It’s hard to over-emphasise the impact Toyah made when she burst on to the music scene in the early 1980s. Frank, fearless and colourful (not least the hair), there was no one else like her. I thought she was amazing – still do – so was thrilled when I found out she’d be performing at Pizza Express Live Holborn.
61 years young, Toyah arrived on stage looking fabulous in red sequins and brimming with energy and fun. Chatting away about Madonna’s ongoing residency at the London Palladium (“Has anyone seen her yet? Is it true she turns up two hours late?”), she and her band opened the show with a blast from the past: ‘Good Morning Universe’ which, Toyah cheerily reminded us, they opened their Christmas 1981 show with.
Gulp. Is it me, or are we all getting older? Mind you, it’s not that Toyah’s been resting on her laurels; just last year she released a new album, ‘In the Court of the Crimson Queen’, which “…did phenomenally well: it was breath-taking.” The lead track, ‘Dance in the Hurricane’, which Toyah performed next, is excellent and I thoroughly recommend checking out the album.
“I’m excited to be in London, because I came alive here”, Toyah announced, recalling how she moved here when she was 18 and how quickly her career took off: “I was acting with Katherine Hepburn in The Corn is Green while I was writing my first album, ‘Sheep Farming in Barnet’.” Cue ‘Neon Womb’ – and a whole lot of nostalgia. Unsurprisingly, the worlds of acting and music collided and, during 1983, while Toyah was performing in Trafford Tanzi, she was recording ‘Rebel Run’ – a big hit which she toured for five years on the back of: “I was really successful as a punk rocker. I didn’t want to lose my audience so I recorded this next song: ‘Obsolete’.”
During the 1980s, there were troubles in Belfast, yet the music world was “going crazy”. The Foreign Office advised people not to travel there, “but two artists went: Chrissie Hynde & The Pretenders, whose visit went perfectly – then me. But I hadn’t estimated that my audience was a good ten years younger than The Pretenders’! I fell into the audience and by the time Security hauled me back on stage the only clothes I was wearing were my bra and pants.”
We enjoyed ‘Obsolete’ almost as much as her performance of ‘Thunder in the Mountains’ – check out the fab video below – which Toyah “had to deliver on the same day that Prince Charles married Lady Di. It went straight to number four when I released it.”
‘Jungles of Jupiter’, from ‘Anthem’, was equally well-received and then Toyah adopted a more reflective tone, admitting that the next song, ‘Angel and Me’, was from ‘The Changeling’, an album which was “…really hard to make. It was 1982, and I just couldn’t find the time to write. So, I went to a health farm – and they starved me!” The song was produced by Steve Lillywhite and Toyah has “grown to love it.”
I love it, too, but maybe not quite as much as ‘It’s a Mystery’ which, Toyah admits, “…changed my life forever. It just suited me, and my lisp!” But: “It’s no longer my song – it’s your song, about your mysteries.”
By 1984, Toyah was receiving 10,000 fan letters every week – “and I made every effort to reply to them all. Most of them were telling me how much their mothers hated me because I made them want to dye their hair pink – so I came up with this next song: ‘Be Proud, Be Loud’.”
Putting music on the back burner, Toyah refocused her efforts on her acting career and, come 1990, was appearing in a production of ‘Amadeus’ with Tim Pigott-Smith. “It was a four-month tour and I had to go into prisons and perform a one-woman show about Janis Joplin, accompanied by 20 of the world’s press, because there had never been anything like it before.”
“These days, I still do a lot of song writing, although nothing as much as I should do – and I have to deliver a new album next year! As a woman, I change every decade. When I hit 50, I started writing prolifically. I didn’t expect that to happen – and I didn’t expect the ‘80s revival.”
As we neared the end of the evening, Toyah began reminiscing again: “Here is a song I never thought I’d still be singing when I was 62. The idea came to me in a maths class in Birmingham when I was 14 and it’s called ‘I Want to be Free’.”
Reminding us that she’ll be touring with Hazel O’Connor later in the year, as ‘Electric Ladies’, Toyah brought her set to a close with ‘Sensational’, from the new album – an apt description of an evening which most certainly was that.