Modern English

Robbie Grey - vocals Gary McDowell - guitar Stephen Walker - keyboards Michael Conroy - bass guitar Richard Brown - drums

MODERN ENGLISH were uniquely placed in the late '70s and early '80s as a band who forged a relationship with practically all the emerging British musical styles - post-punk, New Wave, synthesizer pop, New Romantic, Goth, neo-pyschedelia and the so-called Second Wave of UK pop which invaded America in '82 and '83. Their alluringly anthemic music drew inspiration - however abstract or oblique - from these starkly contrasting worlds, rapidly attaining critical and commercial success with the After The Snow album which, with its intricate and gloriously uplifting sound, achieved a cinematic sense of space way beyond the reach of most of their contemporaries.

However, despite their painstaking, sublime work on After The Snow and its follow-up, Ricochet Days, Modern English's roots were defiantly in the primitive, aggressive punk scene. In 1977 the Sex Pistols inspired three Colchester residents, Robbie Grey (vocals), Gary McDowell (guitar) and Richard Brown (drums) to form a local "hobby punk band", The Lepers. "We played at little parties in people's houses," recalls Grey 20 years later. "Punk gave people like us an opportunity to make music because we couldn't actually play our instruments. The idea of being in a band seemed impossible before the Sex Pistols came along."

The Lepers evolved into Modern English a year later, when keyboard player Steve Walker and bassist Mick Conroy joined the band. "The first gig we ever did was with a plastic guitar and a set of bongos outside Colchester Town Hall, and we nearly got arrested for that," says Walker. A hastily recorded debut single, featuring the tracks "Drowning Man" and "Silent World," was released on Limp, a short-lived label created by an Essex entrepreneur. At the time several bands from the same area were playing a significant role in the development of electronic pop, thanks to the efforts of Futurist DJ, Stevo and Basildon's up-and-coming stars Depeche Mode. "There was a bit of friendly rivalry between us and Depeche Mode," claims Grey. "We both used to play at the Bridgehouse in Canning Town, which was an old Oi and punk hangout."

Modern English became one of 4AD's first signings, following a dark period for the band during which they'd moved to London and had their five-track demos returned without interest by most of the major record companies. Grey: "Basically we decided that we'd have to move to London if we were going to be serious about the band, so we put all our bags in a van and started squatting all over Ladbroke Grove in West London. We spent a few years in squats, living together, signing on and making music all the time."

In London, Modern English became involved with several very different music scenes. "We lived next door to Killing Joke," laughs Steve Walker, "Jaz Coleman used to wake us up at four in the morning by playing heavy dub." Other neighbours included The Clash and Throbbing Gristle's Genesis P. Orridge. Some band members used to hang out in the influential Goth club, The Batcave, and guitarist Gary McDowell was dressing up for nights at the Club For Heroes, and later Blitz, long before anyone had coined the phrase 'New Romantic'. Steve Walker recalls, "He was into Bowie and Robert Fripp and liked the extravagance of that whole club scene." Bassist Mick Conroy was also a fan of electronic music, especially Bill Nelson, but his playing was pure Joy Division - propulsive, melodic riffs that would hold Modern English's experimental songs together, along with the powerful work of drummer, Richard Brown.

Following the release of two 4AD singles, "Swans On Glass" and "Gathering Dust," in 1981 Modern English unleashed their uncompromising debut album, Mesh & Lace. Ranging from the claustrophobic "16 Days" to the anti-nuclear "Black Houses," the young band thrashed and contorted through a collage of bleak, industrial noises and scratched guitars, forsaking conventional songs. "It's my favourite album," enthuses Grey. "There's a lot of aggressive, dark stuff on there. "16 Days" is a really wild track, where we were messing around, rattling film cans for 20 minutes." Mesh & Lace's stark, unyielding sound still possesses a black magic, as raw emotions are vented in ugly / beautiful guitars and a blizzard of 'found sounds'.

However, the album's brutal atmosphere prompted a mixed response from the UK media. One of the more favourable reviews was written by rock critic, Andy Gill; "In some respects, theirs is a modern English sound: '80s dark power strung with a certain austerity - a loss of humanity, if you like - though never quite toppling into the Gothic vistas of say, Bauhaus, despite some similarities of tone and temperament." According to Steve Walker, "the press were put off us by some of our early gigs, which were pretty chaotic." Nevertheless, Modern English had become part of 4AD history, both on a musical level (another 4AD artist, This Mortal Coil, later recorded a medley of "Gathering Dust" and "16 Days") and as an early project for in-house designer, Vaughan Oliver, whose record sleeves were characterised by ethereal imagery and surreal visual shocks. "They didn't explain the masturbating fish on the cover of Mesh & Lace to us at all," says Robbie Grey with a wry smile, "but they were just experimenting, trying to find a new style."

"Vaughan credits us for giving him complete freedom at that point," says Walker. "We helped him on his way."

While living together and jamming songs in their Ladbroke Grove squat, it was Steve Walker who suggested they hire Echo & The Bunnymen producer Hugh Jones to work with them on new songs. "He came to see us play on New Year's Eve at London's ICA," remembers Grey, "and he didn't think much of the gig, to be honest." "He said we didn't have any songs," adds Walker, softly.

