Around the turn of the millennium, David Bowie made one of the more unexpected moves in a career filled with them: He began revisiting some of the very earliest songs from his professional career, most of which he’d released in his teens or early 20s and that most fans would only be dimly aware of, if at all. In fact, a rocked-up version of his fourth single, “Can’t Help Thinking About Me,” originally released in 1966, became a highlight of his live sets from 1999 and 2000.
He later took his tour-tight band into the studio and bashed down more than a dozen of them for an album called “Toy” that, due to complications with his label, was not released at the time, although several songs were released separately and the whole thing leaked a few years back.
As part of Bowie’s estate’s expansive and expertly curated reissue campaign — not to mention his 75th birthday on Saturday, and (less directly) the blockbuster $250 million publishing deal announced earlier this week — “Toy” has finally been released legitimately: first as part of the “Brilliant Adventure” boxed set issued in November, and now as a stand-alone album, out today (Jan. 7). It includes not only the original album but also, in a deluxe edition titled “Toy: Box,” proposed B-sides and “Unplugged and Somewhat Slightly Electric” remixes.
Bowie’s longtime keyboardist Mike Garson, who will curate the second annual “Bowie Celebration” livestream on Saturday, tells Variety, “I’m grateful I can help keep this music alive. One of the reasons I was on the road for four years with the Bowie alumni band [on tribute tours] prior to Covid was the need to show what a great songwriter my friend was. If I don’t take these songs and make new arrangements, I’m not forwarding the music. That’s my job.”
For this year’s Celebration, Garson — who has also worked with Nine Inch Nails, Duran Duran, Smashing Pumpkins and St. Vincent over the years — has brought in a Murderers’ Row of contemporary vocalists to tackle Bowie material. While Trent Reznor, Lorde and Sting have covered Bowie for Garson in the past, this year will feature Duran Duran’s Simon Le Bon (doing “Let’s Dance”), Evan Rachel Wood (“When the World Falls Down,” from the Bowie/Jim Henson film, “Labyrinth”), Grammy nominee Gretchen Parlato (a “delicate” jazz version of “Starman”), Def Leppard’s Joe Elliot doing an original song, apparently a tribute, called “Goodnight Mr. Jones” (Bowie’s real surname), and many others.
“I’m also doing ‘Shadow Man,’ off the new ‘Toy’ album, with [Bowie’s longtime bassist/backing vocalist] Gail Ann Dorsey singing, rather than playing bass as she did on the album,” says Garson of the rare track, originally recorded during the “Ziggy Stardust” sessions and the least-old of the old songs on “Toy.” “Bowie, the band and I did it in one take 20 years ago, so this time, I did it in one take again, one key higher for Gail to sing,” he continues. “She sounds exquisite, and I played a piano part that, though different, respects the song and gives it the essence of ‘Toy.’”
The essence of “Toy” was crucial to Bowie when he first recorded the album in 2000 in New York. The album’s sessions were quickly put together after his brief tour in support of his 1999 “Hours” album. While the often-twee songs were a combination of cabaret pop (“Silly Boy Blue”), garage blues (“Liza Jane”) and precociously poignant observations on the Mod lifestyle (“The London Boys”), none of them were hits or, except for the latter song, particularly memorable — even though they were reissued regularly by the labels that he’d originally recorded them for. But jazzed by the energy of his live band and a healthier lifestyle of marriage and sobriety, Bowie wanted to revisit his youth’s catalog with fresh maturity, and ushered the ensemble into the studio immediately after their acclaimed gig at 2000’s Glastonbury Festival in the UK.
“Bowie told [guitarist/co-producer Mark] Plati, me and the rest of the band that we sounded great, our vibe was on, and that he wanted to capture us live,” said Garson. “These versions are a thousand times better than the originals because Bowie was a thousand times better — more mature, with a richer voice than ever, and healthier.”
Beyond reinvigorating tunes that Bowie wrote between 1964 and 1971, the “Toy” sessions also included new songs like “Uncle Floyd” and “Afraid” (both retooled for Bowie’s 2002 album “Heathen”), and its titular track. Subtitled “Your Turn to Drive,” Garson recalled how Bowie wrote the song “Toy” while listening to the pianist run scales in between studio sessions for the new version of “I Dig Everything.”
“I was just practicing, doing runs on the scale, and he and the rest of the band built a song from that,” he says. “He must have just looped it in the studio from our jam.”
Although Bowie and his band were hyped over the sound and vision of “Toy,” his label at the time, EMI/Virgin, was not. The singer had originally wanted “Toy” to be surprise release (a prescient move in retrospect), but between his label’s financial challenges at the time and the difficulty of releasing an album that quickly during the CD age, the label bumped the release several times and ultimately shelved it indefinitely.
“I do remember David’s reaction to Virgin not releasing ‘Toy’: he was not happy,” Garson recalls. “It was a slap in the face. He did have a certain humility about himself in his older age, but how could these stupid motherfuckers not want an album from David Bowie? But one thing great about David is that he was always onto the next thing.”
Plati — one of Bowie’s most prominent collaborators during that era — seconds Garson’s take. “David truly loved ‘Toy’ and put his heart and soul into its every fiber,” he says. “He would tell me that it was our album, his and the band’s, as we had all recorded it together at one time, and made it so quickly. David was pretty distraught that ‘Toy’ didn’t happen then, but wasn’t one to just let things go.”
Rather than stay angry and do nothing, Bowie left EMI/Virgin and soon struck a deal with Columbia Records to issue “Heathen” via his own ISO label. Eventually “Toy” tracks such as “Conversation Piece,” “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving” and “Baby Loves that Way” appeared as B-sides and bonus tracks on Columbia releases, while “Let Me Sleep Beside You” and “Your Turn to Drive” were on his 2014 compilation “Nothing Has Changed.”
Despite the scattered releases over the years (not to mention the full album leak), Garson was adamant about Bowie’s interest in the album as a single body of work. “David always said that ‘Toy,’ in its entirety, would see the light of day,” he says. “If David wanted something to happen, it usually became reality.”
Having begun his stint with Bowie nearly 50 years ago — initially as pianist on the “Ziggy Stardust” tour, parting ways three years later, reconnecting in the mid-1990s and playing Bowie’s final tour in 2004 — Garson was Bowie’s longest-serving bandmember and witnessed many radical changes from the artist, from glam to Philadelphia soul to electronica and beyond. And although Bowie’s 1990s work saw his creativity revitalized after several sub-par albums, it was often underestimated at the time and is well worth a reassessment, according to Garson and Plati.
“I always knew this music was good,” Garson says. “His voice in this period of time and his level of creativity — you can’t believe it. I went back to ‘Survive’ on the ‘Hours’ album, and it’s gorgeous. If I had only been able to find a singer for it in time, I would’ve used it during this year’s Celebration. I’ll have to get that together for next year. David wrote over 400 songs — I’m still finding out new things. There is so much left to do.”
“I’m excited by hearing all of the ‘90s and early 2000s material coming out again, especially seeing ‘Toy’ have its day with a proper release,” Plati adds. “Now that David’s no longer with us, sadly, there’s an additional weight that we attach to it.” Additional reporting by Jem Aswad.