Regular readers of this blog won’t be surprised that this scribe is an avid viewer of BBC 4’s Top of the Pops re-runs, a point I soon confess to my latest interviewee, Toyah Willcox.
“Oh, God bless those!”
The more recently re-aired shows take me back to my early teens, at a time when this highly-recognisable West Midlands raised actress and singer was enjoying a string of hits, not least the distinctive It’s a Mystery, Thunder in the Mountains and I Want To Be Free.
Admittedly, you’ve always had to wade through a lot of rubbish on Top of the Pops, recent examples ranging from Captain Beaky and Joe Dolce to The Snowmen and Starsound. But it also makes me realise how many great characters there were in music at the time. ‘Old bloke with rose-tinted nostalgic specs’ alert, but the charts today just don’t seem to have that same level of OTT theatricality. This was after all an era when the disparate likes of Adam Ant, Buster Bloodvessel, Clare Grogan, Hazel O’Connor, John Lydon, Lee John, Siouxsie Sioux and Ms Willcox herself were beamed into our front rooms on Thursday nights. Just where are the characters now?
“It was phenomenal back then. There were big characters out there. We all had to perform live and came up performing live. There were very few contrived acts. A very different time. We also all wrote, and I think it’s really important to write your own material. It was almost a dirty word to do somebody else’s song.
“I had to be coerced into doing Echo Beach (1987). That was a hit for me, but I felt a sense of shame at the time. Now I absolutely love performing it. Back then it was really important that the songs were your voice.”
With all those top-40 singles (eight) and albums (seven) Toyah had between 1980 and 1985, does she see those years as just one chapter of the career? For while the big hits dried up, she continued to record, and the crowds are still coming out for her.
“How can I explain it? I found it incredibly stressful having to produce four hit singles a year. That dampens your enthusiasm. The only artist I know who’s never lost that enthusiasm is Madonna. By about 1987-88 I had to step away. I wasn’t in love with the business anymore.
“I started acting more, touring Shakespeare and Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. That just gave me my will to go back into music. Making albums for me has always been much more rewarding. You can be more true to yourself, and more off the wall. Also, being very much anchored in new wave, when dance came in I just didn’t fit that space, at all.”
Toyah has always traversed the acting and music industries. That must keep it all fresh.
“Yeah. And absolutely every artist has found over the last 20 years that audiences slightly shrink. But because of the internet you’re playing to the same people and living off the same income. You’ve created your own world bubble, and that’s kind of relevant to what I’m doing.
“My audiences are there and I can play anywhere in the UK and do very well. But I don’t hire PR companies and don’t really worry about being signed to a record company anymore. Of those people you see in the papers every day, about 40 per cent of their income is going on a press person. And that’s not for me.”
Charismatic, outspoken and nigh on impossible to categorise, Toyah is a somewhat iconic talent, and she’s as busy as ever 37 years after her head-turning, full-on debut LP Sheep Farming in Barnet enjoyed indie chart success. In fact, there have been 14 more studio albums since, plus a couple of live LPs and several compilations. But it’s never been just about the music, and from the start she was involved in the thespian sphere, working her way up from a dresser to the stars, over the years making many memorable theatre, TV and film appearances.
As well as her hit singles and albums, she’s written two books, appeared in more than 40 stage plays, and acted in 15 feature films. It’s a unique CV too, having presented The Good Sex Guide, Holiday and Songs of Praise, supplied voice-overs for iconic children’s show Teletubbies on TV, toured Shakespeare, and starred in cult films Jubilee and Quadrophenia.
But it’s the music taking centre-stage again right now, as will be the case when she visits Preston’s Charter Theatre next weekend (my excuse for calling her), as her Acoustic, Up Close & Personal show offers a chance to experience Toyah in an intimate setting, playing her best-known songs, unplugged, and telling plenty of stories from her colourful career.
She’s joined on those dates by guitarists Chris Wong, from her band The Humans, and Colin Hinds, from China Crisis, the pair combining with the headline act on meticulous, stripped-back acoustic versions of her best-known songs. And as this Birmingham born and bred icon put it, ‘The music has real space to breathe and is lively and energetic but still stripped back in these clever unplugged arrangements’.
“We’ve been touring the show for two years, converting rock music into the acoustic set. But every year we revamp the show a bit, and we’re very familiar with this format now. All three of us sing. It’s really beautiful. People might think, ‘Oh gosh, only two guitars?’ But it sounds incredible. They really put a lot of energy into it.”
You can often tell how good a song is, I add, when it’s stripped down to the basics.
