Toyah Willcox, the new queen of ‘Sunday Lunch’ lockdown videos talks to SDE about the reissue of Toyah’s 1980s album The Blue Meaning. This is the second major release in Cherry Red’s reissue campaign, since the label acquired Safari Records in early 2020.
SDE: You’ve been keeping busy during lockdown – I’ve seen the videos – but you must have missed playing live, since you used to do it so much?
Toyah Willcox: Yes, that’s true, but I managed to build a pretty phenomenal… brand name in lockdown. So we’re going to continue with it. It’s been a phenomenon we never expected, and it’s still growing. In a couple of years we’ll have our own TV channel, doing our own TV broadcasts. What seems to have struck home is the very basic truth and simplicity of what we do. We’re not in hi-tech studios or anything like that, but we’ll actually be broadening the whole of that.
You clearly enjoy doing them, but it must take up a lot of your time, over the weekends, since you do so many different types of video, don’t you?
Yeah, we try and get it all done before the weekend because we learnt the hard way that if you have a breakdown in technology, or a hacker – we have had people trying to get in – then you have to have all the backup systems there.
Are you saying that when everything gets back to normal, you might go out and play a bit less, because you now have this new way to connect to your audience?
We’ll be going out more, because we are putting in a year and a half of concerts into the next period, so I’ll be doing twice as much as I’ve done before. I’m not expecting a day off until the end of 2022!
So you are still working as hard as ever then. 40 years ago, in The Blue Meaning era you were acting, touring, in the studio… where does the drive come from? Especially back then, because you were so young?
Back then, that was all you could do. There was only one way of reaching your fans and that was constant touring. This next 18 months is exceptional for all live performing artists. We’re catching up on ticket sales that people have held on to for literally 14 months and we’re honouring all of that. I’m going out with Posh Pop [Toyah’s forthcoming studio album] from August, so I’m doubling up. I’ve got to promote Blue Meaning and then next year I’m promoting [the reissue of] Anthem.
How do you look upon The Blue Meaning now, 40 years on? Can you rate it as a record, or do you just see it as a time, a period…
I think it deserves its place in history. These tapes have been owned by someone who left them in a vault and I deserve, as an artist, my historical place at this time. Sheep Farming in Barnet is a joyous album about five people getting a record deal at the ascending heights of punk. With Blue Meaning, this is where punk was turning to goth and was taking on a lot more edge. By the time we released Blue Meaning we were still touring that wonderful pub circuit, but 2000 kids were turning up a night to see us. Blue Meaning was the turning point in our career when we knew we were going to be successful. Cherry Red now have the tapes and I’m so grateful.
Cherry Red seem to be doing a really good job…
Can I add that my team are doing a good job too! The design values on this has all come from my team.
You were very young when you made this record and lyrically it’s quite dark and some of the references are pretty obscure. Do you still recognise the person who wrote those lyrics and sang those songs?
No, I think this is probably one of the angriest of all the albums. I don’t connect to that person. But back then, I try to put it in the context that I was the only female in the team, at a time when I couldn’t even walk from the venue to the hotel in Leeds because The Yorkshire Ripper was around. This was this glorious time for women in punk and yet there was still this feeling of vulnerability. And I found the sexual politics at the time, very hard-hitting. In that a woman was considered friendly and open if she was willingly promiscuous, and if she wasn’t, there was something wrong with her. And I was dealing with a lot of this at this time. When I listen back to the album, I hear that anger. The anger of a lack of freedom, and the anger of the expectation of me to have no ownership of my body, which was very, very common back then. There are many, many images in this album which I think are related to me discovering about World War II, for the first time. I was never educated about that at school. But during this period of punk, there was a repositioning of political attitudes. At lot of punk bands in the beginning were wearing German memorabilia – we never did by the way, Joel Bogen [Toyah guitarist and songwriter] is a devout Jew – but there was an awful lot of political re-education going on and conflict and confusion. This album reflects many conversations and many conflicts within the two creative forces in the band – Joel and me. And of course, Pete Bush [keyboard player] was very creative in the band at this time.
You mentioned you had a good live following at the time. Do you think people were listening to the lyrics or were they just jumping up and down and having a good time?
I think in the case of this album, they were listening to the lyrics. And by Anthem, my God the lyrics were their new religion. These were devout fans. ‘Ieya’ has remained the most important song in my career up until the point of ‘Dance in the Hurricane’ [from the 2019 reissue of In the Court of the Crimson Queen] when I last saw you, two years ago. It’s taken that long for a song to eclipse ‘Ieya’.
No one teaches you how to work effectively in a professional recording studio. You were used to the live stage, so how challenging was it in the studio?
The challenging thing for me has remained the one constant, and that is when you record, you shut the room out of your audio experience. I didn’t understand this at the time, so as soon as headphones when on me, I lost the room; I lost the connection that I was used to with an audience. For me, the connection with the audience is 50 percent of the music, in terms of the audio experience. Steve James (the co-producer of The Blue Meaning) was incredibly astute and he realised I needed to hear a room. So he’d set up speakers and place me far enough a way, so that I could respond to the sound in a room and that’s how we did most of Blue Meaning.
The music, the lyrics, the songs, were fairly uncompromising. Was credibility for you and the band more important that trying to reach out and have a hit record?
We weren’t looking for mainstream at that time. In fact, many of the punk bands actually turned down Top of the Pops. What we wanted was to be loyal to was our devout, punk following, who saw a kind of separateness in our music, from the mainstream. And that’s how we felt at the time. We very much wanted to explore new sounds and have the freedom to express ourselves as artists and not as a commercial entity. When Keith Hale came back into the vision for ‘It’s A Mystery’, at the beginning of recording Anthem, by that time everyone could feel the spirit of the Eighties New Wave / New Romantics coming in. I felt we quite naturally evolved into that new world, with Nick Tauber coming in and the other musicians.
