He’s sampled massive success on the music charts and the world stage, worn preposterous haircuts the like we’ll never see again, but now all Tom Bailey wants to do is dub it up for himself. Story: Gary Steel
It’s an odd life, and it’s long, long enough to stretch round the planet and encapsulate a welter of experiences; yet it’s never long enough, and there’s never enough time for everything that one life feels the need to impose itself on. Imagine you’re a child prodigy, playing piano from the age of three, an all-round music obsessive. As a young man, you get your head blown off by Jimi Hendrix and Emerson Lake & Palmer at the Isle of White music festival in 1970, turn on to the synthetic classical epiphanies of Walter Carlos, and wallow in the splendour and cross-pollination of UK music culture as African and Jamaican immigrants bring with them hypnotising new music styles.
If you’re Tom Bailey, you witness all this, and then, like thousands of happy hippy Brits before him, sojourn to India in 1975, where your whole world spins and you begin a lifetime obsession with Indian culture and music; just to return to England in time to see through the punk era.
If you’re Tom Bailey, at the cusp of the 80s, you meet a wild Kiwi chick called Alannah Currie, form a ragbag troupe of ethnically influenced renegades called the Thompson Twins; slim it down to a natty synth pop trio and slay the world.
You then become the biggest group in America for several years, accruing kazillions of sales and fan adoration beyond your wildest dreams with hits like ‘Hold Me Now’ and ‘Doctor Doctor’.
The trouble is, you’re not a fame junkie, you’re a few years older than most of those other wannabes, you’ve already got your priorities right; the yoga, the meditation, the vegetarianism, and you’re the kind of guy for whom fame just derails, builds unnatural impediments to the innate need to make art and find the inner tranquility and the right kind of stimulus to do so.
Finding yourself barracked away in your studio, remote from the hustle and bustle of London, it becomes obvious you could be achieving the same results almost anywhere; so you follow your wife and children to this rather dull little place at the end of the earth, where you settle in Matakana, up north and go quietly mad with isolation for a few years.
Then you move to the inner city suburb of Ponsonby, Auckland, where you set about restoring an old mansion. And one day you check out this wee record shop up the road and end up chatting about music, life and the universe to this guy behind the counter. That goes on for five years and the guy behind the counter is the writer of this piece, and Tom Bailey is my friend and I’ll get that out of the way to begin with.
But it’s not because Tom’s my mate that I’m writing this piece, it’s because he’s a fascinating chap with a breadth of interest and a genuine curiosity about the impulses and mechanisms that make art vital, and because he’s put out – with musical partner Rakai Karaitiana – an astonishing record of beautiful, mellow electronically manipulated, dub-influenced electronica under the name International Observer.
‘Seen’ is a little piece of Bailey the keyboardist/producer has seen fit to let feel itself onto record shop shelves, philosophically as far removed from the hitmaking days of the Thompson Twins as it’s possible to imagine.
Rejecting offers from multinational record companies, Bailey opted to release the cd completely independently, adopting the attitude that if people had ears for the disc, they would most likely find it. The same is true of the music itself, which has been described affectionately as ‘coma dub’ due to its decidedly slow-tempo and gorgeous, meditative qualities. Which isn’t to say that the record isn’t funky, but funky in a low-down way.
“In contemporary culture generally,” says Bailey, “everything’s about grabbing attention, and attention spans being short, it has to hit hard, and knock you over in the first ten seconds, otherwise it doesn’t work.
“This album represents a tiny alternative left open in this age of jackhammers and short attention spans. Of course, people do have quiet, introspective moments. ‘Seen’ is like incense, it’s just there. You might go over and ask someone what this incense is, and how to get it. It’s not like walking down the street and being hit by this powerful smell; so powerful that you must own it. It insinuates itself into you. Low-key ambient and contemplative music has the qualities of perfume, it hangs in the air.”
