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.”