Ten “must-listen to” cover versions by Sunderland’s finest musical export
Hagiographies of punk and new wave music in Northern England seldom breach the Standedge Tunnel’s Diggle end. Lazily, history tells us about the Buzzcocks, Joy Division, Slaughter and the Dogs, and the Sex Pistols’ gig at the Lesser Free Trade Hall. Fewer column inches are devoted to the Liverpool groups, or the Leodisian contributions of the Gang of Four and The Mekons. What about the North East of England? Usually Penetration and another band famous for the cover of a soppy elephant song.
The latter can only be The Toy Dolls, Sunderland’s finest musical export. Formed in 1979, they have been led by Michael Algar (Olga) since the start. The fusion of heavy metal guitars, and vocals more akin to Orville the Duck than Johnny Rotten has made for a cult following outside of Tyne and Wear. Their original songs are inspired by the group’s locality. For instance, a power-mad PC (PC Stoker with its exhilarating middle eight adaptation of the Match of the Day theme tune). Even defunct supermarket chains (as in Nowt Can Compare to Sunderland Fine Fare).
Equally special are their cover versions, and they have done some right crackers. To be honest, narrowing the list down to ten is no easy task. Still, we have managed. For your benefit, we have also mentioned which album they appear on too.
- Nellie the Elephant (Dig That Groove Baby, 1983);
- Blue Suede Shoes (Dig That Groove Baby, 1983);
- No Particular Place to Go (Wakey Wakey, 1989);
- Kids in Tyne and Wear (Fat Bob’s Feet, 1991);
- Drooling Banjos (Absurd-Ditties, 1993);
- Any Dream Will Do (Orcastrated, 1995);
- The Devil Went Down to Scunthorpe (One More Megabyte, 1997);
- (I’m Gonna Be) 500 Miles (One More Megabyte, 1997);
- Livin’ Da Vida Loca (Anniversary Anthems, 2000);
- The Final Countdown (Our Last Album?, 2004).
1. Nellie the Elephant
Predictably, we had to start with this one. Sadly, the group’s only Top Ten chart single. Originally released in 1982, it appeared on their début album Dig That Groove Baby the following year. In 1984, about ten million children would have unwittingly heard a Toy Dolls song other than Nellie The Elephant. The group composed the theme music for Tyne-Tees Television’s Razzmatazz, the child-friendly equivalent of The Tube on Children’s ITV.
It peaked at Number Four on the 29th December 1984. Which, had it been any other year, may have been a Number Two single at least. Unluckily they were up against some stiff competition. That of Wham!’s Last Christmas, Paul McCartney and the Frog Chorus’ We All Stand Together, and the juggernaut that was Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas Time?.
2. Blue Suede Shoes
Their début album had, what I would call, the daftest treatment of Carl Perkins’ and Elvis Presley’s number. Within The Toy Dolls’ cover, we hear the group trying to play the song at its more usual speed. Cue hackling from other group members. At the third attempt, it is speeded up to The Toy Dolls’ usual tempo. Then faster with three gear changes, to a tempo more characteristic of The Dickies’ works. The hacklers silenced in no time. Cue the heavy metal style guitar work: sensational. I wonder if Elvis and Bill Haley would have been proud?
3. No Particular Place To Go
From their 1989 album Wakey Wakey, came their treatment of Chuck Berry’s tune. The original No Particular Place To Go was released in 1964. The music was lifted from his 1957 tune, School Days (Ring! Ring! Goes The Bell!). In a roundabout way, a cover version of a cover version.
The Toy Dolls’ version maintains the rock ‘n’ roll edge of the Chuck Berry originals. It is freshened up for the late-1980s audience with great guitar work and some adapted lyrics. The Mini Metro is the car of choice, replacing Kokomo in the original lyrics. Instead of having problems with the safety belt, the fellow passenger we find gets car sickness and vomits in the vehicle.
4. Kids in Tyne and Wear
Two great joys of The Toy Dolls’ music come to play in this number seen on their 1991 album Fat Bob’s Feet. One is the glorious parochialism and name checking of places within the Tyne and Wear boundary. Another – most obviously for this rundown – their knack at spoiling (or enhancing) the enjoyment of your favourite songs (in a good way). Yours truly is just as likely to listen to their take on Kim Wilde’s first Top Ten Hit.
