David Bowie ‘Toy’: The Making of the Joyous, Long-Lost Early 2000s Album (Available Now for #Bowie75)

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Rock Cellar Magazine

Producer Mark Plati and guitarist Earl Slick recall the making of an album unlike anything else in the vast catalog of David Bowie.

For what would have been David Bowie’s 75th birthday this month, fans are getting perhaps the best gift possible: A new Bowie album.

But Toy, which was recorded in the summer of 2000, immediately after Bowie’s triumphant performance at the Galstonbury festival that year, isn’t just some cobbled together posthumous record. It was an album Bowie himself wanted to make, and one that he delved into with the artistic intensity one would expect from the legend, revisiting songs he’d written in the mid-1960s, when he was just getting started, with the crack band he surrounded himself on what would become the final tours of his career.

As we learn below, Bowie planned to record Toy “old school,” with his band playing live, choosing the best takes and then releasing it as soon as humanly possible. But in 2001, the concept of the “surprise drop” album release, not to mention the technology required to make such a thing possible, were still quite a few years off, so the then-grandiose plan didn’t materialize as he had hoped.

So, Bowie did what he did best: he moved on.  

Available in 3-CD or 6×10” vinyl formats, Toy: Box is a special edition of the Toy album originally included as part of the recent Brilliant Adventure box set, which chronicled Bowie’s 90s output, a criminally underappreciated era of his career. It features sleeve art designed by Bowie himself from a photo of him as a baby, but with an adult face, plus a 16-page full-color book that features previously unseen photographs by Frank Ockenfels III.

Click here to pick up Toy (Toy:Box) on 3-CD box set from our Rock Cellar Store
Click here to pick up Toy (Toy:Box) on LP box set from our Rock Cellar Store

Along with the album itself, also included in Toy: Box is a second disc of alternative mixes and versions, including proposed B-Sides, early-00s mixes by Tony Visconti, plus the “Tibet Version” of the song “Silly Boy Blue,” recorded at New York’s infamous The Looking Glass Studio at the time of the 2001 Tibet House show there, featuring Philip Glass on piano and Moby on guitar. 

But perhaps best of all, a third disc, dubbed “Unplugged & Somewhat Slightly Electric,” features stunning, stripped-down mixes of thirteen of Toy’s tracks.

Below, Toy producer Mark Plati and longtime Bowie guitar slinger Earl Slick tell the story of the making of the album.

Rock Cellar: How did you come into David Bowie’s orbit, and how did you first start working with him?

Mark Plati: As most things go in this profession, or in music, a complete accident; just an organic kind of connection that happened. He was looking for a studio to work at. He’d been working uptown at the Hit Factory for a while in the spring of 1996, but wanted to work somewhere else, so he started to scout around and remembered Philip Glass’s studio. I happened to have my own preproduction room at The Looking Glass, which is what it was called. I was kind of like this in-house rock person.

So, when David came through, it was natural for me to be the person he got as the in-house engineer. I was going to work with David and Reeves Gabrels, who he’d been working with since Tin Machine, for a week finishing a song called “Telling Lies.” But we just got on like a house on fire, musically, and our sense of humor was right. We were a nice little threesome right off the bat. And at the end of that week, David said, “Well, you know, we’re going on this summer festival tour, but after we’re done with that, we’re going to come back here and make a record with you.”

I didn’t believe him, of course, because having been in the industry about 13 years by then, people used to say nice things like that all the time. So, I was like, “That’s nice,” totally expecting it not to happen. But late August rolled around, and it happened. So, that one week turned into seven years. 

Rock Cellar: You made the Earthling album, and worked on hours …. And you developed a good working relationship, which became the basis of everything you were doing. 

Mark Plati: Absolutely. The thing about working with David was, you were free to bring what you wanted to bring. That was part of why you were there. 

