Hello, Gen Xers and Gen X sympathizers! Quick note on show notes today — I’m going to start doing these episodes as both a podcast AND a blog post, so you can check them out on the medium of your choice. Here on the site, you can scan through the transcript and see more links and videos, but I recommend listening to the podcast. Especially if you’re driving.
Here we go …
One mistake a lot of people make in looking at 80s music is dismissing pop musicians because they have nice hair or funny videos or whatever. Critics wrote off Duran Duran as pretty boys, only later realizing that John Taylor is a fantastic funk bass player and Nick Rhodes is a keyboard pioneer.
And when you think of the Thompson Twins, the first thing you think of is probably hair.
That’s not fair.
You might also think they were a band that had a superfluous member or two — the classic “What did Andrew Ridgeley contribute to Wham?” question. After all, bands of that era sometimes recruited people specifically for their looks. That was taken to an extreme when the band ABC added a blonde bombshell (who happened to be an irreverent music journalist) and a very short, bald Japanese man, neither of whom played any instruments.
In Thompson Twins, Tom Bailey was the lead singer, the guitarist, the keyboardist, the bassist and the co-producer. Alannah Currie, in addition to having the most eye-catching hair this side of A Flock of Seagulls, sang backup and played percussion. Joe Leeway was pictured with a bass on occasion and played a bit of keyboards live, but he was hired as a conga player and backup singer who came to the band as a roadie after a brief career in theater.
Thompson Twins were a trio (yes, we know, they’re neither Thompsons nor twins — it’s apparently a literary allusion of some kind) after they got rid of all the members of a traditional rock band — two guitarists, a bassist and a drummer.
But just as you can’t write off image-conscious bands, you can’t write off image-conscious members. Watch Thompson Twins videos and live clips, and you’ll see that Currie can play. And if you track their career, you’ll see that they tailed off after Leeway left, which may or may not be coincidental.
Before that happened, they had one of those careers in which they were only big for 3-4 years, but they packed a lot into those years. A LOT.
Let’s take a look. This is X Marks the Pod.
Thompson Twins recorded one album before becoming a trio — in fact, Currie wasn’t officially in the band at this point. It’s A Product of … ellipsis … and then “Participation” in parentheses. (That reminds me — I need to tackle the song I Love You Period, by Dan Baird of the Georgia Satellites.)
This album is NOT on Spotify, so you have to dig around on YouTube. Which I did.
The first word that pops into my head is “angular.” More rhythmic than melodic. It’s very 1980ish English New Wave, a bit like Echo and the Bunnymen or perhaps The Cure at their most upbeat. (Cure producer and one-time bassist Phil Thornalley wound up producing or mixing many early Thompson Twins recordings, including some of their biggest hits. Did you know he co-wrote the Natalie Imbruglia song Torn? I did not. Anyway …) The opener, When I See You, is pretty sharp.
They also have a bit of influence from what has been called “world music.” African rhythms. Middle Eastern melodies. This would be a recurring theme through a lot of their more interesting music, even if it didn’t really work here.
But the best thing to check out is a promo video for Make Believe. They were a seven-piece band, including Currie, who’s off to the side with Leeway even though they both figure prominently in the video.
The bassist, Matthew Seligman, was legit. He had already been in The Soft Boys and played in a couple of bands with Thomas Dolby. After being ousted from Thompson Twins, he kept playing with Dolby for decades along with studio and live work with David Bowie, Tori Amos and many others. Dolby was the one who announced, sadly, that Seligman was one of the early victims of COVID-19. He died in April 2020.
So why would a band get rid of all the members who played rock instruments? Leeway tells the story in an interview years after the fact. Basically, they didn’t want to be a rock band. Get rid of the guitars. Get rid of the drummer — not necessarily drums, but a drummer. They also wanted to be less political, though I’m not sure they really were all that political in the first place. And politics influenced what you would probably call their breakthrough hit a short time later — a track called Lies.
But wait a second — we still have one more album before they hit it big. It was called Set, released in February 1982, and it cracked the top 50 on the UK chart. It had one sort-of hit called In the Name of Love — no, obviously not the U2 song — which was the first of several No. 1s on the US dance chart and was featured on some soundtracks, including Ghostbusters. It’s not bad — basically a chaotic New Wave piece.
