I love rooting for the underdog. In almost any scenario, whether it’s sports or politics or just plain real life, I root for the little guy. This means I’m frequently frustrated, of course, but that’s neither here nor there; I’m giving you this personal detail because it’s the only explanation I can think of for my inordinate fascination with Toto.
It sounds a little funny calling them underdogs — it’s Toto’s style of music, after all, that formed part of the establishment that punk (just to give one example) reacted against. Most of the bandmembers were music biz veterans well before Toto the band even existed as a recording group — keyboard player David Paich, keyboard player Steve Porcaro, drummer Jeff Porcaro, bass player David Hungate, and guitarist Steve Lukather were in-demand session players for pretty much any record being made in L.A. for years. Paich and Porcaro had well-known relatives in the industry. In other words, these guys were total insiders.
And yet, in spite of all this, virtually their entire career has been one long uphill struggle. They’ve had to overcome shifting trends, rotating personnel, and critical hostility (not to mention the lamest name for a rock band ever.) They swept the 1982 Grammies, sold millions of records, and became a semi-permanent fixture on Top 40 radio in the ’80s, and yet they were never, not even for a minute, cool. In fact, due to the resolute and utter facelessness of their sound, a lot of people who liked Toto songs probably didn’t even realize they were Toto songs.
Of course, that facelessness was the band’s own fault. Though technically amazing musicians, as a unit, they were often somehow less than the sum of their collective parts. They could (and often did) play just about any type of music under the sun, but it was difficult to discern an absolute commitment to any of them, or even an honest artistic vision. During the height of the band’s success, Toto may just as well have been Chicago or Foreigner or Journey; their commercial triumphs were arguably due more to their ability to mimic current trends than anything else.
Because of all this, today’s Guide is a bit of an anomaly. I’ve written the other ones out of an intense love for the music of whichever band or artist happens to be the topic, but I have no such feelings for Toto. Have they written and recorded good music? Yes. A few classics, even? Maybe. But even though I know they’re out there, I don’t really know what makes a hardcore Toto fan tick — I just think the fact that they’ve managed to persist for almost 30 years now is deeply fascinating, and even sort of admirable. I guess what it boils down to is that this Guide will probably contain a lot of lukewarm reviews, backhanded compliments, and even a few snarky comments, but it’s all in good fun.
Released in the dawn of corporate rock, Toto was a predictably enormous hit, mainly on the strength of “Hold the Line,” a song so perfectly crafted for late-’70s FM radio that it may as well have been created in a laboratory. It’s got the same steely hooks, airbrushed production, and near-total lyrical meaninglessness of all the era’s best songs, and in ’78, it was almost inescapable. It also provides a template for all the problems that would haunt the group later on: Bobby Kimball’s vocals are superb, yet anonymous; the arrangement reflects talent but not vision; and the band’s performance is utterly flawless in the least interesting way. The band would grow increasingly bitter about attacks on its artistic credibility, but really, it’s hard to find any meaning in these songs. And yes, we’re only talking about a pop band, but still — it’s easy to listen to the sort of facile hopscotching presented in tracks like “I’ll Supply the Love” (download) and “Georgy Porgy” (download) and assume you’re hearing a crew of professionals covering all its bases. It’s a sound that would provide a more-or-less constant backbeat for the band’s career.
Most bands of the era had a “cocaine album,” a release recorded under the profound (and often profoundly obvious) influence of white powder; with Hydra, Toto proved it was no exception. This is a mad mess of an album. Where Toto‘s genre-hopping seemed precise and calculated, on Hydra, Toto often seems like a band in search of a sound. There’s the title track (download) and “St. George and the Dragon” (download), which, presented back-to-back at the beginning of the album, sound like pieces of an (uh-oh) concept album. But from there, Hydra veers all over the place — the squishy MOR ballad “99,” which was the only quasi-hit from the record; the vaguely proggish “Lorraine”; the profoundly embarrassing, faux British R&B “All Us Boys”…you get the idea. With the exception of “All Us Boys,” none of it’s really awful, but none of it really works, either. These were guys with enough chops to play for Steely Dan and Boz Scaggs, but that didn’t mean they had anything to say as songwriters.
