❉ This is a fine time to look back at the solo career of an underrated artist.
“I’m too qualified, to give up lie down and die. This is my unsentimental education.”
Toyah Willcox has been a household name since her eponymous band burst onto the UK pop charts in the early 1980s. Juggling her musical career with high profile work as an actress on stage and screen, and a string of television presenting work was both a blessing for her career longevity and a poisoned chalice when it came to her enduring legacy as an artist in her own right.
The release of Solo – the first ever Toyah boxset – is the first step for Willcox and her faithful master of the archives Craig Astley in a bid to right those wrongs.
Compiling most – but crucially not all – of Toyah’s solo albums released since the Toyah band broke up in 1984, alongside a collection of rare and unreleased material, plus a bonus DVD, the release starts a dedicated reissue campaign which continues with standalone coloured vinyl pressings of almost every studio album in the set in March, bringing most of them back into print for the first time in over a decade.
First up is 1985’s Minx – Toyah’s solo debut and her only recording for CBS/Epic Records. The Toyah band had burned brightly since 1978, with multiple top ten hits and the Anthem album narrowly missing out on topping the UK Album Charts in 1981. Yet, by 1983 the general public appeared to be moving on, and singles from that year’s Love is the Law failed to crack the Top 20. By 1984, Toyah’s primary songwriting partner and band mainstay Joel Bogen had decided to move on, and Willcox began searching for a new contract, very much as a solo artist.
Enter new CBS subsidiary label Portrait. The 26 year old hit maker was a high-profile signing for the fledgling label, and they set about promising larger budgets than Willcox had ever had before for her elaborate ideas. But while the album boasted stunning cover photography from Terence Donovan, Toyah’s own songwriting was relegated to only 50% of the track listing, with a push from the label to crack the elusive US market leading to an enforced songwriting team structure, with a couple of carefully chosen cover versions selected to make up the rest of the material.
Whilst it’s safe to say that Minx hasn’t dated as well as Toyah’s previous records, the album still contains some magnificent moments – from the haunting string & vocal only take on Rare Bird’s Sympathy, to the high-NRG hysteria of the final Willcox/Bogen composition, All In A Rage.
Yet, with a glossy production sheen, the album was absolutely not what the Toyah faithful had in mind. Initial single Don’t Fall in Love (I Said) stalled in the lower reaches of the top thirty, and subsequent singles missed the Top 40 altogether. Portrait folded shortly afterwards – leaving the album out of print until a reissue in 2005. Sadly, this was to be a situation that Toyah would find herself in again throughout the following years, thanks to her subsequent signing with EG Records – a company who infamously lost millions of artist royalties in the early 1990s (including those of Toyah’s husband, Robert Fripp), prompting high profile legal battles that kept most of this material out of print until the millennium.
First up was 1987’s Desire (here getting its first ever CD reissue, though a limited red vinyl pressing was released on Record Store Day a few years ago should you wish to complement those new vinyl reissues). The album itself didn’t chart in the UK, though lead single Echo Beach (a cover of the Martha and the Muffins track that’s arguably superior to the original) did manage to scrape to #54 that year.
Unfairly ignored due to its relative obscurity, Desire is a better album than its predecessor – perhaps because it’s a little bit more certain of what it wants to be. Songs like Moonlight Dancing and The View feel like a continuation of the sound that the Toyah band was developing on Love is the Law, and while it is just as rooted in the production of the period as Minx was (check out those snare drums on When a Woman Cries), the album does contain some of Toyah’s most heartfelt material, and a nice guest slot for Ronnie Wood too.
Then again, like Minx before it, the record has compromises. EG Records insisted Toyah cover the Donna Summer song Love’s Unkind – and while as a listener there’s lots to enjoy in this summery take on the song, Willcox absolutely detested it and only recorded the track under protest because the very existence of the album was under threat if she didn’t concede.
