Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Toto IV (1982), the final album recorded by the original Toto lineup of David Paich, Steve Lukather, Bobby Kimball, Jeff Porcaro, Steve Porcaro and David Hungate, reversed the commercial slide that followed their double-platinum debut, selling more than 3 million copies in the U.S. and winning multiple Grammy awards (including Album Of The Year). It remains their highest-charting record and includes their only #1 single plus three others that reached the Top 40. In spite of this mainstream success, they were never fully embraced by critics or rock fans. Sure, they were laughing all the way to the bank, but it had to sting a little that they weren’t taken seriously beyond fellow musicians & more open-minded fans who appreciated their instrumental & songwriting prowess.
I remember reading a number of articles at the time about how all those awards & sales figures were merely a reflection of the sad state of the music industry, but the fact is that Toto delivered a nearly perfect album at just the right time. It has a slicker, more commercial sound than their prior releases, at times reminding me of David Foster’s production & arrangements on Chicago’s Chicago 16 (which was released a few months after Toto IV), but nearly every song is a winner, and there’s a harder edge to several tracks that you might not expect if you only know the radio hits. It probably won’t win over any punk or hardcore fans, but anyone who appreciates well-crafted melodic songs with incredible musicianship, multiple lead vocalists with distinctive voices and strong harmonies will find a lot to love on Toto IV. The record business recovered in a big way the following year thanks in large part to Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and it should come as no surprise that four members of Toto, already some of the most in-demand studio musicians, were among Jackson’s collaborators on that game-changing record.
♪ “Rosanna” – A deserving Top 5 smash that’s carried along by Jeff Porcaro’s version of the “Purdie Shuffle,” the unique shuffle groove created by Bernard Purdie and most famously played on Steely Dan’s “Home At Last” and “Babylon Sisters.” John Bonham also played a variation of this rhythm on Led Zeppelin’s “Fool In The Rain.” Of course, there’s so much more to this song than just that infectious groove: a fantastic arrangement with subtle dynamic shifts, including that quiet finger-snapping section (“Not quite a year since she went away”); tasty horns; solos on synth, keyboard and guitar; and Lukather & Kimball sharing lead vocals. The 5-1/2 minute album version is preferable to the much shorter single version, with each musician given ample time to shine.
♪ “Make Believe” – This single reached the lower part of the Top 40 chart and should have gone much higher. It’s top-notch “soft rock” with Kimball singing that great chorus: “Why don’t we make believe we’re in love again?”
♪ “Africa” – Toto’s biggest hit and their only #1 single. Featuring one of Paich’s strongest lead vocal performances, Jeff Porcaro’s fantastic semi-exotic rhythm track and that 8-note keyboard refrain, there’s never been a time I haven’t been happy to hear this song. Some people refer to it as the reason they think of Toto as cheesy light-rock, and I suppose it’s hard to argue if this is your only exposure to their music, but I love its unique atmosphere and especially the vocal interplay between Paich and Kimball in the chorus. I give Paich extra credit for seamlessly including “Kilimanjaro,” “Olympus” and “Serengeti” in a single line, hence the title of this blog post.
Other Notable Tracks:
Several factors conspired to make the follow-up to Toto IV a commercial & artistic disappointment. They experienced the first of many lineup changes when bassist David Hungate left (he was replaced by Mike Porcaro, the brother of Toto founders Jeff and Steve) and lead vocalist Bobby Kimball was replaced by Dennis “Fergie” Frederiksen. For a band that was already lacking a central figure, changing singers after such a hugely successful record was already going to pose challenges; the fact that Frederiksen didn’t possess the power or unique tone of his predecessor, even though he had a strong voice, made matters worse. When Isolation (1984) finally hit store shelves 2-1/2 years after Toto IV they had missed their opportunity to strike while the iron was still hot. The biggest problem, however, was the fact that they didn’t come up with many memorable songs (the notes I wrote while revisiting Isolation last week included the words “generic,” “decent” and “non-descript” multiple times), and the often dated mid-‘80s production didn’t do them any favors…even though it sounded good at the time. They did manage to score one hit single, which has long been a personal favorite, and there are a couple of other tracks worth discussing, but this was by far their least enjoyable album up to that point.
♪ “Stranger In Town” – A Top 30 hit written & sung by Paich, and an excellent follow-up to “Africa” that might have been more successful if it was released a year earlier. Those moody “oooh”s create a cool atmosphere, and the driving rhythm, tasty synths & programmed percussion effects neatly updated Toto’s unique sound: melodic pop with rock guitar and modern flourishes.
