EIGHTIES CHEESE WEEK
"I Melt With You" / Modern English
The mushy soft rock hits that began this decade were really a holdover from the 1970s, like a nasty cold that just wouldn't go away. But as it oozed along, the 1980s became a musical Petri dish in which bad musical ideas bred like viruses, spawning a new race of slick, faux-sincere pop trash. I'm afraid I know this music far better than I ought to, thanks to a 2-CD package called Eighties Wave! put out by Entertainment magazine. My kids were hooked on this for several months when they were toddlers -- and why not? Culture Club, Tears for Fears, the Thompson Twins, Wang Chung, A Flock of Seagulls, Haircut One Hundred, the Vapors -- all produced glossy, gimmicky tunes with cartoonlike voices and an unmistakeable beat.
Prime among them was Modern English's one big hit, from their 1982 album After the Snow. Not that I bought the album -- it was never a good bet to buy the album for any of these 80s pop bands, since quality usually fell off drastically after the one hit track. (Although I did buy Culture Club's Kissing To Be Clever and enjoyed it hugely, for reasons I can no longer fathom.) But for a while, when "I Melt With You" was saturating the airwaves (it hit the States in 1983, and oddly enough, again in 1989), I was convinced it was a good song.
Instead of overproduction, "I Melt With You" offered a refreshingly amateur mix of jangly surf guitars, autopilot drumbeats, and crudely reverbed vocals, with all the mumbly glottal diction of punk rockers (Modern English, who hailed from Colchester, England, started out as a punk band named -- get this -- The Lepers). Even when synths get layered into the mix, it's only a splash of color, a sort of knee-jerk contrapuntal riff. And defying the conventions of ponderous anthemic build-up, this song deliberately strips out the instruments a couple of times, so the singers can hollowly intone, as if hypnotized, "The future's / open /wide!" Whatever that meant.
So here's the big question: why isn't this song sexy? It should be, if you look at the lyrics of the chorus: "I'll stop the world and melt with you /You've seen the difference and /It's getting better all the time / There's nothing you and I won't do [okay, that line's a little kinky] / I'll stop the world and melt with you." That one word, that verb "melt," should be so delicious. I did read somewhere that the song is supposedly set at the moment of nuclear apocalypse, with the two lovers clasping each other, their bodies fusing. It's an intriguing idea, but ultimately I don't buy it. That storyline would at least be romantic; there's no romance here.
No, the haggard vocals, that inexorable ticking beat, the hard metallic surface of the instrumentation, make this song anything but soft and melting. Aggression and paranoia run through the first verse: "Moving forward using all my breath / Making love to you was never second best / I saw the world thrashing all around your face / Never really knowing it was always mesh and lace." Even if you knew that Modern English's previous album was titled Mesh and Lace (I didn't), the S&M subtext is hard to miss. And yeah, the second verse pays lip service to noble ideals, throwing out lame catch phrases like "dream of better lives" and "imaginary grace" and "a pilgrimage to save this human race," but it's way too vague to convince anybody.
In this song -- and in so many other New Wave songs -- love isn't an emotion, it's a conditioned reflex. No orgasm, just spasm. I listen to it now and wonder, "What was I thinking?" But of course I wasn't thinking. Hello? It was the Eighties.