MARK: In a career spanning more than 40 years Toyah Willcox has had Top 40 singles, released over 20 albums, written two books, appeared in over 40 stage plays and 10 feature films and voiced and presented numerous television shows. In this interview, Toyah talks about her upcoming tour with Billy Idol, touring her hit 80s album “Anthem”, her Sunday Lunch videos with husband Robert Fripp, acting and lots lots more

Hi Toyah, welcome to the XS Noize podcast

TOYAH: Thank you very much, good to be here

MARK: You've had such an amazing career and you're still very busy so we'll have lots to talk about. But first of all, let's talk a bit about the Billy Idol tour. You’re joining Billy Idol on the October dates of his tour alongside Television. How much are you're looking forward to those shows?

TOYAH: Really looking forward to it. Firstly, Billy Idol - I think he's a world icon and he has such an incredible career of music to perform. I've been performing “Rebel Yell” in my set for 20 years and I know the effect it has on the audience. I'm very I'm excited about that. Obviously, I won't be performing “Rebel Yell” with Billy Idol (laughs)

But I think it's a really great line up. You've got Television doing the whole of “Marquee Moon”, which is an album I bought when I first moved to London. It's a phenomenal album. And then I've got my set to open all of the events and I know I'm gonna have a lot of fun

When you're on a multi-bill but you're not the main star it's really good fun, because you just go out there, you love the audience, you enjoy what you're doing and then it's over. You can relax. So I'm really looking forward to it on many levels. And I actually love arena shows. I love doing them. So I'm going to be in my element

MARK: You're well known for your image, so do you have an outfit planned ready to go?

TOYAH: Absolutely everything is planned on the rehearsal, the setlist is done. The costume is ready, everything is and if you think I'm going to tell you … I'd have to shoot you afterwards

MARK: What can fans expect? What sort of songs? A medley of hits really?

TOYAH: Yeah, I mean, I've had well over 15 chart hits, probably a bit more than that and I'm only playing for half an hour. So what is that going to be? Eight songs, ten if we really kind of squeeze them in. It's got to be hits. I want to go right from the beginning of my very early punk hits, because I was number one in the first indie charts

So 24 months running when that first indie chart came out in ‘79 I was number one. I never left number one in that chart. So I want to include my punk hits, which not many of today's generations will know at all. But I want to go through a complete journey right up until the single I release next Friday, which is “Slave To The Rhythm”

MARK: Last Saturday you played Let’s Rock Northern Ireland alongside Adam Ant, Belinda Carlisle, Heaven 17, Howard Jones, Wet Wet Wet and many more. You went down really really well. Everybody thought you were brilliant. How much do you enjoy -

TOYAH: I had a nighmare getting there. A plane was an hour late. I was with Chesney Hawkes, Chesney and I had to get undressed and dressed in the car. We got out the car, I walked on stage. I did my show and I had an extra two songs in the set that I wasn't aware of

So I was announcing songs and the band was going “no, it's this!” It was so much fun. It was brilliant and the audience were amazing and then I walked off stage, got in the car and caught the plane back. I have never been so stressed in my life purely because of travel

Well, I thought because it's maybe old friends like Adam Ant, who you go way back with, back to the Mayhem days and stuff like that but you don't get to see each other and say hi really?

I saw Belinda. I was flying with Wet Wet Wet. I was flying with Chesney, Carol Decker, the bass player from Wet Wet Wet. We had some of the Real Thing there with us. We know each other, we're all incredibly supportive and good friends, but we do only get to meet in airport lounges. So it was fabulous. It was really nice

MARK: This coming September Cherry Red will release a remastered edition of your gold selling third album “Anthem”. The album reached n:o 2 in the UK charts and features the Top 10 singles “It’s A Mystery” and “I Want To Be Free”. What do you remember about making that album because it’s such a classic album?

