Toy

(March 2011 – republished untouched) I didn’t start this blog to share other people’s music, but I’m making an exception here – firstly to learn how to do it, but also because Bowie fans have waited for this album for 10 years: The great lost ‘Toy’ album. Recorded in 2000 with Tony Visconti, Bowie digs back into his 1960’s catalogue for material (beautifully, from when they first met). It’s a slushy, slow album in part and I’m not a fan of his 00s singing but there is something very powerful about hearing him as an old man singing words he wrote in his youth. It’s been said SILVERY sound most like the 60s Bowie stuff, and I can see it, so that’s good enough for me. Enjoy:

Uncle Floyd / Afraid / Baby Loves That Way / I Dig Everything / Conversation Piece / Let Me Sleep Beside You / Toy (Your Turn To Drive) / Hole In The Ground / Shadow Man / In The Heat Of The Morning / You’ve Got a Habit Of Leaving / Silly Boy Blue / Liza Jane / The London Boys

EDIT: the link got downloaded about 4000 times (!!!) and then removed. While I’m here, I found this – the thing I wrote the day Toy was leaked that ended up pinched wholesale by the Guardian (and is usually the basis for every item about the album). As usual, don’t know why I wrote it. Maybe to relieve the boredom of a shit job. The cover shown here was made by me and features a still from the ‘Rubber Band’ video. I think it’s cool and apparently so do a few others as I’ve seen this dotted around the web as the official cover. Result. Anyway:

toy2Midway through 2000, David Bowie recorded a collection of songs for a project he entitled ‘Toy’. At the time it was much discussed in certain circles and was met with some surprise as it was said to consist of new versions of old songs he hadn’t acknowledged since the 60’s – among them, his first single from 1964 (As Davie Jones & The King Bees) ‘Liza Jane’ and previously unheard material such as ‘Hole In The Ground’ (a Space Oddity era curio) and ‘Shadow Man’ (a much bootlegged Ziggy era out take). As well as a smattering of new songs that were said to be in keeping with the era Bowie was to be reunited after nearly 20 years with Tony Visconti, the man with whom he arguably had his most success, artistically and commercially. The album vanished from the schedules as Virgin declined it’s release, prompting Bowie to set up his own label and license recordings through Columbia, paving the way for what is regarded his Noughties rebirth with Heathen and Reality. Albums much rooted in the rediscovery of his muse that the recording of Toy brought on. The leaking of albums online has become a regular occurrence in the music business, much to the annoyance of those who payroll the recording and promotion of musical product. This article isn’t about the philosophy and law regarding the subject, but a simple case of where did this come from and is it any good?

The first inkling that the loyal had that Bowie was opening up his back pages was the appearance of 1966’s Can’t Help Thinking About Me on a VH1 Story Tellers concert in 1999 (recently officially released) and during a BBC concert he aired versions of the same year’s The London Boys and I Dig Everything. While being quite out of the blue, they offered fans the first chance to hear these long forgotten tunes live (none had survived in his live set past 1968, although The London Boys was said to be in the running for a slot on 1973’s homage to swinging London ‘Pin Ups’). Parallel with these surprise resurrections, talk turned to what Bowie would be doing for the fast approaching 30th Anniversary of the release of the Ziggy Stardust album in 2002. He had already turned down use of his own music in 1998’s pseudo-Ziggy biopic Velvet Goldmine as he said he was working on his own similar project. Nothing came of the mooted film and stage show, but he talked excitedly of unearthing some songs from the era he’d never finished. Songs with such names as Black Hole Kids – perhaps it was on one of these trips to his vault he rediscovered such gems as Shadow Man, or the old B-Side Conversation Piece which he rerecorded for Toy.

While his 60’s singles are no strangers to being ruthlessly repackaged by Decca (the first time, brilliantly, was a couple of months after Starman hit Top Of The Pops in ’72, and almost once a year since then scooping up new confused Bowie fans everytime) they remained far from his sphere of operation. Even a effort by NME to rig a phone vote to get bona fide hit single ‘The Laughing Gnome’ (another well timed reissue in 1973) on the set list on the 1990 ‘Greatest Hits’ tour fell on deaf ears (bar a couple of lines jokingly sung during a press conference) So why reactivate the material for a fully fledged album? Firstly, it’s worth pointing out that the seam of nostalgia that runs through Bowie’s work must have hung heavy over the project – and the fact he was back working with Tony Visconti must have sparked memories of them both slaving over some of these same tracks on later 60’s BBC sessions where they forged their friendship. I’m more of the thought that they were simply seeing how they worked together without committing new songs to the experiment. Either way, the sessions must have turned out well enough for it to be offer up for release (indeed, over the next couple of years after the aborted release, some of the tracks would appear as bonus treats on singles and the next album Heathen). Although it wouldn’t be the first time Bowie simply woke up one day and had a rethink, as he has done littered throughout his history.

