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‘Toy’: How David Bowie Realised His Past Was “Really Fun” To Play With
David Bowie, photo by Frank W. Ockenfels III
In Depth

‘Toy’: How David Bowie Realised His Past Was “Really Fun” To Play With

Shelved for 20 years, the ‘Toy’ album found David Bowie revisiting his pre-fame songs. ‘His connection to them was so deep,’ says Mark Plati.

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To the outsider, the ever-forward-thinking David Bowie may have seemed in an unusually reflective state of mind as he entered the 2000s. His final album of the previous decade, 1999’s ‘hours…’, often took a contemplative tone, while his headlining slot at Glastonbury 2000 was a gleefully hits-based affair that acted as a victory lap for an artist who was often too busy shaping his future to acknowledge his past. While running his band through rehearsals for a setlist that included such vintage classics as Changes, Life On Mars?, “Heroes” and Let’s Dance, however, Bowie began to reach even further back into his seemingly endless list of songs. Dusting off a swath of pre-fame tunes originally recorded in the mid-to-late 60s – some of which he hadn’t even released at the time – Bowie decided to re-record them with his new band for an album he planned to call Toy, but which was shelved almost as quickly as it was made.

“It was interesting to go from Earthling to Toy,” Bowie’s then bandleader, Mark Plati, tells Dig! Plati’s engineering and synth programming on the former album had helped Bowie realise his experiments in drum’n’bass in 1997, but during the Toy sessions he found himself at the helm of a more traditional live-in-the-studio set-up. “On one level, it made total sense, because it was David,” he says. “It wouldn’t have made sense for anyone else. But because it was him, it was like, ‘OK, we’re doing this today. Sure.’”

Listen to ‘Toy’ here.

“He would poke fun at the lyrics… It was really fun to do”

The seeds for Toy had been sown in August 1999, when Bowie recorded a session for VH1 Storytellers, including in the setlist his 1965 single Can’t Help Thinking About Me – a mod-era pop tune originally credited to David Bowie With The Lower Third. “He just liked doing it,” Plati says of the surprise choice. “It’s funny, he would poke fun at the lyrics on stage.” Buoyed with enthusiasm for the seemingly long-forgotten song, “This idea sprung: ‘Hey, let’s do some more of those tunes and see what it’s like.”

Across several sittings with Plati, and sometimes joined by his lynchpin bassist, Gail Ann Dorsey, Bowie began to pick contemporaneous songs that could conceivably fit together on an album, revisiting his own 60s tunes in the same way that he had used his 1973 Pin Ups album to pay homage to the songs that had most influenced him from the era. “We went through a lot of them and decided, ‘Well, that one’s cool. We like that one.’ Like you would for any album,” Plati recalls.

“It wasn’t a stated objective that we were going to do all this material as a way of being reflective,” he adds. “It was just really fun to do them that far down the road – especially in the position that he was in at that point. And it turned out to be, ‘Wow. With this band, and at this time’ – we enjoyed doing it.”

“We were lucky to have this group”

“This band” was a unique proposition that not only contained latter-day Bowie stalwarts such as Plati and Dorsey, but returning veterans from Bowie’s 70s bands, among them pianist Mike Garson, whose jazz-inflected virtuosity had helped define much of Aladdin Sane’s sound, and guitarist Earl Slick, whose visceral riffs had coursed their way through Station To Station.

“Earl just jumped in like he had always been there,” Plati says. “In sense he always had been, especially for some of us – Gail and I, in particular, because we’re of a similar vintage and we grew up with a lot of that. There’d be a moment where Slick would play the riff from Golden Years, and we’d look at each other like, Oh my god. He’s doing it!” On other occasions, finding himself flanked by Bowie, Garson and Slick, Plati would turn to look at backing singer Holly Palmer, “And I would see her mouthing to me, ‘I don’t believe this.’

“We were lucky to have this group,” Plati continues. “We didn’t have any prickly pears, we had no ego problems… Everybody was in it together, and it was like a little party… That’s what was so great about this: everybody fit together really well, and was on the same page with what to bring to this from their own musical experience.”