(Quick note: All the songs from here on are in the Spotify playlist at the end of this post.)
The album gets weaker after that. They still fancied themselves a world music outfit of sorts at the time, and they’re no Afro Celt Sound System.
In October 1982, in advance of their third album — in the UK, it was called Quick Step and Side Kick, which sounds like a tai chi routine, but it was simply Side Kicks in the US — they released Lies. This has everything you’d want in an 80s song. You can mishear the lyrics as “lice, lice, lice, yeah.” It has a cool bass line that sounds like a fretless, which is either really impressive work from Bailey on bass or a well-programmed synth. It has a quirky, wonderfully low-budget video.
But it’s also unique. Having two percussionists on hand and a variety of musical interests can yield some off-the-wall moments, and there’s something charming about the kitchen-sink approach here.
Side Kicks also had Love on Your Side, another one with a good dance groove and some cool percussion. The latter is important. No one else was doing that. How much of it was Currie and how much was Leeway, we’ll never know.
The UK also went wild for a song called We Are Detective, which must explain why it got 3.4 million listens on Spotify — more than Love on Your Side. Oddly enough, Lies was only No. 67 in the UK but No. 6 in New Zealand, Currie’s once and future home. That’s called foreshadowing.
It’s not a bad album. They’ve effectively fused their eclectic percussion and melodic twists with New Wave, and it works.
Side Kicks came out in early 1983. A year later, the band went even bigger.
The Twins’ fourth album Into the Gap hit No. 1 in the UK and, of course, New Zealand. It only hit No. 10 here, but Hold Me Now hit No. 3 on the singles chart.
In short — this album has their biggest worldwide hit and their best song. The hit is Hold Me Now, which is better than most 80s ballads. The original version has 51m players on Spotify. A remix adds another 34m. On YouTube, it has 62m.
Their best song is also their second biggest on Spotify — one version has 14.5m, another has 4.4m. It’s Doctor! Doctor!
If I did the 12tone series on YouTube, I’d devote a whole episode to the music theory in this one. The melody and harmony float between major and minor, but not in a way that suggests any sort of blues scale. The arrangement is sparse, so the melodic curveballs stand out.
They had another top-five hit in the UK with You Take Me Up, which I found considerably less satisfying, in part because harmonicas and synths are just a bad pairing all the way around. The sort-of title track, The Gap, barely charted but has 1.1m plays on Spotify, and it’s a competent synth-groove song.
The Twins could also go deep on occasion. Sister of Mercy isn’t their most interesting song musically, but the lyrics delve into domestic abuse in which the wife ends up killing the husband. Tom Bailey says it was inspired a real case in France in which the killing was ruled a “crime of passion” and therefore not prosecuted as murder. The video, though, shows the woman in what appears to be jail, and it doesn’t really know what to do once the plot has played out. So not their best musically, not their best video, but an affecting song worth hearing at least once.
Hollywood came calling, and they had a song called If You Were Here on the Sixteen Candles soundtrack. It’s garden-variety 80s movie music, but it’s a popular film, so it has 9.6m plays on Spotify, their third best behind Hold Me Now and Doctor! Doctor!
The next full-length release was Here’s to Future Days, and the numbers are again pretty good. The one you remember is Lay Your Hands on Me. The production on that one is amazing, and it has a few of the things that made the band unique — some xylophone work, soaring layered backup vocals and so forth. But the rest of the album has a pop sheen that sanded down the rough edges that made them interesting. I don’t get the appeal of King for a Day, which was No. 8 in the US and has 8.8, Spotify plays, even more than Lay Your Hands on Me at 6.8m — though the latter has a few extra versions that split the vote, so to speak.
Don’t Mess with Doctor Dream is the de rigueur anti-heroin song. There’s an interview I’ll note later in which Currie mentions that they had the best drugs, but heroin probably wouldn’t count as one of the best drugs, so I don’t see a contradiction.
Their take on the Beatles’ classic Revolution … doesn’t work. Enough said.
They did another movie song, the theme song for the Tom Hanks-Jackie Gleason film Nothing in Common, which has the standard soundtrack video with the band interacting with movie footage. It’s not bad.
