Sometime in 1979, on the evening of the day that Toy Love recorded the single Rebel/Squeeze, the band played a student union dance on the North Shore. Squeeze was still a fairly new song and they hadn't played it often on stage, but they'd run through it a few times in the studio during the day. That night, in front of a handful of lethargic students whose ennui seemed to drain the room of all its energy, the song sprung right up out of the band with an extraordinary elastic force that I remember vividly. It was as if, released from the constraints of the studio, they'd got a proper grip on the song for the first time and gleefully ridden it into the night. For me, Squeeze would seldom sound this exciting again, but there were so many great songs and they would all have their moments, and many times over.
Toy Love's music always seemed to be in a constant state of being formed and reformed, songs would warp and twist with every playing. So, for all its undeniable power, it could seem unstable, almost fragile, threatening to burst out of its own skin, shards and globs all over the place - every gig was like another attempt to make this strange creature hold together and live. At times it would only take off at a few unpredictable points, at others it would lift off immediately and roar through the air - an astonishingly compelling, unlikely flying thing full of dark folds and flashes of light. The best stuff was transcendent, and the near failures were so often funny or had the buzzy pathos of a crash site, you couldn't look away.
Those early performances at Auckland venues like Zwines, XS and especially the Windsor Castle sealed Toy Love's reputation and set a benchmark that would challenge the band throughout its brief lifetime. They were still new, like a baby, but raw as a wound, bursting with invention and exuding a singularity that stood them apart from even the best bands around them. I don't remember ever wondering what they might be doing in five years time... where do they go from here? Anything beyond what they were, and which might also be good, would be a surprising bonus. In retrospect those instincts were right.
Toy Love became (sort of) more consistent over time, without ever becoming set as if in a mould - they were too restless and honest for that - and they played terrific gigs right to the end. But I recall most fondly when they were that flawed and beautiful thing of those first few months. 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.
There was a long moment when to see Toy Love in full flight was to get one of the best bands in the world, right at their peak, right where I lived.
Who: Toy Love
Where: Student union dance on Auckland's North Shore
This Saturday Real Groovy is releasing 400 copies of a double album capturing the legendary Toy Love performing one of their last live shows on Friday 12 September 1980 at The Gluepot in Ponsonby.
Toy Love Live at The Gluepot is limited to one per customer, available from Real Groovy, 438 Queen St Auckland or online at realgroovy.co.nz.