"It pays all the bills, it's paid for everything we've ever done since": Modern English didn't set out to write commercial songs, but they're not complaining

Modern English group portrait
(Image credit: Sheva Kafai)

After forming in Colchester in 1979 from the remnants of The Lepers, Modern English’s effects-pedalled post-punk futurism soon brought them to the attention of label 4AD. 

Originally self-identifying as serious artists, the quintet discovered a talent for creating succinct pop, and in ’82 I Melt With You, the second single from their album After The Snow, charted in the US and latterly proved to have significant legs (featuring in Valley Girl, Grand Theft Auto, Glee, Stranger Things et al). To mark the release of the band’s ninth album, 1 2 3 4, we caught up with vocalist Robbie Grey at his home in Thailand.


Nine albums in, most bands would deem it time to stretch out, go a bit proggy, but 1 2 3 4 is packed with short, sharp, snappy bangers. 

When I wrote Long In The Tooth, the first song on the album, I was trying to say everything I needed to say in two and a half minutes. Something in the spirit of The Cure’s Boys Don’t Cry, BuzzcocksEver Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve). Trying to get back to our roots, I suppose. 

Long In The Tooth, Robbie? Surely not an admission of, God forbid, getting older? 

Yeah, getting older and getting bolder. I wanted to make it full of life rather than a down-tempo thing, so it’s really fast, with lots of basic chords and things changing quickly. Very 1982. But the album’s not all like that. Voices, the last track, is psychedelic and trippy. Mick [Conroy, bass] and I had a lot to do with this album, but Gary’s [McDowell] guitar’s still incredibly distinctive – you’re always going to hear his flanger and phaser flying around. And with Steve’s[Walker] old keyboards – Korg MS-10 and MS-20 analog synths – it’s classic Modern English.

The title and sentiment of Not My Leader speak volumes. Have you ever felt more disillusioned and unrepresented by the political class we’ve got today? 

No, never. When I first went to America, we had Margaret Thatcher and they had Ronald Reagan. Then around about the time that I wrote Not My Leader’s lyrics we had Boris Johnson and they had Donald Trump, and I was thinking to myself nothing’s changed. If anything it’s got even worse. 

Did you recognise the crossover hit potential of I Melt With You? Because it wasn’t even the first single from After The Snow

No. We weren’t sure about that song at all, we thought it was too commercial. Hugh Jones, the producer, said: “Don't be silly, this is a really good song.” And we were like: “But we don’t normally write songs like this. It sounds a bit commercial.” But it pays all the bills, it’s paid for everything we’ve ever done since, so I’m glad we listened to him. 

Did its inclusion in Grand Theft Auto buy you a house, or doesn’t it work like that? 

It’s been in so many things. The biggest earner was that Burger King advert. That was ninety thousand US dollars – and that was in the early nineties. The funniest thing then was that Steve was a vegetarian, but when I told him how much money he’d be making he didn't seem to mind after that.

1 2 3 4 is out now via Inkind Music. Modern English's European tour kicks off on April 11, with US Festival dates in June and July. For dates and tickets, visit the Modern English website

Ian Fortnam

Classic Rock’s Reviews Editor for the last 20 years, Ian stapled his first fanzine in 1977. Since misspending his youth by way of ‘research’ his work has also appeared in such publications as Metal Hammer, Prog, NME, Uncut, Kerrang!, VOX, The Face, The Guardian, Total Guitar, Guitarist, Electronic Sound, Record Collector and across the internet. Permanently buried under mountains of recorded media, ears ringing from a lifetime of gigs, he enjoys nothing more than recreationally throttling a guitar and following a baptism of punk fire has played in bands for 45 years, releasing recordings via Esoteric Antenna and Cleopatra Records.