Until last week I had never heard Dune (Original Soundtrack Recording) (1984), Toto’s score for David Lynch’s sci-fi film based on the classic Frank Herbert novel, so I borrowed a copy from a friend and gave it a few listens. Unlike Queen, who did a great job four years earlier writing music for the Flash Gordon soundtrack, the 17 tracks here (including one by Brian Eno) rarely sound anything like Toto, even though Paich wrote 15 of them. The Vienna Symphony Orchestra adds some heft to the music but it could be the score to any number of films. “Dune (Desert Theme),” which is the 10th song, is the first to sound anything like the band, with programmed percussion along with solid drum fills, Tubular Bells-type synths and dramatic piano-and-guitar interplay. Closing track “Take My Hand” sounds a little like Pink Floyd, with its slow pace, lilting piano, guitar accents and a steady programmed rhythm. I’m glad I finally heard this soundtrack but it’s not an essential addition to their discography.
I lost interest in Toto for a while after Isolation, so for many years Fahrenheit (1986) slipped below my radar. It wasn’t until I got back on board for their next album, which I will discuss below, that I went back to hear what I had missed. The lineup of musicians remained the same as the previous album but they parted ways with Fergie Frederiksen, replacing him with Joseph Williams, the son of influential film composer John Williams. This was a major step in the right direction, as Williams possessed a much stronger and more identifiable voice. The album didn’t chart as highly as its predecessor but it did include two Top 40 hits, and while there are no all-time classics here the hit-to-miss ratio is much greater this time. The overall sound of the record is softer and lighter than anything else they had done, but hidden under that production haze you’ll find some excellent melodies and a few musical surprises (including a guest appearance by one of the biggest jazz musicians of all time).
Of their first six albums, Isolation was the only one I bought when it was released and, ironically, it’s my least favorite. I slowly picked up their back catalog during college but it wasn’t until album #7, The Seventh One (1988), that I bought a new Toto album I couldn’t stop playing. All these years later it remains the album of theirs that I’m most familiar with, and revisiting it last week confirmed its status as one of their strongest releases. Unlike previous albums which they produced themselves with assistance from various engineers, production for The Seventh One is credited to the band as well as George Massenburg and Bill Payne. Massenburg was a well-known engineer for many artists, including Little Feat and Linda Ronstadt (who guests here on “Stay Away,” which is a decent song but didn’t make the cut for the lists below), and Payne is the longtime keyboardist for Little Feat. Having outside influences was a smart move, as the album packs more of a punch than anything they had done since Hydra. It’s also their longest album up to that point, at more than 54 minutes, but it never overstays its welcome. Steve Porcaro was no longer a band member but he did contribute synths & programming, while the rest of the lineup from Fahrenheit returned. Unfortunately they were a band out of time, and even with a hit single that just missed the Top 20 it became their lowest charting album in the U.S. (a trend that has continued ever since). Don’t let its commercial failure scare you away; if you already like their music you will likely find several new favorites among The Seventh One’s eleven songs.
♪ “Pamela” – A perfect combination of Jeff Porcaro’s funky & loping drum track, Williams’ powerful vocals, a great horn chart, an inventive arrangement, killer harmonies and insanely catchy melodies. It was a Top 30 hit but should have been much bigger, and has long been one of my favorite Toto songs.
♪ “Anna” – A great Lukather ballad; sappy, yes, but absolutely gorgeous. The melody at “Even if you turn and walk away, love will bring you back somehow” is stunning, as is the bridge (“‘Cause weeee almost touched the sky…”). It’s nice to see them tackle two songs with female names and both are instant classics.
♪ “Stop Loving You” – A nice soft intro leads into a bouncy rhythm with funky bass and a stabbing guitar line. The tight verses are extremely catchy with strong vocals from Williams, then it opens up for the pre-chorus: “Dance beneath the light with that look in your eyes.” That’s followed by an incredible chorus: “I can’t stop loving you, time passes quickly and chances are few.” Yes’ Jon Anderson adds some harmony vocals. This is a solid pop song with rock elements, the latter coming through even more during the instrumental section.
♪ “Mushanga” – A very creative “world music” rhythm track, exotic but still accessible, is the foundation for this standout track. The chorus is wonderful, with harmonies at “You broke into my heart” followed by Williams’ solo responses, i.e. “I saw your eyes and then I knew,” and Lukather delivers an awesome nylon string guitar solo.
♪ “Home Of The Brave” – This nearly 7-minute closing track is the longest song on the album, and it’s a cross between the progressive inclinations of Hydra and the slicker, more commercial sound of Toto IV. Beginning with a moody, atmospheric intro featuring Paich’s strong vocal performance, Williams enters in his higher register as the rhythm section kicks in. There are multiple distinct sections here yet they all flow effortlessly together. An epic way to wrap up a stellar album.
Other Notable Tracks:
I finished revisiting these five albums a week ago before going out of town for several days, when I wasn’t able to listen to any music, and many of these songs played multiple times in my cranial jukebox during that time. Fortunately they’re all great and I was happy to keep those earworms in my head. Hopefully the songs I’ve chosen to highlight in this post have a similar positive impact on you, and there are plenty more to be found if you dive into these records. I’ve already begun listening to the next batch of albums in their discography and, even though there are many big changes ahead, the high quality of music continues. I can’t wait to play each of them a few more times and share my thoughts on them by early next week.