No one cares, but this is their best by miles. – Robert Christgau
As much as I love and appreciate every word Robert Christgau has ever written on music, he has never been a fan of my favorite bands. The Big Three for me as I turned 13 were Duran Duran, Howard Jones, and Thompson Twins. It wasn’t until 1989, well after their commercial peaks, when he gave one of them a B+ using his school-grade methodology. For those wondering, a B+ from Christgau equals “a good record, at least one of whose sides can be played with lasting interest and the other of which includes at least one enjoyable cut.” You’re telling me Rio isn’t at least a B+? Dude.
Moving on. According to Christgau, the first “good” album from my Big Three artists was Big Trash by Thompson Twins. And it is, at least, a “good” album. In fact, it is arguably their best album but anyone claiming to love it more than Into The Gap has put too many shots of hipster in their chai latte. Then it occurred to me that another one of my favorite bands had released a “Big” album six months earlier. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Big Trash and Big Thing have a lot on common.
I recognize that I am assuming a certain level of awareness of Thompson Twins beyond the basic MTV stuff but the Daily Duranie audience knows music. However, I don’t blame you if you lost sight of Thompson Twins after Live Aid; most folks did. In a lot of ways, the Twins were on a similar trajectory to Duran Duran after Live Aid. Both lost band members before working on their next album and the resulting albums were more subdued, less colorful affairs.
Earlier I mentioned the six-month gap between Big Thing (October ’88) and Big Trash (March ’89). Oddly enough, each band’s preceding album had a similar gap with Notorious (November ’86) arriving seven months before Close To the Bone (March ’87). As the decade traded “greed is good” for “feed the world”, both bands had to adapt their image and the albums reflected a more informed, mature take on the styles that made them successful. From Duran’s undeniably sexy funk of “Skin Trade” to the buoyant acoustic guitar of the Twin’s “Get That Love”, both albums showed musical growth and were able to slow the erosion of casual fans suddenly enamored with Jon Bon Jovi’s abs.
Two years later, the band’s went even further with their most experimental albums of the decade. Thompson Twins’ Big Trash turned up the guitars and the rhythm. “Bombers In the Sky” rocks harder than anything they ever did and “Sugar Daddy” showed they still had plenty of sweet hooks left in their Halloween bag. Sound familiar? Big Thing also finds a way to rock without taking you off the dance floor.
Why weren’t Trash and Thing bigger? As a fan of both bands, these albums were strong artistic statements – hell, Christgau gave a rare B+ to a, as he loved to call them, anglo-disco group! Of the two, I get the most animated about Big Thing. There should have been four hit singles on that album not counting “Palomino” which belongs in the same special corner where us fans love to keep “The Chauffeur”. The band’s amped-up funk (“I Don’t Want Your Love”), post-punk despair (“Do You Believe In Shame?”), electro-pop (“All She Wants Is”), and command of atmosphere (“Too Late Marlene”) are all memorable examples of Duran Duran’s unique alchemy. Had Christgau given it a listen, I dare say that he might have conceded an A- for the effort.
After their “Big” albums, both bands went through a bit of an identity crisis while trying to find the right sound for a new decade. Thompson Twins dove into the rave culture with 1991’s Queer while Duran opted to throw a bit of everything against the wall in hopes of something would stick. Hey, that’s their liberty. Evaluating those albums is best left to another day; if only to prove Christgau wrong. Someone does care.