Science Fiction: A Brief History Of Thompson Twins
This month marks the 33rd anniversary of Live Aid and the bands that ruled that day (Queen and U2) remain as front of mind as ever in popular culture with sold-out arena tours and, in the case of Queen, a new film and Vegas residency on the horizon. The pantheon of rock legends (Dylan, Stones, Bowie, Zeppelin) were also on hand for mostly sloppy sets. For me, Live Aid was all about seeing my “big three” from MTV: Duran Duran, Howard Jones, and Thompson Twins. The frantic, rushed production and awful stadium sound of the festival did these bands no favors, especially Thompson Twins, whose front-man Tom Bailey was recovering from a nervous breakdown due to exhaustion.
For Thompson Twins, the festival took place at the zenith of their imperial phase which stretched from 1983’s Quick Step & Side Kick (simply titled Side Kicks in the U.S.) to Here’s To Future Days, which would arrive a few months after Live Aid. When they launched into a cover of The Beatles “Revolution” on stage that day, they were joined by no less than Steve Stevens (Billy Idol), Nile Rodgers, and Madonna. It might be the one and only time Madonna was content to play background singer to another artist. Thompson Twins were a dominant force in music at that time and no amount of 80s compilations that only remember “Hold Me Now” can diminish their impact on popular culture. And then they were gone.
In 2014, Tom Bailey made an unexpected return to pop music with a handful of appearances at 80s rewind festivals, sharing the bill with Live Aid alum Howard Jones. A new single, “Come So Far”, arrived in 2016 and now, twenty-seven years since the last Twins album, Bailey returns with his album Science Fiction; which we will get to shortly. First, here’s a toast to future days past and some of the most interesting pop-art albums to come out of the New Wave era.
A Product Of….(Participation) (1981)
For American audiences, the early incarnation of Thompson Twins (a six member pop-art collective that lived in London squats) looked and sounded nothing like the band that would take over the airwaves a few years later. In the wake of punk ripping up the script, the post-punk rule book was nothing more than a blank page and Thompson Twins were mixing in everything from African rhythms to odd adaptations of Gregorian chants on their debut album. The emphasis was on percussion with the band often bringing audience members on stage to beat on various objects. As you can hear on this well-recorded live track, the band was finding their feet as musicians and stumbling upon some interesting noises.
On Set, Thompson Twins swelled to seven members with bassist Matthew Seligman (Soft Boys) joining the fracas in addition to Steve Lillywhite and Thomas Dolby lending their talents in the studio. The excellent “Living In Europe” and “Bouncing” are tightly wound post-punk gems but the shift towards synths with “In the Name of Love” opened a new door for the band. The lilting reggae vibe of “Runaway” and steel drums on “Good Gosh” reveal a young band with a wide field of vision that would gradually narrow around the potential of the synthesizer. Following in the footsteps of Human League, the band would soon establish a clear-cut aesthetic and downsize to the core threesome of Tom Bailey, Allanah Currie, and Joe Leeway. Commercially, the choice paid staggering dividends in the years to come but it ultimately led Bailey and Currie to flee pop-music by the beginning of the next decade.
Quick Step & Side Kick (1983)
The first of three legendary records, album opener “Love On Your Side” picks up where “In the Name of Love” left off. The ace-in-the-hole is Alex Sadkin’s production which perfectly balances cold synths with red-hot funkiness to create the template for a new decade of club music. Not surprisingly, Duran Duran were soon to pluck up Sadkin who had already proven his worth with Talking Heads and Grace Jones.
The Parisian-flavored “We Are Detective” playfully hints at the origins of the band’s name (a French cartoon about two bumbling detectives named Thompson and Thomson) while “If You Were Here” and “Kamikaze” pull the heart strings as effectively as the soon-to-come “Hold Me Now”. The band retains some of its post-punk undertones with a shimmering guitar lead on “Judy Do” while the MTV blockbuster “Lies” deconstructed the typical pop song. With a chorus that was little more than a schoolyard taunt, the band was already dismantling the mythology of popular music. Little did they know, their experiments were exactly what the world wanted to hear.
