On Toy, David Bowie Energetically Revisits His Distant Past

Following a snooze-inducing headlining performance (based on the recording) at the 2000 Glastonbury Festival, David Bowie and his band (guitarist Earl Slick, bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, pianist Mike Garson, drummer Sterling Campbell, and musician/producer Mark Plati) entered New York’s Sear Sound to re-record his early, mostly pre-Space Oddity catalog highlights. Bowie intended the quickly recorded result, Toy, as a surprise release, though in 2001 the financially struggling Virgin/EMI balked at the idea and eventually rejected the album altogether. For the following year’s Heathen, Bowie signed to Columbia and left uncertain Toy’s future. Leaked in 2011 and recently officially released by his estate and Parlophone, Toy now has its proper place in his studio discography. Yet, is it worthy of its legendary—and in some circles, almost mythical—status?

Available in the recent Brilliant Adventure [1992-2001] box set or as the standalone 3CD or 6x10” Toy:Box, Toy is the latest in the Bowie estate and Parlophone’s long, inconsistent posthumous release series, which ranges from excellent archival live albums like Cracked Actor (Live Los Angeles ’74), I’m Only Dancing (The Soul Tour ’74), and Welcome To The Blackout (Live London ’78) to the Live In Berlin [1978] LP mastered at the wrong speed (probably due to a tape issue that no one bothered to fix), cash-grab “copyright collection” 7” box sets of Space Oddity-era demos, mediocre remasters of the core catalog (including the particularly atrocious A New Career In A New Town [1977-1982] box set), and unnecessary colored vinyl and picture disc represses of said unwanted remasters. Regarding known unreleased albums, the Who Can I Be Now? [1974-1976] box set housed 1974’s The Gouster, but that merely assembled previously released outtakes and alternate mixes (it was based on Bowie’s early tracklist sent to producer Tony Visconti, yet left those sessions’ wealth of unreleased material untouched).

Toy’s history is a bit of a confusing mess, and it’s still unclear if Parlophone’s release mimics Bowie’s original intent. Sure, this new release carries his self-designed original cover art, but it omits the previously leaked “Uncle Floyd” and “Afraid” (both finished for Heathen, with the former becoming “Slip Away”), and relegates “Liza Jane” to bonus track status. Further, Parlophone’s release uses Mark Plati’s 2021 mix, which differs from these tracks’ Visconti mixes previously released as Heathen B-sides or on the 2014 Nothing Has Changed compilation (and included on this set’s second disc). It’s unknown if Toy was even properly mixed or fully assembled in 2001, which only clouds certainty of this release’s ideological authenticity. Still, it’s good to hear proper, official mixes of these songs, as the 2011 leak was at best a rough monitor mix.

Unlike David Bowie’s best work, Toy’s sound isn’t particularly unique or groundbreaking, nor are its songs very profound (some lyrics even border on juvenile, but for these 60s compositions that’s not unexpected). Rather, it’s his energy that makes it special, starkly contrasting the preceding Hours’ bland, introspective musings about mortality. Over Toy’s 50-minute duration, Bowie adds to these songs as much maturity and perspective as possible; he retains the 60s charm but lets his excellent backing band and the fresher production elevate them to their full potential.

While heavy on the musically and lyrically simple rockers—among them “I Dig Everything,” “You’ve Got A Habit Of Leaving,” “Let Me Sleep Beside You,” and “Can’t Help Thinking About Me”—Toy still incorporates some variety. “Conversation Piece,” a Space Oddity-era B-side, originally hinted at the storytelling developed on The Man Who Sold The World and Hunky Dory, and here showcases Bowie’s dramatic vocal nuance. The Ziggy Stardust outtake “Shadow Man,” whose original recording remains unreleased (but often bootlegged), is a string-laden ballad narrative-wise acting as one of that album’s deleted scenes. A looser, dreamier song that sprung from “I Dig Everything,” the then-new “Toy (Your Turn To Drive)” closes the album with a certain wistfulness, and is one of Bowie’s most understated yet excellent later tracks.