TOYAH: It was a very busy time, because “It’s A Mystery” was an enormous hit before we even started the album. And it meant that we had to make the album in a very tight window of two weeks. So when the band were in the studio putting the backing tracks down they were sending me tapes every day to Norwich where I was starring in “Tales Of The Unexpected”. As soon as I finished that I got back to London and in the mornings I would write the lyric and the top line melody to what the band had created, go into the studio by 2pm and record that song. Sometimes I had to do two songs a day

It was a fabulous time. We were absolutely riding on this incredible success of “It’s A Mystery” and the album was an absolute joy to make but boy, I wasn't getting much sleep. And we were trying new sounds, we were trying new arrangements and it was all happening in this magical 14 day period that we had. And touch wood it worked. It really worked. I've never known anything like it

I can remember watching your first Top of the Pops performance of “It’s A Mystery”. It's such an iconic 80s moment for me. So how amazing was it for you? What can you remember about your first performance on Top Of The Pops?

I was very nervous. I believe Adam Ant was on because he was number one. I think Joe Dolce was on with "Shaddap Your Face", Midge Ure was on. It's a long day and I went to theatre school. I started in theatre before I ever had hit singles. I've made movies, been at the National Theatre. So I know a lot about turning up on time, rehearsing and then delivering. So it wasn't a problem to me, but we'd arrive at the Top Of The Pops studios at 10.30 in the morning. You do at least five rehearsals on camera and then go to makeup. And then you're on standby for the live show

It wasn't a problem for me. But on this day, I was quite nervous and completely overawed by the experience. Because Top Of The Pops was the one show that every generation watched for the whole of their lives. I can remember sitting in the lounge with the whole of my family watching Top Of The Pops in complete quietness. We listened and to suddenly be on this show and to know that I was going to have a really high chart position because of this show was just overwhelming and magical. If I only could pick 10 points in my life to take away with me and remember in the big blue sky … Top Of The Pops, that very first one would be up there. It was amazing

MARK: Yeah, it's definitely one of my favourites because all the reruns on Top Of The Pops, you see it now and again popping up and it's obviously on YouTube, it’s had millions and millions of views. It's fantastic. The outfit you wore on that show – you were supposed to wear something else instead? Was it that one?

TOYAH: Melissa Caplan made all of my costumes from about ‘78 through to 1985. And the costume I wanted - she was making me a very special one. I think I'd already done The Rainbow. Let me have a think about this, because this is such a condensed piece of my history. I know that we played The Rainbow about January or February and I think “It’s A Mystery” charted towards mid-February. So Melissa couldn't get the costume ready in time for Top Of The Pops because we were all firing on all cylinders, kind of working through the night recording and still doing live shows and me filming as an actress

So I had what was a design made by Willie Brown (below), who did all the clothes for David Bowie when he did “Heroes”. It's a really beautiful dress and it's not a dress I would normally have worn other than in a photo session because I was still very much working at androgyny and not being too feminine. And I actually think this dress is responsible for my success as is the song “It’s A Mystery” itself because I looked so cute and so feminine. I wasn't scaring anyone on that first Top Of The Pops

MARK: Do you still have the outfit?

TOYAH: I do. It has kind of organza shoulders and it’s starting to deteriorate but I still have it and it can be restored because all my costumes are going to go to the Victoria and Albert Museum. But it's something that can't see sunlight or the air anymore. It’s vacuum packed

MARK: You're so busy. Last year you released “Posh Pop”, written and recorded during lockdown, it was your first album in 13 years. That's a great album, very uplifting. I love the opening track “Levitate”

TOYAH: Oh, that's good! I like that track as well. It was lockdown. I am not someone who sits around doing nothing. So lockedown actually was the first opportunity I ever had in the whole of my career to just reassess and re-evaluate, like lots of people out there

It was a chance to kind of reset who or what we wanted to be. And the silence of lockdown. And what I mean by that is no one was emailing me every minute and no one was phoning me. It meant that I could sit down at an instrument and start writing music. I took up guitar in lockdown as well

And “Levitate” was one of the first songs written because we wanted the song to be - Simon Darlow my co-writer (below with Toyah) and I - just about freedom, freedom of choice, about being able to leave the house, being able to write about a situation that was profoundly uncomfortable and quite honestly terrifying. So “Levitate” is literally about that word