For those who bought the cassette, the album included an entire side of remixes and instrumentals that were as good as the album. The remix of the b-side “Beach Culture” remains one of the best synth-pop moments of the 1980s and bridges the distance between Kraftwerk and Chic. The concert film for this tour in 1983 shows the band on the brink of global stardom, using their limited budget to create an audio-visual spectacle that changed the way live music was experienced by a new generation.
Into the Gap (1984)
Savaged by critics, who might have resented the band’s subversive attitude towards “playing the game” in the business, the album remains one of the decade’s high points for intelligent pop music. Few New Wave bands would write a field-holler for the factory age but “You Take Me Up”, with its bluesy harmonica, tells the plight of the blue-collar worker in the industrialized age who laments – “I work to survive and I sleep in a fever.” The band managed to wrap the post-punk philosophy of Gang Of Four and Wire into a pop confection so sweet that the masses couldn’t buy it fast enough.
The massive hits “Hold Me Now” (a dark song for any prom) and “Doctor! Doctor!” catapulted the band into the forefront of popular music but neither sounded like a blatant attempt to write a hit song. The first 45-seconds of “Doctor! Doctor!” build glacially slow before the soaring chorus finally takes off which would be almost impossible to pull off on radio in 2018. The deeper cuts reveal more of the band’s depth with “The Gap” dissecting the fractures between the middle east and the western world and seeking peaceful acceptance between the two. Album highlight “Sister of Mercy” tells the story of a woman who murders her abusive husband. Pretty serious topics for an album that sold over 5 million copies.
Here’s To Future Days (1985)
Exhausted by the demands of becoming one of popular music’s biggest bands, the stage was set for a collapse and that is exactly what happened to Tom Bailey during the recording of Here’s To Future Days. The band opted to part ways with producer Alex Sadkin during the recording and later brought in Nile Rodgers to help bring it to fruition. In-between the two producers, the band worked alone with Bailey suffering a collapse from nervous exhaustion. The band managed to re-group for the Live Aid festival and the new album arrived a few months later.
The easiest comparison for Future Days is Duran Duran’s Seven & the Ragged Tiger, another album burdened by the weight of expectations after the band took over the world with Rio. Interestingly, Alex Sadkin was behind the controls for that album as well. In retrospect, Thompson Twins made the only album they could have and used their place atop the mountain of pop music to spread a message of hope and love. Opener “Don’t Mess With Doctor Dream” warns of the dangers of drug use while “King For A Day” can be heard as a crying out from within their bubble of success – “and as for fame, it’s just a name, that only satisfies you for a while.”
“Future Days” lays out the band’s vision for a better world while the cover of The Beatles’ “Revolution” (which Bailey foreshadowed in earlier interviews) seeks to inspire action. Everything about the lyrics cleverly undermine the very polished album they are housed in. Their pop craft has become a trojan horse capable of delivering unfashionable ideals to popular culture. The spirit of Live Aid, the belief that music could make the world a better place for everyone, were at the heart of Here’s To Future Days.
Close To the Bone (1987)
Having conquered popular music, the only way out was down. First, Joe Leeway departed the band and then the remaining Twins sought some time away from the spotlight. Now a couple, Currie and Bailey were faced with a miscarriage and the loss of Currie’s mother on the same day. The tragedies fueled the understated melancholy of the band’s next album as sung on “Long Goodbye” – “I have seen my future die, my whole past as well.”
The more personal writing and the subdued arrangements were met by confusion from those who expected more elaborate videos, colorful hair, and bombastic synth-pop anthems. For a band that left a trail of breadcrumbs throughout their lyrics about the emptiness of fame and fortune, the shift in music proved that they had meant it all along. The seething “Gold Fever” rips into the music industry’s obsession with the next big thing while “Twentieth Century” laments technology’s sway over human interaction. While these seem common topics in 2018, in 1987, we were still riding the wave of “big pop” and the band was one of the first to make a conscious break with the lifestyle.
The album’s most successful single, “Get That Love”, refuses to give into the darkness and gives the album just enough buoyancy to keep fans of the band’s pop craft hanging around. Poorly received at the time, Close To the Bone remains one of the most intimate moments Thompson Twins offered to the world and continues to reward those who listen closely. Almost overnight, the band entered their post-imperial phase and expectations for what came next were cast to the wind.
