Deep Cuts: Steve Lukather and Billy Sherwood on Toto’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now,’ ‘The Other Side,’ others

Brutally described in a review of their eponymous 1978 debut by Rolling Stone as pros with no poetry, the effortlessly polished and sleekly listenable Toto has been dismissed from the first.

Imagine every critic’s surprise, then, when the group went from occasional radio presence to pop music supernova with 1982′s IV. (RS sniffed that this smash, too, was of little distinction or consequence.) In the meantime, of course, key Toto contributors like Steve Lukather and Jeff Porcaro were playing on countless recordings from the period, shaping the decade’s musical infrastructure. Maybe it shouldn’t have come as such a shock they these guys were really, really good.

Yet, it did then — and, in many ways Lukather says, it still does now. Scratch the surface of those misconceptions, though, and you’ll find something more than the snarky comments ever allowed. We did just that, ignoring Toto’s many familiar hits to find a few deep-cut favorites to prove the point.

Let’s start with a track from the album Rolling Stone panned …

“ANGELA” (TOTO, 1978): Steve Lukather, for all of his mind-melding acumen as a first-call guitar sideman, was always Toto’s secret weapon for lover-man ballads. From 1979′s “99″ to 1983′s “I Won’t Hold You Back,” from 1986′s “I’ll Be Over You” to 1988′s “Anna,” his fingerprints are on some of the band’s most heart-rending slow cookers. Go further back, though, to his beginnings as a 20-something wunderkind in the band, and you’ll discover the embryonic flashpoints for both impulses — sometimes, as with this album’s closing “Angela,” all inside one track.

“Angela” (like “Georgie Porgy,” Lukather’s other lead vocal on Toto) has a finely crafted, episodic feel — only this time, composer David Paich conveys even more dramatically the whip-sawing, almost tornadic feel of true passion. Inside this series of musical head fakes — as Toto moves from sweetly conveyed ballad to a thumping, angry groove — they make a definitive argument for the very thing that made them outsiders in a DiY-age that fetishized inspiration over craftsmanship.

These guys could do it all. Yet, somehow in the doing of it, that became a liability. You have to wonder, listening to “Angela,” if Toto would have been thought of differently had they not arrived just as punk and new wave became a popular flash point in rock music.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Steve Lukather on the high points from his lengthy career with Toto, and how they are carrying on after the departure of two Porcaro brothers.]

“DON’T STOP ME NOW” (FAHRENHEIT, 1986): A collaboration with Miles Davis, co-written by Lukather and Paich, closed out this project — and it might have seemed like an odd-ball choice, if not for the guitarist’s history with one of jazz music’s most mercurial figures.

First, though, was the music: Davis’ lonesome mute curls in among Lukather’s crying notes like smoke ringlets, and then the trumpeter takes center stage — offering a twilight blues. Even as Toto once again rises to the challenge, constructing as urbane a music bed as anyone then working in contemporary improvised music, Davis solos with reserved fury and then, as with the aforementioned smoke, he’s gone. It brought Lukather full circle. After all, he had been offered a spot in Davis’ band just as Toto was preparing for one of its earliest tours. But Lukather, who had grown up with most of the members of Toto, simply couldn’t — wouldn’t — leave people he loved then, as now, like brothers.

“He asked me,” Lukather told us, “and I said I couldn’t. We were just getting started. I told him, ‘I don’t even know if I am good enough to be in your band.’ (Lukather begins to impersonate Davis, switching to a gravelly whisper.) He says ‘I like that rock ’n’ roll shit.’ I was so honored, but I couldn’t do that to my guys. There was something about us that kept us together — even though we were reviled by the critics. We just kept thinking people were going to get it. In some ways, that day has not come yet.”

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: So you're one of those people who think Toto couldn't rock out? Exhibit A: The Cheap Trick-ish "All Us Boys," from 1979's 'Hydra,' another of SER's favorite deep cuts.]

“THE OTHER SIDE” (KINGDOM OF DESIRE, 1993): This became the final studio project to feature co-founding drummer Jeff Porcaro, who would pass away shortly after recording was completed. That has always given Kingdom of Desire this deep emotional resonance, perhaps nowhere more than on this song, which speaks to our dreams of reaching across time for a lost loved one.

“The Other Side,” co-written by Paich and Billy Sherwood, was part of an album that saw Lukather take over all of the lead vocals for the first time. This musical intersection wasn’t Sherwood’s first, as he’d received a key assist from Porcaro when Sherwood’s first band Lodgic happened to be rehearsing adjacent to Toto. Porcaro brought Paich and his brother Steve Porcaro over to hear Sherwood and Co., and they helped Sherwood get his first record deal in a career that would eventually include a stint in Yes.

