In the early years of the last decade you would have to have been living on the moon to have been unaware of Toploader’s massive, life-affirming hit Dancing in the Moonlight.
Between 2000 and, say, 2003 the incredibly catchy song seemed to be played on every radio station, in every shopping centre and on every TV advert, and one national newspaper even named it the feel-good song of the entire noughties.
For a time singer Joseph Washbourn’s curly locks - bouncing up and down in time to his enthusiastic piano-playing in the song’s video – became the most famous hair in Britain and his band was quickly catapulted into the stratosphere, selling two million records, performing for the Queen at her Golden Jubilee, and becoming a household name.
“When we play it live people still go mental and it’s a wonderful thing to see,” said Joseph. “My mum came to see us perform it a couple of years ago and she couldn’t believe it. She said, ‘That song is like a drug’ because everyone was just going nuts! It’s funny because at the time half of the band were like, ‘There’s no way we’re releasing that’. But I’ve always been a bit of a gambler and I was like, ‘Come on and take a chance’. Yet none of us had a clue it would turn out to be the monster it became.”
What many folk might not have been aware of was that Toploader’s hit was actually a cover of a 1972 single by the American rock band King Harvest.
“We certainly didn’t advertise it as being a cover!”said Joseph, laughing. “But some people do get really offended by that which leaves me a bit confused as our version is pretty different from the original. Also, if you do a good version of it, it doesn’t really matter if something is a cover or not. We actually made contact with the guy who wrote it, Sherman Kelly, a couple of years back. We emailed him out of the blue and got a really sweet email back thanking us for making an old guy happy. He had written the song after getting badly beaten up. He was lying in hospital and imagined this beautiful, perfect place where everyone is dancing in the moonlight and everyone is happy and gets on. So it isn’t this dumb lyric; it was actually written about this utopian moment when this guy was at his lowest ebb and that gives a real tilt to it.”
For King Harvest and Toploader Dancing in the Moonlight was easily their biggest hit. For the latter band the difficulty of living in the song’s monumental shadow rapidly became a bit of a burden.
“We were signed by Sony who re-released Dancing two or three times over the course of about three years,”said Joseph.“In the end we had to tell them to actually delete it as we were making a new album and trying to get stuff played and people were still playing that song! So it did become a bit of an albatross to be honest.”
Toploader’s debut album, Onka’s Big Moka - which included Dancing in the Moonlight and the fine song Achilles Heel -was a critical and commercial hit that remained in the top five of the UK Albums Chart for more than six months. While not quite an overnight success it was still a meteoric rise for a group of lads who had only started playing together three years previously. So surely the early noughties must have been one heady time for Joseph and his pals?
“Well,” said Joseph, pausing for a second. “To be honest, it was a really weird time for me because at about the same time I lost my brother. The success was something I had wanted for so long but it was also tragic what happened. I guess I kind of put my grief aside for some years. The day after his funeral we played Glastonbury. These days I probably would have cancelled that but we went ahead and I threw myself into work…Looking back now it was an odd time and it certainly wasn’t all easy-peasy but we did meet some amazing people and did some insane things.”
These included one memorable weekend of headlining the V Festival and being the last British band to play the old Wembley Stadium…
“Technically that’s true because we were supporting Bon Jovi who were the last actual band to play the old Wembley,”he said, chuckling. “But it was insane going back and forth between V and Wembley, playing in front of these tens of thousands of people. And the Queen’s Golden Jubilee was great fun. We were in the same room as Paul McCartney and we met Prince Charles but we didn’t say ‘Hello’ to the Queen. It’s funny because on the DVD you can see a line of people dressed quite smartly, and there we are in our scarves and leather jackets, and she comes along the line and looks down her nose at us and walks on! She probably thought we could have made a bit more effort to smarten up.”
Big fame can lead to big problems, however, especially when the fame happens so quickly. Being signed to a major label was brilliant for a new band in terms of the clout the company could exert in promoting their work, but the machine needs feeding and it wasn’t long before Sony desired another album to replicate the first’s stellar success.
“The second album was a rush job,” said Joseph. “We had been put under a load of pressure by the record company to get on with it after spending an age constantly promoting the first album. We were all a bit burnt out and I certainly didn’t have the wealth of songs I have now. I am not one of these people who goes back to the hotel room and writes songs; I go back to the hotel room and pass out! Looking back I wish we had the balls to go, ‘We’re not ready to do this yet…we need some time’. To be honest that was the beginning of the end because we just went straight in and did it and there was a real kind of rift.”
The result, Magic Hotel, was released in 2003 and was panned by the critics. Crucially it also failed commercially and the band split soon afterwards. Joseph went to America, wrote film scores and cut off those famous locks but in 2008 he found himself on guitarist Dan Hipgrave’s stag do, drinking and talking into the early hours with the other band members.
“I thought we would never get back together,” he said.“But on this occasion we were still chatting and any weird stuff had gone away for a while. In some respects it just didn’t feel like it should have even ended the first time around. I think we wanted to see if there was anything left.”
Fortunately, for Toploader’s devoted fans, this led to a comeback album called Only Human (2011) and the band are now on the verge of releasing their fourth album funded entirely by fans. When we spoke the band had still not chosen a name for it but Joseph’s excitement was palpable.
“Everyone who has heard it so far really like what we’ve done,”he said. “The album has a really nice vibe and some of it is quite poppy and some of it is a bit psychedelic. It’s full of strong songs and I think it’s probably what people know us for; that liked us for on our first album. I hope people love it and it would be great to get some stuff on the radio. I believe that if you can just take people away from what they’re doing for 45 minutes and give them something else to think about then I think we’ve done a good job.”
And besides being one of the first audiences to hear Toploader’s brand new material, those coming to the Millfield in February will also enjoy one of the best live bands on the circuit. It’s just a shame that these days the band refuse point-blank to play Dancing in the Moonlight at their gigs…only kidding!
“It’s difficult to know where to put the song in our playlist as it’s a bit of a beast!” said Joseph, laughing. “You almost want to put it in its own half of the gig! But rest assured we will play it. We love playing live and never once on stage have I thought, ‘I’m just going through the motions here’. Weirdly we don’t do many gigs in London so the one at the Millfield is going to be a bit special and we’re really looking forward to it.”
Article by Jonathan Lovett