And like the relationship of an exquisite perfume to a gorgeous woman, the music of International Observer is concerned with beauty.
“I can’t help but put melodic content into it,” says Bailey, “which is probably missing from a lot of traditional dub and electronic music. They’re just so obsessed with rhythm and sound as being the two areas of experimentation. Melody has almost got a bad reputation at the moment; no-one wants to go there. But if you throw out melody, you throw out the main weapon of beauty as well.”
Beauty, however, doesn’t transcribe into a tradition of bland, saccharine sentiment for Bailey:
“The kind of experience I’m looking for in music is necessarily reacting against traditions within music, and in order to do that it must have some kind of engagement with them. But I’m also 45 rather than 25, and I like beautiful things, not ugly ones. I went through my period of noise-making too, but it didn’t survive my requirements for a musical life.
“You could play International Observer to some people and they’d go ‘yeahyeahyeah very nice but I’ve got to go and do this…’ Some people just don’t have the time, Big Brother’s on tv later, and there’s too much shit going on in people’s lives to quieten down enough for a beautiful record to even be an option.”
The quietude of International Observer, and its attendant lack of industry push (you won’t find this one in the Warehouse or other corporate mega-stores, folks) reflects on Bailey’s status as a refugee from the fame-game. Where so many of his synth-pop contemporaries, from Culture Club to Duran Duran, have attempted cash comebacks in recent years, Bailey has turned down mega-offers simply because the fame generated by the Thompson Twins was surplus to requirements.
It took years of “trying to find a way of getting off the whole fame and fortune thing, years to figure out. In fact getting off the bandwagon took longer than getting onto it. Even now I find myself questioning if it’s somehow deeply pathetic that I’m still making records with pop groups (it’s his sure production skills driving the two hit albums by local group Stella*). Surely by now I would have come up with something different to do.
“I meet so many people who can’t give it up. The need to eternally be seeking adoration worries me, that’s still there I think, so if I can make music without seeking adoration, I think that it would be better music. But during the Thompson Twins period, seeking adoration was a 24 hour job. Whether we chose it because of ego or a marketing decision, is in a sense irrelevant. It’s moving away from that kind of promoting that’s been the hardest thing. The easiest way is just to bomb it, dynamite the whole thing. What I needed to do was to slowly dismantle it.”
The fame game is “so ridiculous it’s unhealthy, so you want to make sense of that, or you become permanently wounded by it. How can you maintain a balanced sense of self if everybody’s always telling you how brilliant you are? It’s fantastic for the first ten times, but for the next three million times it’s boring. The three million after that it becomes oppressing. It’s the one thing that everyone wants because they can’t get it, until they get it and they don’t want it.”
Ultimately, he found a subconscious way to defuse the ticking time bomb: a slow death of half-assed albums: “It was like a musical suicide or something. The last three Thompson Twins albums were demonstrative slashing of musical wrists. Babble (a renamed Thompson Twins project) was actually an overdose.”
Gently self-effacing, Bailey is uniquely placed to assess that much beleaguered era, the synth-pop nirvana of 80s New Romantic, from which the Thompson Twins arose. Naturally, he comes up with an unexpected spin on a time that critics regard as a cultural nadir.
“I see it as a golden age where the dormant promise of (electronic music pioneers) Kraftwerk suddenly got an opportunity to insinuate its way into the mass consciousness.
Technology, and the availability of new technology suddenly arrived, and people like the Human League and Gary Numan were probably the first on the block to go mainstream with it. Suddenly a lot of us were involved, and there was an extra-revolutionary sense that you could have mainstream success but with something that challenged what music was.”
Far from being the commercial sellouts that the critical establishment claimed, Bailey reckons that the New Romantic acts “figured out that it was actually okay to be a pop group, that it shouldn’t be a dirty word. There was a time that the Clash wouldn’t go on Top Of The Pops because it was an establishment thing to do. Phil Oakey (from the Human League) had hair short on one side and long on the other as he was singing his number one pop hit on Top Of The Pops, and in terms of cultural iconography that’s more meaningful to me than the Clash making a stand against the institution.”