Turn Back (1981)
If Hydra sounds like white lines on a mirror, Turn Back sounds like a shotgun blast of pure Bolivian coca. It’s awful on every level — the production is thin and watery, the performances are distracted and unconvincing, and the songs themselves are almost completely devoid of hooks. I don’t think Toto has ever recorded a great album, but Turn Back is probably the only one that’s bad through and through. They sound like a band that doesn’t know what it’s doing, and isn’t particularly interested in finding out. Though “A Million Miles Away” (download) is a nifty bit of epic balladry that could have been rescued under different circumstances, the bulk of the album doesn’t even measure up to the numbingly stupid “Gift With A Golden Gun” (download). This is the album that gave the world “I Think I Could Stand You Forever”:
Would you say no if I asked you for your hand
Could you believe in the same words that I don’t understand
And would you cry if I told you I must go
I’ve been waiting such a long, long time, I think I could stand you forever
I’ve been wanting you a long, long time, I think I could stand you forever
Would you say no if I asked you for this one chance
Am I a fool to believe that this night is circumstance
I wish that for once you could see the look in your own eyes
It sounds even worse than it looks. Turn Back was a resounding, deserved flop, and it looked like Toto was destined for one-hit wonder status, a weekend hobby for a group of well-paid sidemen.
Toto IV (1982)
And then came Toto IV, a record that was not only a hit, but a HIT. First came “Rosanna,” a song so completely pervasive that it seemed to overtake entire station playlists. Jeff Porcaro’s drumwork notwithstanding, “Rosanna” is a song (and video) that, to this day, I can’t even think about without gritting my teeth. I’m not a violent person, but if I could somehow punch “Rosanna” repeatedly in the stomach, I think I would. I hate “Rosanna.” I hate it not only because it’s a ridiculous, insipid, craptastically awful ballad, and not only because it’s a poisonous earworm that I find myself humming against my will after inadvertently hearing it, but because it set the pattern for a big part of Toto’s future recording output. It’s true that they’d been naming lousy songs after women as far back as Toto (“Angela”), but they did it all the time after “Rosanna” was a hit. In fact, on 1988’s The Seventh One, they did it twice! It’s a foul, foul song.
The rest of Toto IV is much better. Though nothing the band has ever done could be described as “rough,” this album was crafted particularly carefully. You can listen to it start to finish and know pretty much exactly what FM radio in the early ’80s sounded like — not just because a lot of these songs were on FM radio, but because they do such a good job of approximating what was popular at the time. There are at least two dozen bands who could have recorded “Afraid of Love” (download) or “Good for You” (download) — both of which sound like they must have been on at least one movie soundtrack.
The album did so well that it was still spinning off singles nearly a year after its release. “Africa” was at least as successful as “Rosanna”; happily, it’s a much better song. (Even if the lyrics are twice as dumb, at least they’re trying to say something sort of meaningful. I think.) Jeff Porcaro, who by this point was already being acknowledged in most circles as the undisputed drum king of the session world, outdid himself for “Africa.” As he told Mix Magazine:
I was about 11 when the New York World’s Fair took place and I went to the African pavilion with my family. I saw the real thing; I don’t know what tribe, but there were these drummers playing and my mind was blown. The thing that blew my mind was that everybody was playing one part. As a little kid in Connecticut, I would see these Puerto Rican and Cuban cats jamming in the park. It was the first time I witnessed somebody playing one beat and not straying from it, like a religious experience, where it gets loud and everyone goes into a trance. I have always dug those kind of orchestras, whether it be a band or all drummers, where a bunch of guys are saying one thing. So when we were doing ‘Africa,’ I set up a bass drum, snare drum and a hi-hat, and [percussionist] Lenny Castro set up right in front of me with a conga. We looked at each other and just started playing the basic groove — the bass drum on 1, on the ‘and’ of 2 and 3. The backbeat is on 3, so it’s a half-time feel, and it’s 16th notes on the hi-hat. Lenny started playing a conga pattern. We played for five minutes on tape — no click, no nothing. We just played. And I was singing the bass line for ‘Africa’ in my mind, so we had a relative tempo.
