The Toy Love affair

By Scott Kara

The short, sharp, but influential creative burst that Toy Love brought to Kiwi rock at the beginning of the 80s is being celebrated tonight with the band being this year's recipient of The New Zealand Herald Legacy Award at the Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards. Scott Kara talked to those who saw the brilliance and the madness close-up ...

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

Toy Love remain one of the most unique, exciting and dangerous bands to come out of New Zealand. During their short, yet prolific and hard-gigging 20-month reign, from 1979 to 1980, they changed the way many thought about rock music - from the way it was made to what constituted a pop song.

And they made their mark even before they had released an album, which came out the month before they called it quits after almost 500 gigs - yes, in less than two years - in September, 1980.

Taking influences from 60s pop, glam rock, and punk, but with a common goal to be creative, entertain, and have a laugh while they freaked people out, Toy Love came up with music that was utterly unique. The band, who grew out of Dunedin punk act the Enemy, were pop, punk, and new wave, but heavy and menacing too.

Live, they were intense and dramatic thanks to Chris Knox's sniping yowl and theatrics, Alec Bathgate's arcing, eerie and hard riffing guitar, Mike Dooley's primal drumming, Paul Kean's growling bass, and pioneering Kiwi rock woman Jane Walker's percussive poppy keyboard style.

Sadly, their self-titled debut album didn't capture that live intensity, but their singular sound can be heard on songs like rabble rouser Pull Down the Shades, the new wave country punk of Bride of Frankenstein, and swirling and catchy psychedelic pop rocker Ain't it Nice.

Below, as well as the band, the key players in the band's story - including roadie and fan Chris Moody, former New Zealand record company man Terence Hogan and their Australian manager Michael Browning - talk about the band's life and times.

Knox, who suffered a stroke in 2009, didn't take part in the following story. But his voice can be heard loud and proud thanks to his earlier writings on the band's website.

So here it is, the fleeting but eventful story of the Toy Love affair ...

THE TOY LOVE CAST

CHRIS KNOX: Vocals, ringmaster
Went on to form Tall Dwarfs with Toy Love guitarist Alec Bathgate, and released a string of solo albums. His comic strip Max Media appeared in the NZ Herald/TimeOut for 15 years. In 2009 he suffered a stroke but has played various live dates since, including at the Stroke - Songs for Chris Knox benefit concert in November, 2009, and 2010's Laneway Festival.

ALEC BATHGATE: Guitar
Formed Tall Dwarfs with Knox. Also released two solo albums including 2004's The Indifferent Velvet Void on Auckland-based indie label Lil' Chief.

MIKE DOOLEY: Drums
Returned to Sydney after Toy Love split. Played in the Dri Horrors before returning to NZ to play in Snapper, the Beaters, and the Snares.

PAUL KEAN: Bass
Returned home to Christchurch after Toy Love split up and acted as live sound mixer for Flying Nun bands the Clean, the Chills, Verlaines and others that passed through town. Formed the Bats with Robert Scott, Kaye Woodward, and Malcolm Grant in 1983. They're still going with the same line-up.

JANE WALKER: Keyboards
Also returned to Christchurch, before heading to hometown Wellington and then London in 1987. Played in numerous bands over the years and is now a designer based in London. "But may well get back into doing more music in the future."

CHRIS MOODY: Fan, friend, lighting man, roadie.

TERENCE HOGAN: WEA A&R man who got Toy Love signed.

MICHAEL BROWNING: Former manager of AC/DC, Toy Love's Australian manager and record label boss.

TODD HUNTER: Founder and bass player in Dragon. Produced second single Don't Ask Me/Sheep (January, 1980) and Toy Love album (June, 1980)

ROY COLBERT: Dunedin music stalwart.

SHAYNE CARTER: Former Straitjacket Fits and Dimmer frontman, Enemy and Toy Love fan.