Rock Cellar: Hours was received by the press, and a certain segment of his fanbase, as a return to the “classic” Bowie sound. And on the back of that, he was asked to do Storytellers and, eventually, Glastonbury. And the germ of Toy came from that.

Mark Plati: From Storytellers, yes. I knew they were going to do Storytellers, and I knew they would need an extra guitar player for that. They’d need somebody to play primarily acoustic. And again, David and Reeves were like, “Well, you’re already here, and we know what you do, and we know what you’re like.” So, I thought, “I’ll do one show. That will be fun.” But of course, typical of David, after that I was in the band. And so I made the shift to being in the band. 

And in the Storytellers show, the germ of Toy was planted, because David wanted to play a song from the mid-sixties, so that he could talk about the mid-sixties. So, David and Reeves came up with “Can’t Help Thinking About Me,” which was from 1966. And so, we played that song at the show and David had fun revisiting this song. He was poking fun at the lyrics that he had written when he was 17 or 18 or what have you. But he sang the hell out of it, and the band was really powerful and it was just a really good time. And so, after that, he just kept playing it.

Rock Cellar: At what point did Glastonbury – which is a massive show to be asked to headline – come up? 

Mark Plati: That was in 2000. I don’t know when the idea came up, but it was was early on, because we were looking for a guitar player. Page Hamilton had filled in in the fall of 1999, after Reeves left, and so, he was looking for somebody more permanent. That was when Earl Slick came back from his long time away from working with David.

Earl Slick: At the beginning of 2000, things were in motion for David to make a big splash again. But he needed a lead guitar player, and so my phone rang. By February I was in New York City, in a cramped rehearsal space, with his band, running down tunes, with an eye toward a massive world tour and headline spot at the UK’s Glastonbury Festival.

Rock Cellar: And the lineup at that point, which is the classic lineup that many people remember seeing on David’s last few tours, was made up of who?

Mark Plati: It was Sterling Campbell on drums, Gail Ann Dorsey on bass, Mike Garson on keyboards, myself on guitar and, at that time, Holly Palmer and Emm Gryner as backing singers.

Rock Cellar: So, in many ways, Slick was the final piece of the puzzle for that band, wasn’t he? 

Mark Plati: He was. We were lucky that he was, too, because he fit in with us, again, on just the right level. Everything about him really fit, especially with what we were trying to do at that time, which was a little more retro as far as the hits went, plus, a lot of Station to Station for Glastonbury, which was really the high point of his time working with David up to then.

But we were also doing two things at once, where we were deciding on the songs to play for Glastonbury, and we were looking for songs to record for Toy, so we could rehearse them so that we would really have our act together when we went in to record.

Earl Slick: On the first day I was early. The rehearsal space was Big Mike’s on 26th Street in Manhattan, and we were in a smaller, upstairs room. It was a cool room, but really, it was too small. Of course, David wasn’t there yet. I put on my guitar, just to check my amp out and get settled, and then David walked in. He looked great. He seemed really healthy, with long hair and dressed fucking cooler than shit. He came up to me right away. “Hallo, Slicky.”

It was like no time had passed at all. That was the thing about our relationship: From Day One, with me coming in and out and in and out for forty goddamn years, even when there was some kind of major gap where we absolutely, completely fell out of touch, when we saw each other again, it was like we were picking up things the very next day.

You can’t say that about many people, especially in the music business, but that’s the way it was between me and David. There sure wasn’t that uncomfortableness, like when you haven’t seen somebody and you’re not sure what to say and all that. There was none of that. In fact, right away we were joking around like old pals. So, the situation was really comfortable, and felt good.

I liked the “new” David Bowie, too. The last time I had worked with David full-time was the Serious Moonlight tour, in 1983.

Rock Cellar: You did a couple of gigs at Roseland, where you played a some of his 60s songs, and then you played Glastonbury, as well as a smaller BBC Theater gig two days after that. But it’s not like you’ve been on an 18-month tour, and you’re really tight. So, I’ve got to imagine that the preparation for Glastonbury, which also was the preparation for Toy in many respects, had to be pretty intense. 

