Why the Thompson Twins Don't Add Up

So where are the twins? Which one of you is Thompson? Who does your hair? And where did you get those hats?

The Thompson Twins (L-R) Tom Bailey, Alannah Currie and Joe Leeway in London in 1984. Credit: Mike Prior/Redferns/Getty

There are neither Thompsons nor twins in the band; they took their name from a pair of characters in a French comic strip, Hergé's Adventures of Tintin. Their locks are genuine, except for a portion of Tom Bailey's red mane that is synthetic (an over-zealous female fan cut off a chunk of the real thing last year). As for the hats, Alannah Currie picks 'em.

Now that we've dispensed with the big issues that always get raised around the Thompson Twins — causing much rolling of the eyes among the band members — let's get down to the nitty-gritty. Why are we sitting around a table in a chic, fern-strewn Montreal hotel lounge on one of the loveliest days of the year in one of the most enchanting cities in the hemisphere? And why are the Thompson Twins, the zany, smiling stars of MTV and pop-mag centerfolds, looking so glum?

Tom, the Twins' ostensible frontman (though they bristle at the terminology), knows the answer, but he's not talking. In fact, that is the answer: he's lost his voice, thanks to a nasty throat infection. As a consequence, the band has had to cancel this evening's concert in Montreal.

Up until now, it's been full speed ahead for the Thompson Twins. Their monster single, "Hold Me Now," was harder to shake than your shadow for most of the spring, and its follow-up, "Doctor! Doctor!" is fast on its heels. By now, the entire world knows The Look: Mod Squad neapolitan, with one black, one blond and one redhead. Their tour, a tastefully spectacular high-tech affair, has been going down like gang-busters across the country.

Now this, the virus-ravaged larynx. It only knocks out Montreal and a few other dates (Toronto and Detroit), but this is small consolation to a group that can feel its career blossoming day by day into something bigger than they'd ever imagined.

And thus, Joe Leeway is ensconced behind his shades, mute and motionless but for one hand, which is distractedly fooling around with a couple of playing cards. Tom Bailey, likewise, is wrapped up in sunglasses and a navy greatcoat and is under orders not to talk. So he distractedly practices a disappearing-up-the-sleeve card trick when Joe gets bored with his deck.

Which leaves Alannah to field the questions, although she seems to be in a tender condition herself. Her hands and voice tremble, and she appears to be fighting back tears. What could it be — some sort of deep, dark intragroup intrigue to be kept from prying journalists? Disappointment over the show's cancellation? Or merely a hangover? (Mention is made of having had one too many Singapore slings the night before.)

At least her clothes are vibrant. Alannah dresses the part she plays onstage: big, frumpy hats, multicolored silk scarves covering her ears, and that bird's nest of shock-therapy hair. In the one-person, one-vote democracy that is the Thompson Twins, Alannah's beat is The Look — clothes, image, videos. Thus, her attention to appearance, even in a hotel bar that won't be open for a few hours. Joe, meanwhile, gets the lighting and sets together for their concert tours (and has, with the current show, outdone himself). And Tom does most of the playing and singing, with rhythmic and textural embellishments, as well as backup vocals, from the others.

After several years of straggling on the fringes of the pop scene, the Thompson Twins now find themselves one of England's hottest exports. Along with success has come the financial leverage to do the sort of things that make working fun — like cutting their records in the Caribbean, shooting a video ("You Take Me Up") in Portugal and designing a live show that's costing them 8000 pounds a day (about $12,000) to keep on the road.

Not bad, considering their ruffian beginnings. As recently as 1980, the Thompson Twins were all living in extreme poverty on the same street in South London. Alannah had emigrated from New Zealand, her homeland. Joe was working in the theater. Tom was teaching music to schoolchildren. All three were squatters.

Squatting — that is, moving into abandoned houses and living there communally and inexpensively — was, Alannah says, "a necessity, 'cause it was all these people who refused to get nine-to-fives to pay ridiculous rents. Basically, there were, like, 2000 empty properties in South London, and there was a grapevine connection, which was how we came together."

The music that was around — punk, reggae, West Indian — reflected the ethnic and cultural diversity of the neighborhood. This subject brings Joe Leeway back from his private Idaho. "People were dealing with art, music, dance," he says. "There was always a gig: street parties, house parties...."

The politics of squatting meant occasional run-ins with the law and required cunning and cooperation, which further cemented the sense of community. "You had to know how to get in a window and put locks on properly, and you had to do your own wiring and plumbing," Alannah explains. "Somebody would come and help you, and you'd do your bit for them — generally get things together, drag old furniture off of rubbish heaps and stuff like that. I mean, nobody had any money. It was quite fun."

The Thompson Twins initially emerged as a seven-man band, as overcrowded as any crash pad in the neighborhood and full of populist idealism. (They were famous for letting entire audiences crowd onstage and bang away on percussion instruments.) In one of the final sessions for their second album, Set, three of the seven Twins — Tom, Joe and Alannah — went in the studio to hash out a track to fill out the second side. What they came up with, in about twenty minutes, was "In the Name of Love," a bouncy, dance-oriented synth-pop number that became a big club and radio hit. Soon, they were winging it as a threesome.