“Years later, I was over at Paich’s one evening, and he played me a track from Kingdom of Desire and I started singing a few things, and that became the melody,” Sherwood told us. “I had never worked with them on that level before. He asked if I wanted to take a stab at it, and the rest is history. Luke came in and pretty much sang it note for note, which I found very respectful. I was honored to be a part of the last record with Jeff before we lost him. There will always be a very special place in my heart, having a song on that record.”

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: David Paich opens up about Toto bandmate Mike Porcaro's battle with Lou Gehrig's disease: "We’re trying to get out there and make people more aware of ALS."]

“GOOD FOR YOU” (IV, 1982): It’s admittedly nearly impossible to find anything considered a true deep cut on this ubiquitous album. After all, IV eventually spawned three Top 10 singles (including Toto’s lone No. 1, “Africa”) and earned a whopping six Grammy Awards.

Still, “Good for You” deserves mention as one of the album’s drum-tight, lesser-known gems. It’s a terrific example of how Toto, at the height of its powers, mixed and matched so many popular styles. Co-written by Lukather and erstwhile frontman Bobby Kimball, the tune finds Kimball in all of his full-throated glory — matching the lyric’s unvarnished, carnal desire. He performed, then as now, with a reckless, edgy abandon — something that probably contributed to the reedy texture of his voice sometimes these days. The seemingly effortless musicians behind him did the rest.

In fact, “Good For You,” though originally relegated to a B-side on the “Africa” single, is one of the better illustrations of what made Toto so compulsively listenable in their hey day. It boasts a Cuisinart-y blend of genre feels and styles: There’s a soaring, almost proggy synth riff (it’s one part early Keith Emerson and one part Point of Know Return-era Kansas); an unforgettably ear-wormy chorus; a dream-sequence middle-eight; and, finally, a scorching solo from Lukather at the fade. And, through it all, they never let go of this relentless, R&B-infused groove.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Toto's Steve Lukather joined us to talk about his forthcoming, star-packed, very emotional solo album, saying: "I really dug deep."]

“HYDRA” (HYDRA, 1979): A weirdly transfixing 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 Lukather has done. Meanwhile, keyboardists Steve Porcaro and David Paich (who sings lead) once again encircle the proceedings with these prog-rock inspired flourishes. And the lyrics? Similarly wigged out.

“I listen to that album, and I think ‘how high were we?,’” Lukather told us. “You can hear the youth in it. But at the same time, we were trying to find our way. We were just experimenting, and we didn’t care what anybody thought. They already hated us!”

If there’s a knock, it’s that Toto didn’t take its 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. Instead, they changed gears, some said incessantly, in what appear to be obvious bids for radio play. I must say, though: I’m still interested in the prog-rock record Toto never completed.

Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.
  • Chris

    Great choices, especially “Hydra” (Toto goes prog!). The band has always been unfairly slammed by the critics and the pop hipsters. Maybe it’s the name, maybe it’s the image….but c’mon – the music is awesome! How about these Toto tracks?

    1. “Home Of The Brave” (The Seventh One): Love the David Paich-sung verses and then the uplifting vocals by Joseph Williams on the chorus. A little proggy too, but just a cool anthemic sort of song.

    2. “Dying On My Feet” (Falling In Between): Toto’s final release was a strong return to the form and this song captures many of the elements that made Toto such a great group (rock with some R&B with some pop). Cool groove.

    3. “Kingdom of Desire” (Kingdom of Desire): Epic. : )

    4. “Mad About You” (Minefields): A nice strong pop song off of the Bobby Kimball-reunion album. If this song had come out in 1984, it surely would have been a radio hit. Nice feel and a catchy chorus. Everything that Toto is all about.

    5. “Can You Hear What I’m Saying” (Past To Present): Okay – I might be going off the edge here choosing a Jean-Micheal Bryon-era track, but the Porcaro brothers lay down such a cool groove that I can’t resist. The bass line and the feel is addictive. These are “deep cuts” right? And Lukather whips out his typical guitar heroics on the outro. NIce.

    6. “These Chains” (The Seventh One): Lukather definitely deserves more credit for his vocal contributions to the band. This track, off a strong album, would have been a great R&B radio hit. Jeff Porcaro lays down that sweet Porcaro groove and the band shows why they were one of the collectives of musical talents. Love the vocals, the shuffle, and the melodic guitar. One of my favorite Luke tracks.

    7. “English Eyes” (Turn Back): Toto could rock like anyone else (although you never hear anyone refer to Toto as a hard rock group). Such a great crunchy guitar riff with a typically catchy Toto chorus.