THE BEGINNING ... THE ENEMY

Alec Bathgate: It was 1977, it was winter. Mike [Dooley] and I were at polytech [in Dunedin] doing fine arts and one day we both, separately, went in to Eureka Records to buy Neat Neat Neat by the Damned which had just come out in New Zealand. Chris Knox was helping out in the shop. He was wearing a large fur coat, it was probably three-quarter length, and he was wearing shorts underneath because he was a postie at the time. He was larger than life, charismatic, and very friendly - and excited because we had come in wanting to buy that particular record.

Mike Dooley: We kept in touch, and one day Chris said his band had fallen apart, and he suggested he join mine and Alec's band. We needed a bass player and he initially joined as a bass player. That became the Enemy. But he couldn't play bass and after a couple of days he suggested he just sing.

Chris Moody: I flatted with Chris. He had a piano in his bedroom and as you walked through the house you could hear him bashing away and singing at the top of his voice.

Chris Knox: My job was to sing. My only other real duty was to come up with the lyrics. Very seldom would anyone question my choice of lyrics. That was my area, trespassers would be barely tolerated.

THE FIRST ENEMY SHOW, NOVEMBER, 1977

Bathgate: We played at the Beneficiaries Hall. Chris had grown a beard and grown his hair long and he said he was going to do something but we didn't know what. And on the night he shaved one half of the beard off and cut one half of his hair really short. He'd never tell you what he was going to do and often it was spontaneous, like wrapping his head in tape or tin foil.

Knox: True to that [punk era] epoch, we were out to shock, revolt and terrify as we entertained. Me, I just wanted to be as weird and scary as I could be. Plus have a healthy sense of humour about it all. It all came rather naturally really.

Moody: The first gig was a hoot. They were extraordinary. They were creating all this music with such energy as well. Every week there would be about two or three new songs and they were so bloody good.

Roy Colbert: They were friends of mine, they would come into my record shop, talk about music and they decided to form a band because it was the punk era and that's what everyone did. So in a situation like that you just go along to be loyal. I didn't actually realise they were a really good band. They were simple songs really - punk Stooges with Beatles melodies.

Dooley: After the first gig we couldn't believe it. We were in a state of euphoria for a few days afterwards. It was what people were dying for after countless covers bands.

THE ENEMY ATTACKS

Bathgate: We wanted to be successful, even though it seemed like a ridiculous goal because none of us were skilled musicians. It was pure energy and enthusiasm that was driving us.

Knox: Up there, stranded without an instrument to hide behind, I woulda got dead bored (dead) without a great band around me. They were great. I was lucky. [They] would provide all the musical muscle, the chords and often - embedded somewhere in a bass line, a shard of guitar noise or something less obvious - a melody.

Shayne Carter: I once saw a mash-up of the Enemy and [fellow Dunedin band] London SS that Chris Knox fronted. They played at my school dance. They were utterly terrifying and got kicked off by the principal after two songs.

Bathgate: Early on, when Chris was cutting himself I really liked him doing that because I liked watching the reaction of the audience. We didn't want to be this passive band on stage, we wanted people to be really affected when they saw us play.

Colbert: I can't honestly remember when Chris started cutting himself. But people who probably weren't that interested in the music would come along just for that reason.

Paul Kean: Chris had this menacing look, not menacing as in scary, but dramatic. And in behind it there were some really great songs. Mick Dawson playing fantastic bass lines, Mike Dooley doing his distinctive rolling style of almost tribal drumming, and then of course Alec on his Ibanez 59er.

Knox: The songs from that period are blatant, simple and drenched in the adolescent angst that - at 25 - I really shoulda left behind years before but which seemed to be too fertile a ground to leave untended. Cold Meat [was] about the objectification of the male (I like to think I was ahead of my time here). Then there were the protest songs and the more literary stuff that tried to inhabit another's skull like Pull Down the Shades where I attempted a bogan swagger.

