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A One-Hit Legacy : Robbie Grey wants to take his reassembled Modern English group beyond its 'Melt' anthem.

November 13, 1997|SARA SCRIBNER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Modern English founder Robbie Grey wrote the words to "I Melt With You," little did the English singer-songwriter know that the song would haunt him for years to come. A dreamy, seize-the-moment tune that debuted in dance clubs and on MTV in 1983, "Melt With You" has since become the consummate '80s anthem, rearing up in greatest-hits countdowns and even a commercial for Burger King.

The cheerful and casual Grey, 40, remembers the song's beginnings 16 years ago as brief and inauspicious. "We were in Wales at the time and we hadn't even been to America yet," he says, "I wrote the lyrics in three minutes--we didn't have a clue what we were doing. It's amazing."

So amazing was its impact that Modern English, which will play at the Whisky on Saturday, has become synonymous with the darkly romantic number.

Though it never broke into the Top 40, the song struck a chord for its gothic, escapist undercurrent and danceable rhythm. But its success has been both a boon and curse to Grey. Without any other hits to usurp its catchy, synth-driven appeal, "Melt With You" has remained, to the singer's chagrin, the band's singular calling card through six albums, a multitude of tours, several personnel changes and one breakup.

Now touring with an entirely new lineup--drummer Jonathan Solomon, guitarist Steven Walker, keyboardist Matthew Shipley and bassist Ian Robbins--Grey has mixed feelings about the song's powerful grip on fans.

"It's great to watch people enjoying your music," he says, "but most people know Modern English from 'Melt With You,' and the reason we're on the road is we've got a whole new bunch of songs and the new stuff's excellent. It's great to put a half-dozen new songs in the set because you can balance it with the 'Melt With You' thing, which we've played a thousand times before."

Though Modern English is considered the prototypical New Wave outfit, its original incarnation began in the small southern British town of Colchester as a Sex Pistols-inspired '70s punk band called the Lepers. The group eventually gravitated toward its current home base in London and a New Wave movement heavily influenced by the dark post-punk band Joy Division and the artier Wire.

Its debut album, bearing the new romantic title "Mesh & Lace," was released by the renegade 4AD label in 1981. It was followed the next year by the poppier "After the Snow," featuring "Melt With You." The group's major-label stint with Sire yielded two subsequent albums that were mostly ignored by record buyers.

Finally, after 10 years of fronting an underground band in England and attempting to overcome the stigma of one-hit-wonder status in America, Grey felt creatively spent. He disbanded the group in 1992 and retired from music to travel and pursue a degree in English literature. "I thought that [school] would fill the holes," he says, "but I really missed writing lyrics, making music and being on the road."

Energized after three years away from the music business, Grey re-formed Modern English in 1995 and last year the group released an album of muscular synthesizer pop, titled "Everything's Mad," on the Imago label. With the group's even newer material, Grey says that he is getting back to the kind of loose, stream-of-consciousness writing that made "Melt With You" possible. Musically, he says, "I wanted to get back to basics: '70s analog keyboards and a raw, stripped-down sound."

Grey is still unsure about the choice to keep the band's old name, which is burdened with its one-hit legacy. "We're still thinking about it," he says of a possible name change. "It's a hard question because I'd really like to do the whole thing again and get to the top of the tree with the name Modern English. On the other hand, you do get labeled as the 'I Melt With You' band.

"But I think that when the next album comes out it's going to be so strong that it will be relevant. . . . I don't think it's long before we'll be considered a '90s band, really, rather than just an '80s band, which is a pain."

BE THERE

Modern English plays Saturday at the Whisky, 8901 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, 8 p.m. $15.50. (310) 535-0579. Also Sunday at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, 8 p.m. $13.50. (714) 496-8927.

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