Lenny and I went into the booth and listened back to the five minutes of that same boring pattern. We picked out the best two bars that we thought were grooving and we marked those two bars on tape. We made another mark four bars before those two bars. Lenny and I went back out; I had a cowbell, Lenny had a shaker. They gave us two new tracks and they gave us the cue when they saw the first mark go by, where Lenny and I started playing to get into the groove, so by the time that fifth bar came, which was the first bar of the two bars we marked as the cool bars we liked, we were locked, and we overdubbed shaker and cowbell. So there was bass drum, snare drum, hi-hat, two congas, a cowbell and a shaker. We went back in, cut the tape and made a one-bar tape loop that went ’round and ’round and ’round.
We took that tape, transferred it onto another 24-track for six minutes, and David Paich and I went out in the studio. The song started and I was sitting there with a complete drum set and Paich was playing. When he got to the fill before the chorus, I started playing the chorus, and when the verse or the intro came back, I stopped playing. Then we had piano and drums on tape. Then we had to do bongos, jingle sticks and big shakers doing quarter notes, maybe stacking two tracks of sleigh bells, two tracks of big jingle sticks and two tracks of tambourines all down to one track. I was trying to get the sounds I would hear Milt Holland or Emil Richards have, or the sounds I would hear in a National Geographic special, or the ones I heard at the New York World’s Fair.
Listen to it on headphones. Ignore Paich’s drab vocals, and try not to giggle when he sings “Kilimanjaro.” It’s just a good-sounding song.
Toto had its moment in the sun during the ’82 Grammies, during which they won a pile of awards (five or six, I can’t remember which) and even got to take a potshot at Robert Hilburn, one of their most famous rock-critic enemies. Problem was, they had no place to go but down.
And down they went. Even before their Grammy triumph, bass player David Hungate had left the band. It was an amicable divorce — Hungate simply didn’t want to tour anymore — but it was a harbinger of things to come. Next to depart was singer Bobby Kimball, who left to pursue a solo career (or, as Lukather put it in my 1992 interview with him, “The fat fuck was fuckin’ fired”). Kimball’s replacement was Fergie Frederiksen, whose previous claim to fame had been lead vocals on the final album by the C-list rock band LeRoux.
It would have seemed impossible going in, but Frederiksen’s vocals had even less personality than Kimball’s. Isolation‘s big single was “Stranger in Town,” which, at least according to the video, was about some kind of Jesus figure in a trenchcoat; it flopped, and the writing was on the wall for Toto 2.0. Columbia put no small amount of marketing oomph behind the album — there was even a 12â€³ remix of “Stranger” (download) — and continued releasing singles for awhile, but none of them found any traction. Granted, these singles (“Angel Don’t Cry” and “Holyanna”) weren’t the best songs on the album. Frederiksen’s finest moment as Toto’s lead vocalist came on “Lion” (download), a Bobby Kimball leftover on which Frederiksen did a convincing Bobby Kimball impression, and the requisite goopy Lukather ballad, “How Does It Feel” (download), could have been a hit.
But whatever. No sooner were they a Grammy-winning success than they collapsed in disarray. Frederiksen quickly became Toto’s former lead vocalist, and the band soldiered on.
