Monday, 14 April 2014

The THOMPSON TWINS: Into The Gap





(#296: 25 February 1984, 3 weeks)

Track listing: Doctor! Doctor!/You Take Me Up/Day After Day/Sister Of Mercy/No Peace For The Wicked/The Gap/Hold Me Now/Storm On The Sea/Who Can Stop The Rain

“No peace for the wicked/We’re dancing ‘til we drop/No rest for the wicked/And we’re all too scared to stop.”

As unlikely as it would seem, as recently as 1984 it was still something of a shock to some audiences to be faced with a pop group consisting of a white man, a woman and a black man. The three-piece Thompson Twins were not unprecedented in this respect and have always denied any conscious intent of ending up as they did. However, by being as they were, their success allowed for a dual perspective; jaded observers – mainly in Britain - dismissed them as pretentious cartoon bubblegum, while others – particularly in the States – regarded them as improbable avatars.

Thanks to “Hold Me Now” they had achieved the crossover; youngsters were attracted by the cartoon imagery and symbols, while adults, reassured by their ability to fashion a Proper Song – in some ways, “Hold Me Now” was to them what the Beatles’ “And I Love Her” had been to doubtful 1963 mothers – paid the group closer attention. Up until then, any attention paid to the Thompson Twins had gradually increased from sparse to reasonable. Arising out of the late seventies post-punk London squat culture – the band as it was at the time were originally based in Chesterfield, although Tom Bailey actually hails from Halifax – the early Thompson Twins were usually seven or so in number and operated as a reasonably democratic collective. Their stage performances were much admired, particularly as they usually culminated in percussive free-for-alls, involving the audience. However, there were several groups operating in the same territory, and it proved hard for the Thompson Twins to stand out; their 1981 debut album A Product Of…(Participation) was shrugged aside as not living up to their onstage impact. 1982’s Set, though a little streamlined and involving input from Thomas Dolby, proved similarly underwhelming, although its lead single “In The Name Of Love” unexpectedly topped the American dance charts. This led the group’s manager John Hade to ponder whether the unwieldy and unprofitable septet should downsize to a trio and their aim re-focus on pop.

So it was that the Thompson Twins became Bailey, New Zealander Alannah Currie and Anglo-Nigerian Joe Leeway, and started to have hits at home. I saw them at York University in March 1983, a performance that was recorded for transmission on Radio 1, and they were largely magnificent, although the accompanying album Quick Step And Side Kick did not live up to their onstage impact; the production was a little too smothered, and questions arose in my mind about how good its songs really were. Nevertheless, to a starved post-New Pop audience, it seemed to fill a gap (as it were) – one NME writer compared hearing “Love On Your Side” in Radio 1’s Top 40 countdown show to listening to the Stranglers or the Clash amidst an ocean of gloopy dreck from Dr Hook and Brotherhood of Man – and the record was only kept out of this tale by Thriller.

They had some way still to go, but they toured with the Police later that year and travelled the world, including Egypt, where they picked up some ideas and instruments with a mind to using them. Eventually they ended up at Compass Point Studios in Nassau under the watchful production eye of Alex Sadkin and recorded their fourth album there (with mixdowns back home in RAK Studios). Few major eighties records received as comprehensively hostile a press reaction in Britain as Into The Gap. Smash Hits aside, it was roundly berated, with the accusations of their offering comfort music for thrusting young Thatcherkids, of adopting Thatcherite techniques in laying off more than half of their workforce and, that least eighties of concepts, “selling out.” The NME described the record as “1984's most instantly kitsch mass programme of monosodium glutamation of the brain” (whatever that might mean), while City Limits dismissed the group as “candy-floss art capitalists” (which, given that Alannah Currie later married the KLF’s Jimmy Cauty, could be considered a backhanded compliment). The final straw for many came at the beginning of March, when Into The Gap stayed at number one for a second week, holding the eponymous debut album by The Smiths at number two. This, it was felt, was what The Man wanted Britain to listen to, and The Smiths were The People’s Choice.

