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There is perhaps no pop act of the 1980s' British Invasion more critically underrated or overlooked than the Thompson Twins. Despite charting a dozen incredibly well-written hits in America (three of which went top 10) and being one of the most charismatic bands to take over the early-MTV airwaves, by now they've all been written out of new wave history. Tune in to any "Flashback Lunch" hour on oldies radio or '80s retrospective on VH1 and you'll get Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, even Echo & The Bunnymen… but you're unlikely to hear any Thompson Twins music, other than their No. 3 smash "Hold Me Now."
The fading of the Twins' once-colorful legacy can mostly be attributed to the fact that they very willingly dropped out of sight. Frontman Tom Bailey and his Twins bandmate/future wife Alannah Currie started a new group, Babble, in 1994 (they divorced in 2003), and Bailey has maintained a busy career both as a producer and with leftfield musical endeavors like International Observer and the Bailey-Salgado Project ever since. However, the Thompson Twins played their last gig in 1986, released their last album in 1991, and never succumbed to pressures to hit the reunion circuit after that.
"We haven't maintained our profile in any way, so naturally it diminishes, I think," says Bailey from his home in London. "Also, to some extent, there's a tendency to move on from pop groups and think, 'Well, that was then, and wasn't it all so silly?' And then you get characterized by your haircut rather than by your music, if you're not careful."
The Twins are often unjustly categorized as a novelty act, and that's no doubt due to their deliberately crafted, oh-so-'80s image. First, there was their wacky moniker. ("None of them are named Thompson! And there's THREE of them! And they're not really twins!" said every article written about the Thompson Twins, ever.) And then there were the poufy hairstyles, the giant duck-billed hats, those blindingly bright baggy satin suits, the piles of pearls. "We set ourselves up for ridicule in a way, because we did adopt a consciously cartoonish personality for ourselves," Bailey admits freely. "We were trying to use that subversively; it wasn't just that we were the new Archies or the new Monkees or something like that. We felt a bit more underground than that. But we knew that we had to kind of work 'behind enemy lines' to fit in. We had to make ourselves recognizable and cartoonish. So, we did that. But that eventually becomes a saw to your own back."
Truth be told, a decades-removed listen to the Thompson Twins' discography proves that the band's material holds up better than that of many of their new wave peers. And now fans will finally be able to hear those songs again, as Bailey will be playing them live for the first time in more than 27 years on this summer's Retro Futura Tour (which will also feature Howard Jones, Ultravox's Midge Ure, China Crisis, and Katrina sans her Waves). "It was only six months ago that I ever considered doing this, to be honest," says Bailey. "I'd completely closed the book on that possibility."
Bailey's ex Currie and their fellow former Twin, Joe Leeway, won't be joining him on the road. ("Joe and Alannah both left music and did other things, whereas music is absolutely my life and my language, everything I've ever done," says Bailey, who adds that his split from Currie, while amicable, has "certainly added an extra layer of difficulty" when it comes to a full-fledged Twins reunion.) But Bailey is excited about revisiting his group's classic catalog. "It's actually great for an artist to take a retrospective view of what they were doing and re-inhabit their material with a kind of honesty and vigor that they can find with the benefit of time taken off. I hope that I'm not just 30 years older, but 30 years wiser as well!" he chuckles.
As Bailey prepares to play many of Thompson Twins' underrated hits live, Yahoo Music has asked him to share memories of some of his band's most memorable songs.
"In the Name of Love," 1982
"This was our first success; I think it was a No. 1 dance record in America. So this was the death knell of the previous [seven-member, more avant garde] version of the band. I'd written 'In the Name of Love' as a filler for side 2 of an album that didn't have enough songs, and it ended up being the successful track, so that was a big signpost for our whole direction.
"We wrote ourselves a manifesto, essentially: 'Let's have an experiment in success.' And this experiment should be measured by certain criteria, like having a top 10 hit, getting onto certain TV shows, having an American tour, things like that. We said, 'If we don't do this within a year, then we're fooling ourselves and we should go back to being an underground, experimental band.' So we were very clear about what we wanted to achieve, and we made sure that we achieved it. And it kind of worked!"
"We wanted to escape the press after we'd stripped down to just the three of us. Everyone wanted to know the big bust-up story, which didn't really exist; we just wanted to get on with work. At the time, my home studio was just a bunch of electronic machines; I can't remember now what the acronym stood for, but I called it 'E.G.Y.P.T.' And so someone said, 'Oh, they've gone to Egypt,' and somehow the press got hold of this story that we'd escaped to Egypt, the country. We thought, 'What a brilliant lie!' So that was the idea behind the song 'Lies': that we were telling lies, the press was telling lies about us, everyone was telling lies about everyone else. It was a kind of strangely accusatory festival of lying!"
"If You Were Here," 1983
"I've actually never seen Sixteen Candles [the John Hughes movies that features this song in its iconic, final romantic scene], but I have seen the scene in which the music is used. So I don't fully understand it. I've even met Molly Ringwald and talked about it, but I never saw the whole film!
"However, this happens to be one of my favorite Thompson Twins songs; for some reason, that song has a hold over me, and I'm very fond of it. Despite it not being released as a single, probably because it didn't have a chorus, I will be singing it in concert. I've fully re-inhabited it so much that I've even written extra verses for it! I've really discovered meanings in it that I didn't know were there the first time around."
"Hold Me Now," 1983
"We were making our fourth album at Compass Point Studio in the Bahamas, but we had already recorded 'Hold Me Now.' So that was released in America and going up the charts as we were doing the rest of the album, and that was a really kind of interesting raising-of-the-bar. I think that's one of the reasons why that album [Into the Gap] is particularly good, is that we felt the self-fueling excitement of its first single as we were making the rest of the album.
"'Hold Me Now' was very much a collaboration, something that unfolded very quickly and very beautifully in front of us. It has an emotional depth which I think sometimes eludes me when I sit down to write. It's not always that you can touch that kind of raw nerve of sympathetic emotion. So it's one song that means a lot to me."
"Lay Your Hands on Me," 1984
"In some ways, 'Lay Your Hands on Me' was, even if partly unconscious, an attempt to repeat the success of 'Hold Me Now' — which was a bad idea. Even though I'm fond of 'Lay Your Hands' in some ways — I like its ritualistic aspects — it's nowhere near as successful to me as 'Hold Me Now.' As a result, I'm not going to be singing it in concert. Sorry!"
"Nothing in Common" (the theme song to the Tom Hanks film of the same title), 1986
"We went to Chicago to film the video for this with Tom Hanks, and it just so happened there was a show in town; I think it was the Amnesty International Tour with Sting and Peter Gabriel and lots of other people. We were invited to jump up and sing with them. And that was actually the very last time that the Thompson Twins ever performed in public."