If this were Behind the Music, you’d now get the ominous intonations from the narrator, because things were about go south.
Joe Leeway left, and different reasons have been given over the years. It was amicable, though Leeway said years later that he wasn’t a big fan of the guitars that had crept into the mix.
Currie and Bailey, though, had even worse news. They had a relationship they had kept quiet through the years, even as it influenced some of their lyrics. But Currie suffered a miscarriage. At the same time, she lost her mother.
Given all of that, perhaps they should’ve taken more time before their next album, Close to the Bone, which came out a year and a half after Here’s to Future Days. The events of that time are evident throughout, especially in the song Long Goodbye, which Currie has said she sometimes can’t listen to because the emotion is so raw. The opener, Follow Your Heart, implores: “Don’t let no one else do your livin’ for you.” In the verse: “How will you be the one if you dance to the beat of another man’s drum.”
Get That Love isn’t a bad single, with the typical Thompson Twins marimba in the mix and a sly nod to their past in the lyrics: “Telling lies, lies, lies to myself never set me free.” The big message in the lyrics. “I won’t give up on love.”
But the album tanked.
No. 76 in the US. No. 90 in the UK.
Get That Love cracked the Top 40 in the US but not in the UK, and it has 825,000 listens on Spotify — by far the most on the album. Long Goodbye is the only other song with more than 100,000.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine at AllMusic.com doesn’t give up on them but says most of it is “too sterile and predictable to be truly enjoyable.”
They remixed In the Name of Love and got another US dance hit, but they were in a steep decline, even though they had just signed a lucrative deal with Warner Brothers. Joe Leeway says that deal was for 15 million, though I’m not sure whether that’s 15 million dollars or pounds. Here — you try to figure it out …
I’m not sure about the chronology there. Close to the Bone was released on Arista, and I haven’t found anything to suggest Bailey and Currie signed to Warner before releasing that album.
In any case, the next album, Big Trash, was No. 143 in the US, though it had their last Top 40 song anywhere — an overly sarcastic track called Sugar Daddy. Oddly enough, it has 918,000 listens on Spotify, while Bombers in the Sky has nearly a million. The latter is politically ambitious but comes across like a second-rate song by the Fixx.
In September 1991, the Thompson Twins released their final album, Queer. It didn’t chart. It’s found a second life on Spotify, though — Flower Girl has 2.2m listens, while Strange Jane has 1m. Come Inside, a dance hit in the US, has 625,000. Those aren’t bad songs at all, and I like My Funky Valentine, which is indeed surprisingly funky for this group. The rest veers into generic Eurodance, and the titletrack is bad hip-hop, complete with gratuitous scratches and a thudding drum machine.
Strange Jane saw a second life with a reworking called Play WIth Me (Jane) on the soundtrack of the film Cool World.
And that was it.
Or was it?
Yes. Yes, it was.
Bailey and Currie were sick of the pop-celebrity rat race. They moved to Currie’s native country of New Zealand and moved out into the country.
But they weren’t done recording. They formed a band called Babble, which is classified as “chill out” or “trip hop” music, a genre whose biggest proponent is probably Portishead, though you could also stick the Sneaker Pimps song Six Underground in the mix as well.
And … they were good.
Maybe I just needed to chill out myself, but when I checked out Babble, I was pleasantly surprised. They have some nice, smooth grooves. Some reviewers at AllMusic seem to think it’s just Thompson Twins with a new name, and that’s absolutely not the case.
They did an interview around this time, with the cameras following them out to rural New Zealand, and they appear to have had a fairy-tale ending. Some kind person dug up the video and posted it to YouTube.
Alas, the fairy tale eventually ended. Bailey and Currie split up, reportedly amicably.
So where are they now?
Joe Leeway had the most interesting path. He went into hypnotherapy in the late 90s, and he gave a thoughtful interview on HypnosisTV in 2010 that I’ve already cited a couple of times. He’s no longer listed as a hypnotherapist on the Hypnosis Motivation Institute site, but he is indeed past retirement age now, so that probably doesn’t mean anything.
