Thompson Twins’ Tom Bailey revisits the ’80s ahead of Totally Tubular Festival

When the British new wave band Thompson Twins unplugged its synths for the last time in 1997, singer Tom Bailey didn’t look back for nearly three decades.

“Someone told me I didn’t play a Thompson Twins song live for 27 years,” Bailey says on a recent call from his London apartment. “Which is kind of a weird thing. But I mean, it’s just evidence for the fact that I kind of drifted off in other directions and was doing lots of other music.

“It was never music that was intended to become a mainstream chart-bound pop music,” he says of the electronica and dub music he released as International Observer. “And I was very happy doing that.”

The Thompson Twins’ Alannah Currie, left, and Tom Bailey perform during the Live Aid concert for famine relief at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia, Pa. July 13, 1985. Tom Bailey and the current lineup of Thompson Twins will co-headline the Totally Tubular Festival with Thomas Dolby and a lineup that includes Modern English, Bow Wow Wow, the Romantics, Tommy Tutone, and the Plimsoul’s Eddie Ortiz. The tour plays the YouTube Theatre in Inglewood on Saturday, June 29, 2024, and Bailey and Dolby play a separate show at the Fox Performing Arts Center in Riverside on Tuesday, July 2, 2024. (AP Photo/George Widman)

Bailey says he’d more or less concluded he would never return to the music of Thompson Twins, which had hits with songs such as “In The Name of Love,” “Lies,” “Hold Me Now,” and “Doctor! Doctor!”

Bailey says he’d more or less concluded he would never return to the music of the Thompson Twins, which with the classic lineup of Alannah Currie and Joe Leeway, had hits with songs such as “In The Name of Love,” “Lies,” “Hold Me Now,” and “Doctor! Doctor!”

“But what happened was someone seduced me into helping them make a pop song and I enjoyed it so much,” Bailey says. “I realized it reminded me of those particular skills that are required for making good pop music that I’d developed and honed a little bit back in the ’80s.

“Like, wow, you know? That’s a muscle that I haven’t used for a while, and yet I’m enjoying it now,” he says. “Why don’t I do more? And the next thing you know someone called me up and said, ‘Do you want to tour?’ Yeah, why not? So without a band, without a manager, without any ideas, I started thinking about what songs to play, and, of course, the Thompson Twins hits more or less made a setlist on their own, you know?

That was 2014 and since then Tom Bailey’s Thompson Twins, as the band is formally known, have played regularly, with a few songs off Bailey’s 2018 solo debut “Science Fiction” also in the mix.

Bailey and his current Thompson Twins band return to Southern California as co-headliners with Thomas Dolby of the Totally Tubular Festival on Saturday, June 29 at the YouTube Theatre in Inglewood. Also on the lineup are British and American new wave bands including Modern English, Men Without Hats, the Romantics, Bow Wow Wow, Tommy Tutone and The Plimsouls’ Eddie Munoz.

The Two Toms, Bailey and Dolby, will also co-headline without the other bands on Tuesday, July 2 at the Fox Performing Arts Center in Riverside.

In an interview edited for length and clarity, Bailey talked about playing his first United States tour in six years, the 40th anniversary of the Thompson Twins’ hit album “Into The Gap,” the band’s first time playing Southern California, and why his music from the ’80s still sounds so fresh today.

Q: Festival sets are typically a little shorter. It must be tough to put together a setlist to please everyone.

A: Absolutely. And these days it’s even worse because the management and the promoters look at what’s streaming in different countries, and what positions things got to. So every time you go to a different place it’s like, ‘Ah, well that song has to be included here because it was a big hit.’ In the case of Southern California, there are songs that were hits there that no one else in the world cared about.

Q: Can you think of an example of a Southern California-specific favorite?

A: Well, one is ‘Passion Planet,’ which was a big hit on KROQ back in the day, and nowhere else in the world. A more general example is ‘If You Were Here,’ which was never released as a single but was massive in the States because it was in the film ‘Sixteen Candles.’ But if I play that in some countries they say, ‘What’s that song? I’ve never heard it before.’ It just goes to show that culture is not homogenized across the world yet.

