Toyah on It’s a Mystery: ‘I told Princess Margaret I was a punk rocker. She said “How ridiculous”’

‘There was a vinyl shortage when it was released. Old records had to be sent to the factory to be melted down and pressed. But soon it was selling 75,000 copies a day’

Toyah Willcox, singer/songwriter

I was a cult punk singer playing sweaty little clubs and getting covered in so much gob that dry cleaners would go: “Yeuch! We’re not touching that!” Then a brilliant PR woman called Judy Totton turned everything around. She put me in every parish magazine in the country that would talk to me. I soon had all these fans who said they discovered me because their parents or grandparents had told them about this punk rocker.

I was making singles that were eight minutes long with reams of lyrics and had never had a hit. When Safari Records played my 1980 single Ieya on rotation in their office, a man apparently appeared at their door with a knife and said: “If you play that song again, I’ll kill you!” I started working with a new producer, Nick Tauber, who said I needed to simplify the message. He was completely right.

It’s a Mystery was written by Keith Hale, who was in a band called Blood Donor. Safari were convinced it could be a hit, but I wasn’t. The demo lasted more than 12 minutes, with a very long intro and an instrumental. We shortened it to under four minutes so it would get radio play. Then I wrote the second verse that begins: “It can treat you with a vengeance and trip you in the dark.” That bit’s about empowerment, because we’re not in control even though we think we are.

Toyah on ITV’s Razzmatazz programme in 1981.
Toyah on ITV’s Razzmatazz programme in 1981. Photograph: ITV/Shutterstock

Otherwise, it’s a song about how life really is a mystery – it’s a mystery to me that an aeroplane can fly! But the song is vague enough that everyone can read their own life story in it. I did the vocals in one take, then Nick said: “Could you be more contemplative at the beginning?” We redid the first four lines in a different voice, which made the rest sound like a call to arms.

It was released on an EP called Four from Toyah, but there was a vinyl shortage at the time. Safari were ringing round to get old records sent to the factory, so they could be melted down and pressed, making enough to get the song into the charts. Soon it was selling 75,000 a day and went to No 4. Having been unsure about the track, It’s a Mystery opened every door for me. Shortly afterwards, I went with Katharine Hamnett to have tea at St James’s Palace with the Queen Mother. Princess Margaret was fabulous. She asked what I did and I said: “I’m a punk rocker.” She went: “Ohhh! How ridiculous!”

Nick Tauber, producer

I went to the filming of an ATV documentary featuring Toyah’s band and watched them play a song. They asked me what I thought and I said: “Do you want the truth?” I told them that the guitarist – Joel Bogen, who’d done everything with Toyah – was great, but I wanted to put a new band together for her. Toyah wasn’t too happy about losing the other musicians, but she was a very driven young lady and wanted to be successful. I brought in Nigel Glockler, a great drummer, an incredible bass player called Phil Spalding and an electronic whiz kid called Adrian Lee. They gave us a very contemporary sound.

I always think a producer’s job is to make records that are creative and representative, but it’s no good having something that no one gets to hear. Toyah’s previous records were eclectic and dark, but they didn’t have wide appeal. My role is to make things a bit more commercial, which I think is why Safari got me in. I spent hours in the studio with Adrian trying to sync things up, as in those days everything was manual. To her credit, even though Toyah didn’t like the song at first, she got it and understood why it would be a success.

She was a star the moment she walked out of her front door – and she was brilliant at it. She was the same in the studio. I’d previously worked with another punk band called Slaughter and the Dogs, who I loved dearly but they were difficult. They’d been thrown out of their hotel for wrecking it and they scribbled graffiti all over the studio control room on the first day of recording their album. There was none of that with Toyah. She never made a fuss. She just had to hear the music in her headphones and get the lights right in the vocal booth, then she’d nail it.

  • Toyah’s Anthem deluxe box set is out now. Her UK tour starts at Epic Studios, Norwich, on 16 September.


Interviews by Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
‘I’d rather be a one-hit wonder than a no-hit wonder’ – the Vapors on Turning Japanese
‘Our drummer didn’t like the song. He just went: “Boom! Splat!” But it sounded great so we kept it’

Interviews by Dave Simpson

13, Feb, 2023 @12:58 PM

Article image
The Members: how we made Sound of the Suburbs
‘At gigs we’d see all these punk kids from small towns who weren’t part of the metropolitan elite. I thought: “These people need a song”’

Interviews by Dave Simpson

12, Apr, 2021 @2:28 PM

Article image
How we made punk fanzine Sniffin' Glue
‘Punk was like a bomb going off. By issue four, we were talking about taking over the music business’

Interviews by Daniel Dylan Wray

10, Dec, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
Toyah Willcox: 'My mother always wanted me altered in some way. I was never right'
The singer and actor has had a productive pandemic – and gone viral from her kitchen. She talks about escaping her childhood, sexual harassment and persuading her rock star husband to dress in a tutu

Emine Saner

04, Feb, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
‘It’s maybe about Denise van Outen’ – the Coral on how they made Dreaming of You
‘I wrote it at my nan’s house in five minutes. All our hits were done like that’

Interviews by Andy Welch

21, Mar, 2022 @2:50 PM

Article image
‘I hadn’t slept for 10 days’ – the Lemonheads on making It’s a Shame About Ray
‘The song made things happen – but it’s weird to be proud of something you did 30 years ago on drugs’

Interviews by Dave Simpson

13, Jun, 2022 @1:52 PM

Article image
‘People actually thought hairy legs were scary!’ Gina Birch on punk, the Raincoats and comfortable footwear
On the eve of her debut solo album, the founder of the feminist punk band explains why she never wore stilettos (you couldn’t run away from Teds in them) and how she fell in love with painting

Shaad D'Souza

28, Feb, 2023 @3:26 PM

Article image
The Damned: how we made New Rose
‘Audiences hated us, motorcycle gangs chased us’ … fuelled by amphetamine and cider, this bunch of former toilet-cleaners and gravediggers made Britain’s first punk single

Interviews by Dave Simpson

19, Mar, 2018 @3:00 PM

Article image
The Stranglers: how we made European Female
‘I was going out with a Parisian ballerina and projected my idea of Europe on to her. It was passionate, destructive relationship – that’s why we’re all in cages in the video’

Interviews by Dave Simpson

02, Mar, 2020 @3:02 PM

Article image
Gabrielle: how we made Dreams
‘I was singing Luther Vandross covers in a club and a woman said: “This is as good as it’s going to get for you.” I went home and wrote Dreams’

Interviews by Dave Simpson

01, Mar, 2021 @3:25 PM