❉ A blinding collection of work for a band most see as a one-hit wonder, writes Lee Terry.
The Toy Dolls are a hard band to explain if you’re not already familiar with them, but I shall try. Imagine humorous, high-velocity pop-punk played by a band fronted by a helium-voiced twelve-year-old on a sugar high, backed up by a chorus of Geordie brickies and one of the most astounding guitar players ever to wield a bright yellow Telecaster, doing songs about small town characters, celebrity misdemeanours and soap operas. Best known for their surprise hit single version of Nellie The Elephant in 1984, the Toy Dolls have so far put out thirteen studio albums, three live sets, innumerable compilations, a collection of re-recordings and an acoustic album; pretty good going for a band most see as a one-hit wonder.
For your consideration here, we have the second 5-disc box set from Cherry Red (following on from the equally imaginatively titled The Albums 1983-87), beginning with Ten Years Of Toys. What seems at first glance to be a best-of gathering of earlier works is actually a set of re-recorded songs, though to be frank it’s unclear why this was done – whether for rights issues with previous labels, or dissatisfaction with the original recordings, or some other arcane reasoning.
Few of the versions here improve on the originals, most are practically indistinguishable and a few (eg Dougy Giro, Blue Suede Shoes) are markedly inferior, with some songs suffering badly from the use of a drum machine. Nitpicking aside, the quality of the material is exemplary, with a slew of cherry-picked classics such as She Goes To Fino’s, I’ve Got Asthma, Dig That Groove Baby, My Girlfriend’s Dad’s A Vicar, Firey Jack and The Lambrusco Kid representing an already formidable catalogue.
Next up is Wakey Wakey!, an album that singer/guitarist/mastermind Olga has described as alright. Maybe a little unfair, Wakey Wakey! may not be their best work but it certainly deserves a better epitaph than that. Blasting in with the Piggot-baiting Lester Fiddled The Taxman and the beefy Pot Belly Bill, the album also features the punchy Cloughy Is A Bootboy, a giddy reworking of Chuck Berry’s No Particular Place To Go, the hyperspeed jig of Blaze Of the Borough and a quite astonishing rendition of Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance.
Disc Three gives us Twenty Tunes Live From Tokyo. Well, twenty-two actually, as there’s a couple of bonus songs on there. Recorded surreptitiously on a Walkman by a fan on their first trip to Japan and overdubbed and generally knocked into shape by Olga, it’s a cracking recording of a fine set and a manic audience. The Ashbrooke Launderette, Spiders In The Dressing Room and the mighty Fisticuffs In Frederick Street hurtle past in a blur, while Harry Cross (A Tribute To Edna) ramps up the audience-participation quota. It’s quite surreal hearing a Tokyo audience singing a song about a storyline from Brookside, but then songs about soap operas have always featured heavily in the Toy Dolls’ repertoire – this show also features Deidre’s A Slag (about Coronation Street) and Glenda & The Test Tube Baby (Crossroads) – and the cultural disconnect doesn’t seem to bother the crowd in the slightest…
Fat Bob’s Feet (1991) is the next studio record, and a very good record it is too. High points include the frantic Bitten By A Bed Bug, We Quit The Cavalry, the disarmingly nostalgic Back In ’79, Kids In Tyne & Wear (an hilarious North-Eastern repurposing of a certain Kim Wilde song) and The Sphinx Stinks, while The Coppers Copt Ken’s Cash acts as a sort of tax-evasion sequel to Wakey Wakey!‘s Lester…. Less effective is the bonus track Turtle Crazy, a shameless bit of bandwagon jumping of the Mutant Ninja variety. It’s included twice the second time as a ‘Join In Mix’ (meaning the chorus is muted), when honestly once is too many.
The best, though, is saved until last. 1993’s Absurd-Ditties is reputedly Olga’s personal favourite Dolls album, and it’s easy to see why. Heftier production and more complex song-writing delivered a spectacular offering, from I’m A Telly Addict, through Melancholy Margaret and the rambunctious Ernie Had A Hernia (written about Olga’s older brother and sometime Dolls manager), the apparently fact-based My Wife’s A Psychopath and the Corrie-centric Alec’s Gone (possibly their greatest soap-based song), Caught Up The Reeperbahn and Dez The Demon Decorator it hardly lets up. Two instrumental showcases this time, Drooling Banjos (yes, the thing from Deliverance, in which Olga duels with himself) and a rendition of Bach’s Toccata In Dm that makes Sky’s hit single version sound like a school band. Maybe should have left When You’re Jimmy Saville off the reissue though, eh? OK, it was written long before the, um, revelations, but still, in today’s context its continued presence mars an otherwise incredible album.
So, a blinding (if occasionally imperfect) collection of work by a unique band, which by its inclusion of so many earlier classic songs makes for a excellent jumping-on point (though I’d still recommend getting the previous box too!). I’m already looking forward to The Albums 1995-2004…
❉ Toy Dolls: ‘The Albums – 1989-1993’ 5CD (Captain Oi! AHOYBX382) available now from Cherry Red Records. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records, RRP £21.99.
❉ Lee Terry is a regular We Are Cult contributor and a member of The Kingcrows, Leeds’ scuzziest sleaze-punk-n-roll maniacs.