The new decade is shaping up to be a very busy and productive time for Modern English. Not only is 2010 the 31st anniversary of the long-running alternative pop-rock/post-punk band, but also, 2010 marks the release of Soundtrack—Modern English's first new album since 1996's Everything Is Mad—as well as the reunion of most of their classic 1980s lineup for an extensive tour. This year, four veterans of Modern English's early years—lead singer Robbie Grey, guitarist Gary McDowell, bassist Mick Conroy and keyboardist Stephen Walker—are hitting the road together for the first time since the mid-1980s; a second guitarist, Steve Walker (who plays on Soundtrack and should not to be confused with the keyboardist) will also be part of the lineup.
For those who remember the British outfit for their 1982 smash "I Melt with You" (which was heard in the hit 1983 film Valley Girl) and other 1980s hits such as "Hands Across the Sea," "Life in the Gladhouse" and "Ink and Paper," this reunion tour is an historic event. But as Grey, who has been Modern English's frontman since 1979, points out, the tour will not be simply an exercise in 1980s nostalgia; it will be a celebration of the present as well as the past. Modern English will perform songs from Soundtrack, including their infectious new single "It's OK," as well as favorites from classic 1980s albums like Mesh & Lace, After the Snow and Ricochet Days.
Soundtrack demonstrates that Modern English haven't lost any of their freshness or their melodic vitality. Nor have they lost their ability to be unpredictable. A diverse effort, Soundtrack ranges from the Beatlesque power pop infectiousness of "It's OK," "Here Comes the Failure" and "Up Here in the Brain" to the moodiness and melancholia of "The Lowdown" (which, according to Grey, was influenced by 1950s jazz), "Deep Sea Diver," "Fin" and "Call Me." Grey asserts that for Modern English, Soundtrack is the best of both worlds in that it shows their knack for melodic power pop hooks but also has some of the darker, edgier experimentation of their 1981 debut Mesh & Lace. Many of the influences that served Modern English well in the past—influences ranging from David Bowie and the Beatles to Joy Division and Wire—continue to serve them well on Soundtrack. But the album also underscores the fact that Modern English are distinctive, risk-taking pop-rock craftsmen in their own right.
Soundtrack reunites Modern English with two important figures they have worked with extensively over the years: producer Hugh Jones and graphic designer Vaughan Oliver. In addition to producing much of Modern English's classic 1980s output, Jones is known for his work with Echo & the Bunnymen, Simple Minds and other major artists. Grey was delighted when Jones agreed to produce Soundtrack, and he was equally happy when Vaughan (who designed so many of Modern English's album covers) accepted the band's invitation to design Soundtrack's art work.
"I thought it would be a good idea to have the old team back together," Grey explains. "Vaughan did all of the early Modern English sleeves. He did the Mesh & Lace sleeve, the After the Snow sleeve, the Ricochet Days sleeve and the Stop Start sleeve. And since we had asked Hugh to produce Soundtrack, we thought we would also ask Vaughan to do the art work. It seemed an obvious thing to do."
The Modern English lineup on Soundtrack is actually a different lineup from the one that will be heard on their tour. On Soundtrack, Grey is joined by Steve Walker on guitar, Nik Williams on bass, Matthew Shipley on keyboards and Jon Solomon on drums. Grey has played with guitarist Walker extensively in different Modern English lineups, and Williams, Shipley and Solomon have done a lot of touring with Grey as part of Modern English. But when a 2010 tour was planned, McDowell, Conroy and keyboardist Walker returned to the band—and almost all of Modern English's famous Mesh & Lace/After the Snow/Ricochet Days lineup was back in place.
Formed in Colchester, England in 1979, Modern English were originally a punk band called the Lepers. With Grey on lead vocals and guitar, McDowell on guitar and Richard Brown on drums, the Lepers performed mostly at parties. After bassist Conroy and keyboardist Walker came on board, the Lepers changed their name to Modern English. In 1979, they released their debut single, "Drowning Man," on their own label, Limp Records, before signing with 4AD Records and recording their next two singles, "Swans on Glass" and "Gathering Dust" (both of which came out in 1980).
With the band's name change came a change of direction; Modern English went from being a punk band in the strict sense to being a band that was punk-influenced but had more of a new wave/post-punk outlook. It was in 1981 that 4AD released Modern English's debut album, Mesh & Lace, which was strictly a U.K. release at the time but found its way to some U.S. stores as an import. Boiling with raw anger, dissonant rhythms and bizarre noises, the experimental Mesh & Lace confused some critics while mesmerizing others. The All Music Guide's Alex Ogg has described Mesh & Lace as "sharp-edged, intellectual, and obsessed with aestheticism" and said that "the keyboard rush that they employ is one of the punkiest uses of Stephen Walker's synthesizer imaginable—at least prior to the development of the industrial movement."
Modern English continued to evolve with their second album, After the Snow, which was their first release in the U.S. and marked the first time they worked with producer Hugh Jones. Thanks to Jones' input and guidance, Modern English maintained much of their edginess and their melancholia but acquired more power pop appeal and displayed a fondness for addictive pop-rock hooks. Released by 4AD in the U.K. in 1982 and by Sire Records in the U.S. in 1983, After the Snow yielded three singles: "Life in the Gladhouse," "Someone's Calling" and the famous "I Melt with You." Between receiving heavy exposure on MTV and being chosen for the soundtrack of the film Valley Girl, "I Melt with You" became Modern English's biggest hit. After the Snow went gold, selling more than half a million copies.
"We learned a lot about music from Hugh Jones," Grey recalls. "You have to remember that when we made Mesh & Lace, we weren't that musically evolved. None of us were trained musicians; none of us came out of a musical academy or anything like that. We were all into punk rock. But when Hugh Jones came along, he showed us that you really didn't need to be loud to put your point across."
Grey adds: "We used to think 'God, we'll never make a pop record—we're artists.' But things don't always turn out as you planned, and when you actually create a pop record, it's so much more of a thrill than anything else."
Jones went on to produce Modern English's third album, Ricochet Days, which was released in 1984 on Sire in the U.S. and by 4AD in the U.K.; that album included the hit "Hands Across the Sea," another MTV favorite. In 1986, Sire released Modern English's fourth album, Stop Start, which contained the hit single "Ink and Paper." Stop Start was followed by Modern English's fifth album, Pillow Lips, in 1990, and their sixth album, Everything Is Mad, in 1996.
And now, in 2010, Modern English are entering an exciting new chapter in the band's career. From their reunion with Hugh Jones to the release of Soundtrack to an extensive tour boasting most of their early-to-mid-1980s lineup, Modern English have a lot to be excited about in the new decade.