"We were, like, the abrasive ones," Tom says, his voice having improved a bit. "We didn't get on particularly well, but we were the ones who couldn't sleep at night with ideas." And the hits kept coming: "Lies" and "Love On Your Side" (from Side Kicks, their trio debut) and "Hold Me Now" and "Doctor! Doctor!" (from Into the Gap, their new LP).

The Thompson Twins would appear to have left squatting far behind them. Or have they? Joe and Alannah both have residences in London, "but they're just places where we keep our stuff, like records, books, little bits and pieces," says Alannah. "They're not really home. In fact, when I go back there and walk into my own bathroom, it's really disgusting, compared to these hotels. I really much prefer living in hotels."

So does Tom — to the point that he stays in hotels even in London. "It's weird," he says. "Inevitably, the accountants say, 'The most sensible thing to do is buy a house in London.' Then they start saying, 'Hold on, mate, maybe you should spend a year out of England to avoid paying taxes.' At the end of all this, I'm still wondering what I'm going to do."

Still, it beats dragging discarded furniture off the street. So how does it feel to have gone from the dole queue to the Top Ten in the space of a few years?

"Ridiculous," Alannah retorts without a pause, and all three dissolve in grins and giggles.

ALANNAH CURRIE MIGHT NOT HAVE WOUND UP IN A ROCK & ROLL band had it not been for Lou Reed. Back around 1975, she was working as a reporter for a radio station in Wellington, New Zealand, and was given the assignment of interviewing Reed, who was over on tour. Tape recorder in hand, the fledgling journalist approached the notoriously prickly rock star with the idea of steering him to a quiet corner. Timidly, she said, "Excuse me, Mr. Reed, would you mind moving....?" Next thing she knew, her equipment was moving, aerially, across the hotel lobby where they were standing.

"I just stood there and cried," says Alannah. Eventually, the interview was conducted, but Alannah handed in her notice the next day. "He terrorized me," she recalls of Reed. "He said, 'What do you want to be a journalist for? And the thing is, I didn't want to be a journalist; it was one of those things I was forced into to satisfy my parents."

By 1980, Alannah had moved to London and was working a series of miserable day jobs. "You said it, I've done it," quips Alannah. "Packed hats in a warehouse. Picked fruit and tobacco in Australia. Waitressed in a wine shop. Cleaned toilets in Piccadilly." Prior to the Thompson Twins, she had her own punk-era band, the Unfuckables. They were, she says, "more of a way of life than a band."

Alannah formally joined the Thompson Twins on their second album, singing and, from time to time, honking on sax-an instrument she's since given up. "I got much more intrigued by percussion," she says. "Marimba — that's my favorite thing of all time."

Alannah, who's now twenty-six, did not come to music out of a background of formal training and instruction. "I wasn't one of those kids who was 'musical,' " she says. "You know how in the first grade or whatever they decide what your talents are? Mine was writing and definitely not music." But the do-it-yourself climate in England prompted her to pick up an instrument and blast away. "That's the way to do it," she vows. "By being intrigued and interested and just feeling your way along."

If Alannah is the most intuitive and spontaneous and Tom the most technically capable musician of the three, then Joe Leeway falls somewhere in between. Despite his dreadlocks and his Irish and Nigerian ancestry, he grew up in Manchester, England, where he made an unlikely mod. Joe — at twenty-nine, the oldest of the Thompson Twins — has formal training in the theatrical arts. When he moved to London to further his acting career, he wound up under the same leaky roof as Tom, with Alannah on an adjacent street.

After nearly three years of working in both establishment and experimental theater, including a year with a mime company, he "started hitting up against a brick wall. So I got an agent, and she sent me to black musicals — Bubbling, Brown Sugar and One Mo' Time — which wasn't really my thing. But she said that's the way people saw me. Fortunately, there was this alternative South London scene."

That new-bohemian scene also had a peculiar attraction for Tom Bailey, who was rebelling against his middle-class roots. Born into a family of medical professionals — his father is a doctor, his mother's a nurse, and both sisters have become doctors — he was groomed for something other than the scruffy life of a rock & roll musician.

"My grandfather was a coal miner, very poor, died young, leaving my father," says Tom. "And he went through what must have really been a tough business of becoming very, very successful academically. Having gone through that, I guess the only way he saw the world was in terms of really making a big academic mark upon the world. And when I showed no signs of doing that, it was really weird." The result was a period of estrangement from his parents that has only recently come to an end.

Bailey's musical talent was evident from the age of two, which is when, he is told, he first reached up to the piano keyboard. As a child, he took piano and clarinet lessons, and excelled at choir school. Of his musical education, which continued all the way through college, he says, "I hated it, but at the same time, I got really skilled."