The band credit Jones' tireless enthusiasm - he worked non-stop for four weeks at Rockfield studios in Wales - and his emphasis on songwriting structures as opposed to weird, improvised textures, for the change in style showcased on 1982's After The Snow LP. "Hugh would play us stuff like Nick Drake, Fairport Convention and Todd Rundgren," says Walker. "He showed us things called choruses; we knew they were there, but we never knew how to get them." According to Richard Brown, "Hugh was influenced by '60s music and he brought vocal harmonies to the music and a straight, solid drum beat." The remote, quiet recording location also inspired the transcendental, semi-religious tone of the material, in particular Grey's life-affirming lyrics on "Dawn Chorus": "It's a song about where we recorded the album," he says. "You woke up in the morning - and we were staying in this really small cottage with a log fire - you threw open the window and it was just so inspiring. That's what 'Dawn Chorus' is about. In the song there's a line that says, 'Strange visions of balloons on white stallions' and that's what the front cover is - a line from the song." This warmer, more romantic approach was reflected in the title of the album. "The first LP was very cold," explains Grey, "and a very angry record and that's why we named this one After The Snow - as in, after the cold."

After The Snow's thawed, more vulnerable songwriting prompted a critical breakthrough in the UK, where they received the best reviews of their career. One prominent British rock magazine raved, "this record is a pleasant surprise - it's both traditional and forward-looking; familiar yet mysterious. Watch this space." Another was equally complimentary about their change in approach, claiming, "It's as far an advancement from Mesh & Lace as Einstein was from algebra . . . how can slush like ABC and Duran Duran get so much airplay to the exclusion of dynamism like this?" Unfortunately, the British public cold-shouldered the album, leaving the band in no-man's land. "Nothing much happened for a while," says Grey, "and we started recording a new album with Hugh. We'd done about four tracks when I had a phone call from a friend who said, 'Do you realise your song, "I Melt With You," is all over American radio?' It was the first I'd heard anything about it."

The joyful "I Melt With You" was still only available on import at this point but a deal with Sire Records set the band up for an American promotional tour in 1983. "We were only supposed to be out there for a month or so, but we ended up playing 82 gigs in 100 days," reveals Walker. Grey: "It was so strange, to go from playing to 200 people looking inquisitively at you in the ICA to 10,000 people on a beach in Florida. We were so naive we actually got off the plane wearing long coats." As well as the touring, Modern English made an impact by becoming one of the first British acts to enjoy heavy rotation on MTV. "That was another weird thing," says Grey, "because suddenly we became part of this wave of British music that was doing well in America - people such as Duran Duran and Flock Of Seagulls. The only thing we had in common with those bands was Gary's haircut. Our video was done in a London basement rather than a yacht in some exotic far-flung place." In fact, the song Life In The Gladhouse was a direct swipe at the "cocktail set" embodied by the likes of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet.

"I Melt With You" eventually peaked just outside the American Top 40, while After The Snow was rapidly certified Gold. "We played the Ritz in New York one night in 1983 and Matt Dillon introduced us on stage," says Grey, illustrating just how far Modern English had travelled from their Colchester roots. "The place was sold out to the rafters, with Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan in the audience."

After The Snow's runaway success delayed the final sessions for their next album Ricochet Days, which was completed a year after they'd started recording. Hugh Jones's sophisticated production and the band's willingness to experiment created a mature but understated follow-up. In a relatively short space of time they'd journeyed from the heavy dynamics of post-punk to an airy, psychedelic style, painstakingly detailed with string sections, oboe and textured keyboards.

"I'm still proud of that record," claims Walker, "but the problem was it didn't have a hit single on it." Accurately described by one American critic as "an eloquent work of passive art," Ricochet Days is a beautiful-sounding album which features some flowing, abstract songwriting and some of Grey's finest vocal performances. Unfortunately for Modern English their success had isolated them from the record company, who were quietly developing other British acts, such as Cocteau Twins, at their own pace. For much of 1984, Modern English were on tour in America, feeling cut-off from 4AD and increasingly under pressure from their USA major label. The next single, "Hands Across The Sea," stalled outside the charts and a stressed and over-worked Modern English began to fall apart. "It's the usual story," laments Walker. "Some band members started squabbling and at the end of the tour myself and Richard were dismissed."

Since then Robbie Grey has continued to tour America and recorded three further albums with different line-ups of Modern English; Steve Walker owns a record store; Gary McDowell runs a bar in Thailand; Mick Conroy played for Felt (and later Moose) and Richard Brown left the music industry back in the '80s.

It's 17 years since they recorded for the label but at last the best of their 4AD legacy is captured on one album and it reveals their unwillingness to settle for tried and tested methods; their flair for oblique, strangely uplifting atmospheres; a sense of adventure in the filmic sounds of their records and a dry, black sense-of-humour.

Finally, in October 2000, the band received a BMI award for over one million radio plays of "I Melt With You." An overdue testament to their finest pop song and the enduring quality of their music.

Steve Malins, February 2001

Interview with Robbie Grey and Steve Walker.
We can't find products matching the selection.