MARLOW FM 97.5
THE ECLECTIC LIGHT SHOW
MARLOW FM 97.5
THE ECLECTIC LIGHT SHOW
INTRODUCTION: Toyah Willcox has had 13 Top 40 hits, recorded 20 albums, appeared in over three dozen plays, has presented TV programmes as diverse as "The Good Sex Guide" and "Songs Of Praise". She continues to perform with her rock band The Humans. Today Toyah shares her musical milestones.
TOYAH: Hello! I'm Toyah Willcox and these are my "Musical Milestones". I didn't know I was going to end up as an singer and an actress but what I did know is that I've always loved the extravaganza of the world of showbusiness.
Now when you're a child you don't know how to put that into a dialogue, you don't know how to express that. I was very lucky when I was about 7 years old that I went to a school that taught ballet. But not only taught ballet it actually taught music as well as part of the daily curriculum.
But in one class I was with my teacher Ms Nelson, she was my music teacher and she was a very special person to me because it didn't matter if you showed academic qualities or not and I certainly didn't. It was pretty obvious with me - I was dyslexic and I had a physical disability as well. The lisp which you can pick up on now but also I had a limp.
Now Ms Nelson refused to acknowledge that, she saw me as an individual and one day at the beginning of her class she said "we are going to look at (Gustav) Holst (below) “The Planet Suite” but we're not going to sit there and listen to it – you're all going to dance to it." And we cleared the desks to the side of the room and she played the whole of “The Planet Suite”.
Now for the first few planets I was thinking “oh, what am I doing, I feel so self conscious, I don't know what's going on” and then "Mars, The God Of War", (sic, it's "The Bringer Of War") started and I entered my element. And I danced round the room like a banshee.
And it was that moment in time I realised music embodies your soul, it embodies your physicality, it embodies your thoughts. And this was the moment I knew that my future was going to be in the music business.
I hope listening to it you can understand I had my Billy Elliot moment when I first heard that. Just listening to it again I can remember prancing around the room just filled with energy and suddenly understanding music and rhythm and keys and the choice of top lines.
I wanted to sing to it but I was only about 7 years old and I didn't have the vocabulary just yet. This was a key moment in my life and ever since that moment right up until now, and now I'm 54, I have just loved dancing to music, free form. After discovering Holt's “Planet Suite” I kind of went onto to listen to things like Tommy Steele "Little White Boar" (sic) (It's "Little White Bull"). I can remember the New Seekers being around, I can remember Cliff Richard being particularly famous.
I hadn't discovered rock, this was the late 1960's and there was still a massive journey for music to take for my generation. And what I mean by that was, yes, we had The Beatles, yes, Jimi Hendrix was just starting and my husband Robert Fripp (below, second from right) and King Crimson were just starting but I was still young and precious and kept away from that side of music.
And (BBC) Radio One started around this time and my mother used to drive me to school every morning. Because to put it bluntly if she didn't drive me to school I just wouldn't go. I hated school – every minute of it. And even though I had wonderful teachers like Ms Nelson I still was still really reluctant to go. I wasn't academic and didn't really fit in.
But I remember one morning we were in the car in my mother's pink Triumph, which had leopard skin seats, it was really the campest thing in Birmingham which is where I grew up. And this next song came on the radio and it was so astonishing, it was so intelligent. Up until this point we had some wonderful basic rock'n'roll music.
We had Bill Hailey, we had the magnificence of The Beatles who wrote the kind of iconic format pop song but this song came along. This song included orchestration, it included incredibly narrative lyrics, it included one of the most stunning voices in the history of modern music.
And it was an album that I just had to save my pocket money to go and buy. And it's “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon And Garfunkel. It won a Grammy in 1970 and for me it just went off like a lightbulb in my head when I heard that.
Even now today when – I sometimes get writers block or I sit down to write the best song that's ever been written, I always think about this song and that album and the perfection of it. And the effortlessness of that vocal. It's so astonishing - it's like the music of the heavens.