And it's also one of my favourite words that I can ever remember. When I was at school everyone was fascinated with this word. Levitate. Levitation. And there was a very famous saint, who became canonised, because he levitated while praying and I started to read up about him and ironically, he was Italian. I can't remember his proper name now. But it was such a problem for him that crowds would turn up during the services, during his holding service with his his flock and he would start to levitate and he said or it's kind of reported that he found it profoundly embarrassing that he was known for levitating

And you've got eyewitness accounts of this happening. So people would go along and I'm talking about mediaeval times. People would go along and record this happening, they would draw it happening, they would write about it happening, they would pass the stories to their children. I've just always loved that word. It's a word that says that we have so much potential, that we almost cannot control our potential. And that's where “Levitate” came from

MARK: As much as the album is uplifting, the song “Barefoot On Mars” is about your mother's final days in the hospice. It’s very moving and and it's very emotional but it sounds upbeat

TOYAH: Yeah. I wrote the lyrics after finding out what happened to my mother. I was contacted by ancestry.com Christmas last year. Was it Christmas last year? This is the problem with lockdown. I've lost so much time. It must have been two Christmases ago. And we knew nothing about my mother, my mother never talked to us. She never told us about her history. We could trace back press cuttings on her because she was a child actress and a dancer and she used to get reviews from the age of 12

So I'd seen all of that but she wouldn't talk about it. But ancestry.com contacted me and they said “we need to talk to you and we need to have counsel in the room because you do not know about this - we have unearthed press cuttings” and it appeared that my mother witnessed her father murder her mother, but because my mother was so young she couldn't give evidence and she couldn't go to court and testify

And I came back home after finding that out and I wrote the lyric for “Barefoot On Mars” and I wrote to Simon Darlow and I said “this is what's just happened to me”. And I've written this lyric and I went into the studio the next day, and he’d done the track. And it was so breathtakingly beautiful that we just recorded it there and then. That song came about very quickly

MARK: Yeah, it's a great lyric, great song. Along with your husband and guitar legend Robert Fripp you have over 110 million hits on YouTube with your Sunday Lunch series of weekly music videos. They're all brilliant. What inspired you to do these? And how did you get Robert on board?

Well, again as a performer, as someone who's always worked on a stage to suddenly think that it's going to be longer than three weeks because the lockdown originally was only going to be three weeks and I'd be back out on the road and it was dragging on and on and on. And I just thought we're all equal in this. We're all in the same situation. And some people are alone and we have each other. So we posted a very short 29 second video of me teaching Robert to do the jive and he's so cute in it because he just can't do it

And that instantly got 100,000 hits within about five minutes and we realised there were people out there that just needed contact. So we started to do this every Sunday. And it just grew and grew and grew and slowly we realised why it was growing and it is because the world audience for rock music is massive, absolutely massive. And we kept it to the simplicity of this kitchen. It didn't used to be this kitchen, we'd work in other rooms around the house, but people identified on a Sunday lunchtime with their own kitchens. So that's why it became traditionally that

MARK: I think from the first video a lot of people were saying you should appear on “Strictly Come Dancing”, that they would ask you?

TOYAH: I know. No, no. None of those programmes are interested in me. So fair enough. I'm too busy anyway

MARK: So you wouldn't do it?

TOYAH: I would but they've got to be interested in you. I can't phone them up and say I want to do it. It doesn't work that way. I'm very, very busy. “Strictly” has already started. I am touring “Anthem”, and I'm working with Billy Idol. You've got to be completely 100% available if you get any of those programmes and for me that's very rare

MARK: You would be great on it, definitely

I don't know about that. I'm 64, I think it's a very gruelling show to do. I'm not sure how I would cope with training and all those pivotal movements within your joints for 11 hours a day. I did go and see a recording of it all lockdown. And they did back to back shows. They did the live show on the Saturday and then did the show for the Sunday immediately after and I thought my God - this is so gruelling!

MARK: Going back to your videos. How long does it take to put them together? And how do you choose which songs to perform every week?

