Journalist, Political Reporter, Cultural Critic
By Alex Henderson
When the four members of Live first began performing together in middle school during the summer of 1985, they gave little, if any, thought to the possibility that they would still be together 22 years later. Lead singer/frontman/guitarist Ed Kowalczyk, lead guitarist Chad Taylor, bassist Patrick Dahlheimer and drummer Chad Gracey (all of whom were in their early teens at the time) were simply four friends from working-class York, Pennsylvania who wanted to express themselves by writing and performing music. But Live has, in fact, endured—and along the way, they have built an impressive résumé that includes eight full-length albums, total CD sales exceeding 20 million, a huge international fan base and extensive touring all over the world. Live has been one of the most successful and enduring alternative rock bands of the 1990s and 2000s, and despite their long list of achievements, Live are finding themselves busier than ever with a lot of songwriting, recording and big summer and fall tours.
Reflecting on the band’s past and present, Kowalczyk attributes Live’s longevity to a variety of things, including their strong rapport with fans and the chemistry that Live’s members have enjoyed with one another. “When bands become successful, the fact that all of the members have different agendas can come out,” Kowalczyk explains. “But that didn’t happen to Live because all of us were so young when we started playing together in 1985. It would be a lie to say that there weren’t moments when we didn’t get along, but the fact that we grew up together and developed our personalities in the band at such a young age helped us to stay together.”
Another thing that has enabled Live to maintain a devoted fan base, Kowalczyk theorizes, is the substantial and durable nature of their lyrics, which have often reflected Kowalczyk’s personal and spiritual concerns. “My approach as a songwriter is to write songs that are not finite and will resonate with listeners for a really long time,” Kowalczyk asserts. “Sixteen years after our first album, Mental Jewelry, I am still able to get something out of songs Live recorded in the early 1990s--and I think that one of the reasons why we have had so many fans for so long is that our fans are also continuing to find nuances in our songs.”
Live wasn’t always called Live; in the mid-to-late 1980s, the band went through several name changes before settling on Public Affection. After acquiring an enthusiastic local following, Public Affection made their recording debut in 1989 (the year Kowalczyk graduated from high school) with a cassette titled The Death of a Dictionary (which was released on their own label, Action Front Records). After hearing the band (which was renamed Live in the early 1990s) performing at the famous CBGB’s in New York City, Radioactive Records President Gary Kurfirst wasted no time offering them a contract--and their first full-length album, Mental Jewelry (which was produced by Jerry Harrison of Talking Heads fame) was released in 1991. One heard a variety of influences on Mental Jewelry, ranging from U2 to REM to Peter Gabriel to the Beatles. But it was clear that Kowalczyk and his colleagues had fashioned a distinctive, recognizable sound of their own.
“I always think of Mental Jewelry as the first real chapter in Live’s recording history,” Kowalczyk stresses. “When we changed the name of the band to Live, I had made a clear choice what kind of lyrics there were going to be and how I was going to express them. Mental Jewelry was the first real expression of Live’s vision. When I listen to that album now, I can’t believe how serious-minded and philosophical we were at such a young age.”
Mental Jewelry [which included the major hits “Pain Lies by the Riverside” and “Operation Spirit (The Tyranny of Tradition)”] sold more than one million units in the United States. The disc that truly put Live over the top commercially was their sophomore album, Throwing Copper (a 1994 release), which was the only album in Billboard history to stay on the charts for 52 weeks, then reach No. 1. Selling more than 12 million copies worldwide, Throwing Copper went down in history as one of the most definitive alternative rock recordings of that decade and boasted the MTV smashes “All Over You,” “Selling the Drama,” “Lightning Crashes” and “I Alone.” The double-platinum 1997 release Secret Samadhi (which contained the hits “Lakini’s Juice” and “Turn My Head”) became Live’s second successive No. 1 album and was followed by the Radioactive releases The Distance to Here (a million-seller) in 1999, V in 2001 (which yielded the hit song “Overcome”) and Birds of Pray in 2003 (that featured the cross-over radio smash, “Heaven”). Songs from Black Mountain, Live’s most recent full-length album, was released by Epic Records in 2006. Live has appeared on NBC’s popular, long-running “Saturday Night Live” as well as David Letterman and Jay Leno’s shows, “The Ellen Degeneres Show,” Conan O’Brien and, most notably, the 2006 “American Idol” season finale.