“Absolutely, and I think the success of this show proves that. And it does tend to sell out wherever we go. People like to hear songs stripped down, hearing nuances you can’t always hear if you’ve got the volume of the drums. It also reveals how the song is written. Everyone’s taken by surprise. Even my late ’70s punk songs work extraordinarily well.”
She’s certainly proved herself to be an eloquent talker. Does Toyah tend to go off-topic on these dates?
“Most nights I have a PowerPoint behind me. I have a visual memory so need visual cues. But if the audience is really up for it you can tell them stories you wouldn’t normally tell. It’s very much how we feel on the evening. It’s music-driven, but I like the audience to go away thinking they know something more about me and have experienced something no one else has because of the uniqueness of this.”
Do Chris and Colin sometimes have to nudge her back in the right direction?
“They don’t, actually. I think they’re probably scared of me … or laughing their heads off behind me. I can be quite irreverent, with some things I say. I don’t go and boast about achievements so much as costume failures, or when you’re on stage and a set falls apart – stuff like that, very light-hearted, lots of fun.”
She saw a fair few malfunctions, I’m guessing, while helping dress the touring stars in your early days in regional theatre.
“Yes, I think the worse was for Peter Pan at Wimbledon Theatre, when my fly-wire got stuck on the scenery as it was being taken off stage. We had to stop the show. Ridiculous. I’ve seen many, many things go wrong.”
Time flies on, and a month ago Toyah celebrated her 58th birthday, which means she was born the same month as two of my musical heroes, fellow May 1958 arrivals Neil Finn and Paul Weller. Was there something special in the air around then?
“Well, the winter months were coming, and perhaps there was a power cut. Prince was also born that year, and Madonna, and Kate Bush. It was a very productive year.”
She’s right, and several other notables included Michael Jackson. That said though, I note that Toyah’s beloved – Soft Machine guitar legend Robert Fripp – was 12 when his wife-to-be was born, learning guitar back in Dorset.
“Yes, he started learning at the age of 11, and was playing pro by the age of 14.”
Toyah’s now been singing and acting for getting on for 40 years, more than two-thirds of the lifespan.
“Wow, I hadn’t thought of it that way. That’s great!”
Is that hard to comprehend sometimes?
“No, I feel as if I’ve lived it! Now I’m here, it doesn’t feel long at all, but when I was starting at 23 I couldn’t see beyond the age of 30. Now at the age of 58 I still feel there’s so much I want to learn and achieve and get right. And I find I start panicking, thinking, ‘Don’t waste time!’ I’m not interested in retirement.
“There are so many things I still want to do, mainly in what I want to do. I’d love to be able to play guitar on stage, but I’ve never been good enough. Yes, there are many things within my working sphere which I feel I’ve still got to get right.”
When it comes to that, surely she has a perfect teacher at home in Robert.
“Actually, he’s the last person I want to learn from! He’s so …. You have to play his way, and it’s not for me.”
Is it a bit like having driving lessons with a loved one?
“Absolutely, but he did buy me the most beautiful acoustic guitar for my birthday, creating special tuning for me, based around the strong key of my voice – D, as opposed to E. It’s fabulous. I’m enjoying it so much, and it’s made it so much easier to play.”
Alongside the performing, Toyah wrote her autobiography, Living Out Loud, in 2000, following that with Diary of a Facelift in 2005. Thinking of the former, I put it to her that her parents’ tale was a strong story in itself, not least a romance kindled in Weston-Super–Mare while her Mum, a professional dancer, was supporting Flanagan and Allen. Has she ever considered devising their story for a play or film?
“I think that will happen one day. I won’t be writing it though. It’s out of my ability, but I have been approached by renowned writers who want to do a story about my relationship with my mother.
“It’s not on my priority list at the moment. The priority is performing live and breaking fantastic ground in the British movie industry. I’ve got four films this year and I’m more interested in performing.
“I love acting and want to get that solid again. I also have a musical opening in London on August 30, with my songs put into Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, mainly from In the Court of the Crimson Queen (2008). I’ve a lot of really good things going on. I’m a performer, so just keep to acting in films and playing live at the moment.”
With a name like Toyah, she was never likely to be cut out for a clerical 9-5 job. It’s been a mighty life story too, overcoming bullying, dyslexia, and so on, as we learn in Living Out Loud. And she knew she wanted to sing and act from around the age of nine, quoted as saying, ‘I was an incredible dreamer when I was at school. I just felt trapped. I wanted to escape, really’. Surely, I put to her, that dreaming wouldn’t go down well with the Nicky Morgans and Michael Goves of this world in our current results-driven UK education system. She doesn’t take my bait though, instead insisting society’s changed for the better since her school days.