Mark Plati: It was fairly intense. But because everybody was still pretty together from the previous tour, which ended in December of ’99, we were pretty much together. And see, that was the thing about Slick, was he just slipped right in. There was really no getting him acclimated or anything. He and I just started to divvy up guitar parts right off the bat, and it was really quite effortless. So, you know, it was a lot of work, but it did not feel like high-pressure work. Not at all.

Earl Slick: On that first day, once everyone was in place, with David in the center, facing us, he said, “Let’s play some songs,” with a big grin on his face. Mark Plati, who had been playing the guitar parts up until that point, kicked “Stay” off, but David immediately stopped him. “No, no. The guy who played it originally is here to play it. It’s all his,” he said, and pointed at me. As soon as I hit the first couple of bars, David’s smile got even bigger. He started singing, but at the first possible moment, he leaned over and shouted, “Turn that fucking guitar up.” And off we went. 

David Bowie (Photo: Nina Schultz)
David Bowie (Photo: Nina Schultz)

Rock Cellar: And at what point did Toy come up as a full-fledged idea? 

Mark Plati: It was prior to that, when we went into rehearsing Glastonbury already knowing we were going to record. So we played a few of the songs in rehearsal, and even got a couple of them really together so that we could play them live. We did “I Dig Everything” and “London Boys,” which we did at the BBC Theater show two days after Glastonbury.

Earl Slick: I was surprised. We weren’t really doing a full-on tour. There was the Glastonbury Festival, and there were a number of dates here and there, but it wasn’t a full-blown, you’re-going-out-for-a-year kind of tour. Still, we did rehearse for six weeks. But that just came with the territory for David. And I do remember distinctly that when we started to rehearse, that everything was being done a lot more professionally. There were no attitudes in the band, for one thing. 

Rock Cellar: So, you come back from Glastonbury. You all have to be on an amazing high. It was hugely successful. It was greeted by critics and fans alike as David doing David at his very best. For the band, it had to be an amazing feeling to come off such a huge performance and have it be so successful. He must have felt good about it. What was the vibe going into the Toy sessions and how they start?

Earl Slick: With bands, the shit either comes together or goes really wrong. And this band came together. Fast. Right from the very beginning I connected with Mark, our designated musical director. Mark is a much more technically trained guy than me, but we connected, because we just had a lot in common. And Mark was really good at what he did, without the added bonus of having an out-of-control ego. Even though he was the music director, he was really easygoing in the way he wielded that power. He was never pushy, and never bullied people around. That’s always a recipe for resentment and disaster with a band. So that was cool.

And Gail was just so great. It’s always said that the bass player’s the mellow one, and she fits that to a T. And as far as talent goes, she’s one of a rare breed that can play like that and sing like that. And not just the backing vocals for David, either, but her own stuff, as well.

Mark Plati: Both of those shows were fantastic. I personally thought we might have played a little better at the BBC, because having got over Glastonbury, we had a different kind of energy. I remember thinking, “Wow, this is everything I ever wanted out of a being a musician.” This was fulfilling my teenage musical dreams.

The spirit of this band was just right. Everybody was in a really good place. Because bands are like marriages. And marriages have their ups and downs. But this was just a nice moment where there was no ego. There was none of that.

Everybody was just so in tune together, and with David, as well. We were all kind of on this little trip together. And that carried over once we got back and got into the studio to start recording. Because essentially, Toy is a live in-the-studio recording.

Rock Cellar: And there can sometimes be a shift between bands playing a major artist’s hits live at a show like Glastonbury to playing what was essentially new material in a recording studio. Those are very different animals. And yet, the experience for you guys, it sounds like, was seamless. 

