Any time is a good time to have Toyah’s often-overlooked early ’80s albums revisited, but in this case there seems to be no more expedient occasion to have this album back in the public eye, in its most impressive form yet. Toyah has come to prominence very much on social media during the Covid pandemic and associated lockdowns, appearing in a series of light-hearted and very amusing videos with her husband, Robert Fripp. Now, many of those in the ‘prog rock’ fraternity – who may have passed over Toyah’s output with little more than a cursory glance at the hit singles – have been fond of expressing their surprise at the union of the ultra-serious King Crimson frontman, with his almost ‘Prog Godfather’ reputation, and the woman often looked back on as a kind of ‘post-punk pixie’ with wild hair and a handful of hits. This album comes out just at the right time to remind people that, in truth, the relative musical outputs of both parties at the dawn of the 1980s really weren’t as far apart as you may think. This isn’t punk, and it certainly isn’t pop-punk. If you want to give it a name at all, art-punk is closer, as what is found among the 41 tracks here is a brilliantly adventurous mix of the post-punk approach of bands like Magazine or Wire, combined with an art-rock influence in the music itself, which is astonishingly mature considering these were 20 year olds at the time.
The original Sheep Farming In Barnet was, of course, not intended to be the Toyah debut album at all, but a six-track EP (or ‘AP’, for ‘Alternative Play’, as it was identified) which was released in the UK in late 1979. It is worth remembering, incidentally, that in the same way as Alice Cooper for example, ‘Toyah’ was the name of the band, not just its singer. The original six-song release was expanded to an eleven-track album with other recorded material for release overseas, and the decision was taken to release that version in early 1980 as the de facto Toyah debut. As a fan at the time, having come to the party a couple of albums later, I admit I had a tendency to underrate this debut as a formative, tentative effort, and while it is true that Ms Willcox and the band were finding their studio feet at the time, these recordings actually show some of the most adventurous and – yes – progressive work that they ever did.
The original album is a sterling work, containing such superb material as Neon Womb, Race Through Space, Victims Of The Riddle and, probably the first accepted ‘Toyah Classic’ in the shape of Danced, which would find its true home in incendiary live performances, happily captured later on a couple of live albums. To further add fuel to the ‘prog’ connection, it is a documented fact that Marillion first approached Nick Tauber as producer after admiring his work on Toyah’s third studio album Anthem, and listening to, for example, the guitar and keyboards in Race Through Space, it’s hard not to imagine them giving this one a few spins in those early days. The first disc sees the album augmented by nine more tracks, which are absolutely essential. There are both sides of the Bird In Flight / Tribal Look single (the former being an overlooked classic which really should have been a hit), impressive non-album tracks Love Me and Gaoler, and an alternative mix of Tribal Look which improves on the original. Perhaps best of all are four album tracks, including Danced, which were re-recorded for an episode of the TV detective series Shoestring which starred Toyah herself. The four pieces are all recorded in a slicker, slightly more ‘rocky’ way – probably for the TV audience – and all four are superb companion pieces. It’s an exemplary first disc, with scarcely a moment wasted.
The second disc adds 21 more tracks of demos and alternative versions, and rather than disposable single edits and the like, almost all of these add considerable worth. The opening four early demos from May 1978 include Close Encounters, an embryonic version of what would become Danced later, featuring a tremendous instrumental coda with guitarist Joel Bogen and keyboard player Pete Bush fully showing off their ‘prog chops’. The oddly titled Watch Me Sane is another standout from this set of demos, which belie the still-teenage status of some of the band at the time (Bogen in particular is hugely accomplished). Further demos from December ’78 include, in addition to tracks which would make the album, two more unissued songs of note in the shape of the excellent Israel and Christmas Carol (the latter featuring a chorus hook which reminds me incredibly strongly of something else, yet for the life of me I can’t place it!). Alternative mixes of some album tracks may not add as much (with the exception of Neon Womb, shorn of its familiar sax), but another clutch of demos rounds things off in excellent style. In fact, the final track Three Sided Face is one of the crown jewels of this whole collection. With a very thought-provoking lyric and fully-realised musical arrangement, it’s nothing short of criminal that this song was previously only available on mid-’80s unofficial grab-bag album Mayhem.
There is a DVD as well, which includes acoustic performances, film of the band on the Old Grey Whistle Test and Toyah giving her own thoughts on the album, but that’s the icing on the cake. The music alone is easily enough for this reissue to stand proud as a massive improvement to an already excellent album. Yes, one could point out that Toyah has yet to fully discipline her vocal style, occasionally utilising swoops and dives to notes which perhaps could have been smoothed out, but by the same token she is clearly using her voice as an ‘instrument’, and it shows what an impressive range she actually had. Whisper it quietly, but if I was offered either this album or the following year’s Discipline by Fripp’s reunited King Crimson, I might just take this one…
And the best thing? There is so much more to come! I for one can’t wait