NEIL: Hello, I'm Neil McCormick, welcome to Needle Time. My guest this week is a star of the 80s, still going strong, acting, making music. It's been very hard to define who you are exactly

TOYAH: Good!

NEIL: But let's try and get to the bottom of the mystery of Toyah Willcox

TOYAH: Bo boom!

NEIL: Bo boom!

TOYAH: Don't hear that often! (laughs) About five times a day! Don't worry!

NEIL: I'll strike out my puns. What you do is unusual because you are an actress, you are a musician. You probably do dozens of other things as well that we don't know about (Toyah laughs) But let's talk about the origins of that. Why this need to express yourself so robustly?

TOYAH: I was born in Birmingham 57 years ago, just never fitted in from the day I can remember. I just had a problem fitting in, with being told firstly I'm a woman and being defined my gender

Secondly I was so severely dyslexic that really does make you feel set apart from a culture that is based on a particular form. And much as we think we are free and we live in a free world we live by form. So I think part of it was that as I grew up I was definitely made eccentric. Was born eccentric and I never felt as though I fitted it. One of my biggest problems, as I became aware of myself, was this thing with being female

I went to an all female school, I was made to act as people's perceptions of female. We have to add into the melting pot of this that I was born with a twisted spine, club feet and one leg two inches longer than the other. My nickname for most of my life was hoppalong or lurch So I always had an identity crises going on

I very quickly learned that I was going to get bullied a lot, secondly that mentally I wasn't very quick. I was always behind and this meant that I either had to be very quick with the puns and the jokes or very quick with aggression. I was actually a very aggressive teenager

People were terrified of me and I was deliberately aggressive. I learned to grow out of that when my vocabulary became stronger and I could argue with people rather than just go aaarrgghh! against people. It was a tough upbringing even though I was in a wealthy family and I was middle class. It was a tough upbringing being squeezed into a mould that physically and mentally I just couldn't fit into

NEIL: You describe your family as dysfunctional (Toyah laughs) Maybe every family is but were you encouraged artistically within that environment?

TOYAH: I wasn't artistically encouraged at home. My mother was a professional dancer from an incredibly young age during the Second World War. She didn't learn to write so she went straight into ballet school and from the age of twelve was getting reviews for variety theatre. She toured non-stop with a chaperone from the age of twelve to nineteen when she met my father and got married and started the family very quickly because she wanted stability

So I was not encouraged to be artistic because my mother probably hated every moment of that. She went through this whole audition system, she auditioned next to Elizabeth Taylor for “National Velvet”. Her mother was a dresser for a Hollywood star at Pinewood. My mum wanted to get away from that. As soon I inherited that gene to be a performer it made her very nervous

At school because I couldn't fit in because I was just so behind. I was physically being altered with surgery, I was losing time at school having joints removed. I was physio twice a day and also I had to go to hospital for specialist physio twice a year so I was always behind at school

The only place I could excel was in art classes and then I ended up directing the school plays because I just had this natural genetic ability to understand performance. So I excelled at school in art. I excelled at putting the end of term shows on. I was cripplingly bad at everything else Eventually when I was about 14 we were coincidentally lucky that a family friend was the artistic director of Pebble Mill, BBC

He said to my parents “look, your daughter will not excel, she's being stifled if you do not realise that she has an exception in one area”. He made it possible for me to go to the Birmingham Repertory Theatre school. Then I found my place in the world and that was as an actress

NEIL: OK. So that's interesting and we'll continue with that but what about music? Was music a part of your teenage and young life?

TOYAH: Yes, it was. My school took in disabled children and part of rehabilitation into the world was to do ballet which I absolutely loved! I wasn't aware that I couldn't do it. I just threw myself into it. So I did ballet, ice skating, I studied opera and I studied music. The only O-Level I got was music theory and this is because I battled with my family that they must allow me to study music because I understood it

When I was nine I was chosen by a woman called Vy Thompson, who trained John Curry, the ice skater, into the Olympics. She spotted me and she said “I can get Toyah into the Junior Championships if you let me have her day and night"

I was studying to become an ice skater from the age of about nine and I loved it at Solihull (Ice Rink) in Birmingham. Then they started to reduce bones in my legs surgically and I could no longer get my feet into the skating boots. It was far too painful because I had metal rods in my feet and I had to give it up

