MADONNA was still miming with a hairbrush in front of the mirror when Toyah Willcox boarded
MADONNA was still miming with a hairbrush in front of the mirror when Toyah Willcox boarded the fame bus.
Nearly 40 years on, the singer and actress from Kings Heath in Birmingham has yet to disembark — having notched up eight top 40 singles and 20 album releases along the way.
As an actress she has starred in 10 feature films and more than 40 stage plays. She is also the author of two bestselling books: her autobiography Living Out Loud appeared in 2000, followed by her 2005 Diary of a Facelift.
Now 58, Toyah continues to write fresh chapters. Her appearance at the Rewind South festival at Temple Island Meadows on Saturday, August 20, will be followed 11 days later by the opening of a brand new rock musical version of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment soundtracked by her music.
Adapted by renowned theatre director and playwright Phil Willmott, the production is being staged at The Scoop — the sunken 800-seat amphitheatre next to City Hall on the south side of the Thames — from Wednesday, August 31, to Sunday, September 25. Admission is free.
“Really, I’ve had very little to do,” says Toyah, “ because the director has just taken music I’ve written over the past 40 years and put it in the musical.
“But I will be writing two brand new songs — I’ll go into rehearsals, watch the rehearsals, and we’re going to write two specific songs — but otherwise he’s mainly using an album of mine that charted about seven years ago called In the Court of the Crimson Queen. All of that has gone into the musical.”
“We” in this instance is Toyah and her songwriting partner Simon Darlow, who has also written for Grace Jones and Shirley Bassey.
The singer has been married to King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp for 30 years, but childhood illnesses — 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 — meant that she was unable to have children.
As an infant she had to be taught both to walk and talk — mainly by her mother, to whom she was very close until the age of seven.
She told one interviewer: “My mother taught me how to walk, she was the one that was trained to give me the physiotheraphy to straighten my own spine, so twice a day we would go through this routine.
“So she was disciplinarian in my life from a very — well, right from when I can remember. So it was natural she was the first person I should rebel against.
“And now I feel very strongly towards my mum that she sacrificed everything to give me the freedom I have today.”
In 1974, the year she turned 16, Toyah’s rebel instincts began to find an outlet in a series of experiments with her hair and fashion sense.
She says now: “It was pre-punk, so I thought I was pretty unique in what I was doing, but actually I was probably on the cusp of punk.
“In Birmingham I certainly felt completely alone in what I was doing — I was making my own clothes, so quite outlandish kind of science-fiction space-age stuff.
“I was dyeing my hair — I was a hair model at a very large department store. And suddenly a friend said, ‘Have you heard this band, the Sex Pistols? They’re playing next week.’
“I went along and the venue was full of 350 kids that were doing exactly what I was doing! All dyeing their hair and making their own clothes. So I kind of fell into punk that way.
“And I just think it goes to show that within a generation of new young kids there was a kind of morphic resonance — that kids pick up on stuff.
“I’ve certainly found that when I’m lyric-writing — that I write a lyric thinking I’m completely unique. But there’s a film coming out called Extremis where I’m also in the film as an actress but I’ve written the outro tune and performed it.
“We wrote that last August and it has a line in it that appeared in Adele’s last single — and you just think how the hell did this happen? I don’t know Adele!
“Just all the time there’s this morphic resonance where you know if you have a good idea someone else has got it at the same time as well.”
The morphic resonance hypothesis was first put forward by the Cambridge biochemist Rupert Sheldrake.
“It’s extraordinary,” says Toyah. “So, you know, me creating my own look in isolation I just put down to morphic resonance that quite a few hundred thousand kids were doing it at the same time!”
Reflecting on what impact seeing the Sex Pistols had on her, she told a TV interviewer: “When punk started I think it was very much about socialism, the Labour party, the right of the workers, the right to be heard.
“I saw it on a slightly different level — no matter who you are if you had an idea then you could be part of the punk movement. I was slightly more simplistic in how I viewed it — it was a kind of emotional rebellion rather than a cultural rebellion.
“It wasn’t that I saw the Sex Pistols and thought: ‘Oh, that changed my life.’ I saw them and my reaction was: ‘I can do better — I can go to London to do it.’ From then on I knew I didn’t have to behave in a social norm — because I wasn’t alone.”
On leaving school at 17, Toyah won a place at the Old Rep Drama School in Birmingham. She spent a year there before landing the role of a pop-mad teenager in a BBC TV play called Glitter alongside her future Quadrophenia co-star Phil Daniels — in the course of which she performed two songs she had co-written. That led on to work with the National Theatre, where she was introduced to the filmmaker Derek Jarman, who cast her in Jubilee alongside Adam Ant — who by chance is appearing at Rewind on Sunday, August 21.
Having performed at Rewind previously, is there anyone Toyah is particularly looking forward to catching up with this time around?
“Well, we all know each other,” she says. “We’ve all been working with each other for 37 years and we’ve all been in extreme situations for 37 years. We travel a lot and we end up in dressing rooms at TV stations all over the world. So we know each other.
“I think what’s also quite exceptional about all of us is that none of us have huge egos — we’re all, you know, decent human beings. Many have had children — they bring their family with them. So it’s a family atmosphere, front of house and behind house as well, backstage.”
For more on this year’s Rewind festival, visit www.rewindfestival.com
Crime and Punishment is showing nightly at 8pm from August 31. Details at www.freeopenairtheatre.org