100 Club, London
8 March 2017
Nostalgia: there’s a lot of it about. Lover of new music and regular correspondent Keith Goldhanger usually stays away from the past but Modern English go back as far as any other band can go in his adult life.
The first band I ever saw live were a four piece punk rock quartet who I went to school with called The Lost. It was my first gig, it may have been theirs too and it was a gig I had a small involvement with. I was the fifth member.
My job was to dim the lights during the quiet bits and switch on a strobe during the loud bits whilst in between songs I made sure the room was in darkness. The second and final gig The Lost played at was an Essex Live event at The Chelmsford Chancellor Hall. I arrived too late to see them. I’d missed the bus and the lights would have been terrible that evening.
However, what I saw that same night once I finally got there was hugely responsible for me to still be crawling into dark rooms and chatting to old friends in 2017 whilst watching people play music we sometimes listen to at home when we’re not out watching bands we sometimes listen to at home.
In the red corner , from Chelmsford were a band called Anorexia and in the other corner, from Colchester, The Lepers. Both bands were fabulous and each had their own large share of the audience which spoilt the night slightly because it provided an edgy atmosphere. This was a time that fights between punk rockers in the late 1970s seemed possible when scruffy youths from Colchester, Chelmsford and even Ipswich (The Addicts! – but that’s another story and decade entirely) all met up. My memory is not too brilliant regarding this evening but I suppose as a young man just about to leave school I was a bit intimidated by it all.
The Lepers eventually changed their name to Modern English,they released a great record and the locals, the older blokes who were dyeing their hair, looking really scary and could probably handle themselves in a ruck seemed to like them. Not that the band we’re a screaming thrashy, loud punk rock machine but whatever it was they were doing happened to be something I hadn’t really heard before.
I really liked them.
They did a Peel session one night when I just happened to tune in and got it on tape, I tried to get my own band to sound like them if I could get away with it and many more Modern English gigs followed. Over the next few years after we’d left school Modern English released two albums and a few singles that were absolutely glorious. The first single and possibly the first record a local Essex band I’d seen live had released (The Accidents 7″ didn’t count). Silent World is possibly one of my favourite tunes ever. It’s currently a little under 40 years old today.
But as with many relationships that go wrong it’s sometimes a bit difficult to remember where we started falling out. I think they went to the states, Gary McDowell had a small part (three seconds I’d guess) in Hazel O’Connor’s Breaking Glass film which got him onto the front page of the Evening Gazette and everyone around me kept telling me whenever the subject came up that they were rubbish.
I Melt With You from the second album became a major success thanks to newly launched MTV who seemed to play the tune whenever one happened to be in a bar or a record shop that aired this station during the early ’80s. It sold by the bucket load, I still can’t stop singing it even now and I really didn’t like it very much.
Appearances in the capital introduced us to other cool bands that either were supporting (Gene Loves Jezebel) or were also on the magnificent 4AD record label. At least one of us will tell the world today that the only reason The Birthday Party album Prayers On Fire was purchased was because of the label it was released on. At least one of us will admit this evening to knowing there are at least two members of 4AD band MASS in the audience tonight. People I’ve never met. Don’t meet your heroes I’m told.
I’d only ever really known about four people who loved that band and I’m still amazed that brothers Jimmy and Louie, former members of CuT knew about them. I find out a day or two later that Jimmy and Louie’s dad was here also tonight therefore along with the bloke who used to work in our local post office and a few others I’ll come to in a bit, this wasn’t exactly a red carpet affair. For one man however, tonight could be just as important as it is to those who like to attend an awards show full of people who still think Ant & Dec are a credit to the nation.
Nostalgia and I do not make good bedfellows it must be said. ‘….but have you heard the new stuff ?’ I was asked during the days leading up to this evening in response to my impending attendance. I hadn’t, but I’d had a peek and was a little concerned about what I was looking at and hearing. They’ll look like my dad I thought and it’ll be corny and sad.
On Monday I dreamed that this could be the greatest gig of all time. By Tuesday I began to get worried.
Tunes released after the second album After The Snow sounded a bit drab and ordinary and they were not a touch on what we’d heard by the band before. Ricochet Days the third album sold by the lorry load in the United States but got discarded quickly by many of us still here in the UK. By then we were going out at night to see bands such as Bauhaus, Crass or Depeche Mode who seemed to be offering us something fresher and more thrilling.
Modern English just appeared to be embracing the mainstream we thought and anyone with any honest recollection of mainstream music in the ’80s will tell you – the ’80s sucked.
The band began to look like Wham! during this period and the press photo’s we’d sometimes get a glimpse of looked not unlike those dysfunctional ’80’s American family portraits with the stroppy goth teenager showing off a crazy haircut all dressed in black standing just far enough to one side so he could be cropped out of the picture for when the boss comes to dinner.