“He’d hear his own slant on it, and then you’d go down that street”

With such camaraderie and immediate chemistry in the studio, the band captured the songs in one or two takes each, prioritising feel over precise recreations of the previous recordings. “Obviously, David’s vocal melodies are similar,” Plati, who produced, mixed and played guitar, bass and Mellotron on Toy, notes, “but there wasn’t too much we would try to revisit… It was just like, ‘Well, what is this band going to do with these songs?’

“Slick and I were working out our guitar parts together with absolutely no reverence for anything that happened before,” Plati says. “And that’s how we all did it. All the background vocals – for the most part they’re just made up on the spot.” When Bowie heard something he liked, he’d “egg them on further to try something else – that’s very typical of his process… He’d hear his own slant on it, and then you’d go down that street.”

With the basic tracks in place – mod swingers such as I Dig Everything sitting next to the jaunty music-hall of Karma Man and the baroque pop of Silly Boy Blue – Plati and the crew added extra flourishes to further each song’s new direction. “One the one hand, it was like this documentation process,” Plati says of the quick-fire live takes, “but it certainly wasn’t meant to end there. We wanted to get the energy of David and the band playing together, and then we tarted it up a bit.”

“David took it to a whole other place”

To flesh out the arrangements, Slick suggested weaving subtle acoustic guitar into the mix. “He said it was a Keith Richards, Rolling Stones trick – just to add this little texture in the back that, maybe you hear it, maybe you don’t… So he and I would go in with a pair of acoustic guitars and have a run-down, playing the song,” Plati explains.

Some of the additions were more overt, as on Hole In The Ground, a curio that Bowie had demoed at home at the turn of the 70s, but which wasn’t released until appearing on Conversation Piece, 2019’s posthumous collection of demos, studio recordings and BBC sessions. “That was more of a fragment – there wasn’t much to it,” Plati recalls of the original song. “So with that one, we did the recording and it was cool, but being so basic a song, it lent itself to being twisted up.” Plati treated the drum sound, “to make it a little bit strange”, and ran Bowie’s voice through a Leslie speaker that created a rotating effect for his vocals. And then “David took it to a whole other place,” Plati says, by adding lines from a new keyboard he’d bought. He also asked multi-instrumentalist Lisa Germano to play a recorder part that “neither of us would ever have thought of”.

“He would do that – he’d just come up with these things that you’d go, ‘What?’ And I learned early on to be like, Alright, go with it. Because you don’t know where it’s gonna go,” Plati says. Brought in after the initial batch of sessions, the multi-instrumentalist Germano added her own leftfield influence, with violin, accordion and mandolin also among her kit bag. “I like to sum that up as this kind of melancholy Americana influence,” Plati says. “On Silly Boy Blue, she’s playing a recorder part which is like this little piece of childlike innocence that’s set off against the string section. It’s an interesting combination that really works – they both ground each other. She added lots of things like that. David had her trying all kinds of stuff, and she was up for anything.”

“At the end of songs, we’d all jump back in”

Two other auxiliary bandmates, guitarist Gerry Leonard and trumpeter Cuong Vu, helped define Shadow Man – a stately piano ballad Bowie recorded as late as the The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars sessions, but which remained in the can until Toy. Initially recorded as a straight-up piano and vocal song, it took on a far more spacious and atmospheric tone after a chance meeting with Leonard, who happened to be working in the studio next door. “I knew him from doing work with another artist,” Plati says. “He did these ambient soundscapes, and I thought he’d be cool on that. True to form, once he did that song, it went up whole other avenue… And by then we’d also found Cuong Vu, and he played on it. They’re doing these very ambient things which put this interesting foundation under the piano.”

