Ever watch one of those VH1, “one-hit wonders” specials, where the random D level commentators start talking about these artists that had one hit, where half of them actually had multiple songs that charted? Random commentator probably has no idea but then somewhere in there Matt Pinfield comes in with his “I’m smarter than you and probably no fun at all” persona and makes sure you know they had another song that charted exactly at #98 for one week in 1984. Well, I’m the everyman’s Pinfield but funnier and better looking. This series will go back to the 80s and spotlight one-hit wonders (in the US), real (truly only one charting hit) or perceived (other songs charted low but they are known for just one song) and come to a definitive verdict if we should accept or reject their status as that one-hit wonder.
So let’s stay this right up front. Modern English as a whole, sound nothing like the song that gave them their one-hit wonder status, “I Melt with You.” They were on the 4AD record label, which was not exactly known for its catchy pop hooks as the home to the Cocteau Twins, Bauhaus, Dead Can Dance and many other post-punk and dream pop artists starting in 1980. These guys also had a heavy Joy Division influence early on. They released their debut, Mesh & Lace back in 1981 and showcased a noisy somewhat unstructured post-punk sound.
A year later they released their second record, After the Snow which wasn’t really a commercial record but varied quite a bit from the debut. Style wise, it’s a bit scattered. There are post-punk moments on opening track, “Someone’s Calling” but the addition of lots of keyboard on this record overall, added a new pop dimension to their sound. But then it’s followed up with “Life in the Gladhouse” which was actually the first single to be released from the record and has more of a darker post-punk sound, similar to the debut but a little more polished.
The hardest thing about the record overall is the lack of direction. Almost every track feels completely different from the one before it and while the flow of the record isn’t nearly as bad as I would have expected it to be, it’s a bit jolting to hear them try to mesh as a cohesive body of work. But the reality of Modern English around this time is that their sound was formed quite a bit by producer Hugh Jones. He became known for being a fantastic post-punk, alternative and new-wave producer, working with Simple Minds, Adam & the Ants, the Damned, Icicle Works, Echo & the Bunnymen and many more artists within that same vein.
After you get through a couple really melancholy tracks in a row, you hit “I Melt with You” which sounds as out of place on a record as I’ve ever heard, especially with three songs afterwards that go back to the post-punk vibe.
Let’s also not forget that despite the track not sounding like anything else in their catalog, they re-recorded and re-released it in 1990 in an inferior version to the original.
Two years later, they followed up their brief success with their third album, Ricochet Days, but by this point, without a clear direction in which the band was going, they were kind of in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t scenario. They went even further down the new wave path on this record but not enough to make them a new wave band, nor were any of their songs good enough to be more than a blip on the chart (“Hands Across the Sea” peaked at #91 on the Hot 100 in the US). When they did try something different like the title track, it missed its mark. That tune starts off as a really dull, post-punk song and halfway through, adds a funky baseline prominently in the mix and turns the ditty into new wave for the remainder of the time. The first single from the record, “Chapter 12,” might actually be the best track on the album but it’s also buried as the final track. In the end, what held the band back a bit is fully evident if you listen to Ricochet Days as a whole. Lack of consistency, poor flow from track-to-track and what seems like a lack of understand on which direction they wanted to take the band in.
Their best shot at another hit was with the 1986 single “Ink and Paper” which was a catchy pop-rock song that might have been a hit if it was released right after Midnight Oil hit with “Beds are Burning” in 1987, as it has a similar sonic vibe to it. But the song didn’t do anything in the US and the terrible video surely didn’t help them get MTV play.
The Modern English story gets a little weird from there, as they broke up in 1987, got back together in 1989, recorded a new album which was released in 1990, then broke up again a year later. After the split, lead singer Robbie Grey formed a band called Engine, which in 1996 would then be rebranded into Modern English. So in ’96, Grey released a Modern English album with pretty much a whole new band aside from the keyboard player. Finally in 2010, the original band got back together to play and put out an album in 2016 called Take Me To the Trees. I’ve only heard random snippets but they seem to have gone back to a post-punk type sound.
Verdict: Well, unless you’re counting the fact that “I Melt with You” charted twice, then Modern English’s one-hit wonder status is accepted. The hit actually only peaked at #78 in the original form and #76 in the remade version, so by chart standards it wasn’t a big hit and “Hands Across the Sea” was the only other track to hit the Hot 100, peaking at #91 and leaving no real lasting mark. Some of these verdicts are a bit fuzzy to figure out but there’s really no doubt about this one.