Despite its highlights, though, Toy is somewhat inconsistent. “Hole In The Ground,” “Baby Loves That Way,” and “Karma Man” are relatively forgettable, “Silly Boy Blue” leans at the end towards sappy, and as the record goes on, some of the songs feel a bit same-y (“Let Me Sleep Beside You” and “Can’t Help Thinking About Me,” while both very good, sound a tad too similar). Of course, Bowie’s next move, Heathen, was one of several late career highlights, its original compositions eloquently expressing the art rock veteran’s post-9/11 fears alongside a handful of carefully considered covers. In the context of Hours and Heathen, Toy appears as the album that reinvigorated Bowie, a vehicle to reflect on his distant past while simultaneously moving forward. It’s a step above Hours but not as good as Heathen, though it stands as a contextually important part of his later discography.

If you buy the physical set, the second CD or double 10” set (the main album uses Toy:Box’s first CD or first double 10”) is the “Alternatives & Extras” collection featuring the alternate Visconti mixes. These mixes are enjoyably looser and less polished than Plati’s album mixes, but not essential; most listeners who aren’t audiophiles or sound engineers won’t really hear the difference. The third CD or double 10”, “Unplugged & Somewhat Slightly Electric,” features stripped-back guitar-centric mixes utilizing new overdubs by Plati and Earl Slick, supposedly completing an unfinished idea inspired by Keith Richards. However, it’s box set filler not worth your time or money, and in 2000-01 Bowie probably supported this idea more for his own amusement than that of the CD-buying public (but of course we’ll never know).

I bought the 3CD box set, which at $35-40 is a much better value than the overpriced and inconvenient $90-140 6x10” LP set (there’s also a 96/24 download or stream, as well as a cassette of the core album). The recording isn’t phenomenal (the cymbals lean towards harsh) and the mastering is overly compressed, though aside from the fatiguingly bright “Unplugged & Somewhat Slightly Electric” disc, the mixes are decent. The CDs, packaged in mini-LP foldover jackets with printed inner sleeves, come with a 16-page photos and credits booklet in a nice lift-off box, which for the $35 I paid feels adequate. The box set release strategy is definitely overkill for those only casually interested, but hardcore Bowie fans will find the CD set worthy.

(Malachi Lui is an AnalogPlanet contributing editor, music obsessive, avid record collector, and art enthusiast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.)

Glotz's picture

I think this review sums up Toy nicely.

I'd love the superfluous box set, but then again, I gotta stop buying friggin "records! More records!" (That MF video intro is scarily similar to my Jewish mother!)

But I think this is a honest, even-handed review for anyone who isn't a total Bowie freak. I think more streaming of Toy is in order and perhaps some mental wrestling with my checkbook.. lol.

Kudos again ML! Your talent for detail and understanding his discography is astounding.

Michael Fremer's picture
I agree!
rich d's picture

Just listened to all four sides of Tangerine Dream's "Raum" released three weeks ago. The music manages to sound modern while at the same time consistent with their 1970s output. The, ahem, orange sunshine vinyl looks great and the gatefold picture will give any K***trock fan stirrings in the nether regions. I note that online prices vary wildly; I paid $40 for a new, German-pressed copy so shop around.
And if you like what you hear, go on eBay and bid on the "1970-1980" box set which was mastered and pressed by Nimbus. Then, by way of thanks you can all buy me a beer next time you're in town.

Glotz's picture

I was listening to it all last week and your insights are spot-on.

My nether-regions are trembling! In a good way... lol

solarboy297's picture

Thanks for the review Malachi.

