David Bowie: Vocals, Keyboards, Stylophone, Mandolin
Earl Slick: Guitar
Gail Ann Dorsey: Bass
Mike Garson: Keyboards
Mark Plati: Bass, Guitar
Sterling Campbell: Drums
Lisa Germano: Acoustic and Electric Violin, Recorder, Mandolin, Accordion
Gerry Leonard: Guitar
Cuong Vu: Trumpet
Holly Palmer: Backing Vocals
Emm Gryner: Backing Vocals
Sear Sound Studios, New York/Looking Glass Studios, New York
David Bowie/Mark Plati
Before his triumphant Glastonbury homecoming in June 2000, Bowie had already confirmed his intention to record a new album with the tour band. "I've pulled together a selection of songs from a somewhat unusual reservoir and booked time in a studio," he revealed that same month, fuelling speculation that his next project would find him re-recording the 1960s songs he had begun performing the previous year. "Not so much a Pin Ups II as an Up Date I," he explained.
Sure enough, in July 2000 work began on a new album which soon acquired the working title of Toy. Producer Mark Plati later recalled that "we pretty much just bundled the live band into Sear Sound in New York, set everyone up, and let rip. A number of the songs had been rehearsed, so we were somewhat prepared this time. The idea was to keep it loose, fast, and not clean things up too much or dwell on perfection. As a result, we had 13 basic tracks cut in around nine days. In this period we managed a few overdubs on each tune, including Tony Visconti conducting a 14-piece section for the string arrangements he did on two of the songs." Assisting Plati at Sear Sound was engineer Pete Keppler, whose previous clients included Bruce Springsteen, and who was now operating the live sound for Californian alternative rock band Eels.
Among the vintage numbers re-recorded for Toy were "The London Boys", "Liza Jane", "I Dig Everything", "Can't Help Thinking About Me", "You've Got A Habit Of Leaving", "Baby Loves That Way", "Conversation Piece", "Let Me Sleep Beside You", "Silly Boy Blue", "In The Heat Of The Morning" and "Karma Man". This last was later dropped from the projected track-listing in favour of a song listed as "Secret 1", apparently Gail Ann Dorsey's favourite of the recordings; it seems likely that this was the superb new recording of the legendary Ziggy-era demo "Shadow Man". In addition to the archive revivals, the latter stages of the Toy sessions saw the emergence of two new songs, "Afraid" and "Uncle Floyd" - both composed, according to David, in the style he "may have written them in, in the sixties". Both songs would later be resurrected for Heathen, with "Uncle Floyd" now retitled "Slip Away". Bowie also told fans that "some of the songs from the sixties were never recorded, let alone released, so will be as new to you as any of the new ones that I've written." These were presumably "Hole In The Ground" and the elusive "Miss American High", which is registered as a title by Bowie's publishing company Nipple Music and appears to have been recorded during the sessions. Another new composition, "Toy" would be re-titled "Your Turn To Drive".
After the initial sessions at Sear Sound, recording took a two-month break for the happiest of reasons: just after 5:00 am on August 15th 2000, David and Iman's daughter Alexandria Zahra Jones was born in New York. David assisted with the delivery, cutting the baby's umbilical cord. "This has to be the happiest of times in my life," Iman told readers of Hello! magazine, for whom the couple granted an inevitable but very beautiful photo-session the following month. "I have my whole family around me. Alexandria has been the force around whom everyone has gathered. And my soul feels complete." David concurred, saying that "Overnight, our lives have been enriched beyond belief." Finding themselves inundated by gifts for the baby, David and Iman issued a request that fans and well-wishers should instead make donations to Save The Children.
Meanwhile, during the two-month break in the Toy sessions, Mark Plati attended a New York gig by Pete Keppler's colleagues' Eels, whose live ranks had recently been swelled by multi-instrumentalist Lisa Germano. "After listening to a few songs, and being familiar with some of Lisa's solo records and her work with other artists," Plati later explained, "I knew I needed to get her on the Bowie album." At Plati's suggestion Germano, whose other credits included work with Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop, Sheryl Crow and John Mellencamp, sent some samples of her work to Bowie. He contacted her immediately, and in late September the pair convened at Plati's home studio to record a series of instrumental overdubs. "Lisa really took to the material," Plati later recalled, "putting down all sorts of parts on an arsenal of eccentric instruments, including an electric violin tuned one octave lower than usual, a 1920s Gibson mandolin, and an old, tiny tortoiseshell blue-green Hohner accordion, with a strap so old and tired we had to beg it to stay together (assisted by duct tape) for the duration of a song.
