Tom Bailey of Thompson Twins

by Carl Wiser

With Thompson Twins, Tom Bailey made the Hot 100 eleven times between 1983 and 1989, but he hasn't performed a single one of those hits - "Hold Me Now," "Lay Your Hands on Me" and "King for a Day" among them - since 1987.

That will change on August 21 when he begins the Retro Futura tour, headlining with Howard Jones.

Tom's bandmate Alannah Currie was his girlfriend, and later, his wife (they married in 1991 and split in the early '00s). Many of their songs drew impetus from their relationship; "Hold Me Now" is almost a counseling session, with Tom asking forgiveness without even knowing what he's asking it for. The intimacy of the songs is one reason Tom left them be, but he also simply moved on, stylistically and geographically. Relocating to New Zealand, he and Currie formed an electronic group called Babble, and Tom became a club DJ and producer, helming Boh Runga's band *Stellar. He now resides in England, where he is ready for the next phase of his career.

Tom told us not just the stories behind many of his Thompson Twins hits, but also how they've evolved and what he plans to do with them on tour. They may be hits from the past, but he will be performing them in a whole new way.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): When you learned classical piano, did you also learn composition at that time?

Tom Bailey: Not formally. Although one couldn't help noticing certain aspects of classical, and especially baroque music I was interested in. So the sonata form on which so much of our music is inadvertently based now was invented at that time in terms of structure. And in terms of harmony, of course the four-part harmony that was so magnificently defined in the baroque era is still a big deal for us now. It's the way we listen to music.

Songfacts: So how did that training apply to the songs you wrote for Thompson Twins?

Bailey: Well, I think it's just a natural outflow of information, isn't it? I learned a lot of my stuff partly from individual intuition and from studying the piano. But also by - and this is a really common story - I was in the church choir. So that whole four-part harmony thing was just very, very natural by the time I was a teenager. I think I joined a church choir when I was eight or nine and left when I was 15 or something. So without having really ever been taught it, it just rubbed off on me.

And looking back now, I think quite a lot of the Thompson's harmonic structure seems to suggest those kind of influences.

Songfacts: Is there one song in particular you can point to that has very strong influences in that regard?

Bailey: All of them, I think. You can look at any of them quite randomly, especially from the hit era, where I am particularly interested in harmonic structure. The dance songs, by nature of the style and the genre, are less concerned with harmony. But even in those, I think there's something to be discerned.

Songfacts: A good example might be "Hold Me Now," which has a very unusual structure. Can you talk about that song and how you wrote it?

Bailey: Yeah. Well, emotionally, it was written as the result of some argument that was resolved between Alannah and myself. We actually decided, well, this is an interesting emotional subject. What it feels like to get back together again after separation and the kind of ideas that come up and the way that emotion and physicality somehow are brought together.

Musically, one thing I notice about this song is that the bass line and the chord sequence are the same in the verse as they are in the chorus. There's no change. The only change is in the amount of instrumentation that goes on top of that. So you could play the same four chord trick around the verse and the chorus continuously. The only time it diverts from that is in the middle eight immediately after the second chorus.

So it's very repetitive. And of course although it's a medium-tempo emotional song, because of its repetition and its groovy-ness, it has one foot in the dance department, as well.

Songfacts: It has very unusual percussion, as well.

Bailey: Well, that was a trick we discovered. Because when we first started making music with machines, with drum computers and synthesizers, the drum computers made a very robotic, repetitive, machine-like rhythm that's very impressive and very insistent, but it's not quite happy enough. It doesn't give the impression of a party going on. But as soon as you add the tambourines, as soon as you add the cowbells, the cymbals, the marimbas, the tympanies and things, it feels like there's a human party going on around that very insistent, machine-like rhythm.

So that became one of our secrets of technique: Write the drums for the record with the machine, but play the percussion sometimes quite loosely and not in the most accurate sense. Play it loosely around those rhythms and it feels great.

Songfacts: It was really interesting how you explained that you and Alannah wrote the lyrics together, because that song clearly has some passion behind it, and you were able to take that energy and turn it constructively into a song. Were you able to do that very often?

Thompson Twins were a 7-piece band for their first major-label album, Set (released in the US as In the Name of Love), which was issued in 1982. They pared down to a trio for their next album, with percussionist Joe Leeway as the third member along with Tom and Alannah. When Leeway left in 1986, the group continued as a duo, releasing three more albums, the last of which, Queer, was issued in 1991.
Bailey: Not always. And when we did, it didn't come so easily. I must say "Hold Me Now" probably arrived in its most basic form within a matter of minutes, whereas some songs took hours of banging our heads and trying this and trying that. Sometimes you get lucky and inspiration delivers one on a plate, and sometimes you have to go all around the houses before you find the thing that was staring you in the face.