The Blue Meaning reissue has that early version of It’s A Mystery, with the band Blood Donor on it. Despite its subsequent success, you’ve said a number of times that it’s not one of your favourites. What’s the issue? Is it because you were singing someone else’s words or because it was so different to what you were doing at the time?
My initial reaction to it was “this isn’t me”. This isn’t the person I am, it’s not the truth of me. That was my initial reaction, because I always came into this industry wanting to be a strong, independent, female leader. And I felt the song was about vulnerability and so I didn’t think it was right for me or my fans. Keith Hale and I went into the studio and I wrote the second verse [but] I was never credited for it and I never received payment…
I was going to ask you about that. I noted that you had said that but your name isn’t on the songwriting credits…
Keith would not allow me that and I think in this day and age it’s something he needs to address. But when the song came out I truly believed it would end my musical career. And it was an instant, instant hit. And today I am incredibly respectful of that. I’m not going to go on stage and refuse to sing something that has opened every door for me, in my career. I believe that since then, I’ve done work that is completely independent of that success and I have my own successes, but that song put me in the mainstream, and I’m not saying that was ever a problem – it wasn’t.
You touched on being a woman in a man’s world. You really were, weren’t you? The rest of the band was men, there were men in the audience, men running the record label. What was that like? Did you just have to get on with it?
It’s all I knew. I didn’t know any other possibility. I would not say I was a feminist back then. I probably didn’t understand feminism, back then. This is the world I knew. But what always kind of baffled me was why was I apart from other women in this experience and it’s taken so long to see this, but I’m not built like other women [laughs] so let’s look 40 years back and you’ve got a really stunningly, beautiful, well-proportioned woman, they’re going to do far better than I did. And it’s taken me all this time to realise how important the physicality is. It’s taken a long time for me to understand that about myself.
But as I said earlier you were driven and ambitious, so that steely determination must have stood you in good stead?
I was very reliable. One of the reasons I still do well today is that I’m incredibly reliable. If people have faith in me, I’ve got their back 150 per cent. Back then, I turned up on time, I knew my lines, I’d written the songs, I was always there – I never let people down. I never disappeared into some kind of altered state. The reliability of an artist is a huge percentage of the industry supporting you. Yes, back then I was determined, but I was also aware that literally everyone was saying that I have no place in this industry. I had no place in show business, because I was so small and I had a very unattractive walk. It made me even more determined and I just thought “well, fuck you. I’m gonna prove you wrong”. That determination was there probably from the age of about seven, when I was told constantly I would never have a place in show business. There was revenge in my heart! (Laughs).
Looking back to 1980, you had your acting, the music was going well, but were you happy? Or were you still battling childhood/teenage angst?
I did enjoy the moment, very much indeed. But the next challenge was always waiting.
The Blue Meaning reissue is out now as an expanded 2CD+DVD set and on pink vinyl.
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The Blue Meaning 2CD+DVD
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The Blue Meaning - limited neon pink vinyl LP
The Blue Meaning 2CD+DVD deluxe edition
2. SPACED WALKING
5. BLUE MEANINGS
6. TIGER! TIGER!
9. LOVE ME
11. SILENCE WON’T DO*
12. JACK & JILL*
13. COTTON VEST
14. THE MERCHANT & THE NUBILE
15. DANCED (SESSION VERSION)
16. LAST GOODBYE (SESSION VERSION)*
17. LOVE ME (SESSION VERSION)*
18. IEYA (SINGLE VERSION)
19. HELIUM SONG (SPACED WALKING)^
* Previously unreleased
^ Previously unreleased digitally
1. LOVE ME (LIVE AT ICA LONDON)*
2. WAITING (LIVE AT ICA LONDON)*
3. IEYA (LIVE AT ICA LONDON)*
4. BLUE MEANINGS (ALTERNATE VOCAL)*
5. SHE (ALTERNATE VOCAL)*
6. SPACED WALKING (HELIUM ACAPELLA)*
7. GHOSTS (INSTRUMENTAL)*
8. MUMMIES (INSTRUMENTAL)*
9. VISION (INSTRUMENTAL)*
10. SILENCE WON’T DO (ALTERNATE VOCAL)*
11. JACK & JILL (ALTERNATE VOCAL)*
12. THE MERCHANT & THE NUBILE (ALTERNATE VOCAL)*
13. IT’S A MYSTERY (ORIGINAL VERSION) by BLOOD DONOR FEAT. TOYAH WILLCOX
14. ANGELS & DEMONS (DEMO)*
15. YOU’RE MY HERO (DEMO)
16. SPHINX (INSTRUMENTAL DEMO)*
17. WALKIE TALKIE (INSTRUMENTAL DEMO)*
18. ANTHEM (INSTRUMENTAL DEMO)*
* Previously unreleased
DVD (NTSC, Region-free)
1. THE STORY BEHIND THE ALBUM:
TOYAH INTERVIEW 2020
2. TRACK BY TRACK ALBUM COMMENTARY:
TOYAH INTERVIEW 2020
ACOUSTIC SESSION 2020
4. BLUE MEANINGS:
ACOUSTIC SESSION 2020
5. IEYA: ACOUSTIC SESSION 2020
6. DANCED: FRIDAY NIGHT, SATURDAY MORNING 28/11/1980
7. MUMMIES: FRIDAY NIGHT, SATURDAY MORNING 28/11/1980
The Blue Meaning vinyl LP
- SPACED WALKING
- BLUE MEANINGS
- TIGER! TIGER!
- LOVE ME
Notorious English serial killer. Peter Sutcliffe was arrested and convicted in 1981.