Modern English Brings “Mesh & Lace” to Johnny Brendas
Modern English lead singer, Robby Grey, had a challenge for the sold out crowd at Philadelphia’s, Johnny Brenda’s: “I bet a lot of you have never heard, ‘Mesh and Lace’!” The audience roared in response, but while the band’s 1981 debut brilliantly exemplified the post-punk aesthetic pioneered by bands like Joy Division and Bauhaus, most people are only familiar with their 1982 hit, “I Melt With You”. The irrepressible love song from their second album, “After the Snow” was featured in a myriad of movies and TV shows, starting with Valley Girl in 1983. It was an unflinchingly romantic song at a time when lyrics were a lot more cynical and served as the soundtrack to many a teenage romance.
“I Melt With You” may have been one of those songs that helped define the era, but it didn’t define the band’s sound. It was another type of love song that kicked off the night and set the tone for the show. “Dance of Devotion” featured Grey proclaiming, “You didn’t know how much I wanted you/You didn’t know how much I needed you”. It was more Sex Pistols than Spandau Ballet and served as a not-so-gentle reminder that before there was New Wave, there was Punk.
The current tour relies heavily on “Mesh and Lace”, which gave the crowd of Gen-Xers and Fishtown millenials the chance to hear several songs that haven’t been played live since the early ‘80s. “The Token Man” relies heavily Stephen Walker’s distinctive keyboard work while; “Smiles and Laughter” highlights the imaginative guitar work of Gary McDowell. The lyrics to “A Viable Commercial” may not have been particularly complex – it consisted almost exclusively of three phrases – but the rhythm section of bassist Michael Conroy and Roy Martin had the entire crowd bobbing their heads and vibrating along to the music.
Watching the band play live made one wonder why Modern English never broke out to the same status as similar bands of the era. The similarities between McDowell’s guitar work and that of The Smiths’s Johnny Marr are evident, even though the former predates the latter by a year or two. They were a tighter and more engaging act to watch live than the much-hyped New Order show in New York earlier this year. Grey was charming as he interacted with the audience and his voice sounded as though a day hasn’t passed since those early MTV days.
Any musical act would consider itself lucky to have created a song as iconic as, “I Melt With You”, but Friday night proved that Modern English deserves to be known for more than just one great song.