But I think there are skills of noticing things in your own life or from observation that would make good ideas for songs. In other words, not just to think about songs as an abstract thing that you pluck out of the sky, but the raw material for songs is actually happening right in front of you and inside you all the time.

Songfacts: Is there an example you can point to of a song that was happening in front of you?

Bailey: Well, "Sister of Mercy" is a favorite song of mine, and that comes from a news item. We'd heard about someone going through the tragedy of a murder, and yet having murdered someone, but the court - and this took place in France - the court decided that it was something called a "crime of passion," and therefore couldn't be tried on the same basis of a regular homicidal murder.

We started talking about this in an intellectual political sense, and then realized it would be a great subject for a song, and a very difficult one, as well.

The subject is domestic abuse, domestic violence, and yet it just seemed to be part of everyone's life. To deny it would be would be too scared.

If you have a great idea, a song will just deliver itself to your doorstep very quickly.

Songfacts: Was she really known as the "sister of mercy," or did you come up with that name for her?

Bailey: No, no. That's our name.

Songfacts: You talked about how you had the church upbringing. Is there a biblical significance to the song "Lay Your Hands on Me"?

Bailey: Well, yes. Because of the healing festivals, you mean, and all this kind of thing?

Songfacts: Yeah.

Bailey: We were interested in the idea of group rituals of that sort, and particularly how it relates to artist, performer, and audience. And of course we're not the first people to make use of that. Many, many, many artists have employed those kind of ideas, so it's not specifically biblical.

It's nonspecifically religious. It looks at religious ritual in that way, and then draws a kind of metaphor - I've always been very fond of the kind of layered metaphor where the song can be about one thing but also about another. That's part of a really ancient and noble tradition of religious writing of music.

Typically, people talk about their love for God in a religious song, but what they're also saying is that they love someone human. It's a way of evoking that immense emotional weight into a song.

Songfacts: What did you think when you heard the Bon Jovi song with the exact same title?

Bailey: I was unaware of it.

Songfacts: How is that possible?

Bailey: [Laughs]

Songfacts: How could you have possibly been sheltered from Bon Jovi?

Bailey: Well, I'm aware of Bon Jovi, but I don't know that particular song. Did it come along after ours or before ours?

Songfacts: It was after yours. It was a few years after. They had a song called "Lay Your Hands On Me," which was a fairly big hit here in America, but maybe it didn't make its way to the UK, as I thought. [Bon Jovi's song hit #7 in the US and #18 in the UK. It was released in 1988; the Thompson Twins song came out in 1985.]

Bailey: Yeah, we're not quite so rock-tastic here, but I'm sure that they have a lot of fans in the UK. I'm surprised that no one pointed it out to me before. In fact, I'm surprised that no lawyer has pointed it out to me. [Laughing]

Songfacts: Well, it is a completely different song, but it has the exact same title.

When you were talking before about how you and Alannah wrote the song "Hold Me Now" together with the lyrics, I think about the song "Love On Your Side," which also sounds like getting something off your chest. Can you talk about that one?

Bailey: Yeah. This is a song quite early in our songwriting partnership. My main memory of that is the fact that she was writing words that I had to sing, so we agreed to work on them to make them universal. In other words, it couldn't be totally personal to her, otherwise it would be very difficult for me to sing it, not just in terms about being a different person, but being a different sex. A woman's viewpoint can't necessarily translate to a man's viewpoint, so we had to be universal. And again, we figured if we get that right, then it means that lots of people are going to find it resonates for them, as well.

So it's actually a complicated and quite dark song. It's about discovering that your girlfriend or boyfriend wants to experiment with a relationship in a much deeper or broader sense than you were prepared to do. And so it drags you into this kind of helpless feeling of being lost, helplessly in love, but taking some kind of confidence from the fact that love will help you through those difficult situations. So it's a naïve and complicated song.

But I'll tell you what, I really enjoyed rediscovering it to play on tour. So it's interesting, sometimes we don't realize what we're writing when we write a song, and only later do we think, Hmm, that was profound. I never knew that.

Songfacts: What was one of the other songs that you were happy to rediscover?