For Fahrenheit, Toto selected Joseph Williams (son of John Williams) as their third lead vocalist in four years. His talent notwithstanding — Williams is arguably the best overall singer to fill the position for Toto — this new development only underscored the band’s biggest problem. Their lack of a commitment to anything you could term a “sound” meant that a recognizable voice was crucial to listener identification and continued viability. Though Frederiksen wasn’t a huge departure from Kimball — nor was Williams a huge departure from either — this was due mainly to a resounding lack of personality for all three singers. The only thing you could really count on from a Toto album was a Steve Lukather ballad, and Fahrenheit‘s — “I’ll Be Over You” — was the album’s only real hit. The band tried to rock out a little, like on the first single, “Till the End” (download), and even got Miles Davis to play on the languid instrumental closer, “Don’t Stop Me Now” (download). In terms of overall sound and clarity, Fahrenheit is one of the band’s stronger efforts; in fact, quite a few people regard it as a West Coast MOR classic. But it no longer mattered whether Toto’s albums were good or bad or in between; even when they had hits, it didn’t translate to album sales, because listeners weren’t identifying the songs with the band.
The Seventh One (1988)
This problem continued with The Seventh One. The album actually featured a pretty big hit, “Pamela,” which sounded more like Chicago than Chicago did anymore; of course, that meant it didn’t sound like Toto (whatever Toto really sounded like), and the album was a commercial disappointment. This is somewhat unfortunate, because they’d managed to dig themselves a bit of a groove between this album and Fahrenheit — in Williams, they had a vocalist who was as adept at selling uptempo ballads like “Stop Loving You” (download) as he was at songs that presented Toto’s peculiarly grit-free version of rock & roll, like “You Got Me” (download) and “Only the Children” (download). Critics hated it, naturally, but Toto had never done anything other than follow a formula, and at least with The Seventh One, they’d found one that played perfectly to their strengths as a unit.
Then Joseph Williams went and got all coked up, to the point where he essentially ruined the Seventh One tour, and the band fired him.
Past to Present: 1977-1990 (1990)
We normally don’t cover compilations in the Guides, but this one’s special: Columbia wanted a greatest hits album, they wanted new songs on it, and they apparently didn’t want Lukather or Paich to sing them, so they “recommended” yet another new lead singer. His name was Jean-Michael Byron, and his tenure in Toto was even shorter and more embarrassing than Frederiksen’s — according to Lukather, during their 1990 tour, people in the audience were actually giving Byron the finger. Listening to songs like “Love Has the Power” (download) and “Animal” (download), it’s easy to understand why.
Kingdom of Desire (1992)
With Kingdom of Desire, the band found itself the focus of more press attention than they’d been able to attract in years; unfortunately, this attention was prompted by Jeff Porcaro’s untimely death. Depending on whom you believe, Porcaro either died from an allergic reaction to a pesticide he was using on his garden, or the pesticide company paid off the L.A. coroner’s office to blame it on complications related to cocaine abuse. I certainly make no claims to knowledge either way, other than to tell you that in my expletive-laden interview with Lukather, he expressed a firm belief in the latter explanation.
Kingdom was already in the can when Porcaro died, and a tour had been lined up, meaning the band had promotional obligations to fulfill even though they wanted to call it quits. They eventually decided that Porcaro would have wanted them to at least do the tour, so they hired the well-known vet Simon Phillips and hit the road.
Kingdom is a weird Toto album. Almost any adjective you could have applied to their earlier music — slick, overdone, commercial — goes out the window here, and for that reason, I suppose it’s a noteworthy entry in the catalog. It’s hard not to applaud a veteran band for taking chances, particularly chances that don’t seem to be commercially oriented, and I can’t imagine anyone thinking that this new direction would sell records or get them on the radio. In a word, Kingdom is loud. In several words, it’s proof that Toto was never meant to be a rock band.
The album’s first problem is that Steve Lukather had taken the reins as the band’s full-time lead vocalist. He isn’t a bad singer, necessarily; he hits the notes well enough, and the one or two ballads he’d performed on each Toto album were usually among the better cuts. He should have stuck to the ballads. As a rock singer, he’s a shouter, and he doesn’t have the charisma to carry an entire album. The second problem is the songs, which, by and large, are overly long and underdeveloped. A song like “She Knows the Devil” (download) could have been an interesting novelty from the band that did “I’ll Be Over You,” but at 5:28, it takes itself way too seriously to be enjoyable. And that’s more or less Kingdom‘s major flaw: It strains to be a Statement, but isn’t up to the task. The dour-faced guys on the back cover had lost sight of what they were, which was a C+ pop band.
