Thompson Twins: Quick Step & Side Kick 35 Years On

‘We’re not worthy, we’re not worthy!’ It was Wayne and Garth’s catchphrase but it could just as easily have been uttered by Thompson Twins’ frontman Tom Bailey in response to the band’s worldwide fame during 1983 and 1984.

He told Channel Four in 2001 (see below) that, at the peak of their success, he always felt on the verge of being ‘found out’ – an intruder at ’80s Pop’s High Table. And then there was the ignominy of being christened The Thompson Twats by those naughty boys Frankie Goes To Hollywood.

They were being a tad harsh; The Thompson Twats made some great pop in the early ’80s. But Quick Step – released 35 years ago this week – is fiendishly difficult to ‘place’, representing a kind of musical Year Zero. The only real antecedents seem to be Bowie, Gary Numan and Thomas Dolby (who I can’t believe is not a guest keyboard player on the album – if he is, he’s not credited).

After the Twins’ first two records – when they were a kind of Grebo/agitprop/post-punk outfit – Bailey sacked half the band (including bass ace Matthew Seligman) and formed a lean, mean three-piece (Bailey took care of the music, Alannah Currie and Joe Leeway the image and stage show, though all got songwriting credits). The final masterstroke was recruiting star Grace Jones/Talking Heads/Robert Palmer producer Alex Sadkin.

The formula worked a treat on Quick Step, recorded at Compass Point Studios on the Bahamas and one of the first albums I loved all the way through. Sadkin plays a blinder, adding loads of percussion, perambulating synths and those much-imitated, elastic bass sounds. There are so many classic early ’80s pop tunes that it’s almost indecent. Just hearing the intros to ‘Lies’ and ‘Love Lies Bleeding’ makes me want to jump up and down like my 12-year-old self. ‘Watching’ – featuring Grace Jones’ hysterical vocals – and ‘We Are Detective’ are also good clean pop fun. The latter even throws in some Piazzolla-style fake accordion for good measure. The only dud I can make out is the closing ‘All Fall Down’.

Quick Step & Side Kick was a big hit in the UK, hitting #2. Those anti-capitalist ideals were quickly waylaid. US sales were helped no end when the ever-prescient John Hughes chose ‘If You Were Here’ for a key moment in his 1984 movie ‘Sixteen Candles’, but the Twins didn’t really hit the jackpot in the States until the follow-up album Into The Gap. They even played at Live Aid – in Philadelphia, not London.

N.B. Michael White wrote a really nice, little-known memoir about life in the Twins called ‘Thompson Twin’. He played live keyboards with the band during their pop peak. Spoiler alert: it was not a bed of roses…



Alex Sadkin: Sonic Architect Of The ’80s

Grace_Jones_-_NightclubbingOne of the nice things about putting together this website is finding out about some important – though often completely unsung – characters who pop up in the credits of many a classic album. Alex Sadkin is just such a figure.

You could probably write a history of 1980s music purely from the perspective of producers. Perhaps it was the decade of the pop producer. There was certainly a lot of turd-polishing going on, but on the flip side it was a chance for someone to establish their own sound, hopefully in collaboration with a great artist or band.

In the early ’80s, everyone was pretty much using the same fairly limited (but very expressive in the right hands) equipment, so it was a question of being as original as possible.

Though he died at the age of just 38 in July 1987, not many producer/mixer/engineers of the early ’80s had a more distinctive sound than Alex Sadkin. He worked with James Brown, Grace Jones, Bob Marley, Sly and Robbie, Robert Palmer, Talking Heads, XTC, Thompson Twins, Foreigner, Simply Red and Duran Duran during his short life. His productions are full of colour and detail, usually featuring multiple percussion parts, kicking bass and drums and a very characteristic, super-crisp snare sound.

Alex’s first gig in the music biz was as a sax player in Las Olas Brass, a popular Florida R’n’B outfit, alongside future bass superstar Jaco Pastorius. Jaco and Alex had gone to high school together, and Alex later became the house engineer at Criteria Studios in Miami where Jaco recorded the demos for his legendary 1976 debut album.

Sadkin then engineered James Brown’s ‘Get Up Offa That Thing‘ single and also worked on Bob Marley’s Rastaman Vibration album, which brought him to the attention of legendary Island Records owner Chris Blackwell. Sadkin quickly secured a new gig as in-house engineer at Island’s Compass Point Studios in Nassau on the Bahamas.

This was where it really all began for Sadkin – an amazing melting pot of talent passed through the Compass Point doors including Talking Heads, AC/DC, Iron Maiden, Tom Tom Club, B-52’s, Robert Palmer and Will Powers AKA Lynn Goldsmith. But his first bona fide producer credits were alongside Blackwell on Grace Jones’ stunning trio of early ’80s albums (Warm Leatherette, Nightclubbing, Living My Life).