His considerable technical ability and formal appreciation of the classical repertoire made him a pop-music snob early on. "I remember actively resenting pop music at the age of eleven," he says. "I thought it was cheap and nasty." He would eventually become intrigued with some of the music of rock's progressive era, "odd things like very early Pink Floyd and a German group called Can. Plus pop stuff like the Beatles." And at college, he began composing "experimental music, electronics, crazy orchestral stuff that I saw as pop oriented."

Bailey, who's now twenty-eight, denies that the gap in technical skill between him and the other Twins is at all limiting to him. To the contrary, he says that their untutored spontaneity often liberates him from the rigidity that a grounding in theory can impose.

"Very often, when the three of us are writing, I get into a rut that they can see through, because to them, it's just pop music," says Bailey. "I mean, without me, the Thompson Twins would be in a hopeless situation, because I'm the main musical resource. But without those two, I would just be churning out boring music, I think."

THE THOMPSON TWINS WRITE collaboratively, blocking off chunks of time during which they brainstorm a batch of new material. Alannah writes the words, Joe and Tom, the music. Usually, they isolate themselves in some rural retreat (the lodging and locale are rarely the same).

But "Hold Me Now" was actually written in an attic during a heat wave last summer. "It was cramped, and we were dying from the heat," remembers Tom. Most of the rest of Into the Gap was written in cushier surroundings: some sort of manse with badminton courts and a swimming pool, and a tiny house on the east coast of England, where mist would roll in off the sea at night.

It's not all hugs and kisses twenty four hours a day, they admit. "We fight all the time," laughs Alannah. "Yelling and screaming. It's not vindictive personal slander, it's more...just the way we work together."

And she proves it by falling into a debate with Tom over the issue of money and what it's enabled the Thompson Twins to accomplish.

TOM: "Maybe that's the sad truth we have to tell, that no human problems are solved by having a lot of money."

ALANNAH: "But you can certainly have a lot more freedom of choice. In the old days, we'd save six months to buy a fucking drum or something. Now when you need a drum, you just buy it."

TOM: "It doesn't make life any easier."

ALANNAH: "It does, because you can do it quicker."

And so on. "We're all good friends," says Alannah," so I suppose that's why we can fight without someone saying, 'I'm leaving.' "

It is a friendship that endures the constant contact of recording studios, writing retreats and the unending road. Being in the Thompson Twins is a life that doesn't allow for outside attachments — where would they find the time? "I've learned to exist on my own, not to be looking for emotional attachments," Tom says forthrightly.

And so they carry on, plying their trade 365 days a year. Actually, they will get two weeks off after they tour Japan. Tom intends to spend them in India.

"I've been there before, and I've been moaning that I want to go back," he says. "Alannah's tagging along. I'm sure she'll hate it, actually...."

He chuckles.

"You realize that this is our first holiday in two and a half years?"

ONE WEEK AFTER OUR MEETING IN MONTREAL, the Thompson Twins' juggernaut is rolling again. Despite some equipment problems and a few places where Tom's still-tender throat falters, they play an energetic set in Chicago before a charged crowd. After the show, the band was benighted by a visit from the members of Yes, "who swore their undying devotion to the Thompson Twins, which I thought was quite curious," says Bailey. "Something about us, we attract these people. In London, I was just amazed at the old dinosaurs that came out to see us, like Jethro Tull." (At least the old dinosaurs have been kinder than the British music press, which, by one account, "severely mauled" the band for what they saw as pop blandness on Into the Gap.)

The next night, the Thompson Twins play a sleepy college town in the middle of the Illinois prairie with the pristinely middle-American name of Normal. Though things seem slow in Normal, I am assured by a student wearing a Queen T-shirt that finals week is over and "everybody will be rowdy."

Backstage, Tom Bailey is taking slow drags on a cigarette and sipping coffee. (Nicotine and caffeine would appear to be the teetotaling, drug-abhoring pop star's only indulgences.) The talk turns to the marriage of opposites within the band — musical, temperamental, racial and sexual — and whether that poses any threat to their longevity.

"After our first album together [Side Kicks], it would have been very easy to split up, actually," says Tom, "to think, "Well, yeah, we did it,' and see the approaching problems as being too much to handle. But we had a taste of something, it was irresistible, we followed it through, and now it seems bigger and better, and the taste is even more there."

As promised, the student crowd cuts loose in an enthusiastic and un-selfconscious way. Some of the bolder collegians have even dyed their corn-husk-blond hair various MTV-inspired shades of blue, green and pink. Onstage, the Thompson Twins thrash through their rhythmic-dervish paces, Joe beating his pink-gloved hands on a conga drum, Alannah wielding her mallet upon an array of percussion instruments and Tom hopping up and down like a kid on a playground. Mostly, he sings from front and center.

Gyrating up there to the music they created, the Thompson Twins are indisputably having a swell time. It occurs to me that they're the perfect band for the multimedia Eighties, combining musical flash, theatrical flair and visual bravado in equal measure. From each, according to his (or her) ability.

And therein lies the success and the genius of the Thompson Twins: they are a union of talented incongruities. As Tom put it earlier, "It's the abrasive chemistry, you see, because it's an irrational combination. You shouldn't really put these things together!"