At that time I was eleven and it wasn't terrible, it wasn't heartbreaking. It was just part of the process and it meant I didn't have to get up at six in the morning and train in figure of eight skating, which is the main way you control the body. Going back to school with the ballet – because I was doing ballet to music and lot of the time the teachers let me do free form dance because I realised that's how I was getting to use my body

Then I had a wonderful opera teacher called Ms Cullum, who passed away from cancer when I was about thirteen, but she said “this girl has a voice. Let me have her.” I worked with her every lunchtime. I studied German, Italian and just through listening and through sight and movement I was developing who I was through music. Not conventionally by any means at all but it was all in the body and it was all in the muscle movement

NEIL: And not pop music?

TOYAH: No. Funnily enough I wasn't allowed to listen to pop music. I was brought up on Tommy Steele singing musicals like “Half A Sixpence”. My mother would take me to see all the musicals that came out on film, which was many in the sixties. You had “Sound of Music”, “Half A Sixpence”, “Hello Dolly”. I saw them all and I identified with them all and I identified with these actresses singing

And mum slowly fed me pieces about her life, about how hard it was on on the road being a singer and dancer herself. But I just looked at these people and thought "well, that's what I want to do". And going back to your question about pop music - the first album I ever bought was “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, Simon And Garfunkel and then I bought Marc Bolan “Ride A White Swan” because I fell in love with Marc Bolan. So probably hormones lead me into pop music

NEIL: Was punk rock important to you?

TOYAH: (sharp intake of breath) Punk was heaven sent! I first saw The Sex Pistols play Bogarts in Birmingham on New Street around 1974 or 5, I'm not quite clear of year. But up until that point three years before that happened I was making my own clothing, I was dying my hair, I was a hair model for a huge department store in Birmingham

I was rebelling so explosively against everything being forced on me and I thought was alone in the world. I thought I was the only person in the world who just couldn't wear anything of the peg and couldn't have natural hair colour and really didn't want to be a woman or a man. I wanted to be a person. Suddenly I walked into Bogarts, because a friend said “you should really go and see this band because I think you'll find there's a lot of people out there who are like you”

I walked in on my own and the place was full of three hundred people with different colour hair, who'd all made their own clothes and we're all looking at each other and it was “oh, wow! There's a community! This is fantastic!” It was fabulous, it gave me so much confidence

I'm not a hugely political person and I know that The Sex Pistols were a part of a political movement, as were The Clash and many others within the punk movement but it made realise that people are allowed to change, people are allowed to be different and people are allowed to say no to a system

From that day on I just was uncontrollable because the message I got from being at that concert is even if you have a minimal language of music and you have something to say there is a platform to say it on. It just gave me the courage and the encouragement to move out of Birmingham and go to London

NEIL: So did you form a punk band?

TOYAH: Well, life was series of very extraordinary events from that moment onwards. Because I was so unusual looking for that time and I was walking through the streets of Birmingham, I went to nightclubs, I would go to modelling assignments and stuff like that, a director actually asked to come and find me. He'd heard about me in London because I did walk-on roles in Pebble Mill in Birmingham for plays

He'd heard about me but he couldn't find me and he went around establishments in Birmingham saying “have you seen this girl with yellow and green hair? We're trying to track her down.” Eventually the wardrobe department said "go to the drama school in Birmingham, you'll find her there". And unbeknownst to me he turned up there and the head of the school turned him away and said “no, if you come to see people at this school you see them all. You don't see one girl”

So he had to go through a whole process to get to me. He then asked me to audition with an actor called Phil Daniels for a play called "Glitter" (in the series of) “Second City First” (below) about a young girl who wanted to break into the Top Of The Pops studio and perform a song she'd written, in the studio at the dead of night and get caught. I got the role. I had to write my first two songs for a band called Bilbo Baggins and I got to work with Phil Daniels, who I've known ever since

NEIL: You wrote your first two songs?


NEIL: Can you remember them?

