Music News & Reviews

Thompson Twins' Tom Bailey back with '80s optimism

The first step to rehabilitating yourself as a pop star is, of course, admitting you were a pop star. The second step, it seems, is a trip to the record store.

“When I realized I had to take this seriously,” Tom Bailey says, “I also realized I didn’t have any Thompson Twins CDs.”

He had vinyl, but no record player. So he went and bought a copy of his old band’s greatest hits. Was he recognized? No, he wasn’t.

“I think I turned my collar up,” he says, laughing.

For the better part of three decades, Bailey did his best to sidestep his past as singer, composer and multi-instrumentalist for one of new wave’s biggest bands. He would, from time to time, hear a Thompson Twins song. In the grocery store, say.

But he’d moved on – until about six months ago. On Sunday, Bailey – billed as Thompson Twins’ Tom Bailey – will take the stage at Thunder Valley Resort and Casino, a co-headliner with Howard Jones on the “Retro Futura Tour.” The English Beat and Katrina, of Katrina and the Waves, are also on the bill. Previous versions of the tour have included Berlin, Belinda Carlisle, Wang Chung and A Flock of Seagulls.

This type of tour – a kind of carefully packaged nostalgia – is, in a lot of ways, exactly what Bailey has been avoiding since the Thompson Twins broke up in 1993. Since then, Bailey has engaged in “a certain kind of self-defeating snobbery,” he says. “You don’t want to admit to being so successful.”

The Thompson Twins formed in 1977 but didn’t break out until the early 1980s – after they’d pared to a three-piece with Bailey, Alannah Currie and Joe Leeway (who left the band in 1986). In 1983, they released “Side Kicks.” Its lead single, “Lies,” went to No. 1 on Billboard’s dance chart.

In 1983, the Thompson Twins opened for the Police, and in 1984 released “Into the Gap.” That album reached No. 10 on Billboard’s album chart and produced the Thompson Twins’ biggest hit. “Hold Me Now,” went to No. 3 on the singles chart (and No. 1 dance). In 1985, that was the song the band took to the world during Live Aid at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia. Then they launched into the Beatles’ “Revolution,” joined by Madonna.

The Thompson Twins played their final show in 1987. Bailey and Currie made music for a more few years before moving on. They worked together in Babble, an electronic dance project. Bailey produced the New Zealand pop band Stellar*, and dipped his toes in Indo-fusion with the Holiwater Project.

In 2010, Thompson Twins fan Jose Francisco Salgado, who also happens to be a visual artist and astronomer at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium, tracked Bailey down hoping for permission to use a piece of Babble’s music for a film. Bailey was happy to grant permission – but the permission wasn’t his to give.

“You could hear his enthusiasm fade just a little bit,” Bailey says. “Then I said, ‘Or I could write you a new piece of music and you can use that.’ ” Problem solved. They’ve made 12 films in the past four years.

This month, another of Bailey’s interests, International Observer, released a collection of remixes he’d done for others over the years. “I think it’s a good bridge between the more experimental dub and the Thompson Twins kind of work,” Bailey says.

But that wasn’t what put him on the path to performing his biggest hits. It was his work with Mexican singer-songwriter Aleks Syntek, who wanted to write a pop song with Bailey, and then asked Bailey to sing, too.

“I realized I crossed a certain kind of line I’d prevented myself from crossing,” Bailey says.

Not long after, Jones called and asked if Bailey wanted to tour the United States. That led Bailey to that record store, and back into the studio where he re-recorded all of the old songs “to discover what the internal workings of the music could entail,” he says.

He was on the phone from Philadelphia, post-sound check, and the night after the tour’s opening night in New York. Two days earlier, he’d sat in with the Roots on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.”

Bailey said he looked out on opening night and was shocked to recognize the crowd. Thirty years is a long time. The aesthetics change – his flop of red hair has been replaced by modernly styled gray – but old friends can always pick up the conversation.

In the process of preparing for the tour, Bailey added a couple of verses to “If You Were Here,” a song most people will remember from the movie “Sixteen Candles.”

“I kind of suddenly grasped it was about a nostalgia for a lost honesty about ourselves and about our optimism for the future,” Bailey said.

When he thinks about the ’80s, he thinks about that optimism, and the way the years since have been marked by disappointing and discouraging events. In some respects, cynicism has been normalized.

“I feel like it would be a contribution to lift the lid on that ’80s optimism,” he says.

And that is the work of a pop star.