"David was completely into these sessions - we worked at my place for two days this time - as he'd not done any work on the album since August, nor listened to it much. He seemed just plain ready to work, and he was thrilled with how great and fresh the songs were. It was a lot of fun, and very exciting - David kept pulling ideas out of the air for Lisa to play, and it was great to see how well they got on and how musically in sync they were from the first few minutes." For her part, Germano found the experience exhilarating: "As soon as I arrived it was all clear that this was going to be fun," she later recalled. "Mark made sure there were no rules or expectations, and that made the atmosphere comfortable for the 'anything goes, all ideas welcome' attitude, which is all too rare these days in the studio. So we were just in major creative mode, and the feeling and energy was high, and the recordings show it. They are full of mistakes and life and the fun of experimenting. David even picked up the violin and played some cool drones like a John Cale vibe...sounded good, but then he wanted me to do it. He would get genuinely excited when he came up with an idea and Mark and I were able to see it to fruition, just like a child - curious and creative and unafraid. I loved being around this energy; it was inspiring." For Plati, the addition of Germano's overdubs was the icing on the cake: "Her playing - especially violin - was simply magical and made some of the songs truly complete. It was as if she was a part of the band from the conception of the record, and not grafted on afterwards."
Also contributing overdubs was the Irish-born guitarist Gerry Leonard, another recommendation of Mark Plati's, who recorded solo material under the name Spooky Ghost and whose previous session work included recordings with Laurie Anderson, Cyndi Lauper and Sophie B Hawkins. It was also during the October sessions that Bowie, Plati and Sterling Campbell recorded "Pictures Of Lily" for the tribute album Substitute: The Songs Of The Who.
On October 20th David took a break from recording to make a surprise appearance at the VH1 Fashion Awards at Madison Square Garden, presenting Stella McCartney with the "Fashion Designer Of The Year" award. It was at this ceremony that Ben Stiller filmed spoof interviews and scenes of himself accepting an award for his forthcoming movie Zoolander.
Mixing began at Looking Glass Studios on October 30th 2000, with David now predicting a release date of March 2001: "And there will definitely be some supporting gigs," he said at the end of October. "No tour, mind. But definitely some supporting gigs, at least in New York." He revealed that he was designing the "very odd" sleeve artwork, and of the album itself he declared that "It really has surpassed my expectations already. The songs are so alive and full of colour, they jump out of the speakers. It's really hard to believe that they were written so long ago." He described the music as "dreamy, a little weird at times, it rocks, it's sad, it's got passion, it...it...it's really good."
On July 18th 2000, just as the Toy sessions were getting underway, EMI had reaffirmed its enthusiasm for Bowie's back catalogue by issuing downloads of 20 studio albums (Space Oddity to Tin Machine, and 1.Outside to 'hours...'). However, by early 2001 it was becoming clear that all was not well between Bowie and his record label. In February (the same month that David performed "Silly Boy Blue" at the Tibet House Benefit Concert - the nearest he would come to the mooted gigs), the release of Toy was rumoured to have been postponed until May, and thereafter it disappeared from the schedules altogether. In June Bowie revealed that "EMI/Virgin seem to have a lot of scheduling conflicts this year, which has put an awful lot on the back burner. Toy is finished and ready to go, and I will make an announcement as soon as I get a very real date." By July he was referring darkly to "unbelievably complicated scheduling negotiations" with his label, and in October, he announced that "Virgin/EMI have had scheduling problems and are now going for an album of 'new' material over the Toy album. Fine by me. I'm extremely happy with the new stuff. I love Toy as well and won't let that material fade away. If you've been following the newspapers you will have seen that EMI/Virgin are having major problems themselves. This has not helped. But all things pass."
Tony Visconti would later say that Bowie was "hurt terribly" by the label's refusal to release Toy. By the beginning of 2002 David's departure from Virgin/EMI had been confirmed, and in March came the announcement that he had negotiated with Columbia Records to launch the new album Heathen via his own ISO label. Toy remains officially unreleased as an album, but several of the recordings have made appearances as B-sides on the Heathen bonus disc, while "Shadow Man", "You've Got A Habit Of Leaving" and "Baby Loves That Way" were released as B-sides on various single formats in 2002. "Uncle Floyd" and "Afraid" were reworked for Heathen. Excerpts from "The London Boys" were made available as a limited download for BowieNet members, while in 2003 "Your Turn To Drive" was offered as an exclusive HMV download for online purchases of Reality, later making its CD debut alongside "Let Me Sleep Beside You" on the three-disc edition of 2014's Nothing Has Changed. "Toy has actually started now to become a reservoir of B-sides and bonus tracks, so it's much depleted," Bowie said in 2003. "From the original 14 or so that I did, I think seven are now out there. I think there's still enough in the past to be able to pop some more back and top it up, so to speak, but you know what? New writing just takes precedence. It always does."
Some years later, 14 tracks from the Toy sessions (all bar "Karma Man", "Can't Help Thinking About Me" and, if indeed it was recorded at all, "Miss American High") slipped out and began to circulate among collectors, and these were finally leaked wholesale onto the internet in March 2011. Such was the thirst for fresh Bowie material that the Toy leak caused a sensation and was widely reported in the media. The leaked tracks are at a different stage of development from the versions officially released as B-sides and bonus tracks: there are numerous differences in the mixes, and the whole lacks the compression of the released versions, suggesting that the leaked material is unlikely to be the final master of the album. With the further complication that the intended track order is anyone's guess, the leaked Toy material can't be regarded as a definitive lost album, but it is nonetheless fascinating, thrilling and beautiful - and, as is so often the case with Bowie's work, an obvious creative stepping-stone between the previous album and the next. The only mystery is why Virgin/EMI declined to release it in the first place.