Like Into The Gap itself, the reality of that situation was rather more complicated, and more to do with Rough Trade’s inefficient and inconsistent marketing and distribution strategies and the realisation that The Smiths was not quite what that group’s reputation had promised it might be, than with the Thompson Twins. But there will come the opportunity for me to speak about The Smiths in greater detail as this tale progresses.

In essence, Into The Gap – and I returned to this record after an absence of three decades with some suspicion, my mind dulled by the endless recycling of its hit singles on oldies radio and my very dim recollection that the song “The Gap” was actually pretty good – is a record of two halves, or, if you bought it on vinyl, two sides (in fact most of the album’s 600,000 UK sales were on Walkman-friendly cassette – side one featured the album itself, and side two a host of extended 12-inch versions and remixes, and all of this material, plus stray B-sides, is now available on the standard 2CD reissue. Coupled with Sadkin’s innate understanding of space and echo, this was definitely an album to listen to on headphones while walking around in the hot sunshine). The album itself remains in some obscurity and no little disrepute; I bought the 2CD edition in, of all sedate places, the Selfridge’s branch of HMV, where one copy had been sitting for upwards of half a year, patiently waiting for me to buy it. As I picked it up, I could see to my left a big display devoted to…The Smiths, on CD and on doubtless pristine 180 g remastered vinyl which retailed for almost six times what I had paid for it as a new release in my then-local Virgin Megastore thirty years previously.

So it could be argued that the Thompson Twins won the battle, but that The Smiths won the war. But I think that leads to a misunderstanding of what Into The Gap is trying to achieve. Side one is, mostly, terrible. You can see exactly what they’re aiming at and how they’re doing it but it just doesn’t work. As a statement of incrementally rising sexual frustration, “Doctor! Doctor!” doesn’t seem to me to have advanced an inch from “Goodness Gracious Me,” apart from having jettisoned all of the latter’s good humour. “You Take Me Up” may be, in Bailey’s words, an “industrial gospel song,” with the old cotton fields of slavery replaced by factories, but the words and sentiments don’t quite join up. I note how the classically trained Bailey – always in charge of the music – does his best to introduce subtle harmonic confrontation into both songs (there is a cloudy minor key undertow perpetually lurking to bring down the jollity of “You Take Me Up” while sad fifths and sevenths adumbrate the instrumental break of “Doctor! Doctor!,” and in both songs there is a definite harmonic push towards the East) but his singing sounds whiney and entitled and the songs drag and plod rather than soar. “Day After Day” – not the Badfinger song – tries for David Byrne jitteriness but ends up resembling China Crisis. Even “No Peace For The Wicked,” the album’s Big Political Statement, is rather uninvolving, like a below par Duran Duran B-side. The overriding impression is one of seventeen-year-old David Cameron playing at pop, and if the rest of the album had proceeded like its first side it would deserve no further words here, and The Smiths a good deal more words.

But side two is a rather different proposition. “The Gap” remains the album’s best song, an attempt at East-West crossover which isn’t embarrassing, and with plenty of harmonic and rhythmic interest. Contrary to side one, Bailey seems to have realised that under-singing is the key here – and there seems a definite and palpable exuberance as the three musicians sing their way through the choruses (even if one suspects that when singing “chew the fat,” they really wanted to sing “cut the crap”). Suddenly the music becomes three-dimensional. You also get the feeling that finally Bailey is singing what he feels inside him, and not what he is expected to sing.

“Hold Me Now” may still prove to be the Thompson Twins’ “legacy” song, the record for which they will finally be remembered, and like “Be My Wife” and “All Of My Heart,” it’s the moment when they stop masking themselves with deliberate obfuscation, come clean and say what they believe. As a fairly straight love song – the couple are breaking up but the singer doesn’t want their love to end – it benefits from a very welcome lightness of touch and approach, together with an ingenious arrangement, incorporating the castanets from “Then He Kissed Me,” the subtle and omnipresent xylophone and an ingenious use of keyboards – they flow out like the Ganges or the mutinous Shannon in the instrumental break and dissolve into indeterminate ripples at Bailey’s “please don’t cry anymore.” They are very careful not to make the record’s closing moments overblown – Currie’s deadpan but hearfelt backing vocal is a much-needed contrast to overweening Soul, Passion and Honesty – and you end up thinking that, when they want to write a pop song, they are perfectly capable of doing so (although Bailey and Currie both strenuously deny that there was any active intent to make “Hold Me Now” as such). Re-placed in its original album context, the song makes a whole new set of sense.

