This is, of all the Toyah reissues this far, also recommended to the casual fan. It contains just as much challenging ‘meat’ as the previous albums, but with the familiar hooks which will help less seasoned travellers navigate the truly fascinating outposts. Unreservedly recommended.
With this 2CD/DVD set, the deluxe Toyah reissue campaign from Cherry Red reaches 1981 – with an amazing four releases having spanned the previous two years from 1979. Anthem, the third studio album, was both the mainstream breakthrough and simultaneously an album which almost didn’t get made. Following the previous year’s live album Toyah! Toyah! Toyah!, the band (which we must remind ourselves, was itself named ‘Toyah’, in much the same way as ‘Alice Cooper’ was originally the band name as well as the frontman) fell apart, leaving just Toyah herself and creative lynchpin guitarist Joel Bogen. A short-lived band was assembled but quickly fell apart again after not really working out, and it seemed as if Toyah, the band, might be done. Toyah herself almost became the full-time vocalist with the band Blood Donor, who had the original version of It’s A Mystery in their repertoire, but after a few demo recordings that didn’t come to fruition. Nick Tauber, recruited as producer again after his work on the live album, pulled together a new crew along with Bogen, comprising bassist Phil Spalding, keyboardist Adrian Lee and future Saxon drummer Nigel Glockler. The new line-up recorded and released the four-track EP Four From Toyah early in 1981, with It’s A Mystery as its lead track, and the record’s unexpected massive success ensured the would not look back from that point on.
The album Anthem, released later in the year, became Toyah’s biggest seller to this point by some profound distance, thanks in no small part to both It’s A Mystery and also I Want To Be Free preceding the album’s release as top ten singles. It is also the album with which I personally entered the Toyah orbit back then as, in 1982, as a confirmed prog rock fan with only a smattering of Toyah’s hits to my knowledge, I heard that Marillion had elected to use Nick Tauber as producer having been impressed by his work on Anthem and, my curiosity piqued, I decided to investigate. What I found pulled me in to investigate the rest of the catalogue, both past and future, as Anthem is a remarkable record. Straight away it must be said that, contrary to many people’s expectations from the hit singles (particularly I Want To Be Free), Anthem is in no way a commercialisation or any form of ‘sell-out’ of the previous wild experimentalism of the first two albums. It is merely pulled into sharper focus and tied to more consistently excellent songwriting.
Having said that, the record does announce itself a little misleadingly to casual listeners as it leads off with I Want To Be Free. While still an excellent single, and one which it is difficult to avoid singing along to, it is the closest to straight ‘pop’ on the album. Following that up, however, we hit the real deep-cut meat of the release, with the driving and insistent Obsolete giving way to one of the album’s most avant-garde moments, the decidedly misleadingly-titled Pop Star, which is anything but. Harking back to the heady mix of ‘art-rock’ and post-punk which ran through the Sheep Farming In Barnet album in particular, it is a jarring and unnerving track which must have confused the buyers from the Top Of The Pops audience no end! Still, at least it will have prepared them for the following Elocution Lesson, which is deliciously sinister and menacing. When those teen popsters reached this one, lyrics such as ‘The door is a whore, and it’s open wide / Naked as the beast, we feast inside’ must have made them feel a long way from ‘So what if I dye my hair’, only three tracks ago! Next up we get the mix of ‘white reggae’ and soaring chorus which is the brilliant Jungles Of Jupiter, more accessible but still a long way from simplistic chart-friendly song construction, before what was the first side of vinyl ends with I Am – breathy, whispered, intimate and, again, slightly unnerving in its hypnotic mantra effect. It’s a great side of vinyl. But a better one was to come.
The old second side opens with the monster hit It’s A Mystery. A deceptively complex and intricate song instrumentally, it manages to fuse that with mature and thoughtful lyrics and a chart sensibility which made it a perfect hit single. It’s a slightly different version to the single, but not overwhelmingly so unless you listen for it. Masai Boy follows this, a brave and creditably successful attempt to invoke a reflection of authentic African tribal beliefs and ritual chanting. It could have been awkward in other hands, but they make it work extremely well. Next up, Marionette, is possibly the album’s standout moment – allegedly written about Margaret Thatcher in the guise of malignant and controlling puppet-master, it has a huge chorus which could satisfy the most demanding heavy rock fan. You could call it a ‘power ballad’, but you would be doing it a grave disservice to do so. Lyrically, it has always bothered me slightly that the ‘marionette’ of the song, which ‘pulls the strings’, seems wrong, as the marionette would, in general usage be the puppet itself rather than the puppeteer, but since ‘The Marionettist pulls the strings’ would sound clumsy, it is one of those examples where the sound and the effect outweighs the pedantic examination. It remains one of Toyah’s most underrated and overlooked songs, and is a genuine classic. The powerful Demolition Men, all dystopian lyrical imagery and darkly claustrophobic atmosphere, leads into the final track, the joyous release of We Are, which apparently was considered as a single release, and really should have been. There is, to my mind, little doubt that it could have easily cracked the top ten, yet once again there is no lack of depth, as it brings the album to a brilliant conclusion.
