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Couple Goals: Toyah’s Lockdown
Patrick Clarke , February 16th, 2021 09:45

Toyah Willcox tells us about her and husband Robert Fripp's bonkers lockdown videos, why she sees herself as honouring Barbara Windsor, how they might influence King Crimson going forward, and how they've inspired a surge of interest in her kitchen cupboards. Plus, tQ's top seven lockdown home broadcasts!

Photo by Dean Stocking

Few artists’ lockdown content has made quite as much impact as the videos Toyah Willcox and her husband, King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, have been putting out since their DIY rendition of Swan Lake last May. From bizarre comedy skits to heartfelt agony aunt segments their broadcasts have become a sensation, particularly the duo’s supercharged performances of classic rock hits like ‘School’s Out’, ‘Welcome To The Jungle’, ‘Paranoid’ and ‘Rebel Yell’, with at least one of them in fancy dress as a cheerleader, unicorn, bee, dinosaur or Father Christmas. Their views rocketed with their rendition of Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’, which featured Toyah performing on an exercise bike – a subliminal message about the joy of fitness, she says – which currently has 4.8 million plays and counting.

Catching up with a buoyant Toyah over the phone from her home by the banks of the river Avon, its clear that for all the videos’ madcap surrealism, she’s taking them completely seriously. For her the project began as a way to get her husband on his feet, concerned at how much of his time he was spending sedentary, and has now evolved into a full-blown cottage industry. By her own admission she was never tech-savvy, but their house is now full of green screens, cameras and costumes, with videos planned and rehearsed days in advance.

The broadcasts are strange, multi-faceted things, but what viewers often pick up on in the comments is their sheer positivity, something Toyah is delighted with. The effect on her husband in particular has been astonishing, she says, who after initially struggling with the daftness of it all has started showing a playful side she’s never seen before. “I’ve been with him for 35 years, and for 34 years of that he’s been how people have seen him in public,” she says. “I think lockdown has allowed him to reconnect with who he was when he was 23 or 24.”

tQ: Hi Toyah, how’s everything going?

Toyah Willcox: It’s crazy! The irony was that in 2020 Robert and I were both moving up quite a notch in our careers. I have two movies waiting to hit the cinemas. I had major tours and major venues planned, and Robert was moving into America to play 10,000 capacity venues. So career wise, the last eighteen months we were due probably the halcyon days of our careers!

How have you been coping with the hardships of the last year?

We live bang on a high street, surrounded by shops and businesses. Even in lockdown there’s a lot of activity, we’re on the ambulance run between two hospitals, but on the very first day I looked out of the window and all I saw was a lady in her nineties with her little wheelie trolley standing in the middle of the road just looking around; I don’t think she knew what was going on. I think at that point I realised that this is a new type of creative experience. How do we work around it? I found the most immediate way of doing it was taking the piss our of ourselves, I suppose. I said, ‘let’s put our tutus on and go and do Swan Lake. I think we realised then that we were making a connection that was very valuable.

Has it been strange not having gigs?

It’s been very strange because the community that a gig involves is enormous. The audience are as vulnerable in this as the stage crew, the caterers, the cleaners, the box office. We play venues where we get to meet those people, we’re not rushed in and rushed out. I always believe you can only work through optimism and hope, but seeing people lose that energy has been quite an eye opener. That said, our work has so intensified in the last six months in our home. We’ve put in remote cameras, we can work on greenscreen, we can broadcast, we’re working harder now than if we were on the road. We’re working seven days a week. I’m also doing a very small cottage industry where I write lyrics for people as a form of gift. That’s gone through the roof so I have to do that through the night, then we’re filming most daytimes either for terrestrial tv or the internet, and podcasts have taken off too. So we’ve never been busier.

A lot of artists’ ‘lockdown content’ seems hobbyish, but you seem to be taking this intensely seriously!

It’s a new world for me, I’ve always avoided the internet. I’m not tech savvy, but watching the patterns emerge for me has been absolutely fascinating. We posted our first online film around May, and within two minutes we were getting communication from Manila, Australia, India… I think it’s taught me something major as a writer, the simpler the communication the more direct and more connected you are to the people who watch it. The whole intention was connection, and just to say ‘We’re in this with you, we’re not detached, we’re not living in a mansion in LA, we’re with you on this.’

Part of it must be to cheer yourselves up too.

I can’t not work. All the dynamics in me function by having deadlines, movements, having to create new shows. If I don’t have that there’s no mental stimulus for me. I don’t get that from watching a screen. So partly it’s been my creative survival, that sounds dramatic, but it really has been my driving force.

I started doing it because my husband was not moving much. He does about five hours guitar practice a day but that doesn’t mean his whole body is moving. So I thought, ‘I’m going to have to teach him to dance to get him active. When I was teaching him the basic jive, I realised he wasn’t as connected to his body sequences as he should be, and I started to film him to show him that there was dyspraxia there. That motivated him.

I’ve read a lot of comments where people say they’d never seen Robert smile before until now. Is this a side to him we don’t otherwise get to experience?

At home he’s a very happy creature, but you’ve got to remember he’s written music that’s almost impossible to play. People challenge themselves to play ‘Fracture’ or ‘THRAK’ or ‘Lark’s Tongues In Aspic’. Even Robert finds it a challenge to play the music he has written. When we started to do the videos, ‘Swan Lake’ was a big problem for him. He felt that he had humiliated himself. He really reads every comment, and he will brutally address the comments if he thinks they’re unjust, but I think what he saw that started to come through was a genuine appreciation of everything that he was doing and the side he was showing. Reaching out and changing people has helped Robert understand that this huge persona of The Ice King he’s built is not necessarily part of what we’re doing in lockdown.