Alannah Currie – well, let’s take the description straight from her site: “Alannah Currie is a London based artist who makes work using luxurious veneers around uncomfortable and provocative narratives. She works under the name Miss Pokeno.” She’s a political activist who opposes genetic modification and learned how to make furniture, leading up to an exhibit in which she turned taxidermy into chairs. Then she formed something called the Armchair Destructivists, which destroyed her own work. She posted a video of a chair being tossed from a cliff as a commemoration of sorts for the fifth anniversary of 9/11.
Why? From a 2013 Huffington Post story: “Only by deliberately and purposefully destroying that which has become so mundane and comfortable can we hope to expose the very nature of our own complacency.”
If you’ve watched the Eric Idle mockumentary The Rutles, you know what’s coming next …
Back to reality with Currie — in a 2008 interview with The Guardian, she recounts the celebrity lifestyle of having breakfast in LA with Timothy Leary and dinner in New York with Andy Warhol — on the same day. But she says she and Tom had to get away from it all, so they went to rural New Zealand. Then she says she and Tom gradually became “good friends rather than lovers,” and she fell in love with Jimmy Cauty. They moved back to England.
From the same interview: “We’ve been offered loads of money to re-form, but I’d rather vomit on my boots.”
But the good news for anyone who wants to see any of the Thompson Twins play live is that Tom Bailey decided a few years back to go back on the road and dig up the old hits. He also did an insightful interview for Songfacts.
He has also kept working in music, first with a project called International Observer. AllMusic reviewed one of those albums, 2009’s Felt, calling it a “nicely varied and consistently compelling suite of tunes, textures, and effects while sticking faithfully to the core principles of dubwise reggae.” I checked out a couple of the songs, one of which (1000 Mile Drift) has 286,000 plays on Spotify. This definitely isn’t my genre, but I liked a tune called Popcorn Slavery that has a playful synth melody.
Then after re-embracing his Thompson Twins past and touring, he released an album under his own name for the first time, 2018’s Science Fiction. Some of the beats follow from his International Observer work, but his voice finally breaks free from the hyperprocessing of ambient, atmospheric music. The title track would sound right at home on a Thompson Twins album, albeit with updated synth sounds.
You have to respect the fact that he’s billing himself as “Thompson Twins’ Tom Bailey,” not “Thompson Twins.” As talented as he is, Thompson Twins were a unique collective of three creative people, and we’re lucky that they were well-placed to be one of the better bands of a golden age of pop music.
I count three Thompson Twins songs worth keeping on heavy rotation in your playlists — Lies, Love on Your Side, and Doctor! Doctor! If you want a good ballad, I prefer Lay Your Hands on Me, but Hold Me Now, while overplayed like a lot of pop hits, also holds up well. But I just took a deeper dive, and I didn’t hate it. If you’re stuck at home due to omicron or snow, or if your commute has gotten a bit longer due to snow, give their catalog a spin.
Gen X News
Being stuck at home this past week, I went through more than 100 articles I had saved for future reading. I don’t feel any smarter.
I’ll share this link on keeping schools open, focusing primarily on those who really need to be there for a variety of reasons — perhaps kids who just don’t fare well at home or kids whose parents really need to go to work. If you think the latter sounds frivolous, bear in mind that some people have jobs like nursing and child care. Not everyone can telecommute.
In related news, The New Yorker has a story asking if we’re going to move into a phase in which we think about COVID very differently, even lumping it in with other respiratory illnesses. Lest you think that’s some right-wing fantasy, note that several prominent doctors are cited, including Celine Gounder.
In unrelated news, the US gained 6.4 million jobs in 2021. That’s the most on record.
In less controversial news — is there a fictional character more overrated than Boba Fett? The new show is on its way out or is already out, and I can’t tell you how unenthusiastic about it I am. Scratch that — I’m going to tell you anyway. Anakin/Darth Vader is an interesting character. Jabba the Hutt is an interesting character. Finn is an interesting character whose story arc was completely wasted. Boba Fett is an empty suit.
Oh, by the way, Family Guy had that phrase in use long before The Mandalorian.
