A Weird Name Doesn't Worry the Thompson Twins, a Trio with a Wrap on Rock Stardom
The Thompson Twins—all three of them—still flinch when recalling the Moment of the Missing Cheese. The British band had been playing at a small club back in its early, low-rent days when a chunk of food was mysteriously filched from the establishment’s locked refrigerator. Suspecting the Twins, the angry club owner confronted the trio, cited “connections in high places” and vowed the band would never work again. “For a brief second,” admits lead vocalist Tom Bailey, “all of us took him seriously.”
Happily for the innocent band mates, the threat proved emptier than the pub’s fridge. The Twins, in the midst of a 40-city, eight-week North American tour, are making records these days, but they are the kind that fit on turntables and not police blotters. Their newest album, Into the Gap, has bolted past Billy Joel, the Police and ZZ Top into the No. 10 slot on the charts, and their hauntingly melodic single, Hold Me Now, has climbed to No. 3.
Onstage the once-suspect trio affects a glitzy ragamuffin look, complete with fingerless gloves, fluorescent socks and costume rhinestones on every limb. Bailey, the 28-year-old guitarist and keyboardist, fronts the group in a jacket three sizes too large and with his hair tied in a ponytail that hangs down his back. (The latter is now partially synthetic due to a souvenir-hunting female fan who, masquerading as a reporter, slipped into his dressing room last year with scissors and “chopped a lump off.”) Behind him, conga and synthesizer player Joe Leeway, 29, maniacally shakes his Rasta dreadlocks while Alannah Currie, 26, pounds on a xylophone and gong. Her curls are shaved into a Mohawk and topped by an outsize engineer’s cap. Part of its purpose, she explains, is to “keep people’s eyes off other things. You can really be exploited as a sex symbol in this business, and I didn’t want that.”
Despite the comic costuming the band performs its computer-age syntho-pop with surprising polish and has reeled off three LPs for the U.S. that echo with disco and belly-dance music, gospel and reggae. That blend of textures, poured over a thumping beat, is almost as diverse as its players’ backgrounds.
Bailey, the son of a Sheffield physician, spent six months as a teenager at an Indian monastery, then returned to England and earned a music-teaching certificate at Cheshire College in Alsager. In 1977 he helped to form the original Thompson Twins (the name came from a cartoon strip featuring two bumbling detectives), a precursor of the present group. While attending Cheshire College, he met Leeway, the son of a black Nigerian and an Irish mother. Leeway had been raised by white English foster parents (“I’ve got black skin and a totally white mind,” he says), had come to Cheshire to study acting and was on his way to an 18-month run with the Young Vic theatrical troupe. In 1980, however, the would-be Olivier gave up the boards for Bailey’s band and began working as a roadie.
There he was joined by Currie, a former radio news reporter from New Zealand who had worked her way to England with a string of odd jobs and had been supporting her penchant for punk concertgoing as a hair-salon floor sweeper, a Hyde Park deck-chair attendant and a hat packer. She had taught herself to play saxophone (“Punk was about that—anyone could do anything”), then xylophone.
In 1982 Bailey’s seven-member group dissolved, leaving only him and his two musical mates to carry on as the Thompson Twins. “We really should have changed the name,” says Alannah of the group’s unlikely label. “I was into bands like Joy Division and the Slits, the Clash—bands with hard names. But we didn’t bother.”
For a while, names were the least of the Thompsons’ problems. After leaving his roadie chores to play onstage, Leeway performed his first concert pounding out conga rhythms on drums turned the wrong way around. Currie, meanwhile, hoping to put some flash into the trio’s publicity pictures, suggested they fit themselves with rainbow-colored contact lenses. When the price tag proved prohibitive, however, she and Leeway decided to shave their eyebrows instead. “It was the next best thing,” she argues now. “And it was much cheaper.”
The eyebrows are still gone, thanks to a daily swipe with the razor, but Currie at least admits to second thoughts. “I miss mine when it gets really hot under the lights onstage,” she says. “You start sweating, and it runs down into your eyes and stings them. That’s what eyebrows are for, but you don’t realize it until you’ve shaved them off.” Whether she and Leeway will keep the no-brow look seems doubtful. You Take Me Up, another single from the Twins’ new album, has already gone to No. 2 on the British charts and will soon be released in the U.S. With movie offers being made to the group, a fourth album planned and a tour schedule that’s booked solid, the threesome is likely to be sweating under the lights for quite some time to come.