Dark, intense and disturbingly graphic –an early masterpiece by Toyah revisited
Release Date: 28th May 2021
Label: Cherry Red Records
Formats: 2CD + 1DVD, Limited Edition Coloured Vinyl
Cherry Red Records have done it yet again! This week’s lucky recipient of their deluxe reissue treatment is Toyah and the band’s second album, 1980’s The Blue Meaning. In fact, Cherry Red are working their way through Toyah’s Safari Records catalogue – the band’s debut album, Sheep Farming In Barnet, has already received the deluxe repackaging and the rest of the bunch, Anthem (1981) The Changeling (1982) and Love Is The Law (1983) will be along soon – a veritable treasure trove from the happiest, most productive and most creative period of Toyah’s career. Oh – and for clarity – at this stage in the career of Toyah Willcox, Toyah was the collective name for the band in which she featured – Joel Bogen on guitar, Charlie Francis on bass, Steve Bray on drums, Peter Bush on keyboards and Toyah herself on vocals (or verbals and unusual sounds, as the album’s excellent sleeve notes put it.)
Toyah had already generated quite a stir on the live circuit before Sheep Farming In Barnet saw the light of day. Willcox had built quite a reputation for herself following acting roles in such productions as Glitter, a BBC television play and Tales From The Vienna Woods, a National Theatre production and, in 1977, she, Bogen, Bray and Bush, plus bassist Mark Henry got together to form the embryonic version of the Toyah band. A recording deal with Safari Records followed soon afterward. Charlie Francis (“A giant of a man… The coolest human being ever” according to Willcox) enlisted just before the band entered the studio to record the Blue Meaning, and the stars were aligned for the production of what turned out to be an extraordinary album. Although the band’s roots were firmly buried within the Punk movement, alt-rock, new wave, jazz and prog were all influences, and the impact of those influences is plainly visible on The Blue Meaning.
The Blue Meaning catches the original Toyah band at the point just before they fragmented. By the end of 1980, Bray, Bush and Francis, perhaps overwhelmed by the “special” attention that Willcox was beginning to attract, had all departed and Toyah, with a new band, was stratosphere-bound. The next album, Anthem, hit the upper reaches of the UK albums chart and singles chart success was secured with the Four From Toyah EP, the ubiquitous It’s A Mystery, I Want To Be Free and another EP, Four More From Toyah. Suddenly, Toyah was everywhere!
But back to The Blue Meaning… An album that is variously described as Intense, Dark and Disturbingly graphic, it’s loaded with lyrics that are angry and perverse and which deal with such subjects as death, the supernatural and the occult. As Toyah herself has said: “The actual making of the album was intense. Expectation was weighing heavy on us all, being keen to avoid vanilla commercialism we headed to the dark side and created songs like She, Mummies and the astonishingly bleak Blue Meanings.”
Disc One of this expanded version of the album features the original ten tracks, duly remastered, plus nine bonus tracks, four of which – Silence Won’t Do, Jack And Jill and session versions of Last Goodbye and Love Me – have never been previously released.
Disc Two comprises a further eighteen bonus tracks, variously live cuts, demos, studio works in progress (I particularly love the hilarious Ian Dury-like Cotton Vest), a fascinating acapella, helium-infused version of Spaced Walking and the early original version of breakthrough hit It’s a Mystery with Toyah backed by Keith Hale’s band, Blood Donor. The set is completed by an excellent and intriguing DVD that includes 2020 interviews with Toyah (erudite, lucid and articulate as always) which discuss the album, the events of the period and a track-by-track commentary, acoustic session versions of three of the album’s most iconic tracks – Ghosts, Blues Meanings and Ieya – and rare archive BBC TV performances of Mummies and Danced from a November 1980 edition of Friday Night Saturday Morning. The package also includes an informative, well-presented 24-page booklet with an introduction from Toyah, comprehensive notes by Craig Astley and a whole stack of rarely seen photographs. It’s a fantastic package.
