpunk bands Modern English and The Alarm. 

I went to the Philippines end of last April, for three weeks, primarily to watch the back-to-back concert of the New Wave / Postpunk bands Modern English and The Alarm. Because of this very article that I wrote, the members of the band took notice of me; and the producer of the concert, having used the article for the promotion, invited me to the press conference of the band. 

Outside Jill's Bar: I, Modern English's bass player Mick Conroy, vocalist Robbie Grey, guitarist Gary McDowell, my friend Pogz Paz, keyboardist Steve Walker, and a friend of Pogz

At the press conference, held at Jill’s Restaurant & Bar at Fort Strip in Taguig City, Metro Manila, my luck doubled—the band’s guitar player, Gary McDowell, called me to go onstage to perform with him an acoustic rendition of their song “Hands across the Sea,” which I pulled off easily because I knew the song by heart since my highschool days (in fact, I’m familiar with the entire discography of Modern English). A TV crew from the local station ABS-CBN was covering the event so the performance was captured on video. When the news feature on Modern English appeared the following day on the program TV Patrol, a video clip of the performance was included; so I got to be on TV once again. (My former band Half Life Half Death had our taste of television exposure back in the 1990s when we were still active in the local music scene.)
 I sang "Hands across the Sea" while Modern English's guitarist Gary McDowell played the guitar, at their presscon at Jill's Bar 

Another luck I got was McDowell’s putting me on the band’s guest list. Finally, a friend of mine, Boyet Garcia, owner of a New Wave bar, invited me to join him and some other friends at the dinner he hosted for Modern English.    

The concert itself was a blast, in the perspective of a longtime New Wave enthusiast. The reaction of the audience was very positive, dancing and singing along to many of the bands’ songs. Without a doubt, the majority of the fans inside the venue melted over again with one of the bands that defined their youthful summer days.


  • At Sunday, April 21, 2013 9:21:00 AM, Anonymous sheila lontok said…

    very comprehensive. makes for a good reading to catch up on their history.i like the video and photos supplementing the material. well done, with a little dash of your beginnings in the new wave music, and the influence it has on your journey as a musician/artist...SL


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