Based on Kids in America, it is both an accessible commentary on early-1990s recession-era Britain and a cheery sounding number (only ABBA could equal The Toy Dolls in this department). Suffice to say, the line “…Brand New Experience/Feeling Rich” would have resonated with many fans, sick to death of Tuesday afternoons at Tynemouth Job Centre.
5. Drooling Banjos
If you are familiar with the film Deliverance, its most famous piece is Duelling Banjos. The Toy Dolls’ version not only has banjos. There is also gobs full of heavy duty guitar work and the usual faster pace of their tempo. For me, this is one of my favourite covers of the tune from Deliverance. The other one is Biggles Wartime Band’s version with duck calls, swanee whistles and fart noises.
6. Any Dream Will Do
Yes, even Andrew Lloyd-Webber isn’t above having one of his songs covered by The Toy Dolls. If you one of your pieces have been covered by Olga and Co., you have well and truly made it. Likewise with being name checked by Half Man Half Biscuit. In their version of the song from Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, we start off in Bossanova style before the guitars and Olga’s dulcet tones come to play.
With the tune made famous by Jason Donovan truly Toy Dollified (guitars, Olga, football crowd style backing vocals), the flow is interrupted near the end by a door bell. Who answers the door? Someone impersonating the musical maestro himself saying “you will be hearing from my solicitor”. Then back to normal with a meaty guitar ending.
7. The Devil Went Down to Scunthorpe
The greatest Toy Dolls cover version in my opinion. Ever. So much so that it piddles on the original one by the Charlie Daniels Band from 1979. Originally entitled The Devil Went Down to Georgia, the lyrics have been changed a little. The fiddle has been replaced by the electric guitar; the bow replaced by the pick of course.
Why is The Toy Dolls cover so good? Firstly, the guitar work makes Charlie Daniels’ original weedy and lily-livered. The original lacks the testosterone and thrash that Olga’s version has in bucket loads. I would sooner have Olga’s vocals any day; the original is better suited to five minutes on 3-2-1 before Mike Newman comes along with a MacGuffin. Apart from that, Charlie Daniels’ original came into its own in the second episode of Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights (with the Wild West Night).
8. (I’m Gonna Be) 500 Miles
Sticking with Peter Kay, one of the most popular covers of The Proclaimers’ tune featured the Bolton comedian. Along with Bobby Davro and countless other celebrities for Comic Relief. Before then, in their 1997 album One More Megabyte, The Toy Dolls had a stab at their 1991 hit, and they succeeded.
The bass line is note perfect with The Proclaimers’ original. At least for the first minute before we go all AC/DC and Dickies style. The football crowd style backing and Olga’s vocals makes for a heavier and eminently pleasing version of the song.
9. Livin Da Vida Loca
How do you enhance the cover version of one of 1999’s biggest chart smashes? Do you use synthesizers? Add more guitar thrash? Neither. What about kazoos? No, really. Kazoos, the hipster version of the comb and paper. The kazoos enhance the cover of Ricky Martin’s tune, compensating for the brass instruments.
As for the guitars, slightly muted for Toy Dolls standards but heavy all the same. The football chant style vocals also come into their own in this cover. Still not enough kazoo for your liking? Our last one shall sate your desires.
10. The Final Countdown
How else can we close our Not So Perfect Ten on Toy Dolls Cover Versions? This time with their version of Europe’s 1986 tune. If you like your kazoos, this is the kazoo equivalent to The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway or Sheer Heart Attack. Peak kazoo indeed. In this number, there is no singing role for Olga (he’s on kazoo) with the backing singers on vocal duties.
Shortly after the middle eight guitar solo, we hear a whistling bomb near the end of the tune. After explosion, we hear a final gasp from the kazoo which sounds like it is saying “bye bye” – Sweep fashion.
Any More Honourable Suggestions?
As always, feel free to elaborate on our Not So Perfect Ten. Either by adding to the ten entries we have mentioned, or mention a few more cover versions we have overlooked. To be honest, there’s enough covered tunes by The Toy Dolls to warrant a compilation album or Spotify playlist.
S.V., 26 July 2016.