And if I ever in my lifetime as a writer could write a song as good as that I feel I have done something worthwhile with my life. When I discovered this album “Bridge Over Troubled Water” which I think every song on it is utterly magnificent, it's beautifully produced, beautifully written, beautifully performed and I pray to God every night that Simon And Garfunkel will get back together again. It's just one of those albums that spurs you on to look at your future and make your future happen for you. It came at a time between 1970 and 1972.
And an evolution happened in my generation and within rock'n'roll. And that evolution I suppose you could rather rudely call glam rock. And I think glam rock kind of underplays the brilliance of the 1970's. You know, yep, men suddenly decided to wear make up and show their female side but also some of the greatest rock riff's of all time were written in this period. It helped my generation move out of the Cliff Richard phase into this hugely sexually powered decade of almost heavy rock.
I was watching Top Of The Pops one day and I think it was 1971. And this man came on Top Of The Pops and he had glitter around his eyes. He was wearing satin clothes. He had cork screw hair. He was everything that gave my parents nightmares. And this man was called Marc Bolan. And this is really where my life changed for ever. Because March Bolan wore who he was on his sleeve. Suddenly music moved into the exhibitionist and that is where I found myself.
Because being barely 5”1 from Birmingham I realised that if I was to make my mark in music I had to be an exhibitionist and then I had to be a singer almost secondary. I saw Marc Bolan on this spring evening and I thought "that's it! That's how I'm going to do it." And the song that did for me was T-Rex and “Ride A White Swan”.
This was my first realisation that rock had no boundaries. And this album made me want to be a rock star. Now I say that because I mean it in the X-Factor sense of being a rock star. I wasn't interested in the hard work and learning how to play an instrument and learning how to write songs. I wanted immediate gratification. But that's something I learned to get over in the long term.
I mean remember I have been in the business now for 32 years. But an another interesting thing about this period was it was men in make-up. Up until that point as a girl from Birmingham I'd always seen men as rather bullish creatures who kind of told you what you wanted to do, what you wanted to say, how you should think, how you should dance, what you should wear.
And suddenly men were discovering a more ambiguous side of themselves. I suppose you could say they were discovering their femininity. But what I really enjoyed was the ambiguity that you never really knew what was going on. I was teenager during this period, I was 14 years old so I didn't really have boyfriends. I grew up in a culture where boyfriends weren't encouraged.
And anyway I wanted a career, I was completely focused. I was not going to get lost in a world of fantasising about boys and I had a poster of Marc Bolan on the ceiling above my bed. I mean what else do you need? Very young teenagers would go and scream at him. I mean I did – I even got detention at school for dressing like him and going to see a concert when I shouldn't. He was great. He made David Bowie possible. And here was my next crush.
Except it was more than a crush. It was someone that introduced a lifestyle. And the lifestyle was that you dress like David Bowie, you walk the streets of Birmingham dressed like David Bowie. You followed other people, especially men, if they were dressed like David Bowie. This was a sexual awakening for me.
This song was a rite passage, the track “Life On Mars” which I think everyone will agree with me is one of most brilliantly penned songs of all time. It's one of the most remarkable pieces of song writing I have ever heard. I decided to choose this song to do my first professional audition. And it was for a BBC production on BBC2, a series called “Second City First”.
These were half hour plays produced to showcase new scriptwriters. And my scriptwriters were two brothers called the Becap brothers. One was a scriptwriter, the other was a music writer. And they asked to see me because they'd heard about this strange girl walking the streets of Birmingham who had green and yellow hair, pink and blue hair and I was doing this long before punk. It was 1973 and they asked me to come down to London and audition for them – a play called “Glitter” (below).
And I walked into Whitmore Hall where the auditions were being held and there in the room was an actor called Phil Daniels who I knew nothing about and I certainly didn't know that I'd bump into him many times in the future to come. And Phil was there with his guitar and I said I would like to sing “Life On Mars” and I was trembling from head to toe and I sang the song I think really really badly. But the song took me over and I got the job.
Life was never the same again. I have sung that song ever since at really important auditions. And this song always prequels success for me. I just love it to death. I suppose it's a song I listen to if I'm a little bit down or the song I listen to when I really want to connect to my emotions.
