A crash of strumming and the lyrics “moving forward, using all my breath” begin one of the most popular songs of the early MTV era, a song that ironically never broke the Billboard Top 40 in its initial release. Modern English’s “I Melt With You” began its journey as a sweet ditty for romantic new wavers with a video in high rotation on MTV in 1982 and a featured soundtrack position in the 1983 teen rom-com VALLEY GIRL. As the years passed, the song burrowed its way into the pop culture frontal lobe by exposure in everything from Hershey’s Chocolate Bar commercials to the television revolution known as Glee. The band even re-recorded the song twice – once in 1990, and a much heavier take for the 2011 Mark Pellington film of the same name (In an email, the filmmaker said of the band, “they were ego-less, great supportive mates”).
We caught up with Robbie Grey, lead singer and songwriter for Modern English, as the original lineup continues its west coast summer tour before returning to the UK for five dates in September. Grey filled us in on the legacy of “I Melt With You”, thirty years after its release, as well as recollections of shooting the video.
It must be fun being on the road with the original lineup of Modern English.
We’ve got the original lineup back together now, and it’s great. We got together after our guitar player moved close to me a few years ago and I asked him if he’d like to start the band up again. Once, long ago, my guitar player came on stage without his guitar, and we haven’ t had anything like that, but we’ve come close a few times. We’re writing songs right now for a new album down the road. Songs about love and what have you are in there, and about loneliness, I suppose.
From the crowds you are playing to now, and seeing some of the other bands of the era on the road (Modern English and the Fixx play on the same bill later this month), do you see a resurgence of interest in seeing the bands from that era live?
We’re having some of the best shows of our career. I think that people generally are sick of The X Factor and The Voice and all that, and are ready for something real, rather than people who want their fame immediately, rather than working and touring for years and years like we have.
Was the humming section in the middle of “I Melt With You” your idea?
The humming part was producer Hugh Johns’ s idea. Also, when we were first writing songs, we didn’t know how to write songs. Hugh helped us to understand things like verse and chorus. We just had what we’d call pieces, and he was instrumental in helping us to put it all together. He was a great producer in that era, and that was a strength he had.
What do you recall from shooting the video in 1982?
We shot that at Tottenham Court Road, a studio there. It was all done for maybe $1000 on the cheap. We weren’t on a major label, we were on 4AD at the time. The black and white couple caused a bit of controversy at the time, but we didn’t even address that when we shot it. It wasn’t really a big deal in the UK, but in America, there was controversy over that. Remember, MTV wasn’t playing black artists that much at all yet, so there was a bit of a fuss about that. Also, the flame at the end was just a close up shot of a Bunsen burner.
I remember some storyboards, and agreeing to some shots, I believe. I don’t remember who directed the video, but I do remember having to bring all our own equipment into the shoot, and that was why I had the scrape on my arm, from a piece of equipment.
So that’s the story on the scrape on your arm? There’s been all kind of stories over the years about what that was.
Yes, there was so much speculation about something so small as that. I remember when we came to the U.S. to play the Ritz in New York after the video was being played, a girl met me at the car as I got out, and she said, “I’m into cuts.” And I said, “I’m not.” (laughs) Not my thing at all.
You also have that image of all your heads together, which…
Yes, we totally ripped off the Queen album cover! (laugh)
What led to the remake and new video in 1990?
When we shot the video for the 1990 remake, we were on TVT records, and we didn’t really change it much on the record, but the music video had some money, so we did some expansive shots, in the fields and whatnot.
How did the Mark Pellington film collaboration come about?
He called me and wanted to use the song for this film, and he was calling to sort of ask if he could use the title of the song as the title of the film, so he told me about the story of these forty-something men, and we got to see some footage of the movie. It was something we wanted to do because “I Melt With You” is used so often in movies about teenage love and relationships, such as Valley Girl, and this was an opportunity for it to be used for an adult story. We’re all in our forties and fifties now, so we can relate.
What is it about the song that keeps it in the pop consciousness all this time?
“I Melt With You”, you see, was supposed to be about a couple who is making love as bombs are dropping all round them, or imagining that happening as they make love. And it glides. That’s part of it. There something very accessible about it, in that I see and hear all these covers of it on YouTube, like the girl playing it on the harp. People really do connect to the song and the lyrics.
If people only know Modern English from “I Melt With You”, where would you steer them to explore more from the band?
Mesh and Lace, which was more noisy, our first attempts. We did a tour for that album in the U.S., but when “I Melt With You” became a hit, we came to the U.S. under different circumstances, and we would watch MTV and see it probably every hour being played.
Are there any covers of “I Melt With You” that you really like?
I really enjoy the Nouvelle Vague version. That’s a really great interpretation, I think.
Do you ever get tired of playing “I Melt With You”?
No. Never. I can see sometimes that people will come to the show and not know any of our other songs and just be waiting for that one, but no. It’s paid our bills for 30 years now!
As the band plays throughout California, check them out tonight, July 20, at Harlow’s Night Club in Sacramento, then a free concert with the Fixx on July 21 at L.A. Pershing Square’s Downtown Stage in Los Angeles, and finally on July 22 at the Hood Bar in Palm Desert. Their UK Tour starts up in September. Learn all about the tour and more at their website.