Toyah Gets Teeth Into Vampire Tale

Taking to the stage in the guise of "The Queen of Hell" is hardly the expected behaviour of a former "Songs of Praise" presenter — surely Dame Thora Hird would never have done anything like this?

Yet Toyah Willcox, who returns to Eden Court as the infernal monarch next Thursday in the horror-musical "Vampires Rock", has always prided herself on the diversity of her career which has taken her from early starring roles with independent film-maker Derek Jarman, to mainstream pop success as a solo performer in the late 1970s and '80s, to becoming a regular face on our television screens as both actress and presenter, ranging from "The Teletubbies" to "The Good Sex Guide" and "Secret Diary of a Call Girl".

She has also lodged herself in the bestseller charts with her autobiography "Living Out Loud" and a book about her experiences of cosmetic surgery, "Diary Of A Facelift".

If pressed to define herself, Willcox opts for seeing herself as a singer and writer and an actress.

"That's a very wide umbrella and I don't narrow it down to any one thing and I never have done," she said.

"I've always been interested in diversity and I also like to shock in my choices, so I'm not snobby in what I do."

As if to emphasise her varied career, the "Vampires Rock" tour, on which she is "just an employee", coincides with the release of the new album by her latest band The Humans, while in a couple of weeks time she will also be seen on screen in BBC 1's "Casualty".

"The whole point of calling the band The Humans, is that humans are contrary and that sums up my work ethic as well," Willcox explained.

"I really love having variety and 'Vampires' is a lot of fun. I think where it works is that everyone in it is very good at what they do — great singers, great dancers and absolutely stunning musicians — which means we can have a lot of fun with it. One of the reasons it works so well is that we do deliver great music and there's a lot of fun in between."

"Vampires Rock" is the creation of Steve Steinman, who has been a professional musician since appearing as "Meat Loaf" on ITV's "Stars in Their Eyes", and combines classic rock tracks from the likes of Queen, AC/DC, Meat Loaf and Guns 'n' Roses with a story about vampires in near future New York.

The show came to Inverness last year and proved so successful it is now making a return visit.

"I remember the venue is perfect for the show because people are nicely spread out in a fan in front of you. It went down very well," Willcox recalled.

"It's taken anthemic songs that rock lovers just want to hear and very loosely uses the lyrics of them to tell the story. I really enjoy every song that I get to sing. They're all really great belters! And I enjoy that the audience enjoy it too. Especially in part two it turns into a bit of a concert, when the audience gets lubricated and well up for joining in."

Willcox's musical career has seen her progress from new-wave punk through more mainstream pop to more experimental music, sometimes written in collaboration with her husband, former King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, but she adds that she has always had a foot in the rock camp. She even features covers from the likes of Guns 'n' Roses in her solo shows as well as "Vampires Rock."

The Humans is a rather more personal project and though the first single released by the band is a cover of the Nancy Sinatra hit "These Boots are Made For Walking", it gives her a chance to express her own talents as a songwriter — and her thoughts on pop music in collaboration with musical partners Chris Wong and Bill Rieflin, now best known as drummer with REM following Bill Berry's decision to retire from the band two years after suffering a brain aneurysm.

"I formed The Humans to deconstruct the pop song having been in the pop industry for 32 years," Willcox explained.

"When I asked Bill to do this project, I said: 'I don't want you to play drums. I want you to play bass. I want two electric basses so there is nothing sonically interfering with the voice.' We gave it a try an we just loved it because we had to strip the music right down and go for what the ear hears first. The reason The Humans works so well is that when you hear a song on the radio, you rarely hear the drums and with an iPod, you really hear the lower end of the mix.

"Twenty years ago, you'd spend 50,000 to mix one song to be played on the radio and half of it can't be heard because you don't have the whole spectrum of sound on the radio. Now kids are listening to iPods and they are downloading things that are nowhere near the quality of what they were on vinyl. So even though on one level The Humans sounds very basic and stripped down, there's an awful lot of thought in there."

The Humans, who actually made their debut in Estonia after an invite from the president and have recorded all the material for the album in Rieflin's hometown of Seattle, will be making their UK tour debut in February next year. But in typical Toyah form, she has also recently completed a low budget British film in which she was the lead and "enjoyed every minute" of film production.

"I love every different thing," Willcox declared.

"It never feels like a job, so I'm very happy bouncing from one thing to another. It is a very diverse career — though I must say the one thing I never expected to get was 'Songs of Praise'!"

Inverness Courier
September 2009