Bailey: I have looked at a song which was never released as a single but was very popular because it was in a film called Sixteen Candles. It's called "If You Were Here," and it's a song which originally addressed an unsureness about honesty in relationships. But when I looked at it again, I recognized a hidden meaning, as well, which was going back to this song after 30 years - nearly 32 years in this case. I thought, Well, what's happened in that time? What have we become? What have we done? It has that sense of optimism about the world being destined to be a better place. Has that borne fruit, or are there any disappointments to confess?

And so really I take on that slightly difficult job of saying, Hey, last time we sang this, last time we met, we were so full of ourselves that we were going to make the world a better place, but can we really claim that we succeeded after 30 years? So I've extended the song. Having noticed that kind of subtext in it, I extended it with a couple of extra verses.

Songfacts: Did you ever transform the songs, or did the meanings ever change while you were still active with the Thompson Twins?

Bailey: Yes. Many, many times I said to myself: I can work on a song, I can refine it, I can sing it and record it in the studio, but I never know what it's really about until I get in front of an audience, because there's something about delivering it and communicating it to a roomful of people that allows you to discover the emotional roots of a song.

Pop songs tend to cover the same old, same old subject. A lot of them are about relationships, for example. So the words that we use to describe those relationships trip off the tongue only too easily when we're writing them, but when we actually have to lay it on the line in front of a crowd of people, that's when you discover what they really mean.

So although there are many great songwriters who aren't performers, for me the final meaning arrives in front of an audience.

Songfacts: Is that because you're getting feedback from the audience, or because you're actually up there singing the words?

Bailey: I think it's because you're up there realizing: Oh, my God, so that's what it means. Or, Oh, my goodness, this is what it takes to fully communicate this idea. And at that point the importance and the weight and the seriousness of the situation can arrive in your mind - you see it more clearly and feel it more clearly.

Songfacts: Was there one song in particular that really transformed for you when you performed it for the first time?

Bailey: Well, so many of them. But you can take a song like, for example, "You Take Me Up," which on the face of it is very kind of fun-oriented. It's kind of a novelty song. It's almost forgettable in a certain sense, but behind it, the subject matter is really important.

It takes its musical form partly from Negro spiritual songs that slaves would sing in the cotton fields. We reimagined that as a contemporary reality for people working in factories and sweatshops and places like that. The modern forms of slavery, if you like.

And, of course, that's all well and good, but when you suddenly get on a stage in front of an audience and you see them wearing T-shirts that they just bought at the merchandising store, you think, Well, this is what this song is about. It's about the person who made the T-shirts that we're selling. So the whole thing kind of comes rushing home to you.

That's a good example of something that starts so innocently and becomes quite serious. [Laughs]

Songfacts: Another song that I thought must have been interesting to perform for so long is "Lies." Can you talk about that song?

Bailey: Well, interestingly, on this tour I've been making videos to go along with each song, and I wanted to have some kind of subject for each video. I thought, What are we talking about with this "Lies" business? And I realized that it was not only the lies that we tell each other in relationships, but it specifically mentions the media and the way that we're controlled by a view of the world which is presented us through the press and TV and radio and all the other forms of media, and now the Internet.

So I reemphasized that in a big way with the video. It's about the lies that we're told by the media and the politicians and so on and so forth, and how we make sense of that and how we have a responsibility to figure it out. And yet, it's a very playful, funny, kind of quirky song. It's not super serious, although its subject matter is quite weighty.

Songfacts: Did you and Alannah feel that way at the time that you wrote it?

Bailey: We were just trying to be wacky and a little bit crazy and come up with an idea that we could be irreverent about. The chorus - that kind of catcall chorus, singing, "lies, lies, lies" - it's the kind of thing you might see in a playground, a school, where someone's calling out like that. But we tried to make it more universal and apply it to bigger issues in the world.

Songfacts: It looked like you spent a lot of money to make that video.

Bailey: [Laughing] Do you think so? I think the special effects look pretty cheesy.

Songfacts: They do. But back in 1983 that stuff cost a lot of money.

Bailey: It was cutting edge. Yeah, we thought we were being very magical.

Songfacts: You said that you've been creating new videos and coming up with different treatments for these songs. What did you come up with for "King For A Day"?

Bailey: Without giving too much away, the theme I have for that is the idea of time running out. Because in a way, "King For A Day" is a song that explains why I've been missing for 30 years. [Laughs] It kind of says the whole fame and fortune game doesn't ultimately satisfy me, and I got distracted by other things. So although I'm glad to be back and sorry about being away for so long, this is my excuse.