With the commercial failure of Desire bringing to an end Toyah’s commercial period, Willcox was left feeling she had become – in her own words – “staid and predictable”. Angry at the way her marriage to Robert Fripp had highlighted blatant sexism within the music industry, Wilcox poured all her fury into an aggressively creative period and one of her boldest projects to date.
Prostitute was an experimental record made entirely out of samples, live drums from Steve Syldnick, minimal instrumentation from Toyah, and her unmistakable vocal delivery. Much like David Bowie’s 1.Outside would seven years later, the album features Willcox utilising effects to distort her voice into different characters, and layering up soundscapes over which she half-speaks, half-sings cryptic poetry and crude aggression.
Perhaps because it sounds like nothing else before or since, it’s barely aged a day, whilst the raw issues at its fast beating heart make it a vital recording not just of Willcox’s career, but of the 1980s. That it’s been unavailable since a very limited print run in 2003 is a crying shame, and one hopes that the highlights of this bold and fascinating record will finally reach a wider audience this time around. While Billboard Magazine in America joined the hype around the album, stating it was “the dawning of a new era” for Willcox, and it went on to be cited by feminist theorists for years to come, the album again did not chart, and Toyah went back to the drawing board.
1991’s Ophelia’s Shadow was actually one of two albums released by the group line up of Willcox, Fripp, Trey Gunn and Paul Beavis: the other being the same year’s Kneeling at the Shrine credited to the band Sunday All Over The World and therefore not part of this current batch of reissues. A gentler affair than its predecessor – the album’s less abrasive, brooding heart has an ambient core to its sonic canvas that calls forwards to latter day Kate Bush. Indeed, my first reaction upon hearing 2005’s much acclaimed Aerial album was that it was just the softer bits of Ophelia’s Shadow with less interesting tunes!
Not that there isn’t a spike here… The Shamen Says may be haunting and atmospheric, but then there’s the discordant drive of Prospect. There’s a song called Ghost Light which has long been rumoured to have been inspired by the Doctor Who story of the same name. And with Lords of the Never Known, Toyah doesn’t just showcase how much of an influence David Bowie was on her work, but also seems to predate the jazz-tinged art-rock of some of his later works like Bring Me The Disco King or Sue (Or In a Season of Crime).
With EG Records collapsing inwards, Toyah suddenly found herself without a record label. Undeterred, she went off to Berlin to record with progressive jazz-rock band Kiss of Reality (these songs are included as bonus tracks in the box set), then setting about recording ambient tribal demos with dance musician Phil Nicholas.
During this period, she also began revisiting her back catalogue, reconstructing some of the songs she’d recorded with the Toyah band in an early ’90s alt-rock style with her new live band Friday Forever. A fusing of these various projects resulted in the album Take the Leap.
In the UK, the album was initially released as Leap! – a cassette only set which was sold exclusively on tour. Plans for a commercial release on CD stalled, except for in Japan, and it took until 2006 for the rest of the world to get hold of a copy, and another 8 years before it was released digitally.
Which, of course, is a huge shame, because the album has some energetic new material – the raucous rocker Lust for Love is a highlight of the period, and Winter in Wonderland is a timeless ballad which still sounds fresh. It’s true that the new recordings of the catalogue tracks all pale in comparison to their originals, but as a time capsule of how they were performed live in 1994, they’re a solid record of times long since past.
Throughout the rest of the ’90s, Toyah released three more studio albums, though all of them are conspicuously absent from the Solo box set and the vinyl reissue series. 1994’s Dreamchild was a dance-orientated piece led by producer Mike Bennett which was later reissued under the name Pheonix (with an additional track). Given it was last given a reissue by Cherry Red in 2010, this doesn’t feel like a huge shame: Toyah’s writing credits for the album were minimal, it’s easy to skip this one as a curious side-line collaboration.
The following year saw the release of two albums of reconstituted classics. Looking Back featured twelve new reworkings of (mostly) Safari-era material – and eight of these (arguably the best eight) do make it into the Solo set, and five join the Take the Leap vinyl release to make up Side Four.