Mark Plati: It was. There wasn’t any idea of trying to recreate David’s earlier versions. That was not the point at all. The point was for everybody to bring what they would bring, you know, what their impression of these songs could be, which again, made it really interesting. Slicky and I would work out little parts first. “Okay, I’ll do this, you do that.” Mike Garson, I think, came up with some of his greatest stuff on Toy. Gail was just fantastic. And Sterling‘s playing was really inspired.

Earl Slick: So, we recorded David’s “lost” album Toy in the summer of 2000, right after we got back to the States after doing Glastonbury. When we started the sessions, I had no idea we would be making a record. It was one of those things, where David said offhandedly one day, just after we’d gotten back from England in the summer of 2000, “Oh, by the way, next week we’ll be in the studio.”

And that was it. No rehearsals, no demos, nothing. He booked Sear Sound – which was the studio that I had worked on Double Fantasy in, when it had been the Hit Factory – with Mark Plati acting as the producer. He played some guitar, too, along with me, Mike Garson, Gail and Sterling, plus Holly (Palmer) and Emm (Gryner), as the core band. The Glastonbury band, and also the one that had played an amazing show at the BBC Theater around the same time that’s also just been released.

Rock Cellar: Well, just by listening to Toy, you can tell that David was having a really good time. And because that’s coming from the top down, I have to imagine that everybody else was having a lot of fun too.

Mark Plati: Absolutely. I mean, he always had fun on sessions, so sessions with him were always fun, and they were funny. But on Toy, he was happy. I mean, how could you not be, after Glastonbury? It was such a triumph. And he was going to be Dad again, too. So, he was in a great place. And of course, we fed off of that. And he fed off of us, because David was very much a band person. It wasn’t, like, him and a bunch of sidemen.

Technically it was, but he liked being in a gang and being part of it, and he really fed off of that, off of that energy. And God, he sang his heart out on these tunes, many of which were just the first take of him just going for it.

Rock Cellar: These were songs, by and large, that he’d written them when he was very young and had been orphaned, in many ways, because, for most fans, his career starts with “Space Oddity.” Or even Hunky Dory, for some people.

Earl Slick: For Toy, we went in and we re-recorded a lot of David’s early stuff – early singles and album tracks – that very few people, even diehard fans, knew. It was really fun, and we worked really fast. We weren’t given any music to take home to listen to and work on, so whatever happened, happened in the studio. And because we’d been playing a lot, the band was tight and in the same mindset.

So, over a two-week period, at the end of July and into early August of 2000, off and on, it was completely finished. And that was it, because we had to finish before August 20th, when David’s daughter Lexi was due. And like clockwork, she was born right after we finished the sessions.

Rock Cellar: So these are long forgotten, in many regards. And because of the way records were made, and because of his inexperience as an artist in 1965, ’66 or ’67, they were fairly primitive recordings. I’ve got to imagine that seeing these songs come to fruition in surprising and unexpected ways had to be energizing. Because these were basically germs of ideas becoming fully-fledged David Bowie songs. 

Mark Plati: That was the point. These were songs from different years, different producers, different studios, different musicians, when he was a lot younger, when his input was not like it would be 30 years later. So, the idea with this was that this was going to be one band, one session, and that’s it. Which, of course, made it a lot more uniform.

Earl Slick: After the fact I went back and listened to some of the songs – whatever was available – and really fell in love with a lot of David’s stuff from long before he ever became famous. It had this cool English R&B edge, like the Small Faces and early Who, combined with a show-tune sensibility, that was strange but amazing, too. 

Rock Cellar: So, you were pretty much revisiting a song early in the day, probably around noon or so, and then rehearsing it and tracking it all in one day. Like, one song a day. Is that how you worked? 

Mark Plati: I think we had ended up doing a couple a day, actually. The way we would do it was to get a take we liked, and then it would be time to add things. Basically, the door was open to anybody that had a thought about adding a part. But a lot of times it would be Slick who would add something. Or sometimes I’d add something, or Mike would. And Slicky and I would add acoustic guitars to the songs after we got our basic take. And that would be basically it. David might double his vocal, or add a harmony, but then we would leave them. And that would be it.

