Toto IV found Toto at an early career crossroads: ‘We wanted to make something great’

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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.

“We didn’t get credit for anything,” Steve Lukather says in an exclusive Something Else! Sitdown, laughing ruefully. “We were playing funky shuffles — Jeff Porcaro really owned that. We were doing world music, with ‘Africa.’ Nobody ever gave us any credit. We were using strings and horns, doubling the bass. Mixing R&B with harder-edged stuff, I’m not saying we invented any of that. But we always make the worst-band ever lists, and nobody was doing that at the time.”

Imagine every critic’s surprise, then, when the group went from occasional radio presence to pop music supernova with the release of Toto IV on April 8, 1982. (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. But this was the album, the moment in time, when they finally put everything that Lukather mentions together into one disc.

Things have come full circle with the release of Toto’s similarly definitive Toto XIV. The new studio project has soared to the top of several international charts, and a blockbuster tour with Yes will follow. “We were hated very much by the mainstream, and there are still a few people hanging on to that grudge,” Lukather adds, “but a new generation of people is finding us. Kids are discovering all of this music. We are seeing a resurgence of record sales, and we’re selling out arenas again.”

Count on hearing a choice selection of songs from Toto IV on this new tour, and they’ll be played by a lineup that includes the original bassist from that period, David Hungate. (This was also Toto’s last early-era album with singer Bobby Kimball, who’s since been replaced by Joseph Williams.) To get you ready, we’ve selected five of our favorites from Toto IV, and asked for additional insights from both Lukather and David Paich.

“I WON’T HOLD YOU BACK”

Written and sung by Steve Lukather, this tune shot up the charts in 1983 after Toto won a stunning six Grammys for Toto IV, including record, album and producer of the year. Timothy B. Schmit, the sweet-voiced member of Poco and the Eagles, is featured on its soaring chorus. But “I Won’t Hold You Back” actually dates back to Toto’s previous album, 1981’s light-selling — and, perhaps notably, harder-edged — Turn Back.

“We were coming to do Toto IV,” Lukather says, “and a lot of people were bringing other types of songs to the party. It became more of a band-written record. That was when the band came into its own. After Turn Back wasn’t much of a hit, everybody jumped on it. We wanted to make something great to prove that we could. That album [Toto IV] turned into a centerpiece of our career. We worked very hard on it.”

“GOOD FOR YOU”

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

Still, “Good for You” deserves mention as one of this projects’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 has made Toto so compulsively listenable over the years. 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 Steve Lukather at the fade. And, through it all, they never let go of this relentless, R&B-infused groove.

“AFRICA”

Composed by David Paich with a key assist by the late Jeff Porcaro, who added the song’s distinctive cadence, “Africa” is a fascinating early example of something that came to be called “world music.” “It’s funny, Sting always says the record is just a blueprint for what actually will take place later on, and I believe that,” Paich tells us, in a separate Something Else! Sitdown. Toto has been expanding on that thought in concert ever since.

Beyond its ageless rhythm, there’s Paich’s fascinating keyboard figure. Done on an early Yamaha synth, it resembles a kalimba. “That was a GS1 we were using, which was this phenomenal instrument that Yamaha came out with that had all these different new sounds from what was called FM technology, which stands for frequency modulation. So, we were able to get a GS1 and a programmer, which looked like a huge old-fashioned TV set that sat on top with four screens,” Paich says.

“We knew a guy named Gary Leuenberger from Stanford University who knew how to program it,” Paich adds. “He helped us with some of these sounds on ‘Africa,’ and one of them was that sound — that kalimba African thumb piano thing. We were searching, trying to break some new ground. That was typical Toto. We not only used that, but also an instrument called a flapamba, which you’ve heard on Steely Dan’s ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.’ It was an exotic wooden African instrument, from the xylophone or marimba family. It was really fun to experiment. Jeff even made some walking sticks, where he took two sticks and put bottle caps on the top and bottom like they do in South Africa, and you can hear them keeping the pulse in the opening.”

“MAKE BELIEVE”

This David Paich-written, Bobby Kimball-sung rocker wasn’t a huge hit, but it illustrated something — with every tough Steve Lukather riff — that’s often lost in the ballad-driven public persona of Toto. The truth is, they could (and can) rock.

As Lukather notes, Toto was just as adept at crunchy pop, world music, funky shuffles and even free-form prog, too. Still, it’s the simmering slow jams — with the notable exception of “Africa,” of course — that seem to have lodged most completely in the public’s consciousness.

After Toto IV, “I’ll Be Over You” (another ballad which reached No. 11) was the closest Toto ever got to those lofty Billboard heights again. The sweetly romantic “Without Your Love” remains one of the group’s most recent Top 40 entries. Meanwhile, their sensitive side has translated into hits for everyone from Boz Scaggs (“Miss Sun”) to Michael Jackson (“Human Nature”), as well.

Even Toto’s “99,” which only climbed to No. 26 in 1980, gets played more than, say, the similarly charting, but more uptempo “Make Believe.” That takes nothing away from its power, however, even all these years later.

“The pop hits, if you listen to the whole album, they would take a single off of it — and it would be the ballad, or a softer song,” Lukather tells us. “But there was always rock stuff on all of the albums. If you come see us live, people will say: ‘These guys are a lot tougher live than we would have imagined.’ That’s just the way we play. We’re not trying to prove anything. We’ll morph from style to style. That was the thing that was confusing about us, and it maybe pissed off the critics. But it gained us a lot of other people who actually buy records.”

“IT’S A FEELING”

A multi-Grammy award-winning smash, Toto IV will forever be associated with a trio of Top 10 hits that also included “Rosanna.” Lodged at the end of Side One, however, was this perhaps-forgotten, sleekly ruminative nugget, written by keyboardist Steve Porcaro. Toto has signalled its own regard for the track by including the track in recent setlists, first with a Joseph Williams lead vocal and, more recently, with the composer himself taking over.

“This last run, we got Steve Porcaro to sing the second verse,” Steve Lukather tells us. “The fans went crazy; they loved it. He’s never sung on stage, the entire career — ever. That was his first time. I just said: ‘More of that shit! C’mon, bro!’ It was fantastic. I loved it. I think on the next tour, we might dig out “Takin’ It Back” [another Porcaro original, taken from Toto’s 1978 eponymous debut] or something like that. He’s been a member of the band for so long; I want to really feature him. People come back if they know they’re not going to see the same show, every year. If you do that, after a while people go: I’ve seen it.”

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, 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 U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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