Together as a unit, the group were also able to devise Toy’s sole brand-new song on the spot. Closing the album, Toy (Your Turn Drive) grew out of several improvised jams the band would stretch out on after recording something else. “It happened a few times at the end of songs, where somebody started, and we all jumped back in,” Plati says. “Your Turn To Drive is actually a jam session begun at the end of I Dig Everything, initiated by Mike Garson with a piano fill.” With a little editing, the final track took shape. “The girls added some additional backing vocals, and that’s Cuong Vu’s moment at the end. David said, ‘Play it out – finish the song.’” Unmistakably tying the new track to his older work, Bowie pulled his Stylophone out of storage, adding motifs that recalled the defining sound of Space Oddity[] – the song which provided his breakthrough in 1969, and which, as one of the best David Bowie songs, had captured the imagination of a young Mark Plati as he began his own career in music.

“For me, as a fan, as a teenager, Spade Oddity was my earliest point with him and, once I’d learned how to play that, I was like, ‘Wow, this is interesting. He’s throwing in these chords and melodies that that are unexpected.’ And that acoustic break in the middle makes absolutely no sense in the grandest way. It’s like, ‘Why is that there?’ But it’s the best thing ever.” In rebuilding some of Bowie’s earliest songs for Toy, Plati realised that those “off-road” idiosyncrasies had always been there in his songwriting. “I had not really considered that until I broke down the songs,” he says.

“David was always up for different takes on things”

While mixing the album, it became apparent that even these early tunes were robust enough to carry different interpretations. While checking the balance between Bowie’s vocals and the acoustic guitars, Plati inadvertently hit upon a whole new way of presenting the material. “David jumped off the coach and went, ‘Whoa! Wait,’” Plati recalls of Bowie’s reaction. “He said, ‘Let’s make some versions just like that. Just to have.’ But that was midway through the process, so not all the songs were done that way.”

For Toy’s official standalone release, on 7 January 2022, as part of the 3CD Toy: Box collection, Plati went back to the master tapes in order to compile a third disc, dubbed Unplugged & Somewhat Slightly Electric, which presents the songs in this stripped-back style. A second companion disc, which kicks off with a raucous take on Bowie’s first ever single, Liza Jane, captures the energy of the band’s raw, in-the-moment studio recordings. “David was always up for remixes and different takes on things,” Plati says. “It’s like three different personalities at once. It’s really cool that the songs and the production can support that.”

“He wanted it to come out with the same urgency that we’d done it”

With Toy compiled and ready for release in 2001, it was the music industry itself that couldn’t support Bowie’s plans for the album. Compared to the streaming era, where artists can catch audiences unawares with the surprise drop – to the extent where it may be more of a surprise to see a traditional long-lead campaign – in the early part of the 21st century, record labels “couldn’t do it fast enough”, Plati says.

“He wanted it to come out with the same urgency that we’d done it. It was that kind of record, in the sense that it wasn’t a statement… It wasn’t like trying to tie things together other than: these are cool songs from different periods… It was just a band playing songs, and he wanted it to be out. And labels couldn’t do that then. There were too many moving parts.”

Ironically, Plati notes, Bowie had already proven it could be done half a decade earlier, when, in 1996, and with the internet in its infancy, he issued three different mixes, across three consecutive weeks, of the future Earthling song Telling Lies, making them available on his website. “He saw this stuff coming,” Plati asserts. “There are some interviews with him from around that time that are scary because he is way ahead. There’s one from 1999 where he basically predicts what’s happening with the internet right now – all the chaos and insanity.”

“He was already in that mindset”

For his part, Plati predicted that Toy would one day see release. “Because I’d seen him go back to things, I figured, Well, at some point, this will have its moment,” he says. But while some of its songs would emerge as B-sides to singles from Heathen, the album that would eventually take Toy’s place, Bowie, as ever, had moved quickly on. He’d already written and recorded two songs – Afraid and Uncle Floyd – that would, in new guises, make it on to the next record, and, Plati confirms, “He was already in that mindset… a totally different headspace.”

But, for a moment, Bowie had surprisingly – and enthusiastically – embraced his past with Toy. “His connection to the songs was just so deep,” Plati notes. “Onstage with him and watching him, he would connect to a song and be so immersed in it. And I thought that would be great to catch on a record – and that’s hard to do… But he was in a great place, and that was infectious to the rest of us… I really feel like we got a good degree of that.”

Buy ‘Toy: Box’, plus David Bowie vinyl and more, at the Dig! store.

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