From page 79 of Classic Rock Magazine June 2011
Toy (officially unreleased)
Unreleased officially, but leaked on the internet last month, this lost latterday album proves to be a fascinating, if flawed, work.
F or a man whose futurologist credentials are widely celebrated, David Bowie has spent a lot of his career looking back. The widespread internet leaking of Toy , an exploration of his own back pages, via a medium which he in turn championed then abandoned, is somehow appropriate. Inspiring, and frustrating, this lost project is a mass of contradictions. Like its maker, a man who devoted himself ruthlessly to the pursuit of fame, and has now turned his back on it, just as ruthlessly.
Started in the summer of 2000, Toy marked David Bowie’s reunion with his greatest producer, Tony Visconti, from whom he’d been estranged for nearly two decades. The reunion produced two fine albums ( Heathen and Reality ), but the album that kicked off this return to form was lost in a Virgin Records reshuffle. Now, most likely emanating from a lost laptop, this fascinating artefact has been widely distributed among Bowie’s internet-savvy fans.
There are so many layers of history within this collection, it’s sometimes mind-boggling. The failure of David
Jones’s debut single, Liza Jane , back in 1963 was a key rite of passage; the moment when he ditched his lovable school friend ‘Gorgeous’ George Underwood; the moment when he was marked out as a boy who, while not spectacularly talented, boasted spectacular ambition. Thirty-eight years later, the man has lived several lifetimes, and the revisited version is swampspooky, gritty, beautifully produced. Yet even now it’s something of a failure; he’s channelling Tom Waits channelling Howlin’ Wolf. Why? This question is surely why this album remains officially unreleased. Much the same applies to the new versions of You’ve Got A Habit Of Leaving and I Dig Everything ; the originals were obviously, yet interestingly, flawed, but here on Toy the re-recordings are very often too perfect, too lush.
Yet, as ever with this most contradictory of rock stars, to balance these moments of dull muso competence there are moments of jaw-dropping brilliance. The most obvious is Shadow Man . This forgotten Ziggy-era song, with its desolate piano intro and swooping, intricate melody is beguilingly simple and spellbinding. Although briefly available
as a single bonus track, it’s a jewel far too precious to be left in the vaults; the perfect example of how, while it took Bowie a lot of practice to get his aim in, he rarely missed the bullseye from then on. Hole In The Ground – originally recorded by friend reunited George Underwood and sounding like a dry run for Lou Reed’s Vicious – is not in the same league, but it’s a charming, quirky song even in this over-upholstered remake.
The same applies to Silly Boy Blue and Let Me Sleep Beside You , two of Bowie’s very first collaborations with Tony Visconti. When Bowie first recorded the stately, wistful Silly Boy Blue, he was bruised by the failure of his debut album, and contemplating life as a Buddhist monk. The new version marked Bowie’s live reunion with his producer, a reunion that marked another winning streak. Before Toy , Bowie had struggled to find a consistent direction. In its wake, he stopped trying so hard – with
One entirely new song stands at the crossroads between these two eras. Uncle Floyd – later reworked as Slip Away on Heathen – was inspired by the surreal, vaudeville New Jersey local kids’ TV show host of the same name. This early version, with taped dialogue from the show, is all the more childlike and fragile – with that niggling question of what will happen to us all when we finally grow up? The sense of loss is all the more palpable when you realise that John Lennon turned David Bowie on to the show only months before Lennon was murdered. Uncle Floyd’s show itself passed into history a couple of years before Toy was recorded. Listening to it now, with its maker on the cusp of a winning streak that was all too brief, you feel the loss of Bowie, too.
Toy is obviously flawed, frustratingly inconsistent, just like life itself. But while we all share a sense of loss for Bowie, whether it’s due to ill-health, ‘daddifying’ or the glamour of a dramatic retirement, this reminder of a splendid and bounteous, four-decade career that now seems ended evokes the question asked by George Underwood, Bowie’s longestserving friend: Wasn’t he brave? To do what he did?
■■■■■■■■■■ Paul Trynka