The classic ‘artist biog’ traditionally takes a strictly linear path. Year by year, album after album. But that wouldn’t do Tom Bailey justice. Bailey’s creative past, present and future can’t be plotted along a straight line. It’s a prism, with dub, pop and world influences at each corner.
The pop element is his most well-known and comes back into play in 2018 with a brand new album, Science Fiction. It arrives just over 25 years after Play With Me, the last single by the Thompson Twins, which sat alongside tracks by Bowie, Eno and Moby on the soundtrack to 1992’s Cool World. The previous decade of course, had seen the Thompson Twins rise from squat-based free-form indie anarchy – with 1981’s Set and ’82’s A Product Of… – to world domination, with a set at Live Aid backed by Nile Rodgers and Madonna. They had 7 top 40 hits in the US and 10 in the UK with another 4 top 40 hits in the US Dance Chart including 2 No1’s with ‘Lies’ and ‘Hold Me Now’ and over 10 million album sales worldwide.
Those singles tell a unique story: Tom accessing early synths; being so taken aback by the possibilities they offered; the Twins shifting from band to project as a result; where as much creativity – thanks to his two accomplices in the classic trio line-up, Alannah Currie and Joe Leeway – was poured into design, video and production as it was into everything else. It was that ethos that meant no group other than the Thompson Twins could possibly have released an anti-ballad as captivating as Hold Me Now, or an anti-drugs song as danceable as Don’t Mess with Doctor Dream.
“People accuse the Thompson Twins of being saccharine because we were so poppy,” Tom recalls. “But we headed in that direction consciously – we turned ourselves into cartoon characters for God’s sake! – so it doesn’t get more superficial on the surface. But we were doing things for real, for sure. Everything we did, we did because we felt seriously about it.”
It was on the B-sides of those classic singles that Tom Bailey explored his love of dub music, although it’s a love that stretches back to The Blankets, one of his earliest groups and Weather Station, a 1982 film soundtrack and his first solo release. Then came the A Product of…’s off-shoot, A Dub Product and, when the Twins’ hit the big time, Tom would regularly, surreptitiously slip dub into the mainstream with tracks like Doctor! Doctor!‘s B-side Nurse Shark and the flip of Lay Your Hands on Me, The Lewis Carol.
“B-sides were a great opportunity to experiment. Sometimes, because so little time was spent on them, they carried a carefree freshness, which is a rare thing. The remix/version was a big thing back then, and coming up with a radical, sometimes unrecognisable dub of an existing track was part of the creative fun.”
Further, deeper explorations into dub territory have been the main focus of Tom’s journey over the past two decades. As International Observer, he’s released almost ten albums, the core works being 2001’s Seen, 2009’s Felt, 2014’s Touched and the Dungeons of Dub series. But again, prism-like, Tom’s pop sensibilities are audible even in some of his deepest dub cuts. Like his reimagining of The Animals in House of the Rising Dub, or a fusion of the mid-70s reggae of Burning Spear (Slavery Days) with late 70s synthpop of Jean-Michel Jarre for Popcorn Slavery.
With recent International Observer collaborators including Banco De Gaia and the Bombay Dub Orchestra, a certain worldbeat feel has filtered into Tom’s work. But this is nothing new. This third corner of his musical prism has been there since the beginning. The fourth Thompson Twins single, Oumma Aularesso was Tom’s rearrangement of a traditional chant from Sierra Leone. Its follow-up, Make Believe (Lama Sabach Tani) threw tablas into the mix. And as soon as the Thompson Twins became a three-piece, Tom followed trips to India with a trip to Egypt, and then worked with Alex Sadkin – following his production of Grace Jones’ Nightclubbing – at Island Records’ Compass Point studios in the Bahamas, to forge the sound of the Twins’ most influential albums, 1983’s Quick Step and Side Kick and 1984’s Into the Gap.
The worldbeat element came further to the fore after the Thompson Twins officially disbanded with the formation of Babble with Alannah Currie, and two albums – 1994’s The Stone and 1996’s Ether. Then, in the mid-00s, Tom travelled up the River Ganges writing and recording – and performing at festivals to thousands at a time – as part of the ambitious Holiwater project. It spawned two albums: 2012’s Holiwater and 2014’s Maya, both of which were produced by Tom and written in collaboration with Sarod virtuoso Pandit Vikash Maharaj.