TOYAH: Well, the songs have to have one vital ingredient and that's they translate on guitar. So I give Robert a whole list of songs every week that I think would visually really work very well. And then he kind of goes through all of them and see how they work on one guitar. Because he's not only playing lead lines, he's also playing bass lines as well, which is what's so remarkable about what he's doing. And if he can't make that work, we can't do the song. Sometimes I can encourage him to revisit an idea and say “look, I think you can do this on one guitar” and he'll give it a go and it works. But there are so many elements that we have to take into account

Firstly, we have no production values whatsoever. We just come in. We have a few days rehearsal where we learn the song together. Then I do the setup. I work out what the trick is going to be within the setup. And then I bring him in, we sit down and we usually have the first take in one go. So there's a lot of kind of little bits that need to come together at the right time. And if Robert is worried about the song then it won't work

I enjoyed your most recent one. Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” (above)

I know! Brilliant! And he closed the Commonwealth Games last night and I'm 30 miles from Birmingham, and I'm a Birmingham girl as well. And we didn't know he was going to do that. So it was really well timed that one

You mentioned at the start about your latest single “Slave To The Rhythm”. It’s an amazing version and I’m really pleased you’re releasing it but I did some research for this and you sang on the original demo. Is that right?

Yeah. The original was written by Simon Darlow, my long term writing partner and he asked me to sing on it and then the demo went out I believe to Frankie Goes To Hollywood. And they didn't want to do it. They wanted to rewrite the lyric. And then Simon met up with Trevor Horn and another writer and producer and it became the “Slave To The Rhythm” that Grace Jones has made. This is the iconic version that Grace Jones did. So it's had quite a journey through a few writers, but it began with Simon Darlow

And Simon said to me that he really felt that as I was involved at the very beginning purely as the session singer, should we give it a go? And I was a bit worried about it. Firstly, Grace Jones owns it. It's very much her brilliant iconic performance, but also as someone who allies towards everyone that's been exploited and abused through history ... Grace Jones has a right to that song

I was really worried about doing it. And Simon said, well, actually, his reference is that we're all slaves to time. That none of us can escape time. So that's the way we've approached it. So within the video we have the theme of time just ticking away with the fingers. So that's how Simon said we should address it

MARK: I look forward to hearing it. I love the version on your Sunday Lunch. I'd love to hear the actual proper studio recorded version

TOYAH: It’s a beautiful version. It's very, very brilliant and respectful. And we've not trodden on Grace Jones' toes at all. I deliver it in a very gentle way. So it's lovely

MARK: You also mentioned Trevor Horn, and Frankie Goes To Hollywood and I hear you've recorded a version of “Relax” with Trevor Horn. So how did that come about and when can we hear that?

TOYAH: Well, I can't tell you too much about it other than we're working with Trevor this week. We've got a live show with him this week as well. Trevor heard our version of “Slave To The Rhythm” via one of the writers seeing me perform it live for the first time that G Live in Guilford. And that was Bruce Wolley, who is one of the new co-writers on the song. He’s in the history of that song

He came to the show and he heard me perform it live. And he got in touch with Trevor and he said "you've got to hear this. It's really good". And Trevor phoned me and said would I come into the studio and record “Relax”. It's a very, very different version. His original idea was for the voice to be artificial intelligence. But the label turned that down and he wanted me to sing it in my deepest register. It absolutely gorgeous. It's so beautiful. It is actually romantic

MARK: Great. Can't wait to hear that and Trevor Horn, what an amazing producer

TOYAH: He’s breathtaking to work with. As soon as I put the headphones on to do the harmonies in the studio I thought my God this is best sound I've ever had in the studio! It was fabulous

MARK: Trevor Horn, his records just sound amazing. Recently, the BBC showed your first ever professional screen role as “Sue” and the play “Glitter” (above) with Phil Daniels and Noel Edmunds. In the show Sue says “I want to be so famous that I'm a household name all over the world”. Sue’s dream was to be on Top Of The Pops. That it was shown in 1976 so it's amazing to think that the real Toyah Willcox achieved this soon. There was definitely some sort of weird synchronicity going on there

