Sunday, July 9, 2017

Untouchable, and Remarkable ...

I’ve been listening to the album, The Very Best of The Topp Twins, because the CD was just sitting there, in my partner’s car, begging to be played, as a viable alternative to yet more scratchy and scarcely palatable talkback radio. And naturally enough, after giving the Topp Twins a whirl, I now feel the need to share a few thoughts about this remarkable sister act.

Firstly, I’m a bit of a fan, and I've managed to catch the Topp Twins performing live twice so far in 2017. The first time was a mid-summer outdoor event, with the twins co-headlining January's Wairarapa Country Music Festival, alongside the hugely underrated present day King of Aotearoa Country, Glen Moffatt. The second gig was a more recent set they performed at Southward's Theatre in Paraparaumu back in May, as part of the duo's Heading For The Hills tour. On both occasions the set was a mix of comedy and music – with characters like Ken and Ken, Camp Mother and Camp Leader, and multiple others, sharing the limelight with the twins in their most organic guise, as authentic country music artists.
And on each occasion it struck me how genuinely diverse the audience in attendance was – from youngsters to the blue rinse brigade, from rural people to city slickers, and from traditional hetero couples all the way across the spectrum to those within LGBTQ communities. Despite their own highly unique starting point, it seems that Jools and Lynda Topp speak the language of the common everyday person. The language of laughs and song, something distinctly Kiwiana, yet also something that’s universal enough to transcend generation, gender, and genre.

Such is their current day status as much loved New Zealand entertainment icons, it’s probably quite easy to forget that it wasn’t always this way. Or particularly easy for them. During the early to mid-Eighties, when the Huntly-born sisters first emerged on the live music scene with their unique brand of local country-flavoured music, it’s fair to say they were viewed with some degree of suspicion by more conservative elements within New Zealand society, not least within the rural communities they’ve come to represent.
Denim-clad, mullet-loving, openly Lesbian, twin sisters, intent on agitating and shaking up the status quo, as keen environmental activists who also challenged mainstream stereotypical (and backward) views on gender and equality, the Topp Twins had a lot of barriers to breakthrough in order to be heard, let alone get some kind of message across. With many of those barriers being of the more invisible and unspoken of variety. Stuff that our aforementioned “everyday person” rarely thought of, back in those less enlightened times.
I think we’ve come a long way (as a society), and while I’m tempted to say that the Topp Twins have also come a long way, they’ve earned their acclaim without changing a thing. Without compromise. It’s usually the artist or performer who has to tailor their position, their act, or performance in order to achieve crossover success, and I don’t think the Topps have done that in any way whatsoever. They’ve held their ground and waited for the rest of us to catch up. And that’s a rare and remarkable thing.

As for that CD, the “very best of” album, I can’t recommend it enough – no comedy, just music, guitar, yodelling, harmonies, and an hour or so of homegrown goodness … from their seminal ‘Untouchable Girls’ through ‘Tomboy’, ‘Nga Iwi E’, ‘Shepherd’s Farewell’, all the way to the near standard ‘Honky Tonk Angel’ … even if their music draws a lot of inspiration from that most American of forms, country and western, collectively these tunes represent something close the perfect encapsulation of what it means to be this thing called “Kiwi”.

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