The Topp Twins meet Robert Muldoon and Dizzy Gillespie

1981 was, of course, a pivotal year. It began at the Nambassa alternative lifestyle music festival near Waihi. The Topps dressed in brightly coloured satin suits, and remember it as the “peace, love and barfi” festival (barfi being a sweet milky treat from the Hare Krishnas, which the pair consumed with relish). But there was a political lesson in the experience they didn’t expect.

Jools: “We felt like we belonged to that festival because there was a lot of weird shit going on, and there were weird kids there and everyone was expressing themselves in the way they dressed, rather than their politics at that particular time. We were all trying to out-do each other with some weird outfit. But I think the other thing is that Nambassa was seen as something that was hugely alternative. We weren’t the Sweetwaters mob, we were the Nambassa mob, there was something really cool about that.

“[But] there was so much politics backstage. You had Dizzy Gillespie and you had the Charlie Daniels Band – and those guys were fighting, the black and the white were fighting – south meets white trash America, backstage – and we’re going wow. Nambassa out the front was really cool, but the backstage … Dizzy Gillespie wouldn’t go on, they hadn’t been paid, suddenly there was helicopters flying in with money, it was just like the weirdest gig we’d ever done in our lives.

Lynda: “We were in the middle, rehearsing, because that was our time slot, between Dizzy Gillespie – New York based – and Charlie Daniels, from down south. And us, crazy lesbians, in the middle.” (Jools: “That was a great slot!”)

The dressing rooms were flimsy, with low walls, and while the Topps were rehearsing, with Lynda yodelling, “Dizzy Gillespie popped his head up and looked over, and Charlie Daniels popped his head over, and both were going, ‘Wow that sounds pretty good’ – they couldn’t believe they could hear yodelling in New Zealand.”

But with Gillespie refusing to go on until there was money in his bank account, the Topps were told: you’re on. Jools: “We said, ‘No – we don’t want to go no first, they’re waiting for Dizzy Gillespie. This is going to be the worst gig we’ve ever done in our lives!’ But honestly the stage had sat idle for about 20 minutes, because there was a lot of negotiating going on backstage. They said, ‘You gotta go on. We need someone on that stage now.’ And honestly we walked out on to that stage, and just the fact that somebody had appeared to perform to them, the crowd went absolutely nuts – we had the best gig ever! We were a little bit worried about the political dilemma that was happening backstage but in the end it was great: we had a wonderful time with that audience. We just sang out hearts out.”

Admin thumb 1981 topp twins on redhata

The Topp Twins on the Redhat stage at Nambassa, 1981 - a festival of "peace, love and barfi".

The Topps have been in the forefront of New Zealand political activism since the height of the Muldoon era. They had one encounter with New Zealand’s most polarising politician, at a public meeting about homosexual law reform at the Auckland Town Hall. At the time, the lesbian community often fronted a campaign for gay men, whose sex lives were still illegal. “Muldoon wasn’t a great fan of gays and lesbians,” says Jools. “We’d gone as our rabble lesbians to shout him down, because he wasn’t very good to the left-leaning gay community. We’re all dressed in our overalls of course: bibbed overalls, the lesbian uniform at that point. And he got up to speak, in his beautiful little way, because look, deep down he was National but he was quite an amazing speaker, and he was the first media prime minister.”

Muldoon stood up to begin his speech and immediately the Topps’ contingent “shouted him down”. Lynda recalls the moment: “He stopped. He just stopped and looked at us all. And of course we all went, what’s he doing? We thought he was going to come back at us. But he didn’t, he just looked. And stayed looking for a while. And we eventually ran out of puff and stopped. And he just looked up at us and he said [Lynda imitates Muldoon’s snarl], ‘The only good thing about that mob up there is they don’t breed’.”

Recalling the moment 35 years later, the sisters burst out laughing. “It was the most amazing statement of all time,” says Jools. “Like, we were shocked, but we thought, what a comeback line, buddy! What a comeback line!”