I know, it's absolutely fabulous. I had to audition for that role. I was spotted by the Bicat brothers and they called me down to London and I did the audition with Phil Daniels. With no knowledge at all that we both end up in “Quadrophenia” together a few years later. I've never been on camera. I've never sung into a microphone. I only had this idealistic dream of becoming a singer. I had opera lessons at school, I sang at school but that was opera, that was not rock music

And I remember making “Glitter” so clearly because I was just living the dream. But I had no technical experience. I had no experience of projecting my voice or placing words. I was completely raw and I think that shows in “Glitter”. But somehow the National Theatre watched it being broadcast at the end of ‘76 and they cast me in “Tales From The Vienna Woods” and by that Christmas I was living in London, about to open on the Olivier stage at the National Theatre

I leapfrogged about 15 years of experience. And the National was great to me. They gave me speech therapy, they gave me movement lessons. They really tried to kind of hone my talent. But “Giltter” was the turning point in my life for everything. It was the biggest piece of luck I have ever had in my life

MARK: Yeah it’s good actually, watched it this morning. Really enjoyed it

What did you think of it?

MARK: Yeah, I really liked it. Noel Edmunds was good

TOYAH: Would you say I was good?

Yeah, absolutely. And Phil Daniels

Phil’s always good. He's been in front of the camera all his life

MARK: For your first ever professional performance it was great

You’re very kind

I really, really enjoyed it. And again, Phil as you said, starred as “Jimmy Cooper” alongside yourself as “Monkey” (below) in the classic movie “Quadrophenia”. Can we talk about this because it's one of my favourite films. It's such a classic movie with an amazing cast. Did you think  how special it was when you were making it?

TOYAH: It's a very good question because there is no way that cast would not let it be special. Up until that point, I had always kind of worked in an isolation of being the youngest in the company. So I'd made “Jubilee”, which I loved every minute of. I was working with the glitterati of London punk. People with way more life experience than me and they kind of protected me

And then I made the “The Corn Is Green” with Katharine Hepburn and George Cukor and again, I was cosseted. I was the youngest. And when I stepped onto the set of “Quadrophenia”, or even for the rehearsals, because we did a lot of prep rehearsals for that film - suddenly I was no longer the youngest and I was in a group of about 50 people who were all determined to be superstars. And you just had to step up to the mark

It was an incredible experience. And were all great friends. We all really really loved each other. But boy, we were fighting for the limelight. And we knew it was going to be special. How could a film where the music was written by Pete Townsend and The Who had performed that music for years and years and years ... How could this film not be a success?

But ironically, when it first screened, it was critically panned. But audiences loved it. I think it was 1979 we shot it, 1980 it was released. Generation after generation around the world has discovered this film and loved it and it even still has conventions in Los Angeles

It's a great film. Absolutely classic. Is it true that John Lydon tried out as “Jimmy” and you read with him for the part?

TOYAH: I got John through the screen test at Shepperton Studios. So Franc Roddam - I haven't even been cast in the film at this point, because I was working at the Royal Court Theatre, and had amazing reviews for my stage acting - Franc Roddam got me to do two scenes with John Lydon at Shepperton on camera, on a huge 36 mil camera. So I used to meet up with John Lydon in his apartment off the Kings Road and we'd run the scenes. He was perfect. He was word perfect. He was fabulous

And when we got to Shepperton we just did the scenes. I played Leslie Ash’s role and John was doing Phil Daniel's role, and he was really, really special. And he behaved, he was a gentleman, he was great to be with, but no one would insure the film if he was in it. Now I have to stick up for both John Lydon and Phil Daniels here. Because if the issue was different, I think John Lydon would have gone on to be a great Hollywood actor

Phil Daniels was the only person who could really play “Jimmy,” because of Phil’s life experience. He was right for “Jimmy.” Phil Daniels gave an Oscar winning performance in that film, but obviously he didn't get any nominations because it just didn't happen. But Phil Daniels is the reason that film is so successful

MARK: You couldn't imagine the film without him at all or without the rest of the cast because everybody went on to make something of themselves. What draws you to a movie, what do you look for in a part?

