With the context of the passing of time, this is all brilliantly boundary-pushing music, and The Blue Meaning is an album which could astound the unprepared. Pure gold.
The Cherry Red Toyah reissue programme continues with the second album, 1980’s The Blue Meaning, following on from the excellent reissue of the Sheep Farming In Barnet debut. As with its predecessor, The Blue Meaning is a very different proposition to the impression casual listeners tend to have of the pop-punk singer with the wild hair taking It’s A Mystery and I Want To Be Free to the upper reaches of the singles charts. In truth, that image was always a false one when the albums were listened to in their entirety, but even more in the case of these earliest records. In fact, the next studio album following this would be Anthem, the first big hit album which contained those two singles, but you would never guess that from the music contained here, which is dark, edgy and often brilliantly experimental. The Sheep Farming In Barnet album had contained a great mix of post-punk attitude with a sort of ‘difficult prog’ edge to it, but on this follow-up things got even more serious and uncompromising, both in terms of lyrical matter and musical content, and this three-disc reissue rounds it up with some tremendous extra material from the time to produce a definitive edition if ever there was one.
The big song from this album in terms of its legacy is the fan-favourite, eight-minute opener Ieya, which would go on to be a regular set-closer at Toyah shows right up to the present day, and deservedly so. Defiant and strident, it remains unlike anything else you have ever heard, by turns part post-punk, part prog rock, part hard rock, part psychedelia and part shamanic ritual invocation, with its stream-of-conscious lyrical tirade about the Necronomicon, The Beast, debauchery and other topics far removed from regular chart fodder. It’s a breathless roller-coaster ride of a track, coming back in with another wave of energy and power after each tempo drop, with banks of keyboards giving it that big, proggy, soaring feel when it is needed. In fact, it is very odd hearing the track as the opening song, after it becoming so familiar as a set-closer, and it is so climactic in nature that it almost sets the rest of the album an impossible challenge to follow it.
Almost, but not quite, as the album continues in a bleak and often disturbing way, none more so than the fourth song in, Mummies, which relates to the infamous ‘mummies’ of Guanajuato, Mexico. There used to be a tax payable in that area in order to perform a permanent burial – essentially meaning that if the tax was not paid, the bodies would simply be dug up. Many of these disinterred dead were stored in a nearby building, the atmospheric conditions of which led to a sort of natural mummification process. This ghoulish display began attracting tourists, charged an admission fee by unscrupulous cemetery workers, and eventually – as recently as 1969 in fact – it was actually opened as a museum called El Musea De Las Momias (The Museum Of The Mummies). The song takes this grim scenario one stage further by having it set as one of the mummies in the first person, expressing their yearning to be freed from this eternal limbo as a macabre sideshow attraction. There, you don’t feel so much like warbling the chorus of It’s A Mystery now, I’ll bet!
Far from being a dark departure, that song typifies much of the material’s tone here, from Ghosts and the creepy Insects to the bleak title track, which turns a vision of an industrialised, ruined landscape into a nightmare invocation of a dystopian future without free will or individuality as mankind slaves away as a sort of hive-mind workforce in great factories, conjuring up William Blake’s ‘dark Satanic mills’ imagery. The real treat, if it can be called that, however, comes in the shape of the closing track, She, bookending things perfectly as a companion to Ieya. Driven on remorselessly by a sledgehammer repetitive riff, accompanied by wordless, chanting background voices, it could seriously unnerve the listener if alone in the dark! The lyric is graphically perverse and disturbing in its dispassionate mantra regarding sex, loveless whoring and abuse. To say there aren’t a lot of laughs is an understatement, but it is powerful enough to hit you in the gut and keep hitting you until it finally lets up.
As if that wasn’t enough, the first disc here has nine bonus tracks, most of which are alternate versions or demos of songs later used as something else. Indeed, several songs here turned up in retitled and reimagined form as the accompanying tracks to that Mystery song on the Four From Toyah EP. There is also a version of Danced from the debut album which is extraordinarily good, and arguably the best version of that classic song. The second disc is filled with more such rarities, including three live tracks and some instrumental versions of songs from the main album, with a particularly impressive one being a version of the title track which is extended with a different vocal and extended lyric, which is even more darkly resonant than the album version. There are also some demos of songs which would go on to appear on the Anthem album, including an instrumental itself entitled Anthem which would end up being turned into I Want To Be Free, with the vocal added later. The pick of this disc is an early version – the original version in fact – of It’s A Mystery, recorded by a band called Blood Donor with Toyah supplying vocals. It is notably devoid of the later pop sensibilities and commercial sheen added to it, and fits more into the nihilistically dark tone of The Blue Meaning than its final form. It’s hard to describe it as ‘better’, as it is such a startlingly different take, but it is certainly a more interesting listen after decades of familiarity with the ‘hit’.
Finally, a third disc is a DVD with video content. As well as fascinating interview footage with Toyah herself going through the album, there is also a three-song acoustic set and a tremendous 1980 appearance on the TV show Friday Night Saturday Morning, doing Danced and Mummies. It’s a strange thing to say but, decades on and free of the tribal baggage which existed back then between ‘new wave’ and ‘prog’, the later union between Toyah and King Crimson’s Robert Fripp is much less of an unlikely one than it once appeared. In fact, when taking these early Toyah recordings and putting them against the material that Fripp would be making a year later with the reformed Discipline-era Crimson, it is a fully credible argument that Toyah could be seen as doing just as much of a cutting-edge prog rock reinvention as Crimson, albeit under a very different guise. With the context of the passing of time, this is all brilliantly boundary-pushing music, and The Blue Meaning is an album which could astound the unprepared. Pure gold.