“The number of times we’ve been told that people have married our song, first made love to that song… whatever, it’s beautiful. But literally the lyrics are about a couple making love as the atomic bomb falls and sort of merging,” says modern English frontman Robbie Gray with a chuckle. “But that’s pretty good. I like the fact that there are layers in it – that people can get what they want out of it. … I like that it’s a love song, but with dark lyrics.”
Gray speaks to Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume about one of the biggest new wave hits of the British Invasion of the 1980s, “I Melt With You”, which came out 40 years ago this week. The single was released around the same time as other Cold War bops (Nena’s “99 Luftballons,” Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Two Tribes,” Time Zone’s “World Destruction,” Men at Work’s “It’s a Mistake,” Prince’s “1999,” Culture Club’s “The War Song”) because, as Gray points out, “That was exactly what was going on in the world at the time. It was a strange time – and it was especially bleak in England. There were a lot of strikes “Nobody had money. So it was nice to have a pop song with a darker edge.”
The doomsday lyrics, written in three minutes according to Gray (“If you can do that, you’re pretty sure you’re on to something good”) wasn’t necessarily a starting point for the moody, post-punk band from Essex. . But the song was so deceptively upbeat and romantic that the nuclear message went over the minds of most listeners—so much so that it became an unexpected 1980s prom song. It even played during the end credits of one of the best-loved teen rom-coms of the era, Valley Girl.
Gray says the song, from Modern English breakthrough second album After the snow, “confused” British fans who “didn’t know how to take it”; surprisingly, the album didn’t get many positive reviews and/or sold well in the UK when it came out in 1982. But thanks to the Valley Girl placement and heavy airplay on early MTV for “I Melt With You’s” charming lo-fi video (the entire shoot cost $1,000, and that not-so-special-effect flame close-up was shot with a Bunsen burner), Modern English became unlikely Stateside pop stars.
“It’s a bit of a different culture in England,” Gray explains. “We’ve always been bigger in America. In England we are much more underground, independent, still very left. In America we were mainstream, which we didn’t expect at all. It was a real shock to us. One minute we’re playing dark clubs and kind of art concerts [in Europe]and the next, we sign autographs at record stores and do big radio interviews [in the States]. The first gig we played in America, we got off the plane at Daytona Beach to play a spring break festival! We still had our overcoats on and it was a damn 90 degrees outside. We didn’t even know what we were doing. We had never played outside before.”
It was during that trek across the US—particularly through Southern California, not far from the San Fernando Valley itself—that Gray and his bandmates realized just how mainstream they were going to become, when they got a private tour bus showing of Valley Girl. “We went ’round and ‘America like clockwork bunnies, and then we stopped on the side of the road and our tour manager said, ‘You have to see this!’” Gray recalls. ‘And he put on a VHS tape – remember that one? – to the tour bus TV. And there was Valley Girl. We were looking at it and said, ‘Wow, the song’s in it’ three time!’ It was in the credits. It was in the love scenes. And it was also Nicolas Cage’s breakthrough role. It was quite exciting, everywhere.”
It was an extraordinary development for a band that had been one of the first signings with the influential post-punk label 4AD Records; was taken from a scene where “one week you would be playing Nick Cave and the Birthday Party, the next week Bauhaus and the next week Matt Johnson from The The”; and whose 1981 debut album, Mesh & Lacewould have been much more experimental and artistic 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 performance at the London Institute of Contemporary Arts (“a very artistic event”), when Jones was asked, “What did you like the songs?” he replied, “You have none!” But the band “instantly fell in love with him” and hired him because they “didn’t want to do the same thing twice.” Gray writes that Jones, who “listened to Simon & Garfunkel a lot at the time”, “did much of the After the snow sound.”
“Hugh showed us how to write songs, really,” Gray says. “In the past, on Mesh & Lace, we were just writing pieces of music; we didn’t know how to make a chorus and connect everything together. We had been an underground band and we were proud of that, but once we started to relax in our music and understand what we could do, we were more open to ideas and understood how to write songs – which isn’t easy what you do. must do when you first start and you can’t really play. I mean, with a lot of bands from that era, that’s the reason you hear so many effects and so much noise – not everyone was great players. Hugo helped us with that. And for the first time, I didn’t yell into a microphone. Plus we were in rural Wales so it has very pastoral nature based lyrics. … I’d say Hugh made us softer, but in a good way, because it was cool to use acoustic guitars and stuff.”
Gray admits somewhat sheepishly that the band didn’t even like “I Melt With You” at first, because it was so different from their previous sound: “We listened to it and thought, ‘Hmm, this sounds commercial too!’” But eventually they embraced its commercial appeal — even licensed a real Burger King commercial in the mid-’90s, when that wasn’t common for alternative rock artists.” (“I think the amount of money they offered us was just too much to turn down, to be honest,” Gray jokes.) Modern English’s classic lineup made a comeback in 2016 with the critically acclaimed album Take me to the treeswhich boasted a sharper, more Mesh & Lace –is reminiscent of sound, 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 the lyrics are still mostly overlooked. “The song generally makes people very happy,” Gray says.
In 2020, Modern English’s acoustic home quarantine performance of “I Melt With You” went viral, and that same year they played After the snow for the first time in its entirety during a livestream concert at London’s O2. The recently reissued After the snow is even back on the college radio charts, and this year Modern English is touring America for the album’s 40th anniversary. During their set, the band mainly plays After the snow from start to finish, but they save “I Melt With You” – which was originally number five – for the end of the show: “So people have to wait for it!” Grey, who does play some more obscure material during the encore, however, has no problem with that.
“I have no problem with that number,” Gray says with a smile. “If we play it every night, everyone goes crazy. And when someone on stage looks out and sees that, it never gets boring. It’s always really exciting to see a crowd singing along, jumping up and down. you can’t really ask as a band.”
The above interview is from Robbie Grey’s two appearances on the SiriusXM show “Volume West”. The full audio of those conversations is available in the SiriusXM app.
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