Looking back at Toyah’s magnificent 1981 breakthrough album and its dystopian, rebellious sci-fi concepts.
Back in the 1980s, when teenage musical tribalism was at its height, stepping out of your lane was simply not the done thing. Yet for many of us, the strict divisions that split punk from metal from pop and all points in between seemed increasingly ludicrous and arbitrary, as much based on what a band or performer looked like as on their musical output. I rather threw all that aside very early into my teenage musical fixation. After all, bands themselves – especially what we now call classic rock but what at the time was often dismissed as old farts* – were sneered at for chasing trends, sometimes with good reason but often unfairly in retrospect. There was nothing wrong with developing and experimenting with your sound, and those artists who managed to escape the sneering by remaining defiantly art rock – Peter Gabriel, say – were just as likely to be making albums that were nothing like their past work and, in retrospect, very much of their time.
This preamble leads us to your author’s curious fascination with Toyah, who was – depending on which period of her career in the 1980s you were talking about – seen as a punk or a pop star. I’ve already made the case that she was neither, at least musically at the start of her career – the ‘pop star’ dismissal by former punk admirers has a bit more credibility as her career shifted towards kid’s TV appearances, increasingly less arty record covers and more radio-friendly singles, but we could make that particular accusation against many performers. Once Toyah had a couple of hits – which we’ll come to shortly – then she was unavoidable, and as a teenager with a fascination for the terminally uncool worlds of prog, art rock and industrial music, there was something that drew me to her. The hit singles were undeniably catchy but you immediately got the sense that there was something else there. I bought her double live album Warrior Rock from the remainder bins of WH Smith as a sort of low-cost experiment and also picked up the re-released single Ieya – admittedly drawn by the clear vinyl/picture disc combo because I was a sucker for gimmick vinyl. Toyah was, by this point, very uncool – having lost the punk purists, she was also on the verge of the hit singles drying up. This was, in other words, the ideal time for someone like me to get into her music.
I also picked up a second-hand copy of her breakthrough album Anthem, which remained in my record collection for a very brief time before falling foul of my occasional clear-outs and a sudden disillusionment with music that saw me go from buying a couple of albums a week to none for over two years. Getting rid of that album was a source of continual regret because unlike the other albums that made their way back to the second-hand market, this was an extraordinary record. The record’s return to my possession as a multi-disc, bells and whistles special edition on CD is therefore very welcome (the new vinyl edition seems even more desirable but you can’t have everything).
Let’s first look at the original album. In fact, let’s first get those hit singles – the ones that shifted Toyah from underground post-punk arty experimentalist to appearances on Swap Shop and Cheggers Plays Pop – out of the way. For some people, an artist having hit singles is the point of departure, the moment of ‘sell-out’ even if the hit single sounds exactly the same as the rest of their output and even if these purist fans only discovered the music that they are now so devoted to through hit singles by other acts. Toyah had two big chart singles taken from Anthem – It’s a Mystery and I Want to Be Free, both of which remain the songs that people associate with her. For better or worse, they are career-defining tracks in that sense.
It’s a Mystery started out as the lead track on the EP Four from Toyah; actually, it started out as an instrumental by Blood Donor, a band that Toyah Willcox had dabbled with after the first incarnation of her bad had split. We should, of course, point out that Toyah was a band, not a solo act – like Alice Cooper before them, having a band named after the lead singer was always going to lead to confusion about creative ownership and band status. The EP was the first try-out for the new line-up and producer Nick Tauber and gave them a fresh direction. The lead track was a commercial, if ethereal number – far removed from anything we might call ‘punk’. It’s keyboard-heavy, though not in the synth-pop, New Romantic style of its 1981 contemporaries – if anything, it feels like prog rock’s more commercial moments. Not for nothing did Tauber end up producing Marillion – this could easily fit with their poppier moments. It’s also hook-driven and infectious – and it feels like a great introduction to the album, where it is given a slightly meatier, rockier mix and opens side two.
I want to Be Free calls back to punk rebellion, maybe a bit too much at points – but its message of individualism and lightweight anarchy is good-hearted fun. Essentially, it’s the most ‘pop’ thing on the album and is an interesting choice as the opener. It doesn’t really set the mood for the rest of the record, but equally, I can’t think where else it could go. Having it as the opening song perhaps allows the record to get it out of the way – which sounds more dismissive than I intend. It’s a great little pop song in its own right but it perhaps belongs somewhere else. I miss the days when bands treated and released singles and albums as entirely different things, recognising that what works on one format might not work on another.