TOYAH: “Heartbreaker” and something like “Sky Brights”. I can't remember them. Firstly I remember I was an atrocious singer at pop because I'd learned opera. My timing was atrocious, my lyrics were winkydink cliché but the band I worked with - they were an absolute blessing

They saw how terrified I was, they saw how enamoured I was of them and they nursed me through the whole process. It really was an extraordinary experience for me even though when I look at it I think (laughs) how did anyone see any talent in that girl? (Watch "Glitter" HERE)

NEIL: Was that the point ... you're a girl trying to break into Top Of The Pops -

TOYAH: Yeah!

NEIL: - Did that trigger a “I want to do music” moment or were you already -

TOYAH: I think I wanted at that point to do music because I wanted fame and I was driven so much by hormones as young girls are. I wanted fame and I wanted to perform and I would do anything to be on that stage as a performer. If I had to learn about publishing and I had to learn about recording and I had to learn about writing I would learn on my feet

NEIL: You appeared in – you weren't always in the main role - some very significant movies of that time, for punk rock movement. Us young people getting excited about punk. You were in “Jubilee”, Derek Jarman's punk film

You had a part in “Quadrophenia”, again with Phil Daniels, which was a very significant movie just after punk and in Derek Jarman's punky “The Tempest” so you had quite an impact. With “Quadrophenia” - didn't you audition for that with John Lydon?

Yes. I was approach by Franc Roddam, the director, long before principal shooting started. He said could I get John Lydon through a screen test for the lead role of “Quadrophenia”? So I screen tested for Lesley Ash's role and Lydon was Phil Daniels' role

I had to go round to John Lydon's apartment off the King's Road and just run through everything with him. Tell him what it would be like, what the whole event would be like. It would be very repetitive, he had to learn his lines, he had to hold his character for the whole day and he was just absorbing this like a sponge

When I turned up at his apartment I seem to remember the whole of the band The Splits were unconscious on the floor. It was ten in morning and I was walking over them and certain members of The Sex Pistols and John was making himself a tea in the kitchen

He was utterly delightful and I'd never had so much apprehension in my life because I didn't know what I was going to be working with. He learned the role, he was masterful at it, he worked hard, he rehearsed hard. We met at Shepperton (Studios) and we did the screen test and I thought he was glorious. A natural actor

Then I heard nothing again for about six weeks and I turned up at Franc Roddam's office, which was at Wembley on the ground floor and I turned up outside the window, a bit like a stalker. I banged on the window and I shouted through the window “c'mon Roddam! I did this favour for you! See me for “Monkey!” because I knew “Monkey” hadn't been cast but everything else had

So he called me in and he had Phil Daniels (below with Toyah in 2016) in the office. What Roddam didn't know was I knew Phil! And Roddam said “yeah, if you do the party scene here with Phil Daniels and you snog him - the part's yours”. Well, I'd learned the script, did the party scene with Phil, snogged him, no problem at all. He's an old friend and I got the part! I had to really pursue it because Franc didn't know who or what “Monkey” should be

NEIL: I wonder why he did not like Johnny Rotten for it?

TOYAH: Oh, everyone loved Lydon. Loved him! The insurers wouldn't insure the film if he was in it

NEIL: Good grief!

TOYAH: Politics. Reputation

NEIL: Sting was in that film as well …

Oh, what a gorgeous man! Sting was ascending like a rocket at the beginning of the principal filming. He was just so delightful. I had an experience with Sting in that he needed backing singers to do his first Old Grey Whistle Test appearance and he tried to teach me the harmonies to “Roxanne”

I only learned to sing harmonies really well about 10 to 15 years ago so I just couldn't do harmonies to save my life. Every night at the end of filming he would try to teach me (sings) “Roxanne” and I was like (sings poorly) “roorrxanne” and I just couldn't do it! He never gave up and he was so patient and he was so wonderful

So he then, the day of filming, not only did he get backing singers he wanted, which was myself and another actress in the film, he went and sprayed hairspray in his eyes, like a glitter spray so when he did his first appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test he couldn't see. Poor boy!

But yes, he was in “Quadrophenia”. We all mercilessly took the mickey out him because firstly he is just physically so beautiful. Secondly mentally a genius and thirdly a really nice guy. So we just went out of our way to take the mick non-stop and he took it really well

NEIL: Your pop carer started really well, you were immediately noticeable

TOYAH: Yeah!

