Modern English returns to Phoenix with local legends Gentlemen Afterdark

Modern English (pictured above) and Gentlemen Afterdark will play in Chandler at Wild Horse Pass Casino on Friday, May 26, at 8pm.
Modern English (pictured above) and Gentlemen Afterdark will play in Chandler at Wild Horse Pass Casino on Friday, May 26, at 8pm. Eleonora Collini

Sometimes songs, and bands, have nine lives, just like a fluffy little kitty cat. One may use these lives sparingly and resourcefully and another might burn through a bunch seemingly all at once, leaving only a few to spare. Either way, these lives are precious to both the bands and their fans.

Case in point: Modern English and Gentlemen Afterdark, who will play together for the first time on Friday, May 26, at Wild Horse Pass Casino in Chandler. While the two bands have taken very different paths to get to this particular stage on the edge of town, they're kindred spirits in more ways than one.

For Modern English got their start as a punk rock band called The Lepers in 1978. According to original bassist and founding member Mick Conroy, the path to Planet Chandler has been a productive ride.

“I was 15 when I joined, well, we were called The Lepers. I was learning to play the guitar, but they needed a bass player. Eventually we stopped being a punk band and started calling ourselves Modern English. Around the end of 1979 we went into a local 16-track studio and made some demos. We knew that [The Lepers] was a ridiculous name, so we changed it,” Conroy recalls over the phone from Tucson where the band was rehearsing recently.

A few short years later, the post-punk/New Wave band scored a hit with their song “I Melt With You” off their second record, "After the Snow," in 1982. The song was featured regularly in the early days of MTV and earned an even wider audience as it kicked off the ending of the classic 1983 film, "Valley Girl." “I Melt With You” is easily Modern English’s most well-known song, but the band has continued to make excellent music for much of the last four decades.

Gentlemen Afterdark, on the other hand, has taken a much different path. The band enjoyed moderate success in the early '80s and for a time was easily the best band in Arizona before they left for what they hoped would be the greener pastures of Los Angeles almost 40 years ago. Celebrated Tucson writer and columnist Brian Smith fronted the band and has chronicled the band’s history well for Tucson Weekly here.

Often a quintet, Gentlemen Afterdark included Robin Johnson on guitar (now a member of Greyhound Soul), drummer Winston Watson and Smith’s brothers, Barry (violin and keyboards) and Stuart (keyboards and guitar). Sadly, bassists Fred Cross and Kevin Pate (as well as former drummer Jon Norwood) have shuffled off this mortal coil, so local legend Harry McCaleb will be stepping in on bass to join the three Smith brothers, Johnson and Watson for the May 26 gig with Modern English.

After speaking to Barry and Brian Smith, as well as Watson and Johnson, the band seems to be not only ready, but quite excited to dust off their band for only their third reunion show since 2010.

“I’ve been reacquainting myself with the songs and I’ve wondered to myself, ‘Why is everything so fast?’" says Watson, who has played drums with Bob Dylan, Robyn Hitchcock and Warren Zevon, to name a few. "Even though I’ve aged, the music hasn’t. I want to be able to keep it true to form. Like any athlete, you break yourself down and build yourself up like in 'Rocky IV.' I’m at the point where I’m carrying huge trees now. I try to give as much as humanely possible every night with any band I play with, but there’s a special, personal element to this show. It just took the world 41 years to catch up with us.”
It's special, as well, for Barry Smith, who lives in Northern Arizona now and remains one of the best violinists out there serenading our state.

“It’s so much fun to play with my brother. I love playing with Brian, he’s amazing, and Robin and Winston . It’s going to be a full-on adrenaline rush. I’m looking forward to being up there with my two brothers and for me, it was the main reason to be doing this gig. I have so much respect for my brothers. I’ve never played with Harry before, but he’s the coolest guy,” says Barry Smith, who will be playing one of his dad’s tenor saxophones during the performance, too.

Unlike Modern English, Gentlemen Afterdark never had that big hit single in the '80s like “I Melt With You.” It wasn’t until 2019 when the band’s song “Open the Door” (which was produced, in part, by Alice Cooper in 1983) was prominently featured in the first episode of season three of the hit Netflix show "Stranger Things." There's nothing like a great song placement to reignite interest in a band that only a good-sized handful of steadfast Southwest music fans might remember.

“This all kind of started with 'Stranger Things' a couple years ago. We had zero hits on Spotify and now there are over 1.3 million hits. Suddenly we became relevant. We had contact with the guys in Modern English and when we found out they were playing close to us, we thought maybe we should fire up the band again,” Johnson says while driving from his home in California to Tucson to rehearse.
click to enlarge
Gentlemen Afterdark in the 1980s. Winston Watson top left), Barry Smith (top center), Fred Cross (top right), Robin Johnson (front left), and Brian Smith (front right).
Fervor Records

Members of each band recognize the connection between the two acts, even though this is the first time they'll share a stage together. Both were hard acts to pigeonhole in the early days of their careers due to a sound that was unlike most of their contemporaries; fans of “I Melt With You” may have been turned off by the rest of Modern English's more intense and moody post-punk sound.

Songs like “Someone’s Calling” and “Dawn Chorus,” for example, are both killer but offer a very different feel from the more jangly and (sort of) upbeat “I Melt With You.” Conroy can see both sides of this equation; he appreciates the fans who only love the one big hit, but he loves it when fans take a deeper dive as well.

“You can’t please all the people all the time, but the hardcore fans or people who like music buy it and take it home and listen to it and often think, ‘This is quite good.’ We make music for ourselves because we’re musicians and writers and that’s what we do. That sounds pompous and pretentious, but people like it and that’s an absolute bonus as well,” Conroy says.

Brian Smith is just enjoying the fact that Gentlemen Afterdark's songs are getting a second life.

“It’s like being a tourist in my own life. I’m a dad now, and an old dad, really. Part of me still feels like a 21-year-old kid. You know, we were 19, 20 years old when we wrote those songs and it’s almost a weird sort of duality,” he says. “We were really good when were on, but we were really terrible when we were off. There is beautiful stuff there, though. We were kids against the world and wanted the strength to succeed, but then we had it fail.”

One man’s failure, though, is often another man’s dream. If cats really did have nine lives, that would mean they get to fail eight times before it’s all said and done. Modern English is currently finishing up a new record, according to Conroy, that should be out in fall 2023. Maybe if we all cheer loudly enough at the show on Friday night, Gentlemen Afterdark will start working on another record, too.

There's always hope.

Modern English and Gentlemen Afterdark. 8 p.m. Friday, May 26. Wild Horse Pass Casino, 5040 Wild Horse Pass Boulevard, Chandler. Tickets are available here.
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Tom Reardon has written for Phoenix New Times since 2013. He's been in several notable bands over the last 25 years including Hillbilly Devilspeak, North Side Kings, and the Father Figures.
Contact: Tom Reardon

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