[8 April 2013]
The music reissues I like best do one of two things: 1) make me look at a band I’m familiar with in a new way, or 2) introduce me to an essential band I would have otherwise missed. A new compilation of singles and demo tracks by New Zealand post-punk band Toy Love falls into the second category, and it has made me a fan for life.
I’m not joking about that. For the last week or so I’ve been humming Toy Love songs, hearing Toy Love bass lines in my head, singing to whomever can still stand to be around me, “You’re such a ... crazy squeeze”! Yes, I know I’m a few decades late to the party. But so what? I stopped worrying about my hipster cred right around the time I changed my first diaper. As far as I’m concerned, it’s better to experience a band late than not at all.
Toy Love, for those as clueless as I, formed and disbanded more quickly than you can say “cult favorite”. The group emerged in 1979 from the ashes of a well-regarded punk band from Dunedin, New Zealand, called the Enemy. Three members of that band — Chris Knox (vocals), Alec Bathgate (guitar) and Mike Dooley (drums) — decided to stay together as Toy Love, bringing in Jane Walker on keyboards and Paul Kean on bass.
The resulting five-piece recorded one full-length record and developed a reputation as a scorching, must-see live act. But by the fall of 1980, less than two years after forming, Toy Love was gone.
A brief run, yes, but a memorable one. Toy Love’s music influenced a generation’s worth of bands, and Knox and co. continue to have legions of devoted fans all over the globe. When Knox suffered a stroke a few years back, artists from the U.S. — Will Oldham, Lou Barlow, Jeff Mangum — were among those who contributed songs to an album that raised money for his recovery. And now New York record label Captured Tracks has partnered with New Zealand’s Flying Nun to release Toy Love, a two-LP, 29-song set that collects the band’s singles, a slew of demos from 1979, a live track and even one radio jingle. (Note that the band’s full-length record is NOT included here; that was reissued a few years back under the title Cuts.)
The set offers an excellent primer on Toy Love’s work and sound — angular guitars, irresistible pop melodies and vocals that hit just the right balance of sweetness and snarl. It shows that Toy Love was every bit as vital and witty as post-punk contemporaries like the Buzzcocks, Wire, and XTC.
The highlights here are the seven singles that open the set — post-punk gems all. “Squeeze”, the song that includes the lyric I quoted up top, is catchy and propulsive despite its hiccupy tempo changes. “Sheep” rides a wave of punk guitar, a tasty keyboard riff and the chanted refrain “I don’t know where I’m going to!”. “Bride of Frankenstein”, meanwhile, splices together a country-fried groove with a punk chorus to glorious effect.
As one might expect, the demos on this set sound rougher than the singles. But if anything, that just adds to the power of incendiary punk numbers like “Pull Down the Shades” and “Lust”, the latter sounding a bit like early Hüsker Dü with its ringing guitar and frenetic rolling drums.
So here’s the bottom line. If you like biting, melodic blasts of rock ‘n’ roll, then you need to get Toy Love. (But prepare to be humming these songs — a lot.) Last year, more than three decades after the band broke up, Toy Love was given the prestigious New Zealand Legacy Award. This compilation makes it easy to understand why. Kudos to Captured Tracks and Flying Nun for collecting and reissuing these songs for those of us who missed this great band the first time around.