Earl Slick: The sessions were great. We’d learn the tune, with everybody in the room at the same time, including the backing singers – although we’d done a few, like “I Dig Everything” and “Something Blue,” at “secret” gigs like the Roseland Ballroom show before we played Glastonbury – and then we’d record, completely live. You can even hear it on a tune or two at the end, where you can tell that it’s a band playing. You can hear the interaction and everything else that goes with a bunch of musicians in a room together when a great take is finishing up, and that happened because we had a touring band that went into the studio that was still on their game as a group.

Rock Cellar: Were there particular highlights that elevated a song or surprised David or made him excited, or you, as players, excited? 

Mark Plati: Mike Garson, on a song that’s on the TOY:BOX, but not on the album proper, “In the Heat of the Morning,” has this manic Hammond solo, which is just brilliant. It’s like deranged circus music. It’s brilliant. It’s just the right thing. But Mike’s real moment might be “Shadow Man.” His piano on “Shadow Man” was just the most brilliant, understated part. In fact, that song could have stood as a piano-vocal song, just based on what they did together. It was heart-stopping.

Earl Slick: There were some real standout songs, as far as I’m concerned. “I Dig Everything” is really good and is one of my favorites. And “Shadow Man” was real cool, too, as was “Hole In The Ground” and “Silly Boy Blue,” which Emm [Gryner] played clarinet on.

Rock Cellar: Sterling Campbell was really a student of David Bowie. He’d met Dennis Davis when he was very young, and he’d seen David on the Station to Station tour. He had really absorbed David’s history. So, he was the guy who came to those sessions, I have to imagine, other than Slick, who had been there a few times in the past, with a real knowledge of what a David Bowie song could and should be. 

Mark Plati: I’m not sure about that, you know he said to me the other day that for Toy he decided to channel Keith Moon. And that’s what these songs needed. I mean, his playing on “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving” is just masterful. And it was his idea to begin “Conversation Piece” almost referencing “Five Years,” with that really basic drum intro. He just started to play it that way, and we all just fell in behind him. 

As far as Gail Ann Dorsey, I don’t know where she came up with the stuff she played, but it was just so masterful and so appropriate for the songs. Like, you know, “Let Me Sleep Beside You.” It’s monstrous, and yet, it’s elegant, too. But that’s just Gail. That describes Gail, pretty much. She really brought it on Toy, and you can hear her in the moment. But that’s the brilliant thing about Toy, I can say that about anybody.

You can hear them in the moment and what they brought, because so little of it was planned. It was just pure inspiration. 

Rock Cellar: That’s something you don’t always get from a David Bowie record, because oftentimes they are very crafted. Toy has such a live feel, with the spontaneity of people in a room playing songs live.

Mark Plati: Yeah, we didn’t necessarily hone things down to become parts.

Rock Cellar: And even though you were the producer, you certainly have your moments as a player. Does anything stand out for you that you contributed, if you can even step back and look at what you played in that way?

Mark Plati: Well, on “Karma Man,” I have this Rickenbacker part that I just came up with on the spot. But a lot of things were like that. You know, on “Let Me Sleep Beside You,” Slicky has a solo in that – because David suggested he do one – that he came up with on the spot that is just so cool. 

Rock Cellar: Let’s talk a little bit about David’s vocals, because you wouldn’t imagine that in such an off-the-cuff environment, that he would deliver some of the best vocals of his career.

Mark Plati: Well, for me, as the producer on this record, before we started, I tried to figure out, “Where are we going to go with this? What’s going to be the direction? What’s our directive here?” Like, with Earthling, our direction was to have this jungle underbelly with the songs on the top. That was the idea.