Q: The bands on this tour got famous in the late ’70s and ’80s. Did you know them back in Thompson Twins days?

A: No, nearly all of them I’ll be meeting for the first time, which is a weird thing. It doesn’t normally happen that way. The main one is Thomas Dolby, who is actually an old friend of mine. He played on my second album, and so over the years we’ve stayed in touch.

But I’ve never been on the same stage with him. That was one of the things, in fact, that made me interested in jumping on this tour. I thought, yeah, it’s a chance to get the two Toms together.

Q: What was the experience of becoming big stars on early MTV and coming to America like?

A: I mean, from a Euro perspective, getting to America is a big deal, right? And we were lucky. It doesn’t happen to all bands, and sometimes they have to forgo the pleasure. But when we realized we had a chance and excuse to come over and play in the States, we really jumped on it.

We’ve been lucky, and one of the reasons was that, I don’t know, there was something about our sound that was a little bit challenging and fresh to people looking for a slight change away from the kind of standard approach to writing pop songs.

Also, our first videos were pretty quirky. [he laughs] We weren’t trying to be cool at all, we were trying to have fun. And I think MTV saw that as a necessary ingredient in their programming. They thought, ‘Yeah, let’s have some of these kind of eccentric Brits in our rotation as well. So we almost accidentally got a foot in the door there.

Q: And people could see you and Alannah and Joe were different than a lot of bands.

A: We weren’t the standard four White guys with guitars, you know. We slightly broke the mold of what a pop group could be, and so that in itself was visually interesting. Of course, that was not an intention. It was just an accident. We didn’t put a band together thinking what we needed here is a kind of pansexual, pan-racial mix. It just happened that way because we were friends.

Q: Do you remember the first time you guys came to play in Southern California?

A: Yes, I remember we played at the Roxy in Los Angeles. It was a fairly small little club on Sunset Boulevard, but famous because I’d seen albums with ‘Live at the Roxy’ written on the title. So I thought, ‘This is it. This is the big time, folks.’ And I remember we drove over the Rockies to get to California, and our bus broke down in the snow. It was a good old adventure.

Q: Earlier this year you were touring in the United Kingdom and Europe for the 40th anniversary of ‘Into The Gap.’ What was it like playing all that entire album again?

A: I have to say I’m lucky that the album is a strong record for me. You know, one always thinks, ‘Ooh, some of those tracks on side two, maybe they’re not as good as I remember them.’ But in fact, they’re all pretty powerful in their own way. And you can’t say that about every record you’re making, but ‘Into The Gap’ is this kind of small but perfect little thing, you know? It was fun to reengage with it again.

Q: A lot of your best songs still sound fresh today.

A: Well I’m glad. I mean, maybe that’s helped also by the fact that there are some new contemporary artists who are obsessed about the sounds of the ’80s. So in a way, it’s become part of the currency of a credible, modern sound as well. It was a great era, wasn’t it? So I’m not surprised that people go back and steal ideas from that, just as we were stealing from the ’70s and ’60s, no doubt.

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Q: People know a lot of the hits that were on MTV, but I suspect many don’t know that the earliest version of Thompson Twins was more of a guitar-oriented post-punk band. When and why did that change to synths happen?

A: At the end of our second album, which in the U.K. was called ‘Set,’ we didn’t have enough material. And it just coincided with the fact that I managed to acquire a decent synth and drum machine. So I just said, ‘Look, guys, don’t worry, I’ll come up with something to take up time on the record.’ And I came up with ‘In The Name of Love,’ which was, in a sense, a massive discovery for me. It’s like, ‘Oh, so this is the way I want to make music.’

It remains one of the favorite groundbreaking moments because it was a big dance club hit, which we never thought about before. I didn’t know there were dance charts, and then suddenly, ‘Oh, you got to No. 1 on the American dance floor record chart.’ Amazing, amazing.

Q: When you started playing Thompson Twins songs again, was it easy? Did you have to relearn them? What did it feel like?

A: One of the things that was so powerful it was almost distracting was it took me back. I keep saying that when I listen to my old records it’s like reading an old diary. It reminds me of the ideas that I had, the people I was hanging out with, the places I was at.

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