Jane Walker: I first saw the Enemy in Christchurch. They had come up to appear on Telethon and then did a gig at Mollet St Market on the Sunday night. The Basket Cases [Walker and Kean's band] were also playing. When the Enemy played the audience were transfixed, Chris gave a spellbinding performance. I don't think anyone had seen anything like it before. Sheer ferocity.

THE ENEMY ENDS. TOY LOVE FORMED, JANUARY, 1979

Bathgate: The Enemy shifted to Auckland in September, 1978, because we wanted to make it big and that wasn't going to happen from Dunedin. Mick didn't like living in Auckland so he left the band. At that point I think we saw an opportunity to reinvent ourselves. We did this song, Frogs, and someone described it as psychedelic, which was a really unfashionable term to use at the time, but I liked the idea of playing music that affected peoples' minds.

Walker: After Mick left the Enemy Phil Judd [Split Enz, the Swingers] joined as bass player. Then one day Chris, Alec and Mike came round and said they heard I played keyboards and did I want to join the band. I wasn't that keen as I was happy being a drummer. After a while Phil apparently decided he'd actually prefer to play guitar so they asked Paul if he'd step in to play bass. I remember him coming back from a practice with this line-up and saying he wouldn't be able to work with Phil.

Kean: I felt the great Enemy songs had changed and were becoming Phil Judd-ised.

Walker: Eventually Phil parted company with the others and they came back again and said we want you both to join. We agreed.

Kean: As Jane and I hitched back down to Christchurch for Christmas, we listened to a lot of demos the Enemy had done to learn the songs and we just felt like they were complete and we didn't really want to dick with them. So when we got back rehearsing with them in Auckland we were really focused on writing new songs.

Bathgate: We obviously kept a lot of the Enemy songs, but we wrote a whole batch of new songs when we started playing with Paul and Jane, and we came back as a more interesting band.

TOY LOVE'S FIRST GIG. LATE JANUARY, 1979

Walker: It was at Zwines. I remember the Auckland punks looking a bit surprised to see a female on keyboards. I developed quite a unique style with Toy Love because prior to that I had been playing drums. So I more or less started applying my drumming experience to the keyboards. The clavinet was great for driving things along and it was like a rhythm guitar role. The organ definitely added to the more poppy feel of some of the songs.

Moody: Suddenly it was new wave. It was just so different from the old Enemy songs. It was quite sophisticated, almost funky electro pop, only there was nothing electronic about it apart from the clavinet.

Colbert: They were a bit more springy, but not lighter, because they were still a heavy band.

SIGN TO WEA NEW ZEALAND, MARCH, 1979

Kean: Terence Hogan was working for WEA. He had seen the Enemy, but thought Toy Love had a more pop bent and introduced us to Tim Murdoch, the head of WEA.

Hogan: It was one of those moments in your life where you are struck by something really special. So I took a demo tape in to Tim Murdoch and he said he didn't really get it but told me to ring Glynn Tucker at Mandrill Studios, and book some time to see if we could get a single out of it. From there, and for almost two years, I saw 80 per cent of their gigs and went to Australia with them.

Kean: We were ambitious. Definitely. Because there was just such a good strength of songs. I didn't want to be famous or anything, but I wanted to make a living out of music so I could have a house and food on the table.

TOY LOVE HIT THE ROAD

Bathgate: We weren't playing big venues, so it wasn't hard to fill a room, but we played the Windsor Castle in Parnell which was 300 people. But in those days if you played the Gluepot you'd play three or four nights, and the same for the Windsor.

Walker: It was organised chaos, unformulaic. We wrote fresh set lists before every gig which helped. Nothing ever felt predictable, and there was anticipation wondering what bizarre antics Chris would get up to on any given night.