Right now, the pop edge of the prism is shining brightest, spurred on by Tom’s return to live work in 2014.
“It’s exciting,” he says, “because rediscovering the ability to play live and write pop music has been part of a personal transformation. I started off full of fear and all sorts of ‘oh no I can’t do that, and I can’t do that’. But, little by little, I’ve rediscovered that it’s OK. It’s fun and it’s really interesting.”
Playing the Thompson Twins’ hits live around the world for the past few years has also forced Tom to reassess the group’s music, which paved the way for Science Fiction, his new album.
“One thing I’ve discovered – that I never really consciously understood back in the day – is that, although the Thompson Twins’ songs nearly always have this bright punchy positive chorus, often evoking love and togetherness, there’s actually a dark heart in most of the verses. There’s all sorts of weird complications and confusions going on. They’re not just boy-meets-girl love songs. I found myself relating very strongly to that, and what it means about what we all did 30 years ago, and what’s happened to us all ever since then.”
As a result, Tom has hand-crafted 10 songs that are instantly accessible not only to fans of classic Thompson Twins but also to a new generation who have been alerted to his quintessential sound and style after hip-hop producer Metro Boomin’ remixed Hold Me Now for GAP’s SZA-starring commercial that debuted at this year’s Grammies.
Hard to imagine given the illustrious career covered here but Science Fiction is Tom’s first ever solo album. It’s also, to get the stats down on paper, his first pop album since Babble’s Ether in 1996, and his first solo output since Industry and Seduction was used as the finale of Cool World.
“I so much enjoyed playing concerts around the world over the last couple of years, that I began working behind the scenes on writing, recording and mixing the songs in this collection. I have concentrated on other areas of music for the past couple of decades – but I find it incredibly rewarding to be making pop music again. There’s something so special about the way this kind of music works and, for me, it’s like finding a long-lost friend.”
The tracks on Science Fiction spin the musical compass – from Synthpop-meets-soca on What Kind of World? to the stadium pop of Bring Back Yesterday to If You Need Someone, a track that’s so radio-friendly every copy should come with a free pocket transistor.
While the Thompson Twins may have recorded in some of the world’s most famous recordings studios, from Sarm West in Notting Hill to Compass Point in the Bahamas, nowadays Tom is free to record and write wherever and whenever inspiration strikes. “I recorded Science Fiction all over,” he explains, France, New Zealand, London… These days, my studio is a laptop and a pair of headphones! I’m a real wanderer. I don’t stay in one place for very long.”
“I produced the album myself but worked with Hal Ritson (whose credits range from the Chemical Brothers to David Guetta) to produce the vocals. That’s the one thing I can’t do myself is be my own vocal producer, because I need to wear the performer’s hat totally, so I get someone else to record my vocals and try and get the best out of me. But Hal had an idea to ‘Latinize’ What Kind of World? and to get a Cuban backing vocalist in to give it a real Cuban feel.”
Worldly-wise, musically and spiritually, 2018 will see Tom take Science Fiction out on the road. And with good reason, this is the man who, after all, won Classic Pop magazine’s award for Best Live Show in 2015 for revisiting the hits of the Twins in such a creative, retro-futurist way: highlights ranging from a wistful reworking of King For a Day to the steampunk opening of We Are Detective, adding all their visual trappings (right down the to the techno tambourine from the front cover of You Take Me Up) but with a modern twist.
As well as a handful of UK open air festival dates in his own right, Tom will join a-ha for the UK stadium leg of their Electric Summer world tour. Then it’s off to the USA to join both Boy George & Culture Club and The B-52’s, stopping off at 40 cities from June through to October. Following that, back to the UK with Boy George & Culture Club – but this time joined by Belinda Carlisle – for an 11-date UK arena tour in November.
An immense undertaking, this is by far the most intensive live schedule Tom Bailey has even taken on, including the headlining stadium whirlwinds of the Thompson Twins’ heyday. Testament indeed to the power of perfect pop music and an artist who remains on a perpetual (prismatic) artistic journey.
Ian Peel, May 2018