There’s nothing wrong with C+ pop bands, especially ones that periodically venture into B- territory. The ones who know what they are stick to moderately enjoyable fluff, and we love them for it. Toto, with this album, went with noise like the seemingly endless “Kingdom of Desire” (download).
Lukather’s second album as Toto’s lead vocalist is better than Kingdom of Desire, but it still represents a significant drop in enjoyability from Fahrenheit or The Seventh One. Pop economy was clearly a thing of the past for the band at this point — only one song on the entire album clocks in at under five minutes, and the opener goes on for an unbearable 7:23. The production is more rounded and subtle than Kingdom‘s, though, which makes the whole thing a little easier to take. The guys in the band had a lot of shit to deal with at this point. Porcaro’s death cast a long shadow over this album, for one thing, and Columbia Records, which had been Toto’s label for as long as there had been a Toto, had accorded the band official red-headed stepchild status. Where the American branch wanted nothing to do with them, the European branch was still making money from new Toto records, so the band wound up in an odd, embarrassing limbo where its albums were released by Columbia everywhere except the United States…where they were released by Columbia’s reissue imprint!
The guys in the band clearly thought they deserved better than the hand they’d been dealt, and I can understand that, certainly, but it doesn’t make songs like the five-minute-plus “Baby He’s Your Man” (download) any less interminable. Even when they found a promising idea, they ground it into dust, like with “Drag Him to the Roof” (download) (six minutes, ten seconds).
Toto XX: 1977-1997 (1997)
For their twentieth anniversary, Toto released this odds & sods collection; if the idea of an album of Toto b-sides fills you with dread, you’re more or less on the right track. There’s an endless live version of “Africa” (recorded in Africa, natch) and a smattering of various relics that were left off the studio albums. Most of them are just sort of boring, although “Right Part of Me” (download) is unintentionally hilarious:
Must have touched the right part of me
The sun in your eyes
You came running in from the start
Connected all the right numbers
In the picture you were painting of me
Love as paint-by-numbers. Ahhh, how sweet.
The high point was “Goin’ Home” (download), a leftover from the Joseph Williams era that actually featured new vocals from Williams and — gasp! — Bobby Kimball. Though his high-pitched over-emoting was as bland as ever, after two albums of all Lukather, all the time, the prospect of hearing something new from a Kimball-led Toto was welcome relief.
After Toto XX, the band announced that Kimball was rejoining the fold. With old lawsuits buried, old animosities healed, and a mini ’80s rock revival on the rise, the timing seemed perfect, and Mindfields — idiotic title aside — seemed like a great idea.
It has its moments. At this point, I’m not sure Lukather wanted to go back to one or two vocal cameos on an album, so Mindfields had to make room for a pair of singers. This means fourteen songs. Fourteen songs is too much Toto. On the bright side, the album is replete with the big-budget gloss that always went along with the band’s brightest moments; songs like “Mad About You” (download) and “Cruel” (download) would have fit right in on older albums.
On the other hand, brevity — or the lack thereof — is still a problem. “High Price of Hate” is damn near ten minutes long. There’s no reason for that. And “Better World, parts I, II, & III” is every bit as bloated as it sounds. Hardcore fans were going to buy this album no matter how good or bad it was, and maybe the band was trying to give them the most bang for their buck, but wide swaths of Mindfields are beyond overkill.
Through the Looking Glass (2002)
First, the good news — for Toto fans, anyway: The band’s next album, 2006’s Falling In Between, was really pretty good.
Now, the bad news: They released this God-awful covers album first.