Carter: I was too young to get into pubs but I managed to see Toy Love twice. Once supporting them in my second-ever gig aged 15 with my band Bored Games and once when they came down after a pub gig and played at an old reconverted movie theatre [in Dunedin] called the State. It's impossible to describe to anyone who never saw them just how powerful and unlike anyone else they actually were. They were musically better than all the punk bands, and in a completely different dimension to the mainstream acts of the time. NZ needed a band like that.

Todd Hunter: I first saw Toy Love at the Gluepot. There were about 20 people there and Chris was cutting his wrist with a broken glass and smearing his blood over people's faces and saying, 'You want punk rock? I'll give you punk rock'. They were f****** great. They had great songs and huge energy.

FIRST SINGLE, REBEL/SQUEEZE, RELEASED AUGUST, 1979

Bathgate: Chris and I wrote Rebel. It basically rips off the Smokey Robinson and the Miracles song You Really Got a Hold on Me. Squeeze, I don't really remember too much about it but the chorus maybe was in an Enemy song, but Squeeze was a Toy Love song.

Kean: There has always been a bit of confusion about whether some songs were Enemy or Toy Love songs. Like Photographs of Naked Ladies was one I thought was an Enemy one but I don't know, it was a long time ago. And Squeeze is another one I thought was an entirely Toy Love one, but again, I don't know.

Knox: The new songs had a completely different feel, written to accommodate Paul's very idiosyncratic bass playing and Jane's full-on keyboards. Rebel was a protest song of sorts while - like Squeeze - admitting that the author of the tirade was pretty similar to the object of his scorn.

ARRIVE IN AUSTRALIA, MARCH, 1980

Kean: We were signed by Michael Browning [former AC/DC manager]. The idea was that it would be a stepping stone - come across to Australia, we'll get you sorted out, record an album, and then get you over to England.

Michael Browning: I started up a label in Australia called Deluxe and Tim Murdoch from WEA in New Zealand called me and said, 'WEA don't want to release Toy Love in Australia and would you be interested'. I thought they were really interesting and Chris Knox was one of the most engaging, talented and artistic rock musos that I had ever met. So I thought I'd give it a go in Australia.

Bathgate: But going to Australia and breaking it there wasn't really what we wanted to achieve. We were really ambitious, we wanted to get to the UK.

Browning: We put them on a [gig] circuit, and regretfully, I just think they were a little bit too early for Australia. That's a compliment to the people of New Zealand really because Toy Love were definitely well ahead of what was happening in Australia.

Moody: Sydney wasn't as bad as Chris [Knox] paints it. There was quite a reasonable following by the end of it. But there was an element of the Australians not really getting Toy Love and an element of Aussie-bashing from up on stage, which didn't help. But we were booked into so many ridiculous suburban booze barns, and when the band came on the crowd retreated right to the back of the room and didn't really know what to make of it. They should have been an inner city band.

Walker: We had actually built up quite a good following in Sydney in the time we were there and the last gig we played at Chequers nightclub was absolutely packed. It was a great show.

Kean: But after six or seven months, and a hell of a lot of gigs, we were a bit exhausted.

Carter: They put all of us off going to Australia for at least a decade.

THE TOY LOVE ALBUM, RELEASED AUGUST, 1980

Hunter: We recorded the LP at EMI studios in Sydney and in those days studios were really dead muffled spaces and the engineers were trained to make everything sound like Steely Dan. I didn't know enough at that stage to pull the plug and go and record in a hall or a garage. The band deserved an LP that was far more raw and anarchic than what ended up on vinyl and, despite the fact that we all tried our damnedest, it just wasn't to be.

Walker: I thought everything sounded fine overall but something happened by the time it got pressed. The guts had dropped out of it and I cried when I heard the test pressing. Toy Love were very much a live band and it wasn't easy to really get the essence and raw power of the band in full flight on a good night.

Kean: The vinyl was mastered very quietly - someone was playing it safe on the cutting lathe. It came out sounding quiet and thin. But the cassette sounded great.

