Toyah’s debut album remains as startling, experimental and unsettling now as it was on its original release.
The usual story of Toyah’s career is that she started out as a punk and then quickly sold out to the pop world with hit single It’s A Mystery, which took her on a rapid creative downward spiral of Top of the Pops, Saturday morning TV and increasingly unadventurous music. There’s a certain truth to that – Toyah was definitely absorbed into the entertainment mainstream, her singles become blander and her image more contrived – notably with the original band logo replaced by bright, unchallenging-to-the-kiddies lettering on record covers – as ‘Toyah’ moved from a band to a solo project.
However, the idea of Toyah as a punk always felt a little wide of the mark and unnecessarily restrictive and ultimately damaging. Sure, she would often talk about herself in that way, she appeared in Derek Jarman’s Jubilee and she had the right look – the multi-coloured hair, at least – for people to make that assumption. But her work seems to have been guaranteed to immediately alienate punk traditionalists and set her up for dismissal early on. If you listen to those early albums – up to and including the fantastic Anthem, where the first mainstream-cracking hit singles were pulled from – you get a very different sound from the UK punk of the time. Toyah was more art-rock, stripped-back industrial gothic experimentation that is closer to the more experimental end of the new wave scene than the Sex Pistols, and almost more prog than punk in approach. Her marriage to Robert Fripp seems like a meeting of minds when you consider that King Crimson was taking a similar direction in reconstructing prog into angular, edgy, cold musical experiments at the time. Toyah was punk, perhaps, but not in any way that would have been recognisable as punk at the time – or even now.
Of course, her pop star persona has always played against any serious re-examination of her career – no one took her seriously in the mid-Eighties, and few people have been inclined to do so since. Her albums have not been considered worthy of reconsideration, until now. Cherry Red – who I think we can safely say are Britain’s premiere musical archivists and archaeologists – have taken Toyah’s first album, Sheep Farming in Barnet, and given it the luxury treatment – a two-CD and DVD set that is as luxurious a release as you could hope for and almost demands that you take it seriously.
I’m not going to try and say that I was some sort of visionary, but as a teenage fan of metal, prog and psych in the 1980s, I saw something in Toyah that went beyond the pop artist. As I mentioned earlier, Anthem was a magnificent LP, one that I bought on a whim from a second-hand shop and found to be closer to the progressive acts that I was intrigued by than either pop or punk. I probably should’ve explored further, because Sheep Farming in Barnet is a lot more experimental – less polished in both musicianship and production, and edgier in feel. There’s no pop here, at least not in the conventional sense – there are tracks here that would become staples of her live shows and are a little more immediately familiar in style; of course, I say that as someone who was wallowing in rock’s most extreme and experimental noodlings at the time, so my take on ‘familiar’ might not be everyones. But a track like Neon Womb, or Waiting at least doesn’t feel overly alien and album closer Race Through Space is almost conventional; other tracks, however, throw all sense of commercial compromise out of the window. Victims of the Riddle (Vivisection) is as experimental a piece of music as you will ever hear, as startling now as it was then in the way that it simply disregards any musical rules. This is industrial electronica closer to Throbbing Gristle than any pop act – or, if we want to continue with the punk connection, a sound not dissimilar to that of early Siouxsie and the Banshees, but with a more controlled and artier bent. If Toyah’s career had continued along these lines, it’s safe to say that she never would’ve graced the sofas of cosy chat shows and Saturday morning kiddies phone-ins.
Maybe the pop stardom was what Toyah wanted – there’s little doubt that she was very ambitious, and if we are to wear a cynic’s hat for a moment, we might note at how easily she took to being part of the mainstream. Perhaps her acting career, which always ran concurrently with her music, simply allowed her to inhabit different roles at different times for different people. It’s hard to say she was wrong to ‘sell-out’ because her career might have simply been a footnote in music history if she hadn’t – any credibility that she lost at that point was arguably borrowed credibility because, without the hit records, her career might have fizzled after a couple of albums anyway. In that sense, what came later didn’t really matter, as it was the work of a different artist (especially as, Alice Cooper-style, Toyah started out as a band and then became a solo artist). At the same time, I know that there are people who will dismiss this album unheard – or, worse still, grudgingly listen to it having already made their minds up and then refuse to be swayed – who would love this if they didn’t know who it was – and disguising it as something else would be a difficult trick to pull off because Toyah had one of the most distinctive voices of the era. Her singing is a mix of punk attitude, yelping, classical singing and ethereal, gothic distance that is entirely her own. At points, Sheep Farming in Barnet reminds me of Kate Bush, but not because the two singers sound alike – they are worlds apart, but they both play with similar vocal experiments and both are singers who have really sought to reinvent what music can be. Ironically, Kate Bush was the more conventional artist in 1979, though the roles were quickly reversed.
The re-release of the album certainly sets new standards for luxury editions. The main album sees an extra eight tracks – unreleased songs, demos and four performances from the band’s appearance in British detective show Shoestring. Then, there’s a second CD of demos and alternative versions, many of them tracks that are not on the original album. And finally, there’s a DVD with a feature-length interview and track-by-track commentary, new acoustic sessions and vintage footage from Granada’s What’s On and The Old Grey Whistle Test – impressively arch and aggressive live performances and embarrassing, of-their-time interview slips. For an album that started life as a six-track seven-inch, it’s an embarrassment of riches.
If you’ve read this far, I’ll assume that you are at least open-minded enough to put aside any preconceptions you might have and give Toyah the benefit of the doubt. Sheep Farming in Barnet feels like a good place to start a further exploration of her fascinating and unpredictable career.
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