NEIL: You had a strong image, you had big hair and you had a big hit with “Mystery”. Very theatrical vocal style

TOYAH: Yeah. It's probably the opera training. It was also a little bit about not understanding the basics of four four timing because I only really started to feel rhythm properly about 8 years after that experience

I think the part of my theatrics was again this thing of "I've got to be different from everyone else, I've got to sound different from everyone else". The doors that punk opened allowed me to be that way

It was really very useful at the beginning to be able to sing like that and to use the octave swoops and the range of voice that I had thanks to opera training. But it was also quite pocketed in its time. It's something I really wanted to evolve out of by the time I was recording "The Changeling" (1982)

NEIL: You're still touring all the time. When you sing those songs now you sing them in style

TOYAH: I sing them really well now because I've really looked after my voice. I've re-trained my voice every three years, which is a hugely technical thing to do. Now I can sing them in time, in tune with power and hit those notes that I could hit 35 years ago

So I'm actually a bit more proud of them now. I take a show out called “Acoustic: Up Close and Personal” and we do the hardest songs because I know the whole of front row is up and coming singers wanting to find out my technique

NEIL: Are people not waiting for you to go (sings “It's A Mystery” badly), "she's singing it (like that), that's not right!"

TOYAH: Well, actually because I can deliver really well now with passion and emotion and do that characteristic I will only slot that in when I have a particularly frisky audience. And they just go “yeeeaah!” (laughs) and they just love it! I'm 57, I don't want to do that every day!

NEIL: Well, you ask a lot of big questions in the song. Asking all the questions of life, which was obviously what was on your mind at the time. Have you solved those questions for yourself?

TOYAH: No, I don't think we do. Life's a constant journey. If you go to India and you ask a guru, who bases his faith on singing, "when did you learn to sing?" and he's 83 years old and he says “I haven't and I never will”

So it's a constant journey. My body changes all the time, therefore my voice changes all the time therefore the questions will never be answered but I think the fun of it is just living and looking for it

NEIL: Your next big hit really was “Thunder In The Mountains”, wasn't it?

TOYAH: Well, “I Want To be Free”. Top Ten!

NEIL: “I Want To Be Free”, oh yes

And then “Thunder”

NEIL: OK. “I Want To Be Free”. Do you still think of that as a big anthem? Do you still want to be free?


NEIL: Have you been free? (laughs)

TOYAH: We do “I Want To Be Free” at the very end of the set and I always start it with "here I am, at this grand old age with a song started its written life at the age of 14 at a maths lesson because I was so bored. And here I am still singing it 47 years later! “I don't want to go to school!” But everyone in that audience identifies with that song and they want to sing it so we do it as a collective.

So yes, I am still singing it. I don't resent singing it but we're very clever how we do it. We do it in a way that very few people can actually copy me. We've changed the rhythm of the guitars and everything (Sings) Da dada dadada so people are going "oh, what's going on?" This isn't rock anymore, the timing's different. So we always manage to fascinate them with how we do it

NEIL: Do you still have to live with that "crawling down the alleyway, being very loud"?

TOYAH: Well, I still feel like that!

NEIL: Still?

TOYAH: God, yeah! In a culture in a Western world, where you can go through any newspaper online and some idiot is commenting that "c'mon girls admit it, it's over when you're past thirty" … I still feel like that song in that you have to make your mark and you have to say to other women out there, as well as men, who feel they're going through manopause that we're credible in our existence. Don't buy this that when you hit fifty all that's ahead of you is waiting for God. It's a lie. You're being sold a lie

So when I sing “I Want To Be Free” I very much connect with that message and the audience does as well. Also, recently I found out and why no one told me this at the time – when “I Want To Be Free” came out it was one of my biggest international hits in Australia, South Africa, parts of South America. The reason for it was that is was adopted by political prisoners and they apparently used to sing it through the bars to the jailers every morning and I didn't know this

I did a tour of prisons. I went to Maghaberry prison, which is political prison in Northern Ireland, where I met the most intelligent people in the world. They said "did you know this? This is a song that prisoner's adopt and it gets them up in the morning". I thought you've got to respect that in a way

NEIL: We were talking about “Thunder In The Mountains” mainly because of the hair. It's become almost symbolised. It may be the most ridiculous -

TOYAH: It wasn't ridiculous! It was fantastic! (laughs)

NEIL: - In the whole history of pop. Not bad, there have been worse hair styles (Toyah laughs) -

TOYAH: At least it wasn't a mullet!

