Listen to this track by British new wave concern Modern English. It’s their 1982 smash-hit “I Melt With You”, an effervescent tune that lit up the charts, several movie soundtracks of that era, and ones to come.
The song appeared initially on their After The Snow album, their second on the now legendary and still-active 4AD label, released in May of 1982. But, from the label that would champion artists that existed initially on the fringes, this song scored a placement on Billboard’s Hot 100 that year. It would be the theme of the movie Valley Girl (starring a very young Nicolas Cage), where it gained its audience, and would appear in many other films besides, and with a number of cover versions from artists from Bowling For Soup to Jason Mraz.
It would certainly ensure Modern English’s place in pop history, being one of the most tuneful pop songs of the decade.
But, apart from the clear roots in post-punk that this band had when they formed in 1979, what cultural nerve did this song hit to make it so popular?
Despite the cover-ability of this song, it was an anthem for the times besides when new wave and post punk were still represented on mainstream charts. And this one was exceptional; a bright and shiny love song that hinted at the threat of nuclear annihilation, a very early ’80s motif indeed. There’s nothing quite like the possibility of dying in an atomic blast to fire up the hormones!
The threat of nuclear war was in the air in the early ’80s, with ideological tensions running high. Thanks to Reagan-era Evil Empire posturing, the early ’80s was a replay of that kind of fear that pervaded Western culture in the ’50s and early ’60s. I think that may be why the song scored so big in America, unlike the band’s more sombre earlier material. This song is sombre too in many ways: “I made a pilgrimage to save this human’s race/Never comprehending the race had long gone by”. That’s not a cheery statement.
But, where this song wins is how jangly and up it sounds. And ultimately, it’s a love song, and one that is about seizing the day, with an association with things at least seeming to be getting better all the time just by being with someone, in the present. And with the future being “open wide” being something that no one can change, it’s left to take care of itself. In the end, it’s pretty empowering for a sombre tune.
“I Melt With You” was a pop song for the ages, and certainly one for the times, as arms were racing, and as ideologies clashed. Modern English would never better this song for its cultural reach. It was a hard one to beat all around.
Modern English is an active band today. You can find out what they’re up to on the official Modern English site, which hints at a new record featuring all the original members of the group.