Our top 10 Modern English songs list digs deep into the music of an Essex-based band that rose to prominence in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The band was formed in 1979, going under the moniker The Lepers. The Lepers would soon evolve to Modern English after the addition of keyboardist Stephen Walker and bassist Mick Conroy. Over the years, Modern English has made new wave, post-punk, and pop music genres its mainstay.
However, defining the band’s sound with the three music genres would be limiting. The band’s formative years saw Modern English take on almost all emerging musical styles in the British music scene. Other sounds that the band tried then include neo-psychedelia, new romantic, and the second wave of UK pop. Modern English rose to stardom thanks to its uplifting and anthemic sonic vibes.
Modern English’s Career Beginnings and Breakthrough
The band’s formation was majorly influenced by the flourishing punk scene of the late ’70s in the UK. Modern English vocalist Robbie Grey, guitarist Gary McDowell, and drummer Richard Brown’s entry into the music scene was highly influenced by a fellow Essex-based ensemble, The Sex Pistols. The trio would start The Lepers as a hobby punk act, which would later evolve to Modern English.
After its evolution to Modern English, the band hastily released its debut single, featuring the hits “Drowning Man” and “Silent World.” The songs were issued through Limp Records in 1979. Eventually, the band was signed into 4AD, where it issued its subsequent releases. 4AD was also home to other notable artists, including Dead Can Dance, This Mortal Coil, Bauhaus, and Cocteau Twins.
In 1980, the band issued the singles “Swans on Glass” and “Gathering Dust.” The two songs catapulted Modern English to mainstream success, charting at number forty-six and thirty-six respectively on the UK Independent Singles Chart. All this time, Modern English would eventually issue its debut studio album, Mesh & Lace, in 1981 through 4AD. Mesh & Lace was a success, rising to the fifth spot on the UK Independent Albums chart.
The album went on to feature most of the band’s single releases from 1979 and 1980. “Smiles and Laughter” is among the biggest new hits by Modern English featured on the fifteen-track album. Mesh & Lace saw the band take on post-punk sonic influences. While Mesh & Lace evoked different feelings in its listeners, the album was a superb release and a success for Modern English, to say the least.
Modern English’s Album Releases over the Years
Moving on to London exposed Modern English to new music sounds thanks to interacting with other artists, including Killing Joke and The Clash. Even before the band rose to become Essex’s iconic act of the early ’80s, Modern English faced stiff competition from the new synth-pop, alternative rock, and new wave act, Depeche Mode.
Depeche Mode had just issued its debut LP, Speak & Spell, home to some great hits by the band, including “Dreaming of Me,” “Just Can’t Get Enough,” and “New Life.” Speak & Spell went on to top the UK Independent Albums chart, peaking at number ten on the UK Albums chart.
Modern English would try to come in stronger in 1982 with its sophomore album, After the Snow. The album saw the band add some new wave sound to its usual post-punk sound. Luckily, the gamble paid off, with the album becoming the band’s most celebrated release. Despite not outperforming Mesh & Lace on the UK Independent Albums chart, After the Snow went on to peak at number seventy on the Billboard 200. After the Snow is the band’s only album to achieve Gold certification in the US. Some of the musical gems from After the Snow include “I Melt with You,” “Life in the Gladhouse,” and “Someone’s Calling.”
Later in 1984, Modern English released its third studio album, Ricochet Days. Ricochet Days achieved moderate success, rising to number five on the UK Independent Albums chart. The album also peaked at number ninety-three on the Billboard 200. Some of the best Modern English from Ricochet Days include “Hands Across the Sea” and “Chapter 12.” Ricochet Days was the band’s last LP issued through 4AD.
In 1986, Modern English returned with its fourth studio album, Stop Start. Stop Start was the band’s first and only LP issued through Sire Records. Other artists who have released music through Sire Records include Against Me! Barenaked Ladies, Cyndi Lauper, Depeche Mode, and Fleetwood Mac. Start Stop peaked at number one hundred and fifty-four on the Billboard 200. “Ink and Paper” is one of the biggest hits from Modern English.
Modern English returned with its fifth studio album, Pillow Lips, in 1990. Pillow Lips was issued by TVT Records, once home to Nine Inch Nails, The Holloways, Ja Rule, and The Cinematics. The album went on to peak at number one hundred and thirty-five on the Billboard 200. Pillow Lips was pop-oriented, unlike most of the previous albums released by the band.