As for the perceived shallowness of the 80s: “Cultural freedom’s so exciting,” says Bailey. “If you feel like doing this one year and something else the next, then whoopee. The Thompson Twins were relevant to the time, and a sign of the times. We were setting out to be so in touch with now, and since now has become then, you can’t get the point of it. It’s impossible. It absolutely had its finger on the pulse, and it was articulated then way beyond the level of our talent. We got big quicker than perhaps we should have done, so you get accused of ‘what was so good about it?’. I don’t know.
“But right from the beginning I had a kind of insight, which also gave me a sort of sinking feeling. I was amazed that it went as high as it did, and for as long as it did. So for a long time as a result I was always checking the height.
“It’s a meaningless sea of oblivion, mainstream pop culture. You can observe it, and even delineate certain events within it, but generally speaking it’s meaningless, and that’s why the ‘now’ thing has a certain importance. If it happened yesterday it ceases to be important, and if it happens tomorrow it’s all very interesting but we don’t know yet. But what’s happening now… it’s interesting to connect with that purely for that reason. You don’t care that it’s important, it’s just the fact that everybody’s doing it. I suppose in that sense it’s some amazingly primal herding instinct that you tap into. But it’s extremely invigorating, it keeps you awake, and that’s my only explanation.”
Sitting late at night in a lounge of his Ponsonby house with his family snoring upstairs, it’s hard to imagine the life Tom Bailey led in his halcyon days, flying off to the Bahamas to work with musicians like Lee Perry and Sly & Robbie; in-demand session keyboardist for the likes of Foreigner; producer/writer for Deborah Harry’s solo albums.
But Bailey’s life in Auckland is quietly productive: apart from the time it takes to nurture the key relationships in his life (wife and former Thompson Twin Alannah Currie, and two children, Jackson and Indigo), there’s production work for the likes of Stella*, film soundtrack scores to write, and a myriad of extracurricular activities, like the painting that continues to be a private pursuit, and his recent immersion in the campaign for a GE-Free New Zealand, which required his Ponsonby house as HQ Central for a motley parade of Kiwi celebrity endorsements for the cause.
Often claiming that he’s ‘trying to retire’, Bailey puts his productive habits down to the following:
“Most musicians are obsessed with their music, but nine times out of ten they’re also obsessed with alcohol, drugs, tv, bad relationships, and an interest in watching sport, all of which are time-consuming things. And I have none of those. So that leaves me with a great deal of time for all this other shit. Also, because of my drug-free thing, I bounce back quickly from stressful situations, I’m not constantly recovering from last night, and I’m more focussed in using that time.
“I have cultivated an interest in the visual arts, and whether discussing or participating, it informs my work as a musician. But I don’t go to the cinema very much, never watch tv, never go to pubs, hardly ever to clubs, so maybe it’s that I’ve opted out of a lot of the normal behaviours. I don’t wish to be rude about the alcohol and drugs thing, but it wastes a lot of time! Sometimes I think I need that one last behind-the-bikesheds activity, which is probably why I’ve had this on-and-off swordfight with cigarettes.”
Which helps to explain another side to Tom Bailey, one that is restless and twitchy, sometimes fraught with worry and often curious in an almost mischievous fashion. While the lovely, eminently grooving but often melancholic music of International Observer might suggest him as a somewhat mellow, bucolic fellow, he’s not quite the kind of guy who would be happy sitting down for hours with the Sunday paper:
“That’s my idea of hell,” says Bailey. “I’m selfish about the need to participate. I’d only spend any real time with the Sunday papers if I could write for them or draw a cartoon or even tear it up and make shapes out of it! What would happen to me anyway is that as soon as I read the first article, I’d get an idea that I wanted to discuss with someone.”