“We live in a different world. There’s a fantastic new generation out there. They haven’t been brought up with any form of expectation, thinking the world owes them everything. They know they’ve got to go out there and create it. When I was growing up everything was dictated to women. You were going to do this, would have that, would have children, and will wear that.
“It was socially totally conservative and for me to be the dreamer was because I didn’t like the confines of my gender. I knew I couldn’t meet any of that which was expected of me. But today there’s huge social freedom, especially in Western culture. That’s made for a very different society. When I was a dreamer and really didn’t participate in my education at all, that was very reflective of the world I lived in at the time.”
This ‘Bird of Paradise’ was certainly soon marked out as different in the outside world, her hair wild long before the second half of the 1970s, with plenty of punk spirit way before the term was re-coined.
“That was what was so powerful about punk. We were all punks before we knew what it was. In Birmingham I was dyeing my hair, making my own clothes and rebelling very strongly about three years before I saw the Sex Pistols. So was everyone around me. That was what was so unique about that generation and that movement.”
Was there a bit of David Bowie influence in your attitude and fashion sense?
“We all loved Bowie. Where I grew up he was considered glam rock, but where he really stepped into the punk ethos was with albums like Station to Station and Low, which really said to the punk rockers he was one of us, writing a whole album about depression. He was so chameleon-like that he could fit in with everything and every one during that incredibly creative period in his life.”
“Be part of that, yeah.”
Aged 17, she went to the Old Rep Drama School in Birmingham, her distinctive look marking her out as she worked in theatres in her home city, dressing the touring stars of the day by night. Soon she got her film break, alongside future fellow Quadrophenia star Phil Daniels in 1976 BBC play Glitter, leading to a further National Theatre break. Is that right that the footage for Glitter was lost, but you weren’t too bothered?
“It’s not lost. I’ve got a copy. The Pebble Mill archive was destroyed, and why the BBC would have done that, I don’t know. But it was fine. It was what it was. It was my first professional acting and it’s alongside Phil Daniels, who I continue to work with. So I’m cool about that.”
And now there’s talk of a follow-up to Quadrophenia, with Toyah involved again. Is that really happening?
“Yes. It’s not actually Quadrophenia II, but based on a book called To Be Someone.”
She’s not letting on a lot more yet, but – talking of Phil – I tell her I interviewed a certain lady from Coventry around 18 months ago who also starred with him back in the day, a good friend of hers – Hazel O’Connor. We also got on to their respective stints in Hugh Cornwell’s place in The Stranglers during his short spell in HMP Pentonville in 1979, playing two nights at London’s Rainbow Theatre.
“Yes, that was fantastic.”
Hazel said she did (Get a) Grip (On Yourself) and Hanging Around, and you did Duchess and something else. Can you remember what?
“I did Duchess, and Hazel and I did a song with Ian Dury too, but I can’t remember what.”
She also mentioned how when she did a hospice fundraiser a couple of years ago you were quick to say ‘yes!’ when she asked you to help out, adding ‘that woman is mighty!”
“Yeah, that was for her mother. Hazel and I go back a long way, and Coventry is virtually connected to Birmingham anyway.”
Thinking of those early film roles, who did you learn most from with the two big film roles that helped break you – Derek Jarman in Jubilee or Franc Roddam in Quadrophenia?
“Every film for me is a learning curve. Directors are so radically different. Derek just let you do anything, very rarely reining you in. Franc was more like a documentary-maker. It had to be very defined as there were so many characters. You had to place yourself within a scene to be seen. In Quadrophenia the main character is Phil’s, the rest of us building his history around him. That was a totally different experience.”
Yet I understand Phil’s role as Jimmy was offered first to recent writewyattuk interviewee John Lydon, the former Sex Pistols frontman, currently touring again with his band PiL.
“Franc asked me to put John through the screen-test, me testing for Leslie Ash’s role while John tested for Jimmy. John was absolutely brilliant. He was a natural actor, but I think there were insurance problems. What a great guy though.”
Do you keep in touch?
“No, I don’t really mix much on the music scene. I keep myself very much to myself. I don’t like my thoughts to be distracted. I’m quite insular really.”
Has there been a favourite role over the years, or at least one you felt deserved more recognition?
“I just don’t care about that! I do my job, put 150 per cent in and that’s it. If I feel I should have done something different I’ll make sure I do next time. If anything, when I look back, I wish I wasn’t quite so bouncy. But that’s the only thing that’s ever crossed my mind.”
And surely you must be the only person who’s presented Songs of Praise, Holiday and The Good Sex Guide.