This is my first chance for over 30 years to see Modern English and even though I fear some Simple Minds fist pumping activities may be about to be witnessed, it’s going to be worth it if we get to hear Drowning Man, Gathering Dust, Swans On Glass or The Incident…’Won’t it ?’
‘It’ll be terrible won’t it ?’ I asked.
‘It’ll be great ?’ No one answered.
It could be the best thing ever or a bit like Scouting For Girls but with older people in the band attempting unsuccessfully to recreate their youth again and reminding us all how they years are passing. However there should be at least one person that I’ll bump into that I haven’t seen for years in the audience, looking really old and ill and not having much to say apart from talking about the time we all went to Belgium and got arrested.
Nostalgia and I. At The 100 Club. There’s only way to deal with this one. Deep breath – I’m going in.
Hello bloke from the Belgium trip, bloke whose mum worked with my mum and possibly the bloke I saw hanging around on his own outside Parrot Records (both branches – Colchester and Chelmsford) on his own for four years but still don’t know the name of. Hello bloke who played drums in one of the many bands I’ve been in myself since breaking out of my teenage years and hello intro to 16 Days that begins the evenings bout of nostalgia that we hope will maintain the excitement felt as these familiar but older looking blokes appeared in our eyesight.
The new material from the Modern English album Take Me To The Trees sounds good on first listen. Sweet Revenge sounds like a polite laid back Killing Joke tune. The other two or three tunes sounded like Wire.
Which of course is better than hearing a band influenced by A Flock Of Seagulls.
Everything else we hear tonight is a greatest hits selection from those first couple of albums and early singles. Two encores and about ten songs in we finally get I Melt With You and with a little encouragement from Robbie Grey some people begin to clap along to it with their hands in the air. That bit was terrible.
The already mentioned Gary McDowell still has the appearance of a crazed man who never let go of his youth. Tattooed face, white bowler hat, long beard and every effects pedal required to recreate his own sound. The rest of them look exactly as we imagine most ’80’s synth pop musicians (the ones we tried very hard to avoid) look like three decades later. Everyone else around me looked like my Uncles and Aunties when I was 15.
I looked in the mirror. Those five or six years these people had on me at The Chancellor Hall in Chelmsford all those years ago mean nothing all these years later.
Modern English were always the coolest band and at the same time the un-coolest band. Their association with 4AD and those superb singles and edgy tunes still sound great tonight. The double thumbs up and ‘Are you enjoying the music ?’ question we were asked more than once made us feel as though we were watching our dad’s let loose on the Karaoke.
Modern English to the uninitiated may not appear to be the ground breaking band we once thought they were but these songs have been in some peoples collections for years and have never dated.
Maybe it’s an Essex thing. Maybe it was the appreciation that other great artists at the time showed by covering the tunes penned only a few years previously that had the world taking notice. Liz Frazer from the Cocteau Twins and all that This Mortal Coil stuff brought these tunes onto another level we hadn’t seen before and maybe since. Their influence has been heard seeping out from bands for decades now but I’m not sure they ever received the amount of credit deserved.
As much as we all loved the tambourine chorus and raging guitar during Gathering Dust the music of Modern English slowly became less relevant as time wore on though. Other bands seemed more interesting which is probably why today, this show is being held inside the tiny 100 Club and not inside any of the large arenas where Basildon’s Depeche Mode would possibly begin once they get their big lights and production crew back on the road.
Maybe they are already? I’ve lost touch with all that Depeche Mode stuff too.
If anything is disappointing this evening it’s the feeling that had Modern English just simply followed the debut long player all those years ago with more of the same stuff and not begin to sound like stereotypical ’80s synth bands that many people nowadays associate with the ’80s we may have been onto something huge.
What isn’t disappointing is that the band still know which tunes we all love.
This was as enjoyable as the last time I saw them (which by my reckoning may mean I’ll be about 85 by the time I get off my arse to see them again). In short, they played what those of us here will always refer to as ‘The Hits’ and if you find yourself as I did, a little unsure as to whether it’s worth risking dipping your toes into this band again then you may find yourself content that what you get from this band in 2017 are all the good bits of Modern English and a few indications that the new material from this band may not be worth writing off just yet.
Modern English have sound tracked my life on and off for all this time and I’m sure people have many different reasons for loving this band themselves. These tunes are incredible enough to deserve being reminded of. Go and have a look if you’re unsure and you may not be disappointed.
I nicked a set list:
Swans on Glass
After The Snow
A Viable Commercial
Move in Light
Smiles & Laughter
I Melt with You
All words and pictures by Keith Goldhanger. More writing by Keith on Louder Than War can be found at his author’s archive. You can also find Keith on Facebook and Twitter (@HIDEOUSWHEELINV).You may subscribe to the Goldhanger Shorts Facebook page too if you so wish.