Here’s a quick look at a few more interesting links of the week, along with a Thompson Twins chronology and a playlist:
- The Daily Show: Jordan Klepper on what makes him empathize with the Trump supporters whose alternate reality he regularly tears apart
- Salon: Republican voters don’t actually “believe” the Big Lie about January 6 — they’re in on the con
- The Conversation: White Gen X and millennial evangelicals are losing faith in the conservative culture wars
- Upworthy: Fox News asked Gen X to ‘stop cancel culture’ and the responses are simply hilarious
Thompson Twins chronology
1980: The band coalesces into a four-piece with Tom Bailey on bass and vocals, Pete Dodd on guitar and vocals, John Roog on guitar, and Chris Bell on drums. They release the single Squares and Triangles, followed by She’s in Love With Mystery. The first Thompson Twins show listed at setlist.fm is July 28 in London.
1981 (June): The album A Product of … (Participation) is released in the UK with the four existing members plus new members Jane Shorter (saxophone) and Joe Leeway (congas). Also credited: Alannah Currie.
- Albums and singles did not chart
1982 (February): The album Set is released in the UK with a lineup of Bailey, Dodd, Roog, Bell, Leeway, Currie and bassist Matthew Seligman. Also, Thomas Dolby plays some keyboards.
- Album: #48 UK
- In the Name of Love: #79 UK, #1 US dance
1982 (April): Bailey, Leeway and Currie decide to proceed as a trio, releasing Dodd, Roog, Bell and Seligman.
1982 (June): The album In the Name of Love, a US repackaging of Set with additional songs from A Product of … (Participation) is released.
- Album: #148 US
1982 (October): The single Lies is released in advance of the band’s next album.
1982 (November): The US release of Side Kicks, their first album on Arista. First US show listed at setlist.fm is Nov. 10 in Trenton, N.J.
- Album: #34 US
1983 (February): Quick Step and Side Kick, the UK version of Side Kicks, is released.
- Album: #2 UK, #7 New Zealand
- Lies: #67 UK, #30 US, #6 New Zealand, #1 US dance
- Love on Your Side: #9 UK, #45 US, #9 New Zealand #6 US dance
- We Are Detective: #7 UK, #48 New Zealand
- Watching: #33 UK
1983 (November): The single Hold Me Now is released in advance of the album Into the Gap.
1983 (December): Performance on MTV’s New Year’s Eve show.
1984 (February): Into the Gap is released. The second single, Doctor! Doctor!, is released just before the album’s release.
- Album: #1 UK, #10 US, #1 New Zealand
- Hold Me Now: #4 UK, #3 US, #4 New Zealand, #1 US dance
- Doctor! Doctor!: #3 UK, #11 US, #12 New Zealand, #18 US dance
- You Take Me Up: #2 UK, #44 US, #24 New Zealand
- Sister of Mercy: #11 UK
- The Gap: #69 US
1984 (May): The classic John Hughes film Sixteen Candles is released. If You Were Here is on the soundtrack. It doesn’t officially chart but is popular decades later on Spotify. Setlist.fm shows first concerts in Japan.
1984 (October): Band plays Hold Me Now and The Gap on the 10th season premiere of Saturday Night Live. Episode is best known for Harry Shearer and Martin Short’s synchronized swimming routine.
1984 (November): The single Lay Your Hands on Me is released in the UK 10 months before the album Here’s to Future Days. In the US, it’s released much closer to the album release date.
1985 (July): Band plays at Live Aid with Madonna.
1985 (September): Here’s to Future Days is released.
- Album: #5 UK, #20 US, #1 New Zealand
- Lay Your Hands on Me: #13 UK, #6 US, #19 New Zealand, #46 US dance
- Don’t Mess with Doctor Dream: #15 UK, #12 New Zealand
- King for a Day: #22 UK, #8 US, #4 New Zealand
- Revolution: #56 UK, #43 New Zealand
1986 (July): The single Nothing in Common, recorded for the film of the same name, is released.
- Single: #54 US, #38 US dance
1986 (February): Band tours New Zealand, Australia and Japan. Leeway plays final show with band at Budokan in Tokyo.
1987 (March): Close to the Bone is released.
- Album: #90 UK, #76 US, #46 New Zealand
- Get That Love: #66 UK, #31 US
- Long Goodbye: #89 UK
1987 (August): Concert in Melbourne, Fla., is the last Thompson Twins show listed at setlist.fm
1988: In the Name of Love ’88, a remix of their 1982 single, is released.