Sadkin was now a name producer with a trademark sound and considerable rep, and as such started to attract significant attention, sometimes of the negative variety – legendary NME scribe Paul Morley even took agin him for some reason in a review for Thompson Twins’ ‘Hold Me Now’ single. It probably meant Sadkin was doing something right…

Later in the decade, though his work arguably became more anonymous (but then so did a lot of post-1986 pop), Alex’s career went from strength to strength, producing some big albums such as Robbie Nevil’s debut, Simply Red’s big-selling Men And Women and Arcadia’s (admittedly fairly dire) So Red The Rose.

Sadly, Alex Sadkin died in a motorbike accident in Nassau on 25th July 1987 just before he was due to begin working with Ziggy Marley. He had also just recorded some demos with Jonathan Perkins, later to front criminally-underrated early ’90s act Miss World. Robbie Nevil’s song ‘Too Soon‘ and Grace Jones’ ‘Well Well Well’ are dedicated to Sadkin’s memory, as is Joe Cocker’s album Unchain My Heart. Gone too soon, indeed.

Where ’80s Pop Went Wrong (In Five Songs)

screaming-man-with-headphonesAt some point in the ’80s pop parade, the subtle became bloated, the charmingly-naive became coarse and the modest became overblown. As the decade’s greats and not-so-greats limbered up for Live Aid, artistic judgement started getting skewed, recording budgets sky-rocketed and egos rampaged out of control. And the blueprints were drawn up for pop travesties of the future. 

We present, in chronological order, the five singles which illustrate exactly where things went wrong in ’80s pop. (How the hell could Nile Rodgers have produced two of these?! Ed.)

duran_duran_15. Duran Duran: Wild Boys

Released 26 October 1984

The sound of money. And not in a good way. Aiming for a Frankie Goes To Hollywood-style sex-groove, the dandy Brummies contrive to create a ramshackle piece of over-produced, under-performed pub-funk. Nick Rhodes plays like he’s just been taught a few minor chords and Le Bon’s vocal is consistently just out of tune (why didn’t they change the song’s key before recording?). And we haven’t even got to the drummer’s ‘solo’ yet… Even Nile’s production can’t save this one.

thompson_twins4. Thompson Twins: Revolution

Released 29th November 1985

This was the worst song performed during Live Aid. And that’s really saying something. It’s murder, sacrilege, an aural travesty. It’s even worse than Paul Young’s version of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. Tom Bailey delivers the lyrics like a sozzled Stoke middle manager on karaoke night. Guitars are ladled on willy-nilly and multiple percussion effects merely serve to drive one to distraction. A triumph of vapid tastelessness.

The+Police3. The Police: Don’t Stand So Close To Me ’86

Released October 1986

A weary exercise in career suicide and musical emasculation. Copeland phones in his drum pattern (he broke a collarbone just before the recording), barely touching the kit save for a few desultory taps on the ride cymbal. Summers’ once-vibrant, nuanced sound has become a post-Edge blur. Sting’s considerable bass skills are booted into touch in favour of a crude, mushy-sounding sample. Depressing synths chart the chord changes like clouds eclipsing the sun while Mr Sumner succeeds in removing all emotion from his vocal. ‘Dark’ doesn’t begin to cover it. Why why why?

u22. U2: With Or Without You

Released 21st March 1987

The barely-scanning, bet-hedging lyric (‘You give yourself away’? How? With your eyes, your body? Something you said? What, what?!) aims for a kind of Bowie/Ferry mystique but is basically meaningless and the precursor to all those Snow Patrol/Coldplay list songs that crowbar in increasingly-inane words to fit a flimsy melody. Adam Clayton’s remedial bassline, badly played at that, slavishly outlines a dull chord sequence which should never have left the rehearsal room. Bono attempts the first verse in a sub-Bowie croon, but you can tell he’s just itching to hike it up an octave. And when he does it’s no better than Tony Hadley. The song runs out of steam at around the three-minute mark but then aimlessly drags on for another two minutes in the vain search for ‘dynamics’.

MICHAEL-JACKSON-michael-jackson-10317030-1082-12631. Michael Jackson: Bad

Released 7th September 1987

Where to begin? The crude, obviously looped bass vamp (close listening reveals the ‘joins’ at the beginning of every two bars); poor Michael’s adolescent lyrics displaying a wronged teenager’s obsession with point-scoring and fisticuffs, a videogamer’s take on violence; a poor verse melody which never engages followed by the endless repetition of a weirdly unmemorable chorus; Quincy Jones trying to throw a ‘Beat It’-style curveball by getting jazz legend Jimmy Smith in for a Hammond organ solo which barely registers… Michael’s vocals are beautiful and powerful but comparing this track to almost anything on Thriller reveals a sad indictment of late-’80s pop.

Disagree? Thought so. Over to you…