The disc concludes with a tremendous run of bonus tracks, as we get the whole of the Four From Toyah EP, including the single version of It’s A Mystery, along with the two B-sides of I Want To Be Free (Walkie Talkie and Alien) as well as two tracks from a magazine cover-mount flexidisc in the shape of For You and the excellent Sphinx. The EP is particularly noteworthy, consisting as it does of four consistently excellent tracks, with War Boy, the darkly anti-nuclear Revelations and the standout Angels And Demons all marvellous to have collected here.
As with all of these editions though, there is much more beyond that first disc. The second CD here is stuffed full of goodies, beginning with all three tracks from the non-album single Thunder In The Mountains. From there it only gets better, with a full 35-minute, six-song BBC live broadcast from the Paris Theatre recorded in April, a month before the album’s release. It’s a remarkable, if frustratingly brief set. War Boys and Angels And Demons are great additions, while there is room for a fine version of the debut album’s Neon Womb. The crowd favourite Danced is perhaps a slightly subdued rendition, but the final two tracks are astonishing. The version of It’s A Mystery here blows every other recording of it I’ve ever heard out of the water, only a couple of months after its release and still sounding incredibly fresh. Taken at a faster pace and walking an edgy tightrope of energetic abandon and tight musical precision, it’s utterly definitive. The finale of the broadcast is, of course, Ieya, and what a run through this is! Introduced jokingly by Toyah as being ‘an hour long version, to frighten the BBC who want us to only do 35 minutes’, what we get may be substantially shorter than that, but nonetheless is slung out with such force that one feels it could have gone on for that full hour and still not overstayed its welcome. The broadcast is a brilliant find, and also raises a smile midway through, just before Danced, when Toyah comments that she believes some people are in from Leicester, and asks if anyone else has come ‘from a long way away’, to which some guy shouts out ‘Stevenage!’ – now I know it was some time ago, but I don’t believe even 40 years ago that a trek of 30 miles or so required a compass and a team of sherpas…
Following this on the disc are a series of seven instrumental tracks, recorded during and after the album sessions. Four of these make the album, while three others, titled Joel & Phil, Turkish Delight and Television, are unused yet full of potential. Normally, instrumental versions of otherwise released songs are skippable at best, but there is an exception here in the form of the extended instrumental take of It’s A Mystery, which is a revelation to listen to. Shorn of the vocals which are unavoidably the usual focal point, it is fascinating to hear the nuances of the backing track, which are so intricate and precise that it makes for an absorbing listen on its own merits. Not only that, it adds considerable weight to the experience of hearing the finished song again afterwards, as various instrumental contributions become apparent in what they add almost unconsciously to the track. It’s something I would never have expected to be a highlight, and yet it is. All in all, a great disc.
That’s still not all. however, as there is a DVD which rounds up some great vintage TV material, as well as Toyah herself being interviewed about the album in fascinating form. There’s a 2021 semi-acoustic three-song session as well, but the contemporary 1981 stuff includes the promo videos for I Want To Be Free and Thunder In The Mountains (you know the one, the iconic and visually startling chariot ride), but also three Top Of The Pops appearances as well as such diverse slots as I Want To Be Free on the ghastly Cheggers Plays Pop, It’s A Mystery on Swap Shop and finally Thunder In The Mountains and, amazingly, Ieya in a live session on the oft-forgotten ‘made by youths for youths’ BBC2 show Something Else.
There is also a super-deluxe release containing a double vinyl album as well as another CD stuffed with instrumental and other alternative versions for the real collector, but this three-disc edition marks the sweet spot for those wanting the real quality stuff with one eye on their purse strings. As expected, the packaging is impeccably presented, coming as it does in a four-panel digipak foldout together with a sumptuously illustrated and extremely informative booklet, including the thoughts of Toyah herself. Toyah fans, of course, will find this as essential as all of the releases in this series, but this is, of all the Toyah reissues this far, also recommended to the casual fan. It contains just as much challenging ‘meat’ as the previous albums, but with the familiar hooks which will help less seasoned travellers navigate the truly fascinating outposts. Unreservedly recommended.