Bathgate: It never really felt like the album represented us that well - but you do get a sense of what we were like. And I feel bad, because we've maligned the album for the past 30 years, but Todd was a really lovely guy. But that was probably the beginning of the end for us because we had anticipated making a debut album for so long. It was a really big thing for us, and we wanted to make a great album. But there was a lot of disappointment.

RETURN TO NEW ZEALAND AND THE END, SEPTEMBER, 1980

Walker: Toy Love ended because we were rapidly approaching burnout, and the main bone of contention was not having enough time to write new songs which was incredibly frustrating. But no one wanted to go back to Oz and resume the gruelling schedule. We weren't enjoying it anymore and our collective sanity was more important in the end. We were still friends and wanted to keep it that way rather than end up hating each other.

Kean: Rather than break up we could have just had a breather and then got back writing new material. But we were exhausted and Chris decided to call it quits. I had a feeling of sadness that we couldn't take it somewhere else, but it was crossed with this amazing feeling of elation that we could have a break.

Dooley: Initially it was good to have a break but after a while I slumped into a period of depression, a big part of my life, and something really important to me was gone. It was quite a profound sense of loss.

Hogan: I just wanted to see what they were going to come up with next. So I was disappointed.

Colbert: They did six nights in a row at the Cook [in Dunedin], which was unheard for that kind of band. They still had it, it was magic. But it was kind of sad really. I just thought they'd go off to England and become famous.

Walker: The final show was at Mainstreet [in Auckland on September 20, 1980]. I remember looking out at the audience and thinking, little do you know that this is the last time you will see us perform. Otherwise it's a blur.

Moody: It was sad because there was no announcement. The audience at Mainstreet were unaware.

THE LEGACY

Walker: We just did what we did, we were very spontaneous, and it came from the heart. Maybe we showed people that they could trust their creative instincts? And we had great songs. It all comes down to the music in the end.

Carter: What carried across to the next generation of bands was Toy Love's emphasis on great tunes. Don't Ask Me is the lost New Zealand pop classic.

Dooley: [The Legacy Award] also recognises what other people did as a result of being influenced by us rather than just what we did, which is cool. We weren't entirely uncompromising, but we did things the way we wanted to, and that inspired a lot of people.

Kean: People realised, 'Hey, we don't need to go into a big studio to record', and out of it came indie labels like Flying Nun.

Bathgate: We wanted to challenge people, but entertain people as well. We wanted to be in the charts, but also push ourselves to find out what we could create. It's a real shame looking back because we should have given ourselves more time to write. Toy Love was a band with so much potential and it was never fully realised.

KIDS LET LOOSE IN THE TOYBOX

Tonight at the music awards Toy Love receive the NZ Herald Legacy Award, and the finale of the night will be a medley of their songs Don't Ask Me and Sheep by local up-and-comers Rackets, Street Chant and Tiny Ruins.

And the fun doesn't stop there. On Saturday Real Groovy in Queen St plays host to 10 bands to celebrate Toy Love's legacy award and the release of the vinyl-only Toy Love Double LP.

The 28-track double album is made up of all the band's singles, including B sides, the best of the band's 1979 demos, a live recording and an ad jingle.

The special vinyl edition of the record - which is half-red, half-yellow - will only be available on Saturday with the first 300 purchasers also receiving a free 7-inch single of the 1979 version of Swimming Pool.

Toy Love - though not playing - will be in store from 11am. Kicking off at 12.15pm are live bands Rackets, Delaney Davidson, Heart Attack Alley, Beach Pigs, Sal Valentine & The Babyshakes, Grrlfriendz, Tiny Ruins, The Manta Rays, Thee Rum Coves, and Australian four-piece the Rubens who support the Black Keys on Saturday night.

Each band will perform Toy Love material in their sets.

* nzherald.co.nz will have full coverage of tonight's awards, including a live blog, photo galleries, videos, interviews and all the winners as they come to hand. Join us here from 5pm.

-TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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