NEIL: It wasn't a mullet, yes! Many rock stars look really bad. That was a lot of hair and it was all standing -

TOYAH: I know! I think by that time the images were getting slightly out of control! I agree with you on that level. It is slightly strange where you see me pop up like a sunflower and you almost want to hear someone dab it (makes a funny noise from "Bill and Ben" The Flowerpot Men) It has a caricature nature about it. But I wanted to be remembered and I certainly think I got that right on that level! (laughs)

NEIL: You found a way to accommodate the songs of the past. Have you found a way to accommodate the hairdos of your past?

Yes, I just don't feel it's age-appropriate. I don't want to live like that. When you look at people who can carry it off, like Sandra Rhodes, the fashion designer, she carries it off because she lives her designs. With me I feel that I'm a performer that needs to be able to wipe the canvas clean

So as long as my voice and my acting skills are honed I just don't want to defined by a hairstyle at this grand age. I want to be defined by a different form of talent and communication. So it's as simple as that. And funnily enough people very rarely expect to see that now. I think it's understood. Also, going back 37 years it was so outrageous to do that and now it's not. It's almost normal

NEIL: So you had a very hot moment in the early 80s, a lot of hits and then you've kept making music. An extraordinary number of albums and you're always touring and you're always appearing in this and that and plays and films but it's not hit records like it was. Is that difficult to deal with? How do you deal with it and where do you draw your satisfaction?

TOYAH: It's difficult in that I had an album out five years ago called called “In The Court OF The Crimson Queen”, which went to number two on the iTunes rock chart and the singles of it went into the Top 20 in the iTunes rock chart. But people don't know about charts anymore so I'm not looking for that kind of satisfaction. I understand your question but it's a different world and I'm not signed to a major (record label). No major is interested in me. But I do want to have complete control of my life

So when I'm producing albums I take the record store on the road with me so we set up the record shop in the venue. So it works for me and that is very satisfying. Also, I'm playing to sold out venues. The acoustic show sells out, Toyah the electric band - we play all over the place, we do the festivals and everything. It's phenomenally satisfying. In a way what's even more satisfying is I don't have an A&R man on my shoulder telling me to be something I'm not, which I always found incredibly stressful

NEIL: What did they want you to be?

TOYAH: Pat Benatar. Kate Bush. Lene Lovich. Anything but me! I found through the decades that A&R men don't know what they do or why they do it but they still want the name and the fee. So it took a long time to be brave enough to say no thanks to that

NEIL: Do you write a lot?

TOYAH: Yes, I write all the time. I feel very blessed that the computer age came along when it did because Garage Band is an absolute saviour for me. I can understand it, I can see it. If you're at a bank machine and everything is in green dots ... I can't see that, I'm blind to that. So with computers I can actually see the format of Garage Band

So with “Extremis”, which a film I'm also in as an actress, but I'm performing and writing the outro song - I composed and built all of that on Garage Band. I then take it to one of my key writers and co-writers Simon Darlow, who wrote “Slave To The Rhythm”. I've been writing with him for 37 years, (he) totally understands what I'm trying to do and he then puts it into a more logical format

NEIL: So how do you approach it? Do you sing melodies to him? Do you play them?

Yes. With Garage Band I can sing them directly into the computer anyway. I can play enough keyboards, guitar and a bit of violin to actually say "well, this is the key, this is the structure". I then write the whole of the vocal. The lyric, the melody, everything. That means my co-writers then have to harmonically build around that

So they build the bass harmonics, the keyboard harmonics and then the main guitar harmonics. I have an MD, who's been with me for almost twenty years now, who has a sign language with me because on stage I can't always count. I know what numbers are but they don't go in the right order. So we have a sign language that he gives me, which can queue me in with certain difficult things

NEIL: You're married to Robert Fripp, one of the great guitarists of this country. One of the most audacious and different guitarists. He's not your traditional lead guitar. Do you play music together or work on music together?

