A 1980 interview with a bunch of new bands based in Auckland by the old New Zealand rock mag Rip It Up posed the question, "How would you most like the audience to react to your music?"
All the bands interviewed answered that they liked it best when the punters hit the dancefloor...except Chris Knox, the peripatetic vocalist for Toy Love. His response? "We'd rather stun them..."
Done and done. Over their all too brief two-year life, the South Island band were the best in the country by a long shot, packing pubs and slaying the hundreds of people who packed in to see them.
The band put out three singles and one LP before splitting up in late 1980. Their impact was monstrous in NZ, directly influencing the formative years of the country's premier indie label in the '80s, Flying Nun.
Brooklyn label Captured Tracks has just released a vinyl document of Toy Love's recorded output, an eponymously titled double LP comprising the best of the LPs and singles, along with other recorded material and demos. Your writer was an unabashed fanatic; I saw all but one Toy Love show in Christchurch, and a bunch at other places around the country.
They were a mix of '60's pop sensibility, glam, first wave punk power (Iggy!), and avant-garde drone (The Velvet Underground were a big influence, as they were on many NZ bands in the late '70s/early '80s).
Some history...New Zealand in the mid-'70s was pretty much totally isolated; protectionism and conservatism stopped the flow of overseas culture hitting the country, and the hip rock fans of the time had to take what they could get, usually from a few older record collector gurus, occasional concerts (Lou Reed in 1975 was huge), and random expats who brought back the latest cool underground LPs. Dunedin, the southernmost of the four main NZ cities, was particularly cut off.
Knox, a regular attendee and accomplished heckler at rock gigs in that city saw and was bored shitless by the pub-rock, lame prog, and cover bands that played around at the time. An encounter with like-minded guitarist Alec Bathgate and drummer Mike Dooley at a Dunedin record store (over a purchase of The Damned's "Neat Neat Neat" 45!) provided the spark for the formation of The Enemy, the legendary precursor to Toy Love. Rounded out by bassist Mick Dawson, The Enemy tore up Dunedin with a set that was 100% original, a totally radical notion in 1977 NZ pop music. (Ironically, Toy Love would later have to pad out their hour and a half sets with covers such as "I Can't Control Myself," "Peggy Sue," "People Are Strange," "Arnold Layne," and more.)
Their audience included members of future indie trailblazers The Clean, The Chills, Bored Games, The Verlaines, and Sneaky Feelings. The band members were heroes, over the top and proud, and word spread around the country fast about their live shows.
Eventually, Dawson left and he was replaced by Paul Kean along with his girlfriend, keyboard player Jane Walker. The new band renamed itself Toy Love, wrote some great new songs (dropping some of the Enemy set list in the process), toured, and scored a deal to record a single -- the NZ pop classic "Rebel" b/w "Squeeze." The NME loved it, it hit the top 40 in NZ, and was followed by another single, "Don't Ask Me" b/w "Sheep," the latter a longtime killer live.
1979 to 1984 was the golden age of live music in NZ, and huge crowds would turn up for the new music that the punk era had ushered in. It wasn't uncommon for 600 to 800 people to check out the group at The Hillsborough Tavern in my home town, Christchurch, where bands were forced by greedy management to play ridiculously long sets (usually 90 minutes). The bars closed at 11pm on Friday and Saturday (10pm the rest of the week!) and they would start the support band early to get as much bar traffic as possible.
By then Toy Love was a huge draw (even the smaller country towns were reluctantly won over), and their appeal was obvious. They had great songs, right through from pop ("Ain't It Nice," "Toy Love Song") to epics ("Don't Catch Fire" and "Photographs of Naked Ladies"), throwing in discordant, radical scuzz ("Bedroom," "Frogs") and straight up punk thrash ("Sheep," "Pull Down The Shades"). They also had Chris Knox.
Knox was the undisputed best frontman in the country (think a mashup of Iggy, Bryan Ferry, Reg Presley, and Alex Harvey) and he would carve a hole in any crowd. Stun them? He was just sick, rolling around in tinfoil, yelling through a beer crate, and out-heckling any booze-soaked punter. The band was powerful and a notch up from the Enemy musically. Bathgate slashed the crap out of his guitar, but could also play sly melodic lines on songs such as "Green Walls." Dooley was a total original on the skins, preferring to roll around the toms rather than play traditional high-hat and snare rhythms. Kean's jaw would jut back and forth in time to his bass, and Walker filled in the gaps, occasionally cutting loose on songs like "Bedroom."
Eventually they recorded a self-titled LP that some hardcore fans thought a little "new wave" sounding but which sold a buttload and got into the NZ top 10! Another single followed, but the band by then had conquered NZ and wondered "what next?" They considered the UK, but - against the howls of Dooley - settled for Australia, which ground them into the dirt. One more NZ tour followed, where all their songs seemed to be played about twice as fast as before...desperation had set in, and soon they split, with a whimper more than a bang. We are left with the "Cuts" double CD (their LP, singles, and demos, currently outta print), and this new beauty. Some of the standout songs include: "1978," which for me is their killer "punk" track and insanely exciting live. The band mostly stopped playing it when 1979 rolled around (of course!), and recycled the riff into "The Crunch" - also a showstopper (and also on this LP). "Don't Ask Me" - a gorgeous pop ballad, a la "Don't Worry Baby." Sweet.
"Squeeze" - this demo is howling compared to the 7" version...one of their best songs. Knox often sounded like Bryan Ferry singing this. "I Wanna Die With You" - filled the dance floor every time...amped-up punk/pop. " Sheep" - with "Shades," their most popular live song. This demo shows off Knox's vocal range and lyrical mischief.
"The Second To Last Song Toy Love Wrote" - a pointer to the future this band could have had...and that Knox and Bathgate's new project, Tall Dwarfs, did. An ominous, rolling song that builds into an acerbic rant against the music biz of the time.
"Don't Catch Fire" - for many, their best song (we'll forgive the "Paint It Black" appropriation). It's a slow-fused bomb that blows up in your face.
The other great thing is how timeless this music is, especially when reflecting on how far from "fashion" Knox and Co. were when the songs were gestating. If you heard this without context, you could easily think this was the best record of the year. This year.
It's that good. Stunning.
(Note: In 2009 Chris Knox suffered a debilitating stroke. He is still in recovery.)
-- Tony Green