The album is broken into two halves – two sides, as we used to have. Once Upon a Time and Happy Ever After? are not necessarily that separate but there is definitely the whiff of the concept album here. Whether that is by design or coincidence is open to question but there is a definite thematic style running through here, a sci-fi-influenced post-prog experimentalism showing that Toyah was far from a mere pop act at this point. Track two, Obsolete, is the punkiest thing here in terms of being a loud, fast, aggressive tune – after that, things get decidedly odd. You have to wonder what the pop kids who bought the album on the back of the hits made of tracks like Pop Star (which, despite the title, is defiantly removed from anything resembling pop music) or the weirdly discordant Elocution Lesson, a track that still sounds unlike anything else that you’ve heard – well, maybe not anything, but your comparisons will nearer acts like Diamanda Galas than anything in the charts at the time.
Jungles of Jupiter is an infectiously bouncy slice of space rock, diving deep into the fantasy scenarios of Hawkwind and their fellow astral travellers as well as the spaced-out themes of a lot of prog. Look, I know I keep mentioning progressive rock here but it’s inescapable. Whether Toyah was consciously aware of it or not (and Willcox admits to being a huge Tolkein fan in the booklet notes, so reach your own conclusions), this is much closer to prog than punk. It might be the prog of the 1980s, which was always more song-structured than the more indulgent experimentation of the 1970s, but still. Is it too much to say that this album was probably a huge influence on that second wave of progressive rock that emerged shortly after this album came out? I think not.
There’s a fair amount of tribal beats at work through this album, most notably on Masai Boy, a track that would doubtless be seen as cultural appropriation or such these days rather than the character study that it is. It feels like one of the weaker moments here, to be honest – and I have to say that white Western songs about the African tribal experience rarely come across well. However, it sets up a warrior theme for side two that continues with the moody Marionette and the bleak Demolition Men adding to the futuristic dystopian theme that has run through the album – this might be an LP offering visions of the future, but that future doesn’t seem to be a particularly bright one.
Willcox, of course, was an actor as well as a singer – and you can feel the two sides of her career blurring across this album, with dramatic readings of the texts throughout. She’s not a classically good singer – but she’s perfect for this material, adding a sense of the theatrical to the album. On that note, we should mention the impressive stereo mix that includes gasps, crashes and other sound effects that make the whole thing seem intriguingly cinematic.
The two sides end with tracks that are a conscious reflection: I Am and We Are, statements of identity that move from the individualism that began with I Want to be Free to a collective statement of rebellion against a controlling, violent world. We Are returns the album to a world of pop beats and (literal) escapism after taking us on a surprisingly dark journey.
The new edition of the album includes the original Four from Toyah EP, which features non-album tracks like War Boys – a live favourite that might have been a better choice for the album than Masai Boy if a track about war boys was required – and Angels & Demons. There are also B-sides and tracks from a Flexipop disc. Disc Two has the Thunder in the Mountains single and its B-sides – another hit single that seemed a step into the pop world at the time but now feels suitably anthemic (so ideal for inclusion here, you might say) – as well as a 1981 BBC In Concert six-track live recording from the Paris Theatre in London, alongside instrumentals and outtakes. The DVD disc on the album has new interviews and new performances of the hits, promo videos and TV performances on Top of the Pops, Something Else and those pesky kid’s shows mentioned earlier. If you go for the luxury edition that comes with two vinyl LPs, you also get a third CD of instrumentals, tough cuts and outtakes. If there is anything left from the album sessions after this, I think we can safely say that you don’t need it.
Anthem is, without question, a great album – one that has probably been overlooked by a lot of people who would love this simply because of who recorded it. Toyah – as a band or a solo artist – continues to be a line in the sand for some people, an act not to be taken seriously. We might think that Willcox dug a hole for herself with a shift from fronting a band to being a solo artist (or at least someone widely perceived as such) playing increasingly throwaway pop that would only ever have a short shelf life – but that was long after this album and plenty of other acts have done worse and been forgiven, even eulogised by fans and critics. It’s tempting to think that some people still have a problem with the theatrical female singer and her extravagant hairstyles – but that is surely impossible in this day and age. More likely is that no one can get past the idea of Toyah as pop punk and refuse to even listen to the albums – and isn’t that a little sad? They’ll never know what they’re missing, but it’s their loss. For everyone else – we very much suggest picking this up. If you think you know what Toyah was from the hit singles, you’ll be in for quite a surprise.
* These were men – mostly men – in their early thirties whose careers were barely a decade old. Such was the ruthlessness of youth culture at the time.
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