Sunderland punk legends Toy Dolls launch beer and tour European festivals for 35th anniversary

The Toy Dolls.
The Toy Dolls.
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A Wearside band which took the post-Punk era by storm is celebrating its 35th anniversary with a string of festival appearances across Europe.

The Toy Dolls - featuring Pete Zulu and Michael ‘Olga’ Algar on vocals, Phillip Dugdale on bass and Colin Scott on drums - played their first ever gig at Millview Social Club to a “very sparse” crowd.

Toy Dolls at Finos in March 1985.

Toy Dolls at Finos in March 1985.

Almost four decades on, however, the band is performing to sell-out audiences - and even launched a Toy Dolls beer, and well as an acoustic album, this year. Work on another album has just begun.

“I remember the old times like yesterday, and I’ll never forget playing The Old 29 - one of my all-time favourite venues. There were only a few people at first, no more than 10,” said Olga.

“But eventually we built up a great crowd. There was a great buzz at the time, with loads of great bands like Red Alert and The Angelic Upstarts. Original fans are now bringing their kids to see us!”

The Toy Dolls line-up went through several changes in the early days, with the band eventually reborn as a trio after Pete Zulu left and Olga stepped forward as both lead singer and guitar player.

Did I think there would be The Toy Dolls at 35 years old? No! I wouldn’t have started in the beginning if I’d known it was gonna drag on this long - ha! To be honest I am astounded, and very happy!

Olga, the only original member of The Toy Dolls.

Gigs across the North East followed, as did a record. With an A-side featuring Tommy Kowey’s Car and She Goes To Finos on the flip, the initial pressing of 500 records quickly sold out.

But there was no money left to produce more copies, and the lack of cash eventually led to the departure of Colin Scott. A new drummer was quickly drafted in – the first of many.

An endless round of gigs failed to win the Dolls a record deal over the next few months, despite glowing reviews from Sounds critic Gary Bushell. Only scraping together the cash for another record finally did the trick.

EMI Records snapped up the lads after hearing the EP and released Everybody Jitterbug in 1982. It was not exactly a favourite choice with the musicians.

Toy Dolls logo.

Toy Dolls logo.

“The plan was to release I’ve Got Asthma, until a director in EMI thought it was in bad taste because his daughter suffered from the illness. I have got asthma myself incidentally,” said Olga.

A move to Volume Records swiftly followed, as did the release of novelty song Nellie the Elephant and the album Dig That Groove Baby.

“We were really excited about Nellie. We’d been playing it live to great response, and thought it had a chance of charting. But with a lack of finance and publicity it only sold 3,000,” said Olga.

A national tour supporting The Angelic Upstarts helped the lads get over their disappointment, but in early 1983 - facing yet more months on the road without money - the Dolls suffered their biggest crisis to date. Both the drummer and bass quit.

With just two days to go before a second tour with the Upstarts, Olga roped in the temporary services of two local musicians, Nick Buck and Freddie Hotrock. Several new line-ups followed the tour too, but Olga remained as the original Doll.

Further records were released later that year, including Cheerio and Toodlepip, Alfie From The Bronx and We’re Mad. Then, in 1984, yet another new line-up recorded a new version of Nellie. It proved an instant winner.

“We weren’t so excited about recording Nellie as the first time. Recording songs for the second time seems to lose magic,” said Olga. “But it sold a staggering 535,000 and took us to Number 4.”

Several tours followed in the wake of Nellie’s success, although Olga remained the band’s only constant. Record followed record as well, including Ten Years of the Toys in 1990, before the Dolls decided to take a break.

But in 2003, fired up by live performances with other bands, Olga decided to reform The Dolls. Today the band is still touring - having survived reincarnations featuring at least 14 drummers and 12 bassists.

“Did I think there would be The Toy Dolls at 35 years old? No! I wouldn’t have started in the beginning if I’d known it was gonna drag on this long - ha! To be honest I am astounded, and very happy!” said Olga.

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