TOYAH: Well, funnily enough (laughs) I have to hide everything I do from him because it'll end up in his work (Neil laughs). The latest King Crimson tour he's taken the artwork from my band The Humans, Humans 4 (the 4th album) for next year and it's suddenly on the poster for this latest King Crimson tour

I phoned him up and I said "I own that picture, it's my next album cover. Why is it on your tour poster?" And he said “oh no, you don't own the copyright”. So I really have to be very careful what I show him because he doesn't filter things as belonging to other people

With “Extremis”, the outro song, which is absolutely magnificent, it's one of the best things I've ever written - I could only play it to him after it had been copyrighted, it's down on celluloid and if he nicks it he's going to have a lawyer after him

So we don't actually play that much to each other because of this. And it may sound strange, it may even sound mean but I don't have the genius he has. He has an infinite knowledge of music so when I write something I really need what I've written. So our conversations and our life together couldn't be further away from music

NEIL: But you did call your album “In The Court Of The Crimson Queen”? (laughs)

TOYAH: Yeah, to say f*** you to my husband! And this is what he said when I told him he'd nicked that painting of the cyclops - he said “well, I didn't sue you for “In The Court Of The Crimson Queen”! So you picked up on that

NEIL: You're not temped (to ask him) "I just need a lead solo on this?"

No, because as soon as you do that with Robert it's Robert's project. Wherever it's released in the world it becomes his project. He guested on Humans 2 (second album) “Sugar Rush” - guested ... and wherever we turned up to play it said “Robert Fripp, Humans, Sugar Rush”

You just can't do it. It's disproportionate and it's unfair to everyone who works so hard on these projects. So now he probably won't work on anything I do again. And that's not a judgement on his talent. I just need to be seen as Toyah Willcox, not Mrs Fripp

NEIL: You work hard, you're out there playing all the time so why? You probably don't need to? In the sense of financially -

TOYAH: Actually I think I do. No, well … one thing I'm absolutely brilliant in is business. Outside the industry

NEIL: So what is it?

TOYAH: I'm only interested in myself as a performer and also you constantly develop. There's nothing in my history that has made the mark I want to make and it's a simple as that. I think I will keep going until the body says goodbye. I can't think of anything in my life that I would actually leave the planet now and think (it) defines who I am

And that's probably why I keep going. I also need to put this in perspective – I manage everything. I manage the band, I manage my acting, my manage my music career. I also manage a property empire. I'm incredibly good at stocks and shares. On that level I do not need to work but I define myself by the performances I give and because of that I need to work

NEIL: Is that the most important part? The actual performance?

TOYAH: I actually I think as human beings we're creative beings, that's what sets as apart from absolutely everything else on this planet. We are creative. And you have to remain creative. For me being creative doesn't depend on success so you ask where's my satisfaction?

Well, funnily enough the audience applause, the standing ovations four times a week are absolutely lovely and I appreciate it but I don't define myself by that. I define myself by the creative process and that is probably why I just have to stay plugged in with it

NEIL: Why do you think you are so determined or have that need to -

TOYAH: Well, I think because I don't feel I've done anything I want to do yet or -

But you've done a lot!

I've done a lot. It's only in the last year I've given acting performances that I thought are good performances. “Ahhhhhhhh!”, Steve Oram's film, which is out this, which is me, Julian Barrat, Noel Fielding. In “Extremis”, which is only a cameo, I blew myself away with my performance. I was given a private screening of it because I was doing the music at the end and I could've stood up and cheered because I'm only just getting there

Part of it is this constant learning about movement. Five years ago my legs were made the same length so I had to learn to walk again. I see myself and I see a disability. For the first time this year I've seen myself and not seen a disability and that's fabulous. But also, it's like I feel I'm only arriving in my body now and I look at myself on celluloid and I've stopped hating myself. That is a really important step and I want to feel the same about singing as well

NEIL: Well, I feel like we're just getting to the beginning of this and we're coming to the end

TOYAH: I'm sorry!

NEIL: Don't worry! So Toyah, thank you for coming on. The best is yet to come then!

TOYAH: Oh, I hope so! (they both laugh) Let's talk in a few years time and boy, the only thing that would disappoint me if that has not to come true. I'd be disappointed in myself

NEIL: OK. It's been Toyah Willcox on Needle Time

You can watch the interview HERE


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