Toy was recorded purely digitally by Mark Plati, after initial sessions at Sear Sound, New York and featured Bowie’s touring band who had been put together to tour 1999’s ‘Hours…’ album after his decade long association with band leader Reeves Gabrels ended – including long time bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, pianist Mike Garson (who’s first sessions with Bowie were in 1972) and Earl Slick (veteran of 1974s Diamond Dogs and 1983s Serious Moonlight tours). Tony Visconti’s role was to add string arrangement to the material and provide addition production, as he had done on their original incarnations. A 15 piece orchestral was grafted on and lifts the material from what threatens to turn into dirge and provides some beautiful moments. However staggered the gestation of the album, it got forgotten as Bowie licked his wounds from its rejection and started work afresh on ‘Heathen’, reworking two of the new tracks (Afraid and Uncle Floyd (which was retitled Slip Away)) and cutting up the Toy album for use as exclusive downloads and B-sides. Indeed, the most complete version of Toy available on disc until last week was a European version of the 2002 single Slow Burn, featuring 4 tracks from the sessions.

Now, a decade later (a decade which has seen Bowie all but retire from the public eye) the album suddenly appeared for sale on Ebay by user stuarta001 (in a garish Lego sleeve and burned onto a Taiyo Yuden CDR). It sold after 19 bids for US $102.50 / £62.98 and was shared as 256kbps Mp3s on the Mind Warp Pavilion torrent site shortly after, suggesting that was the quality of the rip that was initially found. Some say that it is an early mix taken from guitarist and producer Mark Plati’s previously stolen laptop, others think it a shrewdly leaked and timely full stop to Bowie’s career – indeed, the power of the album comes from Bowie’s frail voice breathing new meaning into the words he wrote as an unknown teen. A brilliant full circle to a career that has only been ground to a halt after heart attacks (Bowie suffered 2 in 2004) and a wish to give his second child the childhood his first never had (‘Moon’ Director Duncan Jones, while never leaving his father’s side during the 70s, only really became the focus of his dad’s affection during the 1980s when he was given sole custody after divorce from first wife Angela). While the 14 track disc is missing a couple of tracks (the aforementioned Can’t Help Thinking About Me and Karma Man (slated as being the album’s closer on early reports on Bowie’s website) it adds a couple that were understood to have been axed – Liza Jane and The London Boys – tagged onto the end, perhaps as additional tracks for potential b-sides. The opening extended sample from the Uncle Floyd Show on the opening track of the same name suggests these mixes are close to completion, as do the string arrangements, although the rather flat mix also suggests that they haven’t been mastered or perhaps mixed properly yet. Comparisons to some of the tracks that were previously released shows a great difference in performances and sonic spacing, although it is difficult to narrow down if these changes were done after these mixes were finished and given a final rejigging before release two years later, or the changes were made during the later Toy sessions, prior to its completion (IE there is a later master).

All considered, I think Toy is just a case of David Bowie doing the same as he has done roughly every decade – totally mixing it up to find his muse again (see his grunge project Tin Machine in 1989 / metal wailing on The Man Who Sold The World in 1970 / and bleak soundscapes during his so called Berlin period with Brian Eno) and, not for the first time, it worked. He dipped right into his 60s self and was able to come up with Heathen, and album that strongly suggested he was back on track as a classic songwriter. Just as Tin Machine washed him clean of his 80’s commercial peak for his 1990s adventures, and The Man Who Sold The World enabled him to Ziggy it up with Mick Ronson. As an artist who is so guarded with his archives and rarely looks back, it is odd that he has been so public about sifting through his distant past, but perhaps he is more comfortable doing that than allowing a full on archival release featuring the original recording and whatever ghosts they will stir up.

Technical info:

David Bowie: vocals, keyboards, stylophone, mandolin
Lisa Germano: acoustic & electric violins, recorder, mandolin, accordion
Holly Palmer: backing vocals
Emm Gryner: backing vocals
Sterling Campbell: drums
Mark Plati: bass, guitars
Gerry Leonard: guitars
Gail-Ann Dorsey: bass
Mike Garson: piano
Cuong Vu: trumpet
Earl Slick: guitar

Recording Engineer Pete Keppler at Sear Sound, New York
Additional engineering Mark Plati at Platis home 6th Street , New York
Production David Bowie & Mark Plati
Overdubs and Mix at Looking Glass Studios, New York
Mixed by Mark Plati
String arrangements by Tony Visconti

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