How Modern English’s “I Melt With You” Turned From a Cold War Outbreak to an Enduring Ballroom Anthem

Robbie Gray of Modern English in 1983. (Photo: Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

Robbie Gray of Modern English in 1983. (Photo: Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

“The number of times we’re told people got married to our song, had sex to this song for the first time… whatever, it’s lovely. But literally, the lyrics are about a couple making love while drops of atomic bombs and kind of melt together,” says modern English frontman Robbie Gray with a chuckle. “But it’s pretty good. I like that there are layers – that people can get what they want out of it. … I like that it’s like a love song, but with dark lyrics.

Gray speaks with Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume about one of the biggest hits of the new wave of the British invasion of the 80s, “I Melt With You”, which was released 40 years ago this week. The single was released around the same time as other Cold War bops (“99 Luftballons” by Nena, “Two Tribes” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, “World Destruction” by Time Zone, “It’s a Mistake” from Men at Work, “1999” from Prince “The War Song” from the Culture Club), because, as Gray notes, “that was exactly what was going on in the world at the time. It was a strange time – and it was particularly dark in England. There were many strikes. Nobody had any money. So it was good to have a pop song with a darker side.

The apocalyptic lyrics, which Gray says were written in three minutes (“When you can do that, you pretty much know you’re onto something good”), weren’t necessarily a departure for the band post. – moody Essex punk. But the track was so deceptively upbeat and romantic that its nuclear message went through most listeners’ heads – so much so that it became an unexpected 1980s ballroom song. It even played during the post end credits. -ball from one of the most beloved teen romantic comedies of the time, valley girl.

Gray says the song, from Modern English’s groundbreaking sophomore album After the snow, ‘confused’ British fans who ‘didn’t know how to take it’; surprisingly the album didn’t garner many positive reviews and/or sold well in the UK when it was released in 1982. But thanks to the valley girl placement and heavy airplay on early MTVs for the charming, lo-fi video for “I Melt With You” (the entire shoot cost $1,000, and this not-so-special effect flame close-up was created with a Bunsen burner), modern English has become unlikely to US pop stars.

Modern English in 1983. Clockwise from left: guitarist Gary McDowell, vocalist Robbie Gray, keyboardist Stepehn Walker, drummer Richard Brown, bassist Michael Conroy.  (Photo: Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

Modern English in 1983. Clockwise from left: guitarist Gary McDowell, vocalist Robbie Gray, keyboardist Stepehn Walker, drummer Richard Brown, bassist Michael Conroy. (Photo: Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

“It’s kind of a little different culture in England,” says Gray. “We’ve always been bigger in America. In England, we are much more underground, independent, always very left. In America, we were mainstream, which we didn’t expect at all. It was a real shock for us. One minute we playing dark clubs and some kind of art gigs [in Europe]and the next day, we sign autographs at the record stores and we do big interviews on the radio [in the States]. The first gig we played in America, we got off the plane in Daytona Beach to play a Spring Break Festival! We were still wearing our overcoats and it was 90 degrees outside. We didn’t even know what we were doing. We had never played outside before.

It was during this trek across the United States – through Southern California, in particular, not far from the San Fernando Valley itself – that Gray and his comrades realized how great they were. became mainstream, when they had a private tour bus screening of valley girl. “We were riding around America like mechanical bunnies, and then we pulled up on the side of the road and our tour manager said, ‘You gotta see this!’ “recalls Gray. “And he stuck a VHS tape – remember that? — on the TV tour bus. And there was valley girl. We were watching it, saying ‘Wow, the song is in Three time!’ It was in the credits. It was in the love scenes. And that was also Nicolas Cage’s kind of breakthrough role. It was pretty exciting, all around.

It was an extraordinary development for a band that had been one of the first signings to influential post-punk label 4AD Records; came from a scene where “you’d be playing with Nick Cave and the birthday party one week, Bauhaus the next week, and Matt Johnson of The The the next”; and whose 1981 debut album, Mesh & Lacehad been much more experimental and artsy than After the snow. Gray recalls with a laugh that when 4AD co-founder Ivo Watts-Russell invited record producer Hugh Jones to a Modern English concert at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London (“a very artistic event” ), when Jones was asked, “What did you think of the Songs?” he replied, “You don’t have one!” But the band “fell in love with him straight away” and hired him because they “didn’t want to do the same thing twice.” Gray credits Jones, who “was listening to a lot of Simon & Garfunkel at the time,” for being “a big part of the After the snow sound.”

“Hugh showed us how to write songs, really,” Gray says. ” Before the Mesh & Lace, we were just writing music; we didn’t know how to make a chorus and tie it all together. We were an underground band and we were proud of that, but once we started to relax into our music and figure out what we could do, we became more open to ideas and kind of figured out how to write songs – which is not easy. thing to do when you’re just starting out and can’t really play. I mean, with a lot of bands from that period, that’s why you hear so much effect and so much noise – not everyone was great players. Hugh helped us with that. And for the first time, I didn’t shout into a microphone. Also, we were in the countryside in Wales, so there are very pastoral, nature-based lyrics. …I would say Hugh made us softer, but in a good way, because it was cool to use acoustic guitars and stuff.

Gray somewhat coyly admits that at first the band “didn’t even like ‘I Melt With You'”, because it was so different from their previous sound: “We were listening to it, thinking, ‘Hmm, it sounds so commercial!’ But they ended up embracing its commercial appeal – even licensing it to an actual Burger King ad in the mid-’90s, when it wasn’t yet common practice for alt-rock artists. “I think the amount of money they offered us was just too much to turn down, to be honest with you,” Gray quips.) Classic Modern English programming made a comeback in 2016 with the critically acclaimed album. take me to the treeswhich boasted of a sharper, more Mesh & Lace-sound reminiscent, and the new material they hope to release by the end of 2022 will be largely in that vein. But four decades later, “I Melt With You” still resonates against the backdrop of a new Cold War era – even if its lyrics are still mostly ignored. “The song usually makes people very happy,” Gray says.

In 2020, Modern English’s acoustic home quarantine performance of “I Melt With You” went viral, and the same year they performed After the snow in its entirety for the first time at a live concert at the O2 in London. The recently reissued After the snow is even back on the college radio charts, and this year Modern English toured America for the album’s 40th anniversary. During their set, the band mainly plays After the snow from start to finish, but they recorded “I Melt With You” – which was originally track five – for the end of the show, “So people must wait!” However, Grey, who makes sure to play more obscure material during the encore, has no problem with that.

“I have no problem with this song,” Gray insists with a smile. “When we play it every night, everyone goes crazy. And as someone on stage to watch and see that, it never gets boring. It’s always really exciting to see a crowd singing, jumping up and down As a band, you can’t really ask for more than that.

The above interview is taken from Robbie Gray’s two appearances on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” The full audio of these conversations is available on the SiriusXM app.

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