Technologically, Live’s members have witnessed many changes over the years. “In terms of technology,” Kowalczyk observes, “it’s a totally different world from when Live started. One of the things that is great about the Internet is the way it enables you to connect directly with fans.”
A major marketing tool for the band, Live's website, FriendsOfLive.com, enables them to sell the titles in their catalog and merchandise online, offer sneak previews of new recordings along with other exclusive content through their fanclub, Friends of Live (FOL), and keep followers up to date on touring activity. Live’s current tour marks the first time since 1990 that a Live tour isn’t directly aligned to promote a new album; Live’s career-spanning sets are celebrating their great history, by featuring greatest moments from all their releases along with some special surprises.
“I think Live is at a really interesting point right now,” Kowalczyk reflects. “We’ve been doing this for so long and have worked really hard to get to this point where we can play for two hours and have such a huge repertoire of songs to choose from. People love the fact that we are doing these long sets, and we are really enjoying it. But we are still in our early thirties, and I feel like we still have a lot of room to grow and experiment. Creatively, Live is still wide open.”♦
###June 2007 ###
By Alex Henderson
The new decade is shaping up to be a very busy and productive time for Modern English. Not only is 2010 the 31st anniversary of the long-running alternative pop-rock/post-punk band, but also, 2010 marks the release of Soundtrack—Modern English's first new album since 1996's Everything Is Mad—as well as the reunion of most of their classic 1980s lineup for an extensive tour. This year, four veterans of Modern English's early years-lead singer Robbie Grey, guitarist Gary McDowell, bassist Mick Conroy and keyboardist Stephen Walker-are hitting the road together for the first time since the mid-1980s; a second guitarist, Steve Walker (who plays on Soundtrack and should not to be confused with the keyboardist) will also be part of the lineup.
For those who remember the British outfit for their 1982 smash "I Melt with You" (which was heard in the hit 1983 film “Valley Girl”) and other 1980s hits such as "Hands Across the Sea," "Life in the Gladhouse" and "Ink and Paper," this reunion tour is an historic event. But as Grey, who has been Modern English's frontman since 1979, points out, the tour will not be simply an exercise in 1980s nostalgia; it will be a celebration of the present as well as the past. Modern English will perform songs from Soundtrack, including their infectious new single "It's OK," as well as favorites from classic 1980s albums like Mesh & Lace, After the Snow and Ricochet Days.
Soundtrack demonstrates that Modern English haven't lost any of their freshness or their melodic vitality. Nor have they lost their ability to be unpredictable. A diverse effort, Soundtrack ranges from the Beatlesque power pop infectiousness of "It's OK," "Here Comes the Failure" and "Up Here in the Brain" to the moodiness and melancholia of "The Lowdown" (which, according to Grey, was influenced by 1950s jazz), "Deep Sea Diver," "Fin" and "Call Me." Grey asserts that for Modern English, Soundtrack is the best of both worlds in that it shows their knack for melodic power pop hooks but also has some of the darker, edgier experimentation of their 1981 debut Mesh & Lace. Many of the influences that served Modern English well in the past—influences ranging from David Bowie and the Beatles to Joy Division and Wire—continue to serve them well on Soundtrack. But the album also underscores the fact that Modern English are distinctive, risk-taking pop-rock craftsmen in their own right.
Soundtrack reunites Modern English with two important figures they have worked with extensively over the years: producer Hugh Jones and graphic designer Vaughan Oliver. In addition to producing much of Modern English's classic 1980s output, Jones is known for his work with Echo & the Bunnymen, Simple Minds and other major artists. Grey was delighted when Jones agreed to produce Soundtrack, and he was equally happy when Vaughan (who designed so many of Modern English's album covers) accepted the band's invitation to design Soundtrack's art work.