Big Trash (1989)
Seeking a fresh start on a new record label, Thompson Twins sound indifferent to jumping back on the carousel of pop fortune. Apart from the single “Sugar Daddy”, with guest vocals from Blondie’s Debbie Harry, the album rarely seeks to recreate the sounds or melodies of Into the Gap or Here’s To Future Days. Instead, the band goes for harder beats and more aggressive guitars. It is the most “rock” album they ever recorded and had the name “Thompson Twins” not carried such baggage in 1989, it probably would have found a lot of success. There is a lot to love about this record.
“Bombers In the Sky” and “Salvador Dali’s Car” kick up the energy a few notches with the band’s trademark percussion kept to a minimum. These are straight ahead pop-rock anthems worthy of an arena sized PA. Sadly, the band would never get the chance to play these songs to huge audiences as pop culture had already moved in a new direction. “Love Jungle” offers an updated take on “You Take Me Up” as consumerism’s stranglehold on society has squeezed the life out of the common man’s soul. Maybe we don’t want to hear what we know to be true.
For their final act, Thompson Twins returned in 1991 and snuck into the Madchester rave scene under the guise of “Feedback Max” – an alias designed to throw DJ’s off the scent. It worked and the song generated a lot of interest. However, it stalled on the charts when released as a Thompson Twins single. It was the last laugh for a band that managed to subvert the musical industrial complex and become one of the biggest pop bands of the 1980s. All the hypocrisy of popular music was laid bare and the band would soon disappear into a wormhole of electronica, releasing two exquisite albums as Babble.
As for Queer, the album name serves notice that the band had no interest in coloring inside the lines of expectations. The suggestive word carried heavy implications at the time and the band used this to question what should be considered “normal”. A few years later, Garbage’s own song “Queer” would take the dialogue further into the mainstream consciousness but the Twins were on the scene first. The entire album has a druggy atmosphere, ironic given that Bailey proudly avoided drinks and drugs throughout their career. The album would have fit into a DJ set at The Hacienda in Manchester had the crowd not attached such negative connotations to the words Thompson and Twins.
In little more than a decade, Thompson Twins evolved from post-punk rebels using varying influences to launch an assault on popular music to one of the biggest bands in the world to an eclectic duo willing to be more interesting than famous. When the band disappeared, it came as no surprise. Their work in Babble and Bailey’s solo work with International Observer kept them busy in the passing years and few ever expected to hear the news that Tom Bailey was returning to the stage to sing all the classic Thompson Twins hits.
Science Fiction (2018)
Four years ago, Bailey joined Howard Jones on the retro circuit and it quickly became evident that the fan base had never stopped singing along with Thompson Twins. A few summer tours rekindled his pop muse and Science Fiction brings closure to the Thompson Twins legacy while adding a fascinating new chapter to the story. A summer tour supporting Culture Club and The B-52s will allow him to bring all the classics to more audiences. However, the new songs deserve equal billing and a headlining tour will surely be successful if Bailey chooses to head out alone.
Having recently worked in Mexico with other artists, a pronounced latin vibe colors “What Kind of World” which gets the feet moving and makes you wonder if Santana should have tapped Bailey, and not Rob Thomas, for “Smooth”. The acoustic guitar of “Shooting Star” recalls the Close To the Bone era while “Work All Day” trades the UK factories of “You Take Me Up” for a sweaty barrio south of the border. Bailey manages to remind us of every happy moment we shared with Thompson Twins without trying to recreate the moments themselves. The album never falls into the trap of nostalgia and the immaculate production makes for an exhilarating listen.
The contemplative “Bring Back Yesterday” sounds reminiscent of George Harrison’s “When We Was Fab” in a way that longs for the good times while not forgetting that there were rain clouds as well. For someone who fled the trappings of pop stardom, Bailey sounds as if he has made peace with his own success and happily shares his gift for melody with us again. Closer “Come So Far” tackles the global immigration crisis and reminds us that Thompson Twins always had a conscience. They were never just a silly pop group with goofy hair. Well they were, but that was never the point if you were really listening.