Tom Bailey is having a moment.
It has been 33 years since he performed with his then-band Thompson Twins in front of 90,000 concertgoers at Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium (and with 1.5 billion watching on television around the world). The 1980s New Wave pop group was part of the Live Aid lineup along with Madonna, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Duran Duran and other pop superstars, with even more legendary rockers like U2, Queen and David Bowie performing live at Wembley Stadium back in London.
This summer, the singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist has been going back to his roots, playing festivals in Europe with A-ha and OMD, touring the States with fellow icons of the eighties like Culture Club and the B-52s, and doing a solo show with his new four-piece band at Montgomery College-Rockville’s Robert E. Parilla Performing Arts Center.
“Some people might think that, with the degree of nostalgia involved, you’re only going through the motions,” Bailey said. “But in fact, it’s a very, very vital situation, where I feel extremely present and very awake to that relationship with the audience.
“It’s an absolute privilege, and one I take very seriously.”
Bailey takes himself less seriously. He may be a rock star but he’s warm and candid, punctuating his conversation with self-deprecating laughter. Born in England’s Derbyshire, he started out with piano lessons as a child, evolving into an artist and studying classical music. Along the way, rock and roll intervened.
“As a teenager, picking up a guitar and feeling that — in some way that I didn’t fully understand — rock and roll had the power to change the world,” he said, then laughed a little at the cliché. “It was a rebellious, insistent, self-obsessed way of saying, ‘We won’t accept the deal we’ve been given in life; we want to change things for the better.’
“For me, that’s always been the reason to do it.”
It still is the reason, even though he’d moved on from Thompson Twins to a career as a producer, collaborator and solo artist. In 2014, he joined the Retro Futura Tour and started to perform the old songs live, for the first time in 27 years — and he has kept on performing, inspired and deeply moved by the experience.
“I’m just amazed to make this emotional connection with an audience again,” Bailey said. “It’s not just people coming to see if you can still stand up, or something. There’s an enormous emotional need to reconnect.”
Reconnecting with fans who first heard his music 35 years ago as well as younger fans who grew up with his hits on the radio means a lot to Bailey, who lives with his visual artist wife in France and New Zealand when he’s not on the road.
“Every generation has the music that was present when they went through the great rites of passage, moments that changed their life,” he added. “The time that you stay out all night for the first time, or you have a little too much to drink, or you have a passionate kiss: the music playing in the background becomes cemented in your personal cultural history.”
Thompson Twins had a lot of music playing in the background. Named after characters in the Belgian cartoonist Hergé’s comic strip “The Adventures of Tintin,” the band had up to seven members before trimming its lineup to a trio and moving from New Wave music to pop. In 1983 the first two of its hit singles broke— “Lies” and “Love on Your Side,” followed by its signature hit “Hold Me Now.” The band stepped camera-ready into MTV’s video revolution, opened for the Police on a U.S. tour and continued to churn out platinum albums with hits like “Into the Gap,” “Doctor, Doctor,” “You Lift Me Up” and “Lay Your Hands on Me” before joining the world’s greatest bands for Live Aid.
“We had been more of an agit-pop band, playing for student audiences,” Bailey explained. “We did OK, but it was only when we reduced to a three piece and became more technologically-oriented that we realized we’d stopped being musicians and started being designers of music products.
“It was a kind of revolution in our own heads,” he said.
They did it as an experiment, he said, trying to figure out how to be “a really great pop group.”
Coincidentally, the group had made “a wacky, eccentric video” just as MTV was looking for that sort of thing; soon U.S. audiences were clamoring for more. Bailey remains bemused by the whole turn of events.
“Some of it is inspired brilliance; some of it is just luck and happenstance,” he laughed. And even as a pop group touring the world, he and the Twins continued to make experimental music, using the B sides of their hit songs to express a more edgy, creative groove.
“These days, I’m doing the same things,” he said. He continued to make music after Thompson Twins split in the ’90s; his latest album, “Science Fiction, is filled with surprises. “I’m double-packing it, in some cases, with a second disc called ‘Science Fantasy,’” he said, explaining that he took the same songs but treated them with dub mixes, dance mixes and experimental themes.
“I think that’s an important part of the way we are as human beings,” he added. “We deconstruct, we mess around, we don’t take things at face value — and I like that.”
The current tour, however, is all about what his fans like, and that means leaving behind most of the experimental music and multimedia projects and going back to the hits that first propelled him to fame.
“Those were the days when it felt very clearly obvious that music was still a vehicle for immense social change,” he observed. “Somehow we could evoke a global change in attitude through rock and roll.”
He believes that some of that has diminished, that “the optimism of the ’80s has been sort of kicked out of people by world events.” And he bemoans the “corporatization” of rock and roll, and the changes that make it difficult to break out as a young musician today.
“It’s no longer the rebellious child it used to be,” he said. “I worry that it doesn’t mean the same thing anymore; you can’t trust its authenticity on some level.” He acknowledges the need for the young generation to have its own musical opportunity to shake its fist at the world but has also come to understand the nostalgic needs of his own generation.
“It’s a very responsible situation you end up with,” he said. “When there’s a big song, like ‘Doctor, Doctor’ or ‘Hold Me Now,’ and you look out into an audience and you see people with tears in their eyes, because it connects them with their past — I find that a very powerful emotional experience.”
It’s an experience he loves to share.
“I like the audience to sing along and take over the songs and make it their own,” he said. “It’s their music as much as mine; I’m just showing up to make it happen.
“It belongs to them.”
The Thompson Twins’ Tom Bailey performs at 8 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 2 at the Robert E. Parilla Performing Arts Center at Montgomery College, 51 Mannakee St., Rockville. Tickets are $65, $60 for faculty/staff and $55 for students. Call 240-567-5301 or visit http://mcblogs.montgomerycollege.edu/reppac.