Of course, the central focus of this elaborate package are the ten tracks that comprised the original album, and I was immediately struck by how fresh this remix sounds. The songs are dramatic, unsettling and generally complex. The eighties feel, particularly the crashing drum sound and the gothic-encroaching keyboard is retained, and the range, presence and spine-tingling drama of Toyah’s vocals seem to have been subtly enhanced. The album springs into demonic life with Toyah’s screech that signals the start of tour-de-force Ieya. The song was developed from an on-stage jam that often lasted in excess of 20 minutes and for the sake of the album was trimmed to a digestible 8.15. Tales still abound of the strange happenings that took place in the studio as the band recorded the song “Like summoning a demon,” according to Toyah. Ieya, still a highlight of Toyah’s live sets, was the only single to be taken from The Blue Meaning (the shorter single cut is also included in this package), and it’s as unsettling today as it was when it first saw the light of day.
Spaced Walking is trippy and almost psychedelic and that helium-vocal still sounds hilarious, particularly at the parts where Toyah dissolves into laughter… Ghosts is closer to conventional Punk but, thanks to Toyah’s wild, wordy vocal, it doesn’t get close enough to become formulaic – it’s a fast, furious number that seems to float along in defiance of gravity. The excellent Mummies – a reference to the mummified human remains in the Mexican city of Guanajuato (a story in itself) – is truly evocative and conjures a vivid image of a marching army of embalmed bodies.
Blue Meanings, the album’s title track, was inspired by the oppressive industrial landscape of water towers and smoke-belching chimneys that were a feature of Toyah’s childhood Birmingham home. It’s a dystopian, dramatic piece that comes from the same place as Joy Division’s monochrome dirges, packed with references to Blake’s Dark Satanic Mills. The percussion-driven Tiger! Tiger! continues with the Blake references and quotations and Vision, perhaps the most “conventional” song on the album is built around a grinding guitar/keyboard riff that, for some unfathomable reason, reminds me of Alex Harvey’s Tale Of The Giant Stone Eater!
Toyah’s lyrics to Insects were inspired by the unwelcome tactile tendencies of her audiences. Many felt entitled to grab and grope her as she performed, and she likened their attentions to an attack by a plague of insects. The tune is punchy and nightmarish, built on a solid bass foundation, with thudding, incessant, drums and some ghostly backing vocals. The original album’s penultimate track, Love Me, was a live favourite. It’s a typically Eighties tune, dominated by Pete Bush’s keyboard and elevated by yet another stirring Willcox vocal.
The album’s original closing track, She, returns us to the deep, disturbing, forbidding mood that was established by opening track Ieya. Insistent drums and a haunting, repetitive keyboard riff provide an other-worldly backing to Toyah’s bitter, muddy and intensely angry lyrics that were inspired by the bullying treatment she received at her hated all-girl Church of England school. It’s a definite case of directing a last laugh into the faces of her former tormentors and a stunning end to what this reissue demonstrates is a very special album.
And what happened next for Toyah? Well she’s continued to make albums (her most recent was 2008’s In The Court of the Crimson Queen,) she still tours regularly, she married King Crimson founder and guitarist Robert Fripp in 1986 and she was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Central England in recognition of her achievements in the performing arts, media and broadcasting.
During lockdown, her regular YouTube postings, Toyah and Robert’s Sunday Lunch in which Toyah and Robert perform usually hilarious covers of familiar songs have been a joy to behold. I was fortunate to catch Toyah’s fantastic performance at Cropredy Festival in August 2015, on a bill that also included Fish, Paul Carrack, The Proclaimers, Level 42 and, of course, Fairport Convention. It was an occasion to relish as Toyah enraptured the assembled throng with a set that included the hits and more, all laced with entertaining anecdotes from the past. A lady at consummate ease with herself, her audience and her achievements held a crowd of 20,000 in the palm of her hand – and I’ve a feeling that there’ll be more to come from Toyah!
Watch Toyah perform Ieya – the opening track on The Blue Meaning – live in 1982, here: