Critics hung soft rock around their necks after the success of tunes like “I Won’t Hold You Back,” “99” and “I’ll Be Over You.” But Toto was never so easily identifiable. A closer listen uncovers a musical pallette that brings in heavier guitar sounds, funk, soul, R&B, jazz, even prog rock.
Top 5 hits like “Hold the Line,” “Rosanna,” and “Africa,” each as listenable as they can be, scarcely hint at that kind of complexity. Can this legacy be saved? That’s where we come in …
“HYDRA” (HYDRA, 1979): A proggy excursion, dark, edgy and more than 7 minutes in length, opens Toto’s second full length. So, sure, everybody skipped right to the ballad, “99.” But go back. I’d argue, and for a while, that this is some of the most interesting guitar work Steve Lukather has done. (Later, Luke almost melts “White Sister,” a nasty little aside that’s not to be missed, either.) Meanwhile, keyboardists Steve Porcaro and David Paich (who sings lead) encircle the proceedings with a sound that’s one part early Keith Emerson and one part Point of Know Return-era Kansas.
If there’s a knock, it’s that the band didn’t take this hinted-at broader theme — the tale of St. George, but from perspective of the beast he’s aiming to off — across the length of Hydra. The subsequent “St. George and the Dragon” seems to point toward a concept album that never materializes. Instead, Toto changes gears, some said incessantly, in what appear to be obvious bids for radio play. The record ends up spanning the gamut from the Cheap Tricky “All Us Boys” over to the hit “99,” which sounded like a leftover from their sessions for Boz Scaggs’ Silk Degrees.
I’m still interested in the prog-rock record Toto never completed. — Nick DeRiso
[ONE TRACK MIND: Toto’s Steve Lukather discusses key songs from his career, including “I Won’t Hold You Back,” “99” and “I’ll Be Over You,” and the time that Miles Davis tried to lure him away.]
“AFRAID OF LOVE” (TOTO IV, 1982): Despite being a clinic on how to produce a pop album in the 1980s and sweeping the Grammys in the year of its release, IV is actually one of my least favorite Toto albums. That being said, this 1982 release does contain Afraid of Love — which remains an all-time favorite.
On the March 2, 1985 Live in Osaka bootleg, Steve Lukather introduced this song by saying: “We’d like to do a song off our fourth album which was written by the thrillseeker himself, the love supreme, David Paich, Jeff Porcaro and myself during the first time we saw a Chiahuahua with a hard-on.”
After hearing that bootleg and quote I can’t help but start laughing every time I hear the song. And despite that dubious pedigree, there is much to like: Lukather’s catchy guitar riff and gritty growling vocals, Jeff Porcaro’s driving rhythm. This song is still the dog’s bollocks. — Perplexio, from DancingAboutArchitecture and The Review Revue
“LET IT GO” (FALLING IN BETWEEN, 2006): Toto’s long-time willingness to swap lead singers between albums, songs, and in some cases, within songs probably helped to bring along some of the mostly unfair criticism that this was a band without an identity. I see this policy probably the same way the leaders of Toto did: No one ever pretended this was a frontman band, so just find the best voice to fit each song. For only one song in their entire discography, that voice came from one of pop music’s most prolific session keyboardists: Greg Philliganes, who’s worked with dozens of artists including Stevie Wonder, Lionel Ritchie, Michael Jackson and Eric Clapton.
That song, called “Let It Go,” belatedly introduced to most of the world a smooth croon fairly deemed close to Boz Skaggs (or should I give the credit to the production?). And the rich, soaring backing harmonies grace and bolster the chorus, in typical Toto fashion. All that righteous singing goes on top of a Steely Dan-type harmonic progression and an airtight funk strut. Steve Lukather pours out one of his trademark weeping guitar leads, followed by a descending chord pattern played in unison by keyboard/guitar/bass/drums repeated 3 or 4 times for good measure.
Toto is at its best when it finds the balance between its massive musicianship and the melodic vehicle to deliver it. With the help of Jacko’s old keyboard player, they reached that potential again on this song. — S. Victor Aaron
“ENDLESS” (ISOLATION, 1984): While he only graced one Toto album and tour, Fergie Frederiksen left an indelible impression with his tweeter-frying tenor vocals.
While some might argue “Angel Don’t Cry” or “Carmen” were better showcases for Fergie’s vocals, I’ve always found “Endless” to be far more enjoyable. The hook is catchier, and David Paich and Steve Porcaro are in top form on the keyboards.
It also strikes me as being more of a full band effort than “Angel Don’t Cry,” which sounds more like a showcase to show off Fergie’s powerful voice and range. “Endless” shows Fergie off just as well, but it doesn’t sound like it’s at the expense of the rest of the band. — Perplexio
“GYPSY TRAIN” (KINGDOM OF DESIRE, 1992): A bit of a departure for Toto. Easily their most raw album and after a revolving door of lead singers, their only album recorded as a quartet with Steve Lukather, David Paich, Mike Porcaro and Jeff Porcaro). Sadly it was also their last album to feature Jeff, a founding member who died shortly after the album’s release.
For those who thought/think they know/knew what to expect from Toto, the opening bars of “Gypsy Train” will catch them off-guard like a deer in the headlights. There’s a full speed ahead, get-out-of-my-way intensity to the whole album, but whomever decided to lead off the album with “Gypsy Train” made the right choice. The song totally sets the tone for the rest of Kingdom of Desire. It grabs the listener by the short and curlies for a musical ride of a lifetime.
In hindsight, I’m left wondering how Toto’s subsequent albums might have sounded had they continued in this musical direction. With the untimely passing of Jeff Porcaro, however, Toto abandoned this musical path and changed direction to a more R&B/soul tinged vibe with 1995’s Tambu. — Perplexio