- Remix: #46 UK, #1 US dance
1989 (March): Big Trash, the band’s first album on Warner Brothers, is released.
- Album: #143 US
- Sugar Daddy: #97 UK, #28 US
1991 (October): Queer, the band’s final album, is released.
- Album: did not chart
- Come Inside: #56 UK, #7 US dance
- The Saint: #53 UK
1992 (July): The soundtrack to the film Cool World is released. It includes Play With Me (Jane), a reworking of Strange Jane. It doesn’t chart.
1994 (March): The first Babble album, The Stone, is released.
1996 (February): The final Babble album, Ether, is released.
2001-2009: Bailey releases several reggae/dubstep albums under the name International Observer.
2001-2004: Currie starts an anti-genetic modification movement that includes a billboard featuring a nude four-breasted woman attached to a milking machine.
2004: Currie confirms split with Bailey and moves back to London.
2008: Currie has an exhibit of her furniture pieces called England Bloody England.
2013: Currie has another solo exhibit, a project called the Sisters of Perpetual Resistance.
2014 (August): Bailey performs Thompson Twins songs live for the first time in 27 years.
2018 (July): Bailey releases solo album Science Fiction.
2020-2021: Sidelined during the pandemic, Bailey releases more material under the name International Observer.
TOM BAILEY SETLISTS (top 10; 2014-2021)
92 shows: Doctor! Doctor!
91: Hold Me Now
91: Love on Your Side
89: You Take Me Up
74: Lay Your Hands on Me
58: If You Were Here
45: King for a Day
41: Sister of Mercy
37: Science Fiction (solo single)
SPOTIFY PLAYS (released singles and other songs with at least 250k; listed by album release date)
Squares and Triangles: n/a (8,200 and 4,500 YouTube)
She’s in Love with Mystery: n/a (2,700, 2,100 and 1,100 YouTube)
Perfect Game: n/a (13k, 7.8k and 4.2k YouTube)
Animal Laugh: n/a (3.9k YouTube)
Make Believe: n/a (7.1k for promo video on YouTube; 12k and 4.2k others on YouTube)
Politics: n/a (8.1k and 1.3k YouTube)
In the Name of Love: 1.6m (P/G), 697k
Lies: 4.7m (P/G), 495k (Mix), plus 1.2m YouTube
Love on Your Side: 1.4m (LLO), 816k (Mix), 515k (P/G)
We Are Detective: 3.4m (P/G)
Hold Me Now: 51.1m, 34.2m (Mix), 798k (remix), 432k (remix), plus 62m YouTube
Doctor! Doctor!: 14.5m (Mix), 4.4m, 509k (remix), plus 9.6m YouTube
You Take Me Up: 1.3m, 443k (Mix), plus 1.1m YouTube
The Gap: 1.1m, 126k (Mix)
Sister of Mercy: 692k, 124k (P/G)
No Peace for the Wicked: 688k
Who Can Stop the Rain: 659k
Day After Day: 438k
If You Were Here: 9.6m (P/G)
Lay Your Hands on Me: 6.8m (Mix), 754k, 482k (P/G), 454k (LLO), 102k (GH), plus 2.2m YouTube
King for a Day: 8.8m, 344k (Mix), 253k (GH), 238k (P/G)
Don’t Mess with Doctor Dream: 1.1m, 207k (GH)
Future Days: 1m
Emperor’s Clothes, Part 1: 569k
Roll Over: 268k (GH)
Nothing in Common: 494k (P/G)
Get That Love: 826k, 90k (Mix)
Long Goodbye: 118k
In the Name of Love ’88: 245k (Mix)
Bombers in the Sky: 991k
Sugar Daddy: 919k
This Girl’s on Fire: 251k
Flower Girl: 2.2m
Strange Jane: 1m
My Funky Valentine: 783k
Come Inside: 625k
Groove On: 47k
The Saint: 34k
Play with Me (Jane): 1m
(P/G = Platinum and Gold Collection; AH = Arista Heritage series; LLO = Love, Lies and Other Strange Things, GH = Greatest Hits, Mix = Greatest Mixes)