DigitalIsDead's picture

The review of the box sets reads like a greatest hurts from various forums, online reviews, etc. The review did not read like someone who owns these box sets and has sat down to listen them as well as someone who owns all of the vinyl they are being compared to. I have to say the same about the live albums mentioned because the Live in Berlin was only available at the museum in NYC on a very limited basis and the others were RSD only. There have been quite a few retail installments to the live catalog, but none you listed. When I read a review from our host, Michael Fremer, the level of detail makes it obvious that he actually listens to what he's reviewing. also missing, is what you are listening on because I suspect its average which doesn't do a lot of what you dismissed here justice. I own EVERYTHING you listed above, I have all of Bowie's original pressings, and a lot of other stuff. I listen on a mostly McIntosh stack (C12000/MC1201) and highly mod'd VPI Aries 1/Hana ML cart. I think there is a lot of room to get away with slagging reissues, but taking on David Bowie's catalog with a very large number of folks who know his catalog backwards, forwards, and sideways I would ask you up your game and be a lot more transparent about what you've heard yourself, opinions you got elsewhere, and what equipment you are listening on.

MalachiLui's picture

alright. i'll start this comment by saying that i'm a HUGE bowie fan. he's my second favorite artist of all time, and while i wasn't around during his prime, i caught up much later and am EXTREMELY familiar with the catalog, especially the 70s stuff.

here's the equipment i use:

-rega p3
-stein music "the perfect interface carbon" turntable mat
-ortofon mc quintet black s
-liberty audio b2b-1 phono preamp
-spiral groove grooveline cables (preamp to amp)
-hegel h95 integrated amp
-audioquest rocket 44 speaker cables
-elac b5 speakers
-gik acoustics room treatment

i have the 'five years' box, the 'WCIBN' box set breakouts, the 'ANCIANT' box, the RSD live albums (which i lined up on RSD for in 2017, 2018, and 2020), the 'live in berlin' LP (which i picked up at the brooklyn museum exhibit), 'the next day' EU pressing, 'blackstar' MPO pressing, and friday music editions of 'earthling' and 'a reality tour.' for 'low,' i have original UK and US pressings plus the 1980 green label RCA international. i have original UK and german pressings of 'lodger,' UK and US 'scary monsters' originals, an original UK 'heroes,' and an original US 'young americans.' in other words, i have plenty of old bowie vinyl to determine how the reissues sound using my own ears.

i think the 'five years' box turned out fine, there are likely better pressings of those albums but i'm satisfied with the box. the 'who can i be now?' box remasters turned out fine enough, though i prefer my original US 'young americans' to the remaster. the remaster is very warm and appealing, though it comes at the expense of detail and space. on the original, you can almost HEAR the post-nasal drip, and the remaster sounds a bit thick in comparison. but the remaster isn't bad!

the 1977-80 albums, however, fare much worse. the original pressings of 'low' are different but quite good, and the RCA international is solid too. the new remaster, however, is compressed and artificial. same goes for 'heroes.' the 'lodger' remaster is extremely muddy, almost as if it was intentionally ruined to sell tony visconti's reverb-drenched remix. 'scary monsters' suffers the least in that box set, but an original UK townhouse cut obliterates it.

sure, i'm well aware of what the forum opinions of these reissues are, though i stay off of forums these days as they're a waste of time and are filled with traditionalist audiophiles overreacting to mild uses of peak limiters. my opinion on these bowie reissues comes from using my own ears; in fact, i once sat down and listened to ALL FOUR copies i have of 'low' back to back, listening to each one all the way through.

the reason i didn't elaborate much on the previous reissues in this review is because this is a review of 'toy'--not a review of the first three anthology box sets, not a review of the 'live in berlin' LP (which i keep around and occasionally spin only to be reminded of the speed issues), not a review of anything except 'toy.' maybe another time i'll do an extensive, detailed analysis comparing the remasters of the 1969-80 (or maybe more specifically 77-80, or whatever) albums to older pressings. this review just wasn't the place for that, hence the mixed bag of a reissue series getting a one paragraph summary.

MalachiLui's picture

also forgot to add that i don't think the friday music reissues, at least their pressings of 'earthling' and 'a reality tour,' are nearly as bad as people on the audiophile forums or discogs comments would like to tell you. they're far from great, but they're not a sonic atrocity.