The two concluding songs are relatively downbeat (like New Gold Dream, it’s the spectre of summer slowly mutating into winter). But “Storm On The Sea” in particular is a substantial song, and finally a very moving one, with a wonderful descending chord sequence and a lyric which, while never making it obvious, acts as a sequel to “The Long And Winding Road” (“Carry me home/Lead me to your door”), even while it is surrounded by a genuinely epic arrangement which sounds like the world slowly winding down to dust. I don’t know how familiar the sixteen-year-old Albarn was with this record, but the song points fairly squarely to a decade forward, and in particular to “This Is A Low.” Listening to it yesterday, on a watery sunny Sunday spring afternoon in a city which I am no longer sure wants people like me living in it, was an experience of frankly quite tremendous poignancy, as if squaring some kind of life circle. The record ends with “Who Can Stop The Rain” with its inventive, Andy Summers-ish guitar line which reminds me of how little guitar there is on this record (had you noticed?). The love affair is over and the protagonist conflates it with dread of things to come (“I’m haunted by a dream of giant human beings”), and with every “It’s drowning me,” the music gently halts as though the singer has indeed been drowned.

But there is one factor about the Thompson Twins, and in particular Into The Gap, that is never remarked upon, except by the musicians themselves, and this is highlighted by “Sister Of Mercy,” the song you all thought I’d forgotten to mention. If we are now indeed in a time after the initial wave of New Pop – if there is now some kind of second wave on the way – then we have to recognise that its manifestations can be manifold, and that Into The Gap might have more in common with The Smiths than is usually admitted, not just in the strategic deployment of harmonica (compare “You Take Me Up” with “Hand In Glove”), but also in the characteristic New Pop manner of saying the unsayable while charming the listener into thinking that it’s about something else. On The Smiths that moment comes with “Suffer Little Children,” a song written and performed by people who two decades earlier could themselves have been victims, and a song which is performed as though coming from another planet (it has nothing to do with what people acknowledge as being “rock music”), and although that obviously goes a lot further than “Sister Of Mercy,” the latter’s quiet and easily missable power cannot be passed over. Like “Numbers” or “Rent” it was an audience-testing single, and in that context performed significantly less well than its three predecessors.

But as Bailey sings about the placid, ignored housewife who after a quarter of a century suddenly and violently turns, we cannot ignore the fact that the lyrics to this song – like its eight companions – were written by Alannah Currie. Where the division of labour in Eurythmics was clearcut – Annie writing and singing the words, Dave taking care of the music – this is, I think, the first – and possibly the only – occasion on Then Play Long where we are faced, throughout the entirety of an album, with a man singing the words of a woman. Currie has made no secret of her strong feminist beliefs, and indeed has said that she toned “Sister Of Mercy” down a little to make it work from the male (i.e. Bailey’s) viewpoint. This context, however, means that much of the record has to be re-evaluated, and although, as I said, side one is largely dispensable – the piano figure at the beginning and end of “Sister Of Mercy” will eventually mutate into the opening of “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots Of Money)” and much of the first side can be seen as prototypes for songs and ideas which the Pet Shop Boys would take a lot further - the unexpectedly high quality of side two demands a new listening. Perhaps this chemistry could only have worked at one point in history, in its own time – and Into The Gap stayed on the charts for just under one year – since later efforts by the Thompson Twins, beset by physical and creative exhaustion and possibly record company pressure, did markedly less well; if anybody in Britain bar diehard fans remembered them at the end of 1985, it was as Madonna’s backing band at Live Aid. But a strong half-album was still a lot better than some of their contemporaries managed, and due attention to side two of Into The Gap – that’s “due” as in “long overdue” – should convince you that they deserve better than being pushed to the bottom of anybody’s embarrassing eighties box.

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