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Toyah Wilcox talks ahead of Wolverhampton show

By Pete Madeley | Music | Published:

By her own admission, she’s not quite right.

Toyah performing at The Water Rats in 2016.

Toyah Willcox lives in a perpetual state of confusion, imagining that she ought to be doing something else or working on something new.

She’s a little bit OCD – her words, not ours – and is never happier than when playing one thing off against the other.

And perhaps that’s no surprise. After all, the one-time High Priestess of Punk has carved out a remarkable career as musician, singer, songwriter, actress, producer and author. In a career spanning 40 years, she’s had eight Top 40 singles, released more than 20 albums, written two books and appeared in more than 40 stage plays and ten feature films.

She’s voiced and presented numerous TV shows and enjoyed such hits as It’s A Mystery, Thunder In The Mountains and I Want To Be Free.

Now in her 60th year, it’s time to reflect. The entertainer who was born in King’s Heath, refused to move to London and now lives just up the road in Worcestershire, is back on the road with shows that double as a career retrospective.

She’ll headline Wolverhampton’s Slade Rooms on Friday as part of a whistlestop tour that celebrates both her 60th year and her 40th year in music.

“I’ve been in the business for 40 years so there’s a lot of music to cover. We cherry pick what we think will be a good fun high-energy night for the fans.

"Obviously we’ll do all the hits and I also have two singles scheduled for release next year, so they’re in the set.

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"We’re also celebrating love is the law from 1983, which is my favourite. It’s pure singles, album tracks and b-sides. It’s a set for the die-hard Toyah fans who like a lot of energy.”

Toyah had an unconventional start to life. She was born with a twisted spine, clawed feet, a clubbed right foot, one leg two inches shorter than the other and no hip sockets.

Because of that she endured years of painful operations and physiotherapy. Her physical condition was a cause of difficult times at school.

She was a weak child with a speech impediment, the perfect bait for bullying. So her father took her to one side and taught her how to punch the hell out of someone. She was never bullied again.

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She rebelled against her parents and against the private girls’ school at which she was educated.

Her rebellion found a perfect outlet in punk and soon she was acting at the BBC Pebble Mill TV studio while also working in bands.

She moved to London in the mid-1970s and released a debut album, Sheep Farming In Barnet, in 1979. Her sophomore record, The Blue Meaning, grazed the top 40 but it was her 1981 record, Anthem, which provided the breakthrough.

A number two hit, it earned her a gold disc and featured the hits I Want To Be Free and It’s A Mystery.

“For a while, I was the biggest singer this side of the planet. I was going from country to country and promotion to promotion.

"When I was writing the first two albums, I was left alone to get on with it. But when you are famous, you almost become a split personality because people see this famous person without knowing who they are. I found it a very intense experience.

"I’m glad I had it. But now when I look at people who’ve had that experience and it doesn’t drop off, I wonder how they cope.

“Fame is so intense and unrelenting. I wasn’t sure I could cope with it forever. It was a wonderful time but incredibly challenging.

"It affected me as a writer a lot and my writing became very dark and very black and angry. That’s why for the rest of the 80s, I went into theatre, which was a really big healing process for me.”

In the days before social media, fans behaved differently. And in Toyah’s case, they would gather outside her front door or telephone her at home.

“I couldn’t leave the house. The phone was constantly ringing with people I didn’t know on it. The wonderful bubble of punk, which allowed me to be completely off the wall, was no longer there.

"I was in such huge demand. I didn’t resent or hate it, it was a wonderful experience. But it wasn’t creative. I became a corporate product.

“I needed to not feel cornered by it all so I went back to the National Theatre and did a show called Whale then toured The Taming of the Shrew.

"What really worried me about what my life was in the early 1980s was that it was just one long photoshoot and one long interview.”

Toyah continued to release records. Her late 1980s-early 1990s work, including Prostitute and Ophelia’s Shadow is ranked as her best. But the hits dried up and she settled into a different life where she’d bounce between theatre and music.

“I was happier then. At the start of the 1980s, I needed 20 of me to deal with what was being asked. I was touring constantly and doing 14-20 interviews per day and then fitting TV in around that.

"When I look at the big A-Listers who have to sit in a room for a week talking about what they’ve just done, I wonder how they don’t go mad.”

The Midlands continues to feature prominently in her story, having been born in Birmingham.

She’s a fan of the city’s hard working people, it’s diversity, it’s inclusivity and it’s healthy outlook and history. “It’s a community of all nations. I think it deserves its status as the Second City in England. Like many, I secretly hope that Parliament has to move out of London and will chooses Birmingham for a while. I also hope Channel 4 comes to Birmingham, rather than Leeds or Manchester. Birmingham is such a friendly place. It’s a fantastic city to be in. I’m honoured to be part of it.”

Her gig in Wolverhampton will give her the chance to both look forward and look back. “I’m always in a state of confusion, I never understand what I’m supposed to do next but I’ve learned that confusion and being a bit OCD are part of life. I’m not your normal type of star.”

She sure as hell isn’t. But that’s just one more reason to love her for what she’s achieved.

Pete Madeley

By Pete Madeley
@P_Madeley_Star

Political Editor for the Express & Star. Responsible for local and national political stories, opinion, comment and analysis.

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