Toy Love: Why they were one out of the box

By Russell Baillie

The influence of Toy Love, the Chris Knox-fronted band which burned bright but briefly during the post-punk era, is being recognised with this year's New Zealand Herald Legacy Award.

Toy Love in their heyday, from left, Alec Bathgate, Jane Walker, Mike Dooley, Chris Knox and Paul Kean. Photo / Supplied
Toy Love in their heyday, from left, Alec Bathgate, Jane Walker, Mike Dooley, Chris Knox and Paul Kean. Photo / Supplied

In John Dix's still-definitive history of Kiwi rock during its first 40 years, Stranded in Paradise, Toy Love got a chapter all to themselves.

For a band that lasted barely two years and released just one studio album - one they largely disowned upon its release for its production - all those pages might have seemed a lot.

Especially for a band whose short career might have otherwise made them a footnote in local rock history.

But that one chapter remains one of the most exciting in the whole volume. It tells the story of how the band led by Chris Knox started out as The Enemy - Dunedin's contribution to the great punk uprising of 1977 - and how, after their arrival in Auckland and a membership shuffle, they mutated into Toy Love by early 1979.

Knox and his fellow Enemy bandmates, guitarist Alec Bathgate and drummer Mike Dooley joined up with bassist Paul Kean and keyboardist Jane Walker. And with a quickly snowballing reputation for electrifying shows - and especially Knox's often confronting stage act, doing odd things with broken glass, watermelons, bandages and tinfoil - the quintet then went out and took over the country.

They did that with music that might have had its roots in the aftershock of the punk explosion, but it was angry, funny, catchy, doomy, cartoonish and more - and often all of that in the course of one finicky, frantic, song.

Less than two years later, it was all over. After one Sydney-recorded album and an unhappy time in Australia they returned, toured and split.

But as Dix concluded in that chapter: "Toy Love are not easily forgotten. The group achieved what it started out to do. With no compromise, they showed it was possible to combine the energy of punk with the accessibility of pop to win over a large audience, proving that the musical spirit of the 60s could survive.

"During the 80s, their influence would be immense."

Another to see them at the time was rock critic Graham Reid, who offered his own theory about Toy Love's enduring appeal when he reviewed Cuts, the 2005 remastered compilation of the band's studio recordings.

"Toy Love were risky and uncompromising, cynical but oddly life-affirming, left edges unpolished, thrust their rage and wit into your face, had the good sense to get out, and the integrity never to reform. For all those reasons, and more, they were rare. And, for a brief, thrilling period, they were ours."

And writing in music magazine Volume earlier this year, Terence Hogan, the group's short-lived A&R man, also remembered the excitement of this one-of-a-kind band.

"In among the smashed watermelon and broken glass, drenched in sweat and flecked with blood, the laughs, confusion, exhilaration, there was a complexity in the experience that's all about the priceless, messy human-ness that drives great rock'n'roll."

At last night's awards announcement, Recording Industry Association of New Zealand managing director Chris Caddick also cited Toy Love's lasting impact.

"Those of us lucky enough to have seen them live can say we truly saw music history in the making. Their classic singles and legendary album continue to influence artists in New Zealand and all around the world to this day."

As this year's winners of the New Zealand Herald Legacy Award, the band will join previous honorees Johnny Devlin, Ray Columbus and the Invaders, Straitjacket Fits, Shihad and Dragon in the NZ Music Hall of Fame.

REISSUES

Toy Love's NZ Herald Legacy Award is being greeted with a range of reissues by Real Groovy Records which earlier this year released a limited edition double live vinyl-only album of one of the band's last Auckland shows.

Being released on November 2 - the day after the awards - is a double LP in a gatefold sleeve, on split coloured vinyl, which compiles all the band's singles (both A and B sides) and demos from 1979. Also available will be a DVD featuring all of the band's videos and t-shirts based on the original artwork for the single Bride of Frankenstein.


- TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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