Life In The Gladhouse (1980-1984)
By: Eric Greenwood
After sitting through this Modern English retrospective in its entirety (comprised of the 4AD years only, thank you), I am utterly perplexed as to where the early 80’s bubble gum alternative hit “I Melt With You” came from. Not a single other song on this compilation sounds even remotely similar to it. “I Melt With You” is to Modern English as “Here Comes Your Man” is to the Pixies. If you bought the Pixies' Doolittle based on hearing the latter single, you were in for a rude and life-changing awakening. Unlike the Pixies, however, Modern English didn't back its fluke hit up with consistently groundbreaking tunes, but there's enough here to make this compilation a worthy diversion for fans of obscure post-punk.
In 1981 Modern English was just one in a long line of British art school bands cranking out highly pretentious post-punk, riding the wave created by acts like Echo And The Bunnymen, Joy Division, The Cure, etc. Modern English had that warm, post-punk sound down pat: heavy low end, one-finger keyboards, fey shouting, and cloudy guitars- that is until "I Melt With You" happened in 1982. The prospect of a top-forty hit was a double-edged sword for a band that came from the punk side of the fence. There was success on the one hand and ensured alienation of its underground fan base on the other. In the one-hit wonder heavy 1980's it was imperative that bands not stray from an established formula, but "I Melt With You" was unexpected. Modern English never really figured out what it wanted to be.
The band marred its own career through indecision: should it have jumped on the pop bandwagon it loathed (ABC, Duran Duran) once it got its foot in the door with “I Melt With You” or stayed true to its artistic intentions? The fact that you can’t name a single song by Modern English other than the ubiquitous “I Melt With You” should tell you that the band consistently made the wrong decision at the wrong time for the remainder of its career in the 1980's. The band’s giant leap into obscurity was unavoidable, which makes the fact that 4AD gave the band full “legendary” treatment with this glossy history and compilation somewhat puzzling. The Pixies, I understand. Cocteau Twins, sure. Throwing Muses, absolutely. Modern English seems strange in such company, but the more I listen to this compilation the easier it is to accept.
Life In The Gladhouse (1980-1984) offers a surprising number of notable songs. “16 Days” is a typical gothic rant heavy on the percussion with the guitars relegated to the background and covered in effects. “Gathering Dust” steals Peter Hook's melodic bass tone (not to mention Joy Division producer Martin Hannett's engineering techniques), and the song blasts into a fluid post-punk rocker. “Mesh And Lace” mixes synthesizers and clanging guitars in a dark but melodic attack. Robbie Grey's voice sounds perfectly annoyed and detached amidst all the dissonance. With songs like gothic powerhouse "Black Houses" it's hard to believe the band didn't pick up some of Siouxsie And The Banshees' hungry fanbase, and "Rainbows End" clearly should have been a hit. While not as overtly catchy as "I Melt With You" its chorus is undeniably infectious.
There’s a reason you’ve never heard most of these songs before, though. When the band missed the mark it missed by a long shot. During the Ricochet Days-era the band tried way too hard to reconcile the lure of "I Melt With You"'s appeal with its inherent distaste for commercial pop and the overzealousness resulted in stilted songwriting with few rewards. Too often sentimental labels disrupt the natural order by re-releasing failed albums by forgotten bands, but sometimes it is justifiable. Few geniuses are recognized in their own time (just ask Nick Drake). People of the future probably won’t be touting Modern English as the long lost saviors of rock because of this retrospective, but it will boost the band's image in light of the embarrassing reunion attempts, the sad remake of its only hit, "I Melt With You" in 1990, and the subsequent selling of said hit to Burger King to sell Whoppers to America's corpulent masses.