"I thought it would be a good idea to have the old team back together," Grey explains. "Vaughan did all of the early Modern English sleeves. He did the Mesh & Lace sleeve, the After the Snow sleeve, the Ricochet Days sleeve and the Stop Start sleeve. And since we had asked Hugh to produce Soundtrack, we thought we would also ask Vaughan to do the art work. It seemed an obvious thing to do."
The Modern English lineup on Soundtrack is actually a different lineup from the one that will be heard on their tour. On Soundtrack, Grey is joined by Steve Walker on guitar, Nik Williams on bass, Matthew Shipley on keyboards and Jon Solomon on drums. Grey has played with guitarist Walker extensively in different Modern English lineups, and Williams, Shipley and Solomon have done a lot of touring with Grey as part of Modern English. But when a 2010 tour was planned, McDowell, Conroy and keyboardist Walker returned to the band—and almost all of Modern English's famous Mesh & Lace/After the Snow/Ricochet Days lineup was back in place.
Formed in Colchester, England in 1979, Modern English were originally a punk band called the Lepers. With Grey on lead vocals and guitar, McDowell on guitar and Richard Brown on drums, the Lepers performed mostly at parties. After bassist Conroy and keyboardist Walker came on board, the Lepers changed their name to Modern English. In 1979, they released their debut single, "Drowning Man," on their own label, Limp Records, before signing with 4AD Records and recording their next two singles, "Swans on Glass" and "Gathering Dust" (both of which came out in 1980).
With the band's name change came a change of direction; Modern English went from being a punk band in the strict sense to being a band that was punk-influenced but had more of a new wave/post-punk outlook. It was in 1981 that 4AD released Modern English's debut album, Mesh & Lace, which was strictly a U.K. release at the time but found its way to some U.S. stores as an import. Boiling with raw anger, dissonant rhythms and bizarre noises, the experimental Mesh & Lace confused some critics while mesmerizing others. The All Music Guide's Alex Ogg has described Mesh & Lace as "sharp-edged, intellectual, and obsessed with aestheticism" and said that "the keyboard rush that they employ is one of the punkiest uses of Stephen Walker's synthesizer imaginable-at least prior to the development of the industrial movement."
Modern English continued to evolve with their second album, After the Snow, which was their first release in the U.S. and marked the first time they worked with producer Hugh Jones. Thanks to Jones' input and guidance, Modern English maintained much of their edginess and their melancholia but acquired more power pop appeal and displayed a fondness for addictive pop-rock hooks. Released by 4AD in the U.K. in 1982 and by Sire Records in the U.S. in 1983, After the Snow yielded three singles: "Life in the Gladhouse," "Someone's Calling" and the famous "I Melt with You." Between receiving heavy exposure on MTV and being chosen for the Soundtrack of the film Valley Girl, "I Melt with You" became Modern English's biggest hit. After the Snow went gold, selling more than half a million copies.
"We learned a lot about music from Hugh Jones," Grey recalls. "You have to remember that when we made Mesh & Lace, we weren't that musically evolved. None of us were trained musicians; none of us came out of a musical academy or anything like that. We were all into punk rock. But when Hugh Jones came along, he showed us that you really didn't need to be loud to put your point across."
Grey adds: "We used to think 'God, we'll never make a pop record--we're artists.' But things don't always turn out as you planned, and when you actually create a pop record, it's so much more of a thrill than anything else."
Jones went on to produce Modern English's third album, Ricochet Days, which was released in 1984 on Sire in the U.S. and by 4AD in the U.K.; that album included the hit "Hands Across the Sea," another MTV favorite. In 1986, Sire released Modern English's fourth album, Stop Start, which contained the hit single "Ink and Paper." Stop Start was followed by Modern English's fifth album, Pillow Lips, in 1990, and their sixth album, Everything Is Mad, in 1996.
And now, in 2010, Modern English are entering an exciting new chapter in the band's career. From their reunion with Hugh Jones to the release of Soundtrack to an extensive tour boasting most of their early-to-mid-1980s lineup, Modern English have a lot to be excited about in the new decade.
FriendsofLive.com, 2007 (Live)
ModernEnglish.com, 2010 (Modern English)
Cement Shoes Records, 2007 (Ra)