Completely absent from the current campaign however, is the mostly sublime The Acoustic Album which featured 15 more reworkings and strings from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Given Toyah’s previously stated that the strings version of It’s A Mystery from this record should be played at her funeral it feels an odd omission and one can only hope that a future release will finally bring this record to vinyl.
Then in 2002, a full eight years since her last new compositions and seven since her last recordings, Toyah returned with the Little Tears of Love EP – initially sold exclusively on tour. Three of its four tracks received a commercial release with three new songs the following year via the Velvet Lined Shell mini-album. Both projects were collaborations with songwriter Tim Elsenberg, and the band formed for the recording continued working together as Sweet Billy Pilgrim, who have gained a cult following in their own right since. The only song on Little Tears of Love which is not on Velvet Lined Shell was Experience – a track which Sweet Billy Pilgrim later recorded in their own right, and while it’s included in the Solo set, it’s sadly not been squeezed onto the Velvet Lined Shell vinyl, despite being one of Toyah’s finest moments.
But then, you could say the same about all six tracks that do appear on this record. Arguably her most radio-friendly work since her chart-bothering hits in the early 1980s, at the time of release comparisons were made to Garbage, Tori Amos and the new wave of alt.rock bands who had risen up in the late ’90s. Willcox is on fire here – from the swagger of Every Scar Has a Silver Lining and Troublesome Thing to the haunting love song Mother, and the feelgood vibes of You’re a Miracle, this six song set is possibly her finest artistic statement since Joel Bogen departed and it’s a joy to finally have a vinyl version on the way 17 years late.
Sadly, the record was – like everything else in this collection, mostly ignored. Indeed, upon release Toyah didn’t tour with the band, but instead ended up making an ill-fated appearance on I’m a Celebrity instead!
But while Willcox has continued to battle her mainstream work as a presenter with her commitment to her music, she has continued to experiment in the years since. A selection of seven additional songs (mostly collaborations) recorded between 2004 and 2019 round out the Solo set, but the story doesn’t end there.
2008 saw the release of the sublime In the Court of the Crimson Queen album, reuniting Toyah with Simon Darlow who had been part of the final Toyah band line up and was part of the songwriting team on Minx all those years earlier. The album was reworked in 2019 with new production, new instrumentation and an alternate tracklisting, and released for Record Store Day on purple vinyl, with an expanded CD version coming a few weeks later. This new version has superseded the original on all platforms, so hang on to your original CD pressings if you want to hear how it was first intended, but both are worth owning if you can!
Between these two versions of Crimson Queen, Toyah released three albums as part of The Humans – a minimalist collaboration with REM drummer Bill Rieflin and her regular live guitarist Chris Wong. Wong was also a part of another project – This Fragile Moment – who released a self-titled ambient record in 2010. And with Willcox still bouncing up and down the country as a regular on the live circuit, it’s safe to say that there’s much more to come from Toyah yet.
So while the Solo set pulls together most – if not all – of her work since 1985, this is a fine time to look back at the career of an underrated artist who has fought against compromise time and time again, and ultimately won out with her own singular vision.
Given how long it’s been since most of this material has been available, this set – and particularly the vinyl reissues – are a long time coming. And best of all, Toyah has teased that this is only the beginning… could a set of 1978-1983 reissues be next? Or a brand new album? Or both?
Either way, my wallet is going to feel the strain, but my ears are going to have the BEST TIME.
❉ ‘Toyah: Solo’ was released on 28th February 2020 by Esdel Records. Individual vinyl reissues of Minx, Prostitute, Ophelia’s Shadow, Take the Leap and Velvet Lined Shell are released on 13th March 2020 by Esdel Records.
❉ A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Paul Holmes ran alternative comedy site The Velvet Onion for eight years, and has written for Arts Council England, Music News, various theatres and the rock band Queen. Follow him on Twitter: @didymusbrush