There's seldom a shortage of comment about David Bowie. The last nine months have seen the publication of three new books, and there are three slated for 2011 (not to mention two further updates of existing publications, and Bowie's own book, Object: '100 fascinating items that give an insight into the life of one of the most unique music and fashion icons in history').
But what we haven't had, since 2003, has been any actual new music, save a few guest appearances and leaked snippets of three songs from 1974's Young Americans sessions. That is, until Toy, an entire album originally recorded in 2000 but subsequently shelved, was mysteriously leaked on the internet. It may not be the final version of said album, but it sounds mixed and ready to go. Quizzed about the album's sudden appearance, Bowie's office refused to comment.
Mark Plati, who worked on the album as co-producer and bandleader, told me in 2003: "Toy was recorded in New York. We rehearsed most of the tunes that would make up the album at the same time as we were rehearsing for the Glastonbury gigs, in May 2000. The concept was to make a record like they used to back in the day - we'd rehearse the songs really well, then go into a studio and track them as a full band, capturing for the most part the energy of the live performance - as opposed to the piecemeal process that most people now associate with record making. The idea was to keep it loose, fast, and not clean things up too much or dwell on perfection, and so we ended up tracking 13 songs in around nine days."
'Uncle Floyd', later reworked as 'Slip Away' for 2002's Heathen album, opens the album. This version is just as strong as the later version, and, in fact, is even quirkier - with Bowie's Stylophone more to the fore. Next up is 'Afraid', again, later reworked for Heathen. This power-pop version is arguably superior.
"At the time, David was reading a book by Andrew Loog Oldham called Stoned where he described locking up Jagger and Richards until they came up with a decent tune." says Plati. "So I sent David off to the lounge in Looking Glass Studios, and told him to stay there until he was done! Of course, we were just kidding... sort of - he did stay there until he was done." The third Bowie newie is the title track 'Toy (Your Turn To Drive)'.
The rest of the album consists of re-workings of pre-fame Bowie songs, relatively unknown outside Bowie's hardcore fans. A few have seen the light of day as Bowie B-sides to later singles such as the lovely Conversation Piece but there are some complete scoops, such as 'Hole In The Ground', originally demoed in 1970. Best of the lot is 'Let Me Sleep Beside You', possibly his first classic pop song, originally recorded way back in 1967, now given an extra frisson as the then 53-year-old singer revisits this coming-of-age love song.
Before we all get our hopes up too much, this isn't another Ziggy or Low, but it's a fine Bowie album, which begs the question: why wasn't it officially released in the first place? At the time, Bowie spoke of "scheduling conflicts", which can cover a multitude of sins. Then again, it wouldn't be the first time that Bowie had abandoned projects.
Another possibility is that his then record label, Virgin, had a listen and didn't consider an album featuring 11 retreads of obscure tracks to be the right sort of new product at a time when Bowie was still having hit singles (Bowie moved to Columbia just a year after Toy was scheduled). But it's certainly no secret that Toy was intended as a bona fide Bowie release, and it marked a significant change in the singer's attitude towards his very earliest recordings.
In the reissue campaigns since the '80s, none of his pre-Space Oddity material has ever been deemed worthy of inclusion as part of the official Bowie oeuvre. Toy denotes a willingness to find merit in, and attempt to improve upon, the originals, in the same way that Brian Wilson did with Smile in 2004, and Kate Bush is currently doing with Director's Cut - an update on her albums The Sensual World and The Red Shoes.
It's a shame that an unauthorised leak has to be the source of 'new' Bowie product. But this week's feeding frenzy just goes to show how desperate his fan base has become.