  • John

    I never agreed with the critics. I was young when Toto was starting, being born in 1967. But like so many things that others in my household listened to as I grew up, it became a staple in my musical life. I play just about every instrument by ear except drums (never had a set to learn on) and one thing I always loved playing was anything by Toto. I was in Germany when they released “The Seventh One” and at that time one thing I kept thinking was how much they had matured as a band – I simply could not get enough of it. Every album they release has hints of previous ones, but they all seem to break some new ground for them on some level. You can listen to any two Toto albums and unlike most bands, the songs don’t all sound alike across the albums. Everyone is different, unique, and brings something new to the table. Their range never ceases to astound me. The only other band I can ever think of in the same class of purely awesome musical genius is Yes – and for many of the same reasons. There’s a depth to every single song both groups play, layered instruments and building upon the previous verse with a little more complexity, each song seems to grow and breathe and live as it’s played. Toto is about the only band that I can listen to the ENTIRE album. Just about every other group I jump around and always skip certain songs. Toto never came out with a song I want to skip.

  • Uncle Zo

    Great article and choices. I am a HUGE Toto fan. I wonder if more people knew how much music the members of this band blessed if it would change the opinions of the non-believers.

  • Mahefa

    Thanks for this article. I am a huge fan of Toto . What I love with them is their versatility. They can play (or write) a wide range of music genre : rock, ballads, pop, funk, heavier rock, jazz, prog, even classic (Dune soundtrack). Their tunes range from more “popular” or “commercial” (though good, in my opinion) songs (Africa, I’ll Be Over You, Hold The Line, …) to more “strange”, “experimental”, “quirky” songs, less ear-friendly … much more progressive (Falling In Between, High Price Of Hate, to name a few). I always have a little smile in my face when I hear someone speaking about Toto saying something like “a good band but they always do the same thing …” … Yeah, I heard tht already, I just go in my mind : “ignoramus …”.
    If I were to keep only one song in each album, I would go for :
    - Toto : Georgy Porgy
    - Hydra : St George And The Dragon
    - Turn Back : English Eyes
    - Toto IV : Africa
    - Isolation : Endless
    - Fahrenheit : Lea
    - The 7th One : Home Of The Brave
    - Past To Present : Can You Hear What I’m Sayin’ (same comment as Chris’, it’s odd to pick a song from the Byron’s era but … whether we like the guy or not, I actually get to say that I like this song)
    - Kingdom Of Desire : Jake To The Bone (probably the best instrumental heavy-proggy-rock music ever composed in a short amount of time, I read how this tune was written and I like these kind of “behind-the-scenes”)
    - Mindfields : Better World
    - Falling In Between : Let It Go
    But everyday, these choices can change :-)

  • UlitimateToTo Fan

    I remember when ToTo came onto the music scene with their first album ToTo and (yes i admit it) i fell madly in love with a rock band, Had never done that before and it was a good thing.

    For 35 years plus they have been doing what everyone said they couldn’t. They played to sell out crowds and put out albums that were always so good.

    The only thing missing is a new album with new songs and for those who say that ToTo sucks…..bite me.

  • Superklepper

    Well TOTO hmmm what can i say…

    I am a fan since i go get the album Past to Present for my older brother. Never heard of TOTO before then.But he never got it out of my hands! I kept it and went back to the record store for all albums!

    You can sense the enthousiasm when these guys play live on stage. And even hear it in their studio recordings.
    And the TOTO now shows this more then ever!

    New album is not in the planned at the time but Luke said in a interview taken in dec 2012 in Amsterdam he doesn’t say TOTO will never record a new album again! Hopefully time gives the fans a new album in the future!

    My set list of fafs of this band are:

    1. Wings of Time ( Remembers me to a dear friend who died much too early only 39 years old. Ed you are so be missed!)

    2. Home of the Brave ( Best pop/rock song i know! With a message to the world! )

    3. White Sister ( Great up tempo rock song )

    4. How does it feel ( Great ballad with luke on vocals! )

    5. One Road ( Toto like music all the way! )

    6. Girl Goodbye ( Funk,Rock,Pop,Disco all in one! )

    7. Waiting for your love ( Toto all the way! )

    8. A million miles away ( Totaly turned grey on cd )

    9. Hold the line ( Great rock song )

    10. Pamela ( I sing my guts out with this one masterpiece! )

    Its 37 years actualy TOTO!! isnt that right?
    Hope TOTO keeps playing with this enthousiasm! Up to 50 years TOTO!!!!!!!!
    Rock on!!!!

  • Perplexio

    Until “Kingdom of Desire” I was merely a casual listener of Toto. That album just blew me away, not just because the music on it was brilliant but because anyone who was familiar with Toto IV would not have believed it was the same band on “Kingdom of Desire.” The dramatic differences between KoD and IV are what compelled me to dig deeper with the band and started my evolution from casual listener to die-hard Toto fan.

    As for “Hydra”- I can never just listen to that track I always find myself compelled to listen to “St. George & the Dragon” afterwards. I just can’t stop after the one song.