It seems as though some of the band’s choices (“Watching the Detectives,” for instance) were motivated by a desire to tweak the critics and “serious” musicians who have always dogged them, and I can respect that. There’s no reason to make people pay for this stuff, though. Most of the reviews I’ve read say that Toto’s versions of these classic songs (like “Living for the City” or “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry” or “Burn Down the Mission” or…) aren’t bad, just unnecessary, but I call bullshit. These are bad. They’re very bad and they’re totally unnecessary. In some cases — like “Could You Be Loved” (download) — it’s sort of funny in a painful way. But most of the time — like on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (download) — it just really sucks.
The good stuff first. On Falling In Between, the band’s eleventh studio album of original material, and first since 1999’s Mindfields, Toto sounds better than it has in probably two decades or more — the album’s finer moments (and there are more than a few) are full of energy, focus, and the sort of stretchy cohesion that comes from longevity. I’m one of the few who thought that Bobby Kimball’s reunion with the band posed as many problems as it solved, but in the seven years since its release, Toto seems to have figured out its — to use a corporate term for a “corporate rock” band — best practices.
For one thing, they’ve pared down this album’s ten songs to something like their bare essentials; no, this isn’t Toto acoustic, but neither is it plagued with the length issues that bogged down Mindfields and Tambu. From the first note, the listener gets the feeling that these arrangements were labored over, in the best possible way. Nothing meanders — in fact, one song, “Simple Life,” cuts out after only 2:22.
More important than how long the songs are, though, is what they’re made of. I don’t think a single person with functioning ears on the planet would ever argue the notion that the guys in Toto can flat-out play; their technical competence has never been at issue. However, I don’t think they’ve ever shown such a consistent attention to detail when it comes to an album’s arrangements. People who appreciate the craft of the songwriter and the studio cat — who understand not only music’s heart, but its brain — will flip head over heels for the dozens of shifts and changes in these songs.
Often, however, when Toto succeeded in assembling something musically intricate or adventurous, they were criticized for sucking all the air out of the room when they recorded it. I don’t think any sane person could really describe any of Toto’s studio albums, with the possible exception of Kingdom of Desire, as having anything like an organic feel; everything was sanded, polished, and shellacked. Some people like their music that way, and I don’t begrudge them their personal taste — but for the rest of us, listening to it can be seriously unfulfilling.
So Falling In Between is sort of a funny beast. All the familiar Toto touches are there, and then some; the band now has three ace keyboard players, one hot-shit guitarist, one amazing drummer, one underrated bassist, and three lead singers. Longtime Toto fans will hear a ton of bits that will make them smile and nod their heads. Insofar as there’s a classic Toto sound, it’s here, in spades. And yet…and yet. Falling is absolutely the most down-to-earth, relaxed, and, yes, even organic-sounding album Toto has ever recorded. They actually sound, for most of the record, like a group of guys in a studio. There’s a palpable sense of fun here; fun and musical telepathy, which is a nice combination when you can get it.
It also helps that Toto appears to have lost absolutely any interest in selling records — and I mean that in a good way. They’re just playing to their strengths now; those strengths don’t get you on the charts anymore, and the band seems to be at peace with that. For fans who were hoping for another “Pamela,” this might be an unwelcome development. For everyone else, it’s actually pretty easy on the ears.
Now, for all of that, will I be playing this disc in heavy rotation months from now? Or even tomorrow? Probably not. Part of it is that the album starts off so well that it can’t help but lose steam; the title track (download) is a fire-breathing, saw-toothed monster of a song that easily ranks among the band’s finest work ever (and also proves that Bobby Kimball, porn ’stache and all, can rock on occasion). It’s the kind of song that begs to be played at full volume. If the rest of Falling In Between maintained that level of creative intensity, I’d be writing a different review. As it is, though, while I can appreciate the sound mechanics and compositional depth of the rest of the album, it pales in comparison. It’s still an impressively consistent album — the only true low point is “Hooked” (download), which has lyrics that resemble a Nancy Reagan-era PSA — but not a home run. Call it a triple.
It won’t win over any unbelievers. But for the faithful, it should be absolute bliss, and that’s what really counts at this stage in the game for Toto. They should be applauded for recognizing the important stuff and letting the rest of it disappear.