Toyah Story

The flame-haired priestess of punk looks back on 30 years of fame. Interview by Ian Abrahams

Few artistes have moved so effortlessly between mediums as Toyah Willcox. As an actor she appeared in some of the most important pop-culture films of the 1970s, playing 'Mad' in Derek Jarman's controversial
Jubilee and 'Monkey' in the seminal mod-revivalist Quadrophenia, but also performing in works as diverse as Jarman's adaption of The Tempest and the final instalment of the Quatermass saga for ITV.

At the same time, she released a slew of records that moved from the ferocity of her early post-punk albums,
Sheep Farming In Barnet and The Blue Meaning, through the peak of her commercial appeal, with the It's A Mystery led Four From Toyah EP, and her image-defining LP Anthem, hitting numbers four and two in their respective charts...

Let’s go back. You were already making a name for yourself as an actress when you released your first single, Victims Of The Riddle
All the early stuff was slighly dictated by my lack of being an actual musician. I’m always very instinctive; I know what I want to hear. With Victims Of The Riddle, I sang the vocals before any instrumentation was put down, and then (Blood Donor keyboardist) Keith Hale created the tune and the sequences around the vocal. I love the whole accident of working that way; it creates the emotional intentions before you get the musical honing.

You were being labelled ‘High Priestess of Punk’ in ‘79, ‘80. Did you feel connected to that scene?
I remember it as being very exciting but also incredibly frustrating, because I didn’t fit the mould. It’s hard to say that I felt a part of punk, or new wave, because I never did. When Victims Of The Riddle was number one in the indie charts I was making Jubilee, I was making The Tempest, I was in Quadrophenia, I was appearing at the ICA with Anthony Sher. I was doing incredible things. So I think people found me either fake, or couldn’t put me in a compartment.

But listening to things like Sheep Farming In Barnet, you transcended punk. Tracks like Neon Womb were almost ‘Cyberpunk’!
Oh yeah! All those songs were well-practiced in front of large audiences.

They started in Sunday rehearsals and sound checks and then we’d play them asencores, so they were created in a heightened experience. Songs like Neon Womb, Waiting, Ieya, Victims Of The Riddle, even if I say so myself, are absolute classics because they were created with the audience. They were very shamanistic and our concerts used to just accelerate out there to the point where I used to look out and think, ‘God, we’re like Masai warriors dancing until we’re no longer aware of who we are.’

Anthem was huge, and very commercial, but its follow-up, Changeling, is dark.
Changeling was a reaction because I wasn’t ready to write. I wanted to work with Steve Lillywhite but the relationship just didn’t work because I should have had another six or twelve months to address the album. It was all written in the studio. I think it’s a good album, it says something very powerful. But it was a painful album and a very painful period in my life where I just had to move back into acting, which was Trafford Tanzi.

*Extracts from the interview. This issue can be ordered from www.recordcollectormag.com from their back issues section, priced 4.90.


Record Collector
January 2010