It's just a song that opens up the doors of perception for me and I think really good music does that. When “Glitter” showed on TV about three months later I was invited to join the National Theatre. And by this time it was 1976. And it was Christmas, just going into the New Year of 1977. I joined the National Theatre, I was 18, I was the youngest member of the company.
And I was being a young person living life to the full. When you're having success like this – time moves really really quickly. Back then in the 1980's you actually had to release two albums a year. No-one took a year off. No-one thought “oh well, I'll release an album every spring.” It was a production line and it actually started to get harder and harder to kind of keep the quality up and keep going.
So I started to loose myself quite happily in acting. I needed it to kind of go away and refresh myself and refresh the soul and towards the end of the 1980's - people often say to me “what happened to you, where did you go?” Well, actually I was touring "The Taming Of The Shrew" (below), to huge acclaim – I mean my critiques were enormous, I was selling out theatres across the land.
And I was really hard earning substantial money that was just falling into this black hole. Now I'd never been through a drama like this before and I was having management trouble who kind of embezzled money I was earning and I was owing to a bank and I didn't know how to deal with this.
Back then when I was just 30 I really was at an all-time low. And I had to kind of let go of everything. I had to go into hell, I had to descend into hell before I knew I had to fight back and descend back out of it. I think anyone's who's been there will understand what I'm talking about.
You have to hit rock bottom before you realise that if you don't do something about it you'll never bounce back. And this was the song that punctuated the moment I realised I had to fight back. It's Shakespeare's Sister and it's “Stay” (below).
1991 was easily the saddest and unhappiest time of my life for many reasons. And this song punctuated this. But out of extreme pain came the will to fight and the will to succeed. If I hadn't experienced such a hard year I wouldn't be where I am today and I like where I am today. All I can tell you – if you ask me what rock bottom feels like it is the trampoline from which you bounce back.
Going back 1991 – I went off travelling. I felt I had to find myself. And phone call came in from a woman called Cookie. Now Cookie lived and was married to Tommy Vance, the DJ. And she said to me “Toyah, do you want to come back to England – you've been asked to present a show called “First Night” - you probably don't want to do it, I just thought I should run it by you so you know” and I said “Yeah! I'll some back – I fancy a bit of presenting”.
And it's really weird, I can say this having lived for five decades that opportunity presents itself to you in the strangest form. Cookie really didn't want me to take that job – not in a negative way, she just thought “nah, she won't be interested”. That job changed my life for the next decade and it brought me back onto my feet and I had the most fantastic decade. It was so happy!
I ended up presenting "Watchdog Health Check", "Holiday" for the BBC. Boy did I have fun! I even ended up in the same year presenting "Songs Of Praise" and "The Good Sex Guide Late". I mean that's how diverse my life came. 1990's for me was the decade of presenting. After that decade interestingly the presenting stopped. The way my career in the 1980's stopped. And you'll never guess what came back?
I ended up touring my 80's music in stadiums because a fax came through one day in 2001 from a promoter saying how would you like to go on the road with Adam Ant (below with Toyah), Kim Wilde, Banarama, Belinda Carlisle, Nick Heyward. I thought “I don't believe it – I've gone full circle!”
And ever since 2002 I've been playing in arenas, stadiums and theatres – selling them out, having a fantastic time. I've even written new music, I've had new albums out. I've starred in a film called “Power Of Three”. I've formed and band which is and art project with the drummer from R.E.M and that band is called The Humans. Life has got better and better.
As a songwriter I still need inspiration and I still look to other artists and listen to how they write – the choices they make as a writer with melodies and with words. And I'd like to play to you now a track that represents to me today what "Mars The God Of War" Holt's "Planet Suite" represented to me as a seven year old. This is the version in this century. It's Muse “Super Massive Black Hole” .
One of my favouritest (sic) bands of all time and I can hear every artist who's ever influenced me in what they do today. It's wonderful to know that music just continues to influence generation after generation after generation.
I hope you've enjoyed my "Musical Milestones". I'm Toyah Willcox and hope I've let you learn a little bit about me. Goodbye and enjoy yourselves!
You can listen to the above here
(A special Thank you to Davie at Dreamscape)