Lynda and Jools Topp were born in Huntly in 1958 and grew up singing to the cows on the family dairy farm in Ruawaro (Waikato). They were raised by their parents, Jean and Peter Topp to believe they could do anything, and were tomboys from the start. They made their debut performance, “Walking in the Sunshine” with boaters and canes, at the tender age of five at a cousin’s 21st party.
The Twins’ rural upbringing explains their down-to-earthness and their appetite for country music. Jean taught her girls to sing standards such as Springtime in the Rockies and when seven-year old Lynda first heard Australia’s yodelling sweetheart June Holmes belting out My Pinto Pony and I on a neighbour’s old 78, she went into a swoon.
Jools remembers her sister’s passion for learning to yodel: “After Lynda heard her first yodel she became obsessed about learning it. She used to ride to the nearby farm about 30 minutes up the road on horseback, listen to their old wind-up gramophone, jump back on her horse, race home, get out the guitar and desperately try and remember what she had just heard – we finally did get it to sound right and as an added consequence became very good horsewomen“.
After 16 years of rural isolation, the Twins joined the Territorial Army (not for patriotic reasons but to see the country) and quickly became the Vera Lynns of their battalion. But their Army careers were destined to be short-lived. After jumping train in Christchurch they began busking and playing in small cafes. Their first big break was playing at The Victorian Coffee Lounge where they were paid $5 and all the toasted sandwiches they could eat.
In 1977 they sang at the International Women’s Convention in Hamilton and became the darlings of the women’s movement with original songs like “Paradise” and “We’ll Fight For Our Freedom”. Now in their early twenties, with a guitar each and a highly original political repertoire, the Topp Twins moved to Auckland and soon developed a cult-following as buskers. A familiar sight downtown every Friday night, crowds of several hundred would often gather and overflow the footpaths as the twins played, involving the crowd in their visual antics. One night they were famously arrested for obstruction, when the crowd grew too large, and the Topps defended themselves in a high-profile court case they actually won.
The Topp Twins came of age as performers in the early ’80s during the heady days of political protesting. They became ardent protestors leading marches for anti-apartheid, Nuclear-Free NZ, Maori land rights and the Homosexual Law Reform. As out lesbians since the late 70s (when the main press refused to print the word) the Topp Twins have always been visible and proud about their sexual identity. However, the Twins’ ability to relate to all kinds of people, and their gift for humour, has ensured that this is not an issue. Part of the Topp Twins’ phenomena is that is that they have successfully crossed from the fringes to the mainstream and are accepted for who they are.
During the eighties, with the help of the Students Arts Council, the Twins toured every corner of New Zealand, producing sell-out theatre shows based on their life-stories and laced with political satire. The best of the Twins’ stage shows were filmed for a Television Special for which they won several NZ Film & TV Awards including 1987 Entertainers of the Year, Best Entertainment Program and Best Original Music.
Highly successful tours to Canada, the States and Britain followed. They performed at music festivals alongside Billy Bragg, Lucinda Williams, Michelle Shocked and Hank Wangford, and enjoyed long-running theatre seasons in London and Edinburgh, which met with exceptional reviews and extended their following globally.
The Topp Twins returned to NZ to develop and produce their own primetime TV Series Do Not Adjust Your Twinset, which became one of TV3’s top rating shows and won the Topps’ several more TV awards. In 1998, Lynda Topp (as her popular altar-ego Camp Mother) ran for the Mayoralty of Auckland – when it became clear she was attracting a large share of the vote, a decision was made to support rival Christine Fletcher, who became the new Mayor of Auckland toppling the incumbant Mayor Les Mills, and achieving Camp Mother’s goal which was to give Auckland a new gay-friendly leader.
In 2004 the Topp Twins received the Queens Medal for Services to Entertainment and in 2008 was inducted into the NZ Music Hall of Fame.
As well as touring Australia and New Zealand regularly, the Topp Twins are keen outdoors women. When not on stage, Jools can be found practising natural horsemanship, while Lynda’s most likely to be found in her waders casting out into one of NZ’s pristine rivers.
A feature-length documentary about these Untouchable Girls was made with the assistance of the NZ Film Commission, and was released in 2009. They also have a comedy feature in development. It is set on a farm, and will no doubt bring these irrepressible gals full-circle.