Photo by James Cumpsty
If you passed the Fabulous Fox Theatre on Sept. 6, you could be forgiven for thinking that a time-travelling DeLorean had dropped off concert-goers from 30 years ago. The crowd included people dressed in classic Boy George attire, others with huge hot pink beehive wigs and some fans with Thompson Twins buttons, waving their Teefax fan club ID cards.
Thompson Twins’ Tom Bailey, the singer of the '80s English group with 11 Billboard Hot 100 songs, including three U.S. top 10 hits (and more worldwide), was the evening’s opener, as The Life Tour graced St. Louis. (The B-52s and Culture Club followed him on the bill.)
Bailey sang a selection of his biggest Twins hits, along with the catchy title track from "Science Fiction," his new solo album. It marks a return to pop music after a long trek into other genres while living in New Zealand. The song has a modern feel, but with a definite Bailey sound.
“In the intervening years, I’ve done lots of musical projects, all sorts of things that have got nothing to do with pop music," he told me recently. "So, when I decided to go back to it, I guess I picked it up where I left off. And yet, so much has changed in these years, especially technologically, that I did want to kind of put a contemporary edge on the whole thing."
"And maybe there’s a little bit of wanting my audience to make that journey back with me a little bit as well, and enjoy picking up," Bailey added.
Thompson Twins songs were a staple of '80s pop music, with hits like “Hold Me Now,” “Lay Your Hands On Me” and “King for a Day.” Bailey credits technology as a key ingredient of their global success. When affordable polyphonic synthesizers and drum machines became available, it changed the way he wrote music.
“Suddenly, instead of having to write for a band, I found that I was writing for the record. And that did enormous things. Like, that was a sea change. And then the limitations of a band suddenly evaporated and we were just thinking about how to make the record sound fantastic.”
But after a while, the fame (and the lifestyle that comes with it) lost its luster.
"The Thompsons' end was a little bit abrupt, you know? We suddenly decided to stop being a pop group, and moved into other things,” Bailey said. “We lost interest in pursuing the endless party, I think. We were burned out on all of that. And [we] decided to carry on making music, but in different ways and different places.”
Bailey became interested in Indian and dub music, regardless if those styles were less trendy.
“There does come a point where you become a slave to the concept of your very existence as people understand it, so [you] have to just grab it back, and say, ‘No. My life is my own. My artistic interests are my own, as well.’”
“And then, you know, the decades pass and everyone says, ‘Well, what have you been doing all this time?’ But the honest truth is that I was working very hard on things that I wanted to do. And I knew that they weren’t going to be going up on pop charts anywhere.”
In 2014 he began playing the old songs on stage again for the first time in 27 years. He was reluctant at first, but he enjoyed returning to his roots.
“I’d left them behind for so many years, I really wasn’t in any way engaged with my pop past, you know, and it was a bit of a surprise.”
The distance of time and the immersion in other music has given him new perspective on the songs that made Thompson Twins a household name.
“Sometimes you can sing a song for 10 years and then suddenly figure out what that line means. And, in some cases, it’s more profound than that. You kind of go rushing back to a headspace that wrote the song that now you see it with, I guess, the benefit of hindsight, and hopefully with a bit of the knowledge of experience as well. So, quite often that happens to me. I go, ‘Wow, that’s a new angle on that that I never realized.’”
And Bailey himself isn’t the only one the classic songs reverberate with. Fans have been filling the concerts and expressing their appreciation for his music.
“I’m just amazed at the depth of the emotional response after all these years. It’s really quite amazing," he said. “I’d say it’s at least as busy if not more so than anything we all did in the 80s, so I’m kind of amazed that we survived it."
“The audience, you know, do half the work, I’d say, because they show up knowing all the words to the songs! All I have to do is sing the verses in the right places and they sing the choruses anyway.”
The Yorkshire native understands that his songs are incredibly meaningful to those who were teenagers in the '80s.
"If you’re 16 and a certain record came out, that will be with you for the rest of your life," he said. "Because that’s the moment you take risks with yourself to turn into an adult. Whatever the soundtrack of that risk-taking period is, it becomes emotionally important because, of course, it involves love and danger and self-realization in some ways."
Playing pop hits that concert-goers already knew rekindled his fire for writing new pop songs. They started coming before he knew he was working on an album.
“I guess it came to me three or four songs in. It came to me that I’d written a lot of images about kind of looking up at the sky and the stars and using that kind of sense of wonderment or introspection,“ Bailey said. "People have always done that, like they stare up at the night sky, and somehow the cosmological perspective gives them some insight into their own existence.”
Those themes became his first solo album, "Science Fiction" – even though he’s not a fan of sci-fi.
“I’m not a fan of the genre, it’s a kind of weird thing. But one day, I heard someone explain [it]," he said. "Which is that science fiction is not about the future, it’s about the present. In other words, it’s just using a trope, it’s using a perspective in order to see better what’s happening right now.”
“You’re able to stretch the possibilities of disbelief into new areas, and in doing so, there’s a chance that you can better understand human nature.”
It all fits into his philosophy of songwriting, of crafting music that anyone can relate to.
“Even when I’m working for myself, there are times when it’s very personal, and times when you have to be universal. Sometimes, I imagine people singing it to themselves or to each other, and think, ‘Does it work at that level?’”
Even promoting a new solo album and traveling the globe on tour, Bailey is continuing to convert human experience into something with a melody and a beat.
“I’m writing these pop songs, which is kind of weird, already. I don’t know what I’m going to do with them, sing them myself or give them to someone else. I wrote one for the B-52s, they don’t know it yet,” he said with a laugh. “And maybe I’ll decide that it’s not for them, but for me. But we’ll see.”