“Yeah, and I took that as a compliment.”
Do you still get people (like me) asking about Teletubbies, saying ‘I thought I knew that voice!’
“I very rarely get people saying they thought they recognised my voice – they say they know that voice! It won’t last much longer though. They’ve remade Teletubbies, and I’m not sure who they’ve got in place … at least not yet.”
Back in her early band days, making demos while living in a converted British Rail warehouse turned studio in London, I understand she slept in a coffin on site, reportedly previously used by the French Red Cross to transport victims of fatal accidents. Has she still got that coffin?
“That disappeared about 37 years ago, and I’ve got no idea what became of that!”
Musical fame followed, after her initial indie breakthrough, and by 1981 there were those three aforementioned top-10 singles and her Anthem album reaching No.2 – kept off the top by that dreadful Stars on 45 album by Starsound. We also find Toyah was voted Smash Hits’ Best Female Singer and Most Fanciable Female that year, while the next year there was an early Brit award for Best Female Singer. Furthermore, as recently as 2001, readers of Q magazine voted her the 48th greatest woman in music, while in 2009 she was came seventh in a BBC Queens of British Pop poll.
Did recognition like that inspire her to head back to the Old Rep and shove those accolades back at the fella on the grant committee who apparently once wrote ‘she has a lisp and isn’t attractive’?
“I’ve often felt really angry towards that man, but all through my life I’ve seen that if a man has power in a job you want he’ll employ the woman he wants to sleep with. If he doesn’t fancy you or you don’t meet his physical idea of attraction, you don’t get the job. So often I get pissed off and angry, and it doesn’t go unnoticed.
“It does drive me on though. I often wonder if I’d got that grant if I’d have been as hungry as I was. I worked really hard to get my break. That was the greatest thing that ever happened. That got me in everywhere, because I knew the right people. So yeah, I was angry. He was shallow and probably just a dirty old man that didn’t fancy me, but that’s never changed. You see it happening all around you in this business.”
Away from her career, we find Worcestershire-based Toyah has now enjoyed 30 years of marriage. So remind us how you and your ‘soul-mate’ Robert got together.
“We were managed by the same team – Robert for 20 years, me for 10 – but only met when we were at a charity lunch. Princess Michael of Kent wanted a photo with both of us. Then Robert asked if I’d narrate a children’s story for a charity album he was making. Two years later we were married.”
Were his band, King Crimson, who formed in London in 1968, ever on Toyah’s radar?
“Only Discipline. I like that album a lot. Before then, no.”
That album also charted in 1981, incidentally. But was Toyah aware of Robert’s involvement with David Bowie’s Heroes during her punk era?
“Not at the time, because Bowie was Bowie for me. It was only really when I met him.”
You collaborated quite early with the hubbie on the Sunday All Over the World project. Is that something that continues to this day (at least over the washing up at your place)?
“Well, that album’s being re-released this year, with a live album coming out as well.”
As well as her on-going Acoustic, Up Close & Personal, there are also a string of Proud, Loud and Electric dates this year, featuring a full band – Toyah and guitarist Chris Wong joined by Andy Doble on keyboards, Tim Rose on bass and John Humphreys on drums.
There are also a number of festival dates, including further appearances on the Rewind gig circuit (July 24th and August 20th), sharing bills with everyone from Marc Almond, Rick Astley, Adam Ant and Big Country through to Midge Ure, Jimmy Somerville, Leo Sayer and Paul Young. So does she find there’s a good bit of camaraderie for those shows, considering a few of those acts were chart rivals all those years ago?
“It’s 100 per cent camaraderie. Last year at Perth with Rewind, Hugh Cornwell was on and you’re starting to get names you think, ‘I never thought he’d do that!’ Some artists won’t do it, but an awful lot will, and it’s an absolute joy. You’re on for 15 minutes – it’s a holiday! The rest of the day you’re with these fantastic people, catching up, reminiscing. It’s really lovely, and I have no regrets about doing that at all.”
Toyah’s Acoustic, Up Close & Personal show reaches Preston’s Charter Theatre on Friday, June 24 (7.30pm, tickets £17.50, via 01772 80 44 44 or http://www.prestonguildhall.com).
She’s back in Lancashire with the same set-up for Colne’s The Muni on Saturday, October 22 (8pm, tickets £17.50 or £21 on the door, via 01282 661234 or http://www.themuni.co.uk/).
There are also a number of Proud, Loud and Electric shows this summer, the next at The Whole in the Roof in Deal, Kent, on Sunday, June 26th, with details here. For a full list of Toyah dates this year, follow this link to her official website gig itinerary.