He loves the films now. He’s rehearsing for them and planning and sharpening it. About six months ago I could only get him to address it once I get the camera in front of him. So in answer to your question, fans have never seen this part of Robert because he’s never allowed it to be seen before.

How much planning goes into the videos?

I’m about a week ahead of what we film. I used to have to get the camera in front of Robert in the spur of the moment or else he wouldn’t do it. For example, I ordered the dinosaur suits, I put the suit on when it arrived, the suit looked phenomenal, I said Robert ‘Don’t you wanna be in one of these?’ and he said ‘Yeah!’ He’s totally up for it now, so we’re planning ahead which songs we’re going to do. We manage to rehearse the night before. Sometimes I put the camera in front of him and we get it then. ‘School’s Out’ and ‘Enter Sandman’ were rehearsals. He’s becoming much more able to be spontaneous and to improvise which I think is fantastic, I think that will really affect how he sees King Crimson in a really good way.

A lot of the songs he plays are very simple, something that beginners could play…

It’s been a major leap for him to understand that classic rock is the huge success it is because it touches people directly in the solar plexus and the heart.

How do you choose the songs?

The lyrics have to be slightly tongue in cheek, in a purely British Carry On sense, because I see myself as honouring Barbara Windsor. I give Robert a whole list of songs that I think will connect, he has to see how it transfers into his standard tuning for the guitar.

You bought the dinosaur outfits especially, what about your other looks?

We did a fabulous version of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ when Robert was in a Father Christmas suit which he bought – that’s how enthusiastic he is now – and he bought me a pixie outfit. The tutus I already had because in around 2005 I was doing a lot of punk festivals dressed in a tutu, so I cut one open and sewed Robert into it for Swan Lake. I have a huge costume room here, but we started to get costumes in that we felt people would identify with as archetypes, like the cheerleader.

Do you think the videos have got weirder?

We always load everything we do with subliminal messages. For the last three weeks it’s been gym workouts. All we’re saying in that is that this is a great rock song and keeping fit should be fun, but people are finding it kind of strange. The world has gone mad at the fact that my tops are see-through, but I think I just did that to make Robert laugh. Our hits have gone up by about three million. It just goes to show, it doesn’t matter what age you are! But I think what’s really cute about it, you’ve got a 74 year old and a 62 year old having fun.

I’ve seen the two of you described as ‘couple goals’, how does it feel to be seen that way?

To be honest, it’s really uplifted us! I think this popularity has given us an incredible support in what has been an incredibly frustrating and potentially heart-breaking year. It’s been our positive. For me it just makes me even more determined that when we get out there and play. It just makes me even more determined to be in the workplace, I suppose. But for people to see us as a lovely open couple, firstly I think it’s really helped Robert be open and embracing and trusting of people’s affections towards him rather than put a barrier up. We take these people passionately and seriously and try and give something back. It’s very nice. We don’t have children, so we’ve never experienced that. It’s heart-warming.

The videos are so completely un-cynical…

We’ve had carpenters contact us to say, ‘Can I look at the join between this cupboard and that cupboard?’ Lots of really lovely things like that. Some of the woodwork in this house is 1500s, we’ve just taken our cameras to how the carpenters of those times did the equations and put things together, we filmed it and sent it to these joiners.

It seems anti-climactic to end on the joints of your kitchen cupboards…

I think that’s what the year is about, isn’t it?

An expansive reissue of Toyah’s Blue Meaning is out on colour vinyl and 2CD/DVD edition on May 28, part of Cherry Red’s ongoing series revisiting Toyah’s back catalogue. To find out more, click here.

tQ’s top seven lockdown home broadcasts

Toyah Willcox and Robert Fripp

The self-crowned king and queen of the genre, Toyah and Robert's videos have become a genuine sensation, equal parts inspired and insane. Their personal favourites, they tell tQ, are the Halloween editions, filmed in what was once a bank vault beneath their house.

Jason Williamson: Baking Daddy

Whenever the feeling takes him, Sleaford Mods' Jason Williamson transforms into his saucy, sensual, sleazy, slightly unsettling alter-ego Baking Daddy."We've had a lot of people unfollow us since that came up, which is fair enough, but I can't see anything offensive about it." he told tQ in an interview last year.

Blixa Bargeld’s cooking tutorials

In 2012, Einstürzende Neubauten frontman and one-time Bad Seed Blixa Bargeld took viewers of German light entertainment program Alfredissimo through his recipe for an appropriately goth-looking black rissotto. Over lockdown, he's reprised his passion for cooking with regular lessons over Instagram live.

Lil Jurg Frey

Our pic of the myriad gigs-within-video-games that have sprung up over the last year is Lil Jurg Frey's delightful regular shows on the undisputed champ of lockdown games, Animal Crossing.

Gary Numan’s acoustic hits

There's a simplicity and tenderness to the videos the evergreen Gary Numan's been posting that's at odds with the performativeness of some of his contemporaries. His renditions of old tracks with help from his daughter and occasional colaborator Persia are delightful.

Sophie Ellis Bextor’s kitchen disco

For some, the kitchen discos are reassurance. If Sophie Ellis-Bextor had been having a hard week, then perhaps it was a little easier to stomach that your own week had been tough. For others, it was a way of marking time in otherwise shapeless existences - Friday night had come again and here's Sophie Ellis-Bextor in a catsuit stepping over one of her toddlers.

Lynks' Self-Isolation Tapes

Rising DIY avant-pop star Lynks kicked off lockdown with 'Pandemic!', a woozy and weird new single about those eerie early days of the pandemic that would be the first of their 'Self-Isolation Tapes'. Things only got weirder, before culminating in an ace livestreamed gig.