The album featured a re-recorded version of the band’s hits “I Melt with You,” “Beautiful People,” and “Life’s Rich Tapestry.” The band later released three more albums; Everything’s Mad in 1996, Soundtrack in 2010, and Take Me to the Trees in 2016. The three albums were released by Imago Records, Darla Records, and InKind Records.
Modern English’s Accolades and Legacy
While very few songs by Modern English received massive airplay, the band remains one of the most popular Essex talents of the late ’70s and early ’80s. The band is one of the most successful acts to have been founded in Essex, alongside Depeche Mode, Blur, Nothing But Thieves, Yazoo, The Horrors, and Humble Pie. Here we present the ten best Modern English songs sampled from the band’s eight studio albums.
#10 – Life In The Gladhouse
Opening up our top 10 Modern English songs is the glamorous hit “Life in the Gladhouse.” The song is featured on the band’s 1982 sophomore album, After the Snow. “Life in the Gladhouse” strikes a balance between new wave, post-punk, and some synth-pop sounds. The song was released as the first single from the band.
#9 – Black Houses
After a couple of single releases, Modern English released its debut LP, Mesh & Lace. The album is home to some of the biggest hits by Modern English, including our number nine pick, “Black Houses.” The song sounds a little dark compared to most of the releases from the album, thanks to the heavy bass and guitar riffs. Robbie Grey’s feel is a little brutal, making the song’s delivery a little aggressive yet alluring.
#8 – Chapter 12
Our number eight spot on the ten best Modern English songs list is the splendid hit “Chapter 12.” The song is featured on the band’s LP, Ricochet Days. “Chapter 12” is among the songs from the album that saw the band showcase their synth-rock sound. The song’s sonic directions are shaped by the band’s keyboardist Stephen Walker. “Chapter 12” went on to peak at number fifteen on the UK Independent Singles chart.
#7 – Swans on Glass
“Swan on Glass” is among the most brilliant hits Modern English released in 1980. The song came after the band signed to 4AD. “Swan on Glass” would later be featured on the band’s debut album Melt & Lace. The song is among the band’s releases that capture its post-punk, early sonic influences. “Swans on Glass” went on to peak at number forty-six on the UK Independent Singles chart.
#6 – After the Snow
Number six on our top 10 Modern English songs list is the outstanding hit “After the Snow.” The song serves as the album title track to the band’s sophomore album. Very few songs from the album can match the energy of “After the Snow.” The song’s sound balances the band’s foundational post-punk and new wave sonic influences. “After the Snow” builds the momentum for even greater hits issued on the album.
#5 – Gathering Dust
After signing with 4AD, Modern English went on to release two singles in 1980, among them, our number five pick, “Gathering Dust.” The song would later be featured on the band’s debut studio album, Mesh & Lace. “Gathering Dust” is among the first charting hits by the bands in 1980. The song went on to reach a peak position of number thirty-six on the UK Independent Singles chart.
#4- Ink and Paper
“Ink and Paper” is one of the most popular songs from Modern English’s 1986 album Stop Start. Poor reception of the band’s album Start Stop didn’t stop songs like “Ink and Paper” from making an impact in Modern English’s career. Members of Modern English teamed up with Tommy Dunbar of the power pop band The Rubinoos to co-write the song’s lyrics. The song’s lyrics allude to a long-distance relationship that got to disintegrate through ink and paper, or rather, through writing.
#3- Someone’s Calling
Our number three pick for the top 10 Modern English songs list is the enthralling hit “Someone’s Calling.” The song is among the musical gems featured on the band’s most successful LP, After the Snow. “Someone’s Calling” finds the band taking on some new sonic spaces, thanks to the pop sound blended with the band’s new wave and post-punk sound. The song peaked at number forty-three on the UK Independent Singles chart.
#2- Hands Across the Sea
“Hands Across the Sea” is one of the only two songs by Modern English to make it to the Billboard Hot 100. The song was issued as the second single to the band’s LP Ricochet Days. “Hands Across the Sea” peaked at number ninety-one on the Billboard Hot 100. The song also went on to peak at number forty-three on the Billboard Rock Chart.
#1- I Melt With You
Number one on our top 10 Modern English songs list is the magical hit “I Melt with You.” The song is featured on the band’s most successful LP, After the Snow. Robbie Grey described “I Melt with You” as a love ballad about the greatness and evil in the human race. The lyrics to the song describe a couple making love when nuclear weapons were being deployed. “I Melt with You” went on to peak at number seventy-eight on the Billboard Hot 100.
Feature Photo: Lhcollins, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Updated October 5, 2023
Top 10 Modern English Songsarticle published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023
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