TOYAH: The one main factor is can I do it? Because sometimes I'm offered unrealistic things. I'm physically very small. And I now warn people I say "look, it's very kind of you to offer me this but if you're going to cast me next to people who are 6’2”, the director and the camera team are going to have real problems getting us in two shots." Two shots is where you've got two characters in one shot. So I now look for the fact can I portray that character with my physicality? And is it a character that I can really use my intelligence on?

If it's just a character where they need Toyah Willcox in the film so my name is on the poster ... I don't do those. I really don't do those. I'm an incredibly intelligent actress. My dyslexia just really informs me about people. And I really want characters that I can reveal to an audience. So that may sound complex, but there is so much you can do without saying words, and I look for that in the storyline

MARK: Some people forget you were an actress first before you were a pop star. Do you have any film projects coming up?

TOYAH: Well, lockdown has not helped the industry that much. So I had a film show at Leicester Square last week called “Give Them Wings”, which I won the critics Best Actress Award at the Richard Harris Film Festival. I'm playing the mother of the lead in that and I've had phenomenal reviews for that film, but that was shot just before lockdown started. During lockdown I managed to make “The Ghosts Of Borley Rectory”

Again, I've had Best Actress nominations for that. So the film industry is now getting back on its feet with a backlog of movies waiting to find a cinema and a distribution deal. And I think it's going to take a long time for cinema to find its feet again. Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney - they've all gone straight to streaming and at the moment that is where the industry is at

MARK: In a career spanning more than 40 years you've had loads of Top 40 singles, released over 20 albums, written two books, appeared in over 40 stage plays and voiced and presented numerous television shows. So with all that in mind … what are you most proud of? What’s been your highlights? Can you pick anything out?

TOYAH: Highlight ... probably doing Old Grey Whistle Test at Drury Lane on Christmas Eve 1981 (below) That had 12 million viewers but it was such an honour to be invited to do that. Other highlights “Posh Pop” going to number one in 36 charts. Getting a call from Trevor Horn after 45 years in the business was pretty flattering. I get up to a great job. For 45 years I've woken up to a great job. So I'm very grateful for everything I do

MARK: Yeah, I’m sure. Just a few more questions, Toyah. You’ve so much energy. What keeps you going after all these years?

It’s probably because I never had children. I've got a lot of energy and a lot of money (they both laugh) I don't want to be flippant about it. But everyone I know with children I think how the hell do you do that?!

I like to ask the guests the following questions, Toyah. Out of all the music in your collection which artists or bands do you have the most albums by?

TOYAH: David Bowie

MARK: And what is your favourite?

My favourite David Bowie album - I've actually got three – “Man Who Sold The World”, “Hunky Dory” and “Ziggy Stardust”. I just love the path he took. It's a very, very tangible path where you could see him just changing through desperation because “Hunky Dory” was a really hard time for him as an artist. He had shotguns held to his head in Texas. Andy Warhol was really nasty to him. And you just saw this ascending trajectory into “Ziggy Stardust” through these albums. And even on “Man Who Sold The World” you could hear my husband's King Crimson influence. So I just love those three albums

MARK: Absolute genius. We miss him


MARK: Which song or album is your guilty pleasure?

“Bridge Over Troubled Water.” That album is just one of the most beautifully written and performed albums in the whole history of modern music

MARK: Would you say it's a guilty pleasure? I love it

Well, I love it but you've got to remember people go “you’re a punk rocker!”

MARK: Yeah, that's right (laughs) You're not supposed to like stuff like that. But nowadays everybody can like anything and it doesn't matter

Then there's no such thing as a guilty pleasure, is there?

MARK: (laughs) You got me there. Such an amazing career. We could talk for a long time. I had to just pick certain things, there's lots more things we could have talked about, but it's an absolute honour and pleasure to be speaking to you

Thank you very much. You obviously know a lot about me, and I'm very grateful. Thank you

There's lots more and we have a short period of time, we could spend hours (Toyah laughs) Good luck with the new single and I can't wait to hear “Relax”

All right. Thank you very much. Good to meet you

MARK: To meet you too. Bye

Bye bye


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