With Toy, doing songs from different years as a unit was the primary factor. But for me, it changed for me after I started performing with David, because when I was onstage with him, I noticed something different about his energy and the energy he’d put into a song onstage. And I remember thinking, “I want to capture that on a record! How do we do that?” But I think with him, you do it by just being all together and being in a good place. 

Rock Cellar: Were there moments when you were either on the floor cutting something live or working with him after the fact, and you heard his vocals, and you just thought to yourself, “There’s nobody else in the world who could do this vocal this way.” 

Mark Plati: I had thought that for a while, because his method was more like Frank Sinatra or something. There wouldn’t be this – which was typical of the time – creating his vocal, where a singer wound sing something three or four times, and then somebody like me would go through and find the best bits, and make a composite. He never did that.

He just went in and sang the song, and if he stopped, it was because he wanted to change a word or messed up a word. So at the time of doing Toy, I kind of couldn’t believe the attitude and the energy and the feeling that he was giving us. Pete Keppler, who was our engineer, said he’d look over and David would be five feet off the mic, just singing his guts out, and be lost in it.

And that was the greatest thing I could hear, because that’s how we all felt: Lost in it.

Rock Cellar: It’s exciting to have essentially a brand new David Bowie album that’s so joyous in feel. Mark has said to me that if Blackstar was the album for the funeral, Toy is the album for the party afterwards. But why is this the first time we’re hearing Toy?

Earl Slick: At the time, nobody in the band asked any questions, even though it was like, “Okay, we made a record. Nothing came of it. It didn’t get released. And now we’re going to get ready to make another record?”

Because when it came to David, I never bothered asking questions, and I think the rest of the band picked up on the same way of dealing with him. But then David parted out some of the songs as bonus tracks and B-sides and whatever, like extra songs on Japanese CDs.

david bowie toy box set layout

It was a shame that it got scattered that way. It was the first time I’d ever gone in with David and cut an entire album that didn’t fucking come out as an album. But now you can hear them as we cut them, as a body of work, and as David originally intended them to be.

Rock Cellar: It sounds as though, having talked to you now for an hour about the Toy record and your memories of working with and getting to know David Bowie, you have fond memories. Bowie would have been 75 this year.

Marking that has to be bittersweet for you. Because you were not just somebody who got to know him and worked with him and collaborated with him and produced records with him, you were, first, before any of that, a fan. And now, many years later, when he would have been 75, reflect on David Bowie at 75, and what the trajectory of your experience means to you.

Mark Plati: Well, it’s interesting, when I started working with him, I was being a pro about it, because I had my job to do and all of that. But sometimes, I would look at him, and the light would hit him in a particular way, and I’d think, “Holy crap, it’s Ziggy! He’s here.”

There would be moments like that, sometimes. Or I remember there was a moment at Roseland, and I am standing in the middle of this triangle, where one of the points is Mike Garson, and one of the points is Slick, and one of the points is David, and I had this momentary flash of thinking, “What am I doing here?”

Because I was driving the bus! They were looking at me for cues. But it would hit all of us sometimes, especially those of us of a certain generation, that we were actually there among some of the gods. And we were doing our thing.

Because it wasn’t always like that with other people that I worked with that I grew up loving and then worked with as a professional. But with David, nobody’s wired like that. Nobody thinks like that.

And that was tremendously inspiring to me, and something I’ve brought a lot with me along the way from that period. Because I had always thought, “That’s how you make records. That’s how you should do it.” But I never really saw anybody do it until him.

And that, to me, just really made me think that I’d been on the right path all along. And I’ve carried that forward, along with an attitude of trying to be fearless and trying to think outside the box pretty much to anything that I work on, whether appropriate or not. And that, to me, has really lasted. That’s really stuck with me from that time.

So when I get to this point now, where he would have been 75, and how long that’s been – thinking how I was there at his 50th birthday, at Madison Square Garden, and how that’s 25 years ago – and how he’s had that much influence on me for 25 years. That’s really something. That really says a lot.

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