I've also slowed the song down immensely. It's no longer a kind of galloping pop song. It's become more of a kind of ballad. And I may not sing it at every concert, because it's quite a long song now. It depends on how much time we're allowed. But it was one of the first ones I reattempted, because I knew that this was the key to my disappearance, but also to my reemergence. If I could say that the message was curiously derived from the '60s, that love is all you need, and despite all these problems, that's what we should emphasize.

Songfacts: Well, I think it's interesting that you did not perform these songs for so long, but now you are using them as kind of a touchstone to your life.

Bailey: Yeah. You could look at it that way. We have an expression: in for a penny, in for a pound. If I'm going to do this tour, I'm certainly not going to do it halfheartedly. So I've become super involved, immersed in the preparation for it, which is necessary because I've had to build myself up to have the emotional strength to do these songs. It is a great challenge for me, and I want to be strong enough to achieve it.

Songfacts: I'm realizing now that these songs are not just your art, but they're also associated with Alannah.

Bailey: Yeah. We're turning over some old rocks here to see what lies underneath. There were a couple of songs that I felt I couldn't face again. Not for that reason, actually, just because I thought they were over-sentimental or too silly in some way or something. I couldn't take them seriously.

But by and large I found an angle into every song that I wanted to do, and it's been a great pleasure to discover that they were actually stronger than I thought. Because maybe because, as you say, they're actually based in something real.

Songfacts: Did you find an angle for "Doctor!, Doctor!"?

Bailey: That's pretty much the same angle as it always was, which is a kind of semi-mystical love voyage song. Lots of dry ice and clouds in that one. [Laughing]

Songfacts: Why did you end up with exclamation points on the end of that song?

Bailey: I don't know. I have no explanation for that, except that I guess it's the chorus, that it was exclaimed. People theorize it's because my father was a doctor and there was some subconscious appeal to him. But I don't think that's the case, because the chorus was written by Alannah, so not my words in that case.

Songfacts: Were there any of your hit songs that you decided you could not revisit?

Bailey: Yeah. A couple of them just wouldn't open up to me. I'm not going to do "Lay Your Hands on Me," I'm not going to do "We Are Detective." And it's partly because of the shortage of time. On this tour we have five bands touring, so we can't play for an hour and a half each. It's just not possible. We've got 45, 50 minutes each, so if I can get eight or nine songs done, I'll be happy.

August 12, 2014
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Comments: 10

  • Hector from South TexasThompson twins.. amazing lyrics quality ..and of course music wise. Never can any1 compare to music Now!
  • Wendy from Perth, Western AustraliaAfter just seeing Tom Bailey perform live, this was just the article I was looking for! Answers all my questions, and gives great insight to the band.
  • Simon from Guildford, UkDear Carl,

    I really enjoyed reason this excellent article. Interviews with musicians can be so generic and incredibly dull but your interview with Tom Bailey is concise, intelligent and perceptive. As a fan of the Thompson Twins from the 80's having the opportunity to reflect on the passage of time and Tom's re-evaluation of these songs was fascinating. For example, I had no idea some of those hits were inspired by Tom's time in the Church Choir! It also makes such a refreshing change to hear a pop star who actually understands Music!

    A really great article and a rare treat! Thank you!

    Simon Sharples
  • Jodi from California Always wondered about the meanings behind the songs. Thank you Mr. Wiser and Mr. Bailey. The show was great. Come back soon, Tom! I don't want to wait another 27 years!
  • Mark from Los AngelesExcellent interview with very thoughtful questions from the interviewer and very insightful answers and explanations from Tom. You can tell this interviewer really knows and understands these classic songs and respects the artist. Having grown up loving these songs, it's incredible to rediscover them now seeing Tom perform them on stage. His show at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles was amazing and so worth the wait. It's wonderful to see such a talented and intelligent artist back in the well-deserved spotlight.
  • Nathan from Los AngelesTom was absolutely brilliant at the Greek in Los Angeles last night. A real pleasure seeing one of my heroes return to the stage. As Joe Leeway lives here in SoCal, I was hoping he'd make an appearance. The Thomson Twins were and still are an influence on my work and life.
  • David from ManchesterGreat interview. Warm up gig and Henley sold out. Uk tour please? :-)
  • Sidekick Nick from Dunedin, NzGreat interview, good to finally get behind the songs.
  • Pewla B. from Las Vegas, Nv, Usa"If you were here" is an amazing, atmospheric song that "works" on so many levels. It makes all the hairs stand up on the back of my neck everytime I hear it. Never had another song do that in 60 yrs.
  • Denise Olderr from Illinoisafter this tour, do you think you might be going out on your own in the future to do a whole set, I know all your fans would love it
see more comments

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