The name notwithstanding, there were no twins and no Thompsons in this globally successful modern pop band. Once an obscure, loose collection of as many as seven Sheffield-to-London players led by singer/synthesist/songwriter Tom Bailey, the Twins wisely pared down to the efficient trio of Bailey, New Zealander Alannah Currie and Joe Leeway and became one of the world’s leading purveyors of occasionally adventurous, invariably danceable modern chart fare.
All six musicians credited on A Product of… play percussion in addition to their primary instruments — sax, guitar, keyboards, etc. The cleverness and variety of the tracks, however, eliminate any potential monotony that might have resulted from the heavy reliance on rhythm. And although the music is designed to incite maximum motion, there isn’t one track that skimps on lyrical, melodic or structural depth. The album isn’t uniformly wonderful, but the textures and sounds make it pleasurable and energizing. (The 1987 Richard Skinner radio session was recorded at this early stage of the band’s career.)
Set adds one member (onetime Soft Boys bassist Matthew Seligman) but is otherwise not very different — in cast or content — from its predecessor. Exemplified by such great numbers as “In the Name of Love” and “Bouncing,” Bailey and his cohorts make totally listenable dance music that doesn’t beg suspension of critical faculties. Producer Steve Lillywhite and Thomas Dolby also pitch in, making Set a very nice record.
The Thompsons got their first exposure in America via In the Name of Love, which consists of two tracks from the first album and eight from the second.
Building on the popular dance sound of “In the Name of Love” (in fact, deftly quoting it on the first track, “Love on Your Side”), the three Twins emerged mature, motivated and commercially focused on their third album, Quick Step & Side Kick. A model of varied and skilled songwriting and extraordinary self-contained music-making — the trio plays almost everything you hear on keyboards — the album bounces from start to finish, but no two tracks have much in common other than a good mood and a strong beat. (The American label perversely altered the title and rearranged the tracks a tad. The British cassette includes a bonus side of remixes.)
Consolidating their stardom, Into the Gap is a virtual new greatest hits on arrival, containing as it does “Hold Me Now,” “Doctor Doctor,” “You Take Me Up” and “Sister of Mercy,” which were all radio, chart and club staples for many months. The Twins’ strength was always their avoidance of repetition; the songs swing widely in tempo, style, instrumentation, subject matter and vocal arrangements. (All three sing.)
By Here’s to Future Days, which was co-produced by Bailey and the estimable Nile Rodgers, the hit machine was starting to run on a cracked wheel. “Lay Your Hands on Me” is brilliant, but “Don’t Mess With Doctor Dream” is boring, “King for a Day” is cute but overly familiar and “Tokyo” is corny. And who needed to hear a new version of the Beatles’ “Revolution”? With all its ups and downs, Future Days is not significantly inferior to the Twins’ best albums, but it lacks their freshness and vitality.
In April 1986, at the end of a six-month world tour, Leeway left the band, reportedly to go solo, although the only evidence that he followed through on that plan was one song he did for the 1989 film Slaves of New York. Bailey and Currie carried on without him, releasing the modest and, for the most part, likable Close to the Bone, produced by Rupert Hine. Currie’s lyrics (Bailey wrote the music) take a surprisingly reflective approach here, suggesting doubt and anxiety instead of the usual oblique contemplations. “Gold Fever” bitterly attacks someone (wonder who?) for greed, saying “Now it bothers me to think that I used to call you a friend.” While spottily derivative (mostly of their own work, but “Long Goodbye” could easily be mistaken for a Sting song) and notably lacking the group’s characteristic energy and rhythmic magic, the record proves that the Thompson factory can turn out quality merchandise even when the creative thinkers are napping.
The Twins left Arista, and the label issued Greatest Mixes: The Best of Thompson Twins, containing eight elongated dance versions more suited to the clubs where they originated than to a home stereo. Bailey and Currie took some time off from the Twins (writing and producing songs for Debbie Harry and Jerry Harrison), but the hiatus didn’t recharge their creative batteries. Intended as an amused comment on junk culture, Big Trash is an uninspired waste of time and plastic, a lame pairing of grade-school rhymes and bland music that is, at best, self-imitative. Reduced to simplemindedness (“Kiss your wife goodbye / ‘Cos you know it’s time to die / There are bombers in the sky” — and, no, I’m not making this up), the once-clever Twins sleepwalk through such nonsense as “Sugar Daddy,” “T.V. On” and “Salvador Dali’s Car” with no apparent effort or conviction.
The tense, erratic penmanship with which Queer‘s lyrics are scrawled in the CD booklet suggests a change of creative heart (or an emotional upset of some severity), but the album is a largely successful return to the Twins’ bouncy appeal. There is a dark, edgy undercurrent to Bailey’s singing — like eau de Foetus, diluted to a safe concentration — and in the arrangements of songs like “Come Inside” (proffered in two mixes), “Groove On” and “The Saint.” But the album’s general tone is upbeat, atmospheric and clubby. (That description doesn’t quite cover “The Invisible Man,” a sinuous crypto-Moroccan trance novelty.) While “Strange Jane” and “Wind It Up” revisit the tiresome simplicity of Big Trash‘s lyric writing, the album’s overall intelligence level (and hook quotient) is pitched somewhat higher. The Thompson Twins had lost their momentum for good, but at least they hadn’t lost their dignity.
As if realizing that the Thompsons’ race had been run, Bailey and Currie became Babble, releasing The Stone, an album that chills out the tone of their late-’80s work to navigate less-rhythmatized, more restrained musical currents. The tranquilizing influence of ambient techno, occasionally colored in with world music elements (the title track is a veritable Middle Eastern sonic bazaar), gives the record its appealing character, a nearly there experiment to balance pop’s explicit desires with ambient house’s coy grooves. If only Currie did more of the singing…
Ether continues the pair’s progress into pop trippery, letting cushiony drones of atmospheric sequencers underpin quietly sly songs like Bailey’s “The Circle” and Currie’s “Love Has No Name.” While the duo’s knack for keeping things catchy makes Ether go down easy, they lack the stylistic conviction to abandon accessible tunefulness completely and wind up sounding like dilettantes rather than adventurers.