Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time

TOTO Part 3 – Gypsy Trains And Turning Points

Toto experienced a great deal of success from the late-‘70s through the ‘80s, in spite of several lineup changes, but at the beginning of the ‘90s they found themselves in a state of flux that included a new lead singer and, shortly thereafter, the death of one of their founding members. After the Toto - Past To Present 1977-1990commercial disappointment of the criminally overlooked The Seventh One, and a subsequent tour that resulted in the dismissal of singer Joseph Williams, it was the perfect time for the band to release a greatest-hits collection. Instead of playing it safe by simply including previously-released material, they chose to add four newly-recorded songs with new lead vocalist Jean-Michel Byron, a flamboyant South African who was recommended by their record company. Based on everything I’ve read this was not a match made in heaven, and Byron’s time with Toto was short-lived, as he was quickly demoted to backup singer during the tour in support of Past To Present 1977-1990 (1990).

The nine existing songs were well-chosen, with two from Toto, one from Hydra, three from Toto IV, one from Fahrenheit and two from The Seventh One. I certainly can’t complain about the track listing, as seven Toto Photo (circa 1990)were Essentials and two were Notable Tracks in my notes on the original albums. Three of the four new songs are instantly forgettable, despite the typically high-caliber musicianship, mostly due to the fact that Byron possessed a strong but indistinguishable voice. Only “Animal,” with its funky bass line, tight rhythm and Byron channeling Michael Jackson (without the vocal tics) mixed with some George Michael, is worth a special mention. The highlight of this song is the instrumental breakdown, featuring another in a long line of spectacular Steve Lukather guitar solos. There have been subsequent Toto compilations that probably make Past To Present superfluous, but it’s a solid option for anyone who just wants a brief collection of their first decade. You’ll likely want to skip tracks 1, 4, 7 & 13 but the rest is pure gold.

For Kingdom Of Desire (1992) the lineup was reduced to a four-piece: Steve Lukather, David Paich, Mike Porcaro & Jeff Porcaro. Lukather was now their full-time lead singer and, even though I occasionally missed hearing other vocalists, this new streamlined version of Toto came up with a solid set of tunes that was more consistently heavy than anything they had previously released. They succumbed to the prevailing trend of filling up Toto - Kingdom Of DesireCDs with as much music as possible, so over the course of its 70-minute running time these 12 songs often go on a little longer than necessary, with only three songs clocking in at less than 5 minutes. As a jazz & progressive rock fan I have no problem with lengthy songs, but this excellent record could have been even stronger with some minor editing. Unlike previous albums where individual band members received songwriting credit on each song, this time the majority of tracks were credited to “Toto,” an encouraging sign that the quartet was functioning as a cohesive unit. Unfortunately, there will always be a dark cloud hanging over Kingdom Of Desire since drummer Jeff Porcaro died suddenly after recording was completed and prior to the subsequent tour. Other than a collection of rarities that I will discuss below, this was the final Toto album to feature his inimitable percussion skills. Fortunately he was still at the peak of his abilities and it’s great to hear him put his stamp on some harder rocking material. I’m sure a lot of fans were disappointed by their new direction but I love how Lukather stepped up as the frontman while still impressing with his guitar riffs and solos.

The Essentials:
♪ “Gypsy Train” – The album opener is a bluesy song with thumping drums, chugging guitar and a huge early-‘90s production. It immediately reminded me of The Jeff Healey Band, both vocally & sonically. I love the organ washes during the chorus (“Come on let’s ride that gypsy train”) and Lukather scorches throughout his solos.

♪ “How Many Times” – A heavy riff-rocker that’s bluesy but not “blues.” The verses have Lukather singing along to sparse accompaniment before shifting to a killer chorus: “How many time must a man fall down, I said whoah-ohh-ohh-ohh.”
♪ “Jake To The Bone” – A 7-minute instrumental that’s funky, syncopated & jazzy; what an incredible rhythm laid down by Jeff Porcaro. I love how it goes through various sections, always returning to that original groove. Paich’s keyboard solo is wonderful and Lukather is, unsurprisingly, on fire. It’s an awesome album closer and a perfect last hurrah for their departed comrade.

Toto Photo (from Kingdom Of Desire)Other Notable Tracks:

  • “Don’t Chain My Heart” – The closest they came to hit single material here (it was actually a minor hit in a few countries). Features a steady beat with driving hi-hat & pumping bass, and a catchy, melodic chorus including call-and-response vocals.
  • “Never Enough” – Lukather’s guitar sound has hints of Mark Knopfler’s tone from Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing. This song is a great example of early-‘90s rock, and there’s a cool instrumental breakdown with heavy riffing & syncopated percussion.
  • “Wings Of Time” – My only complaint about this one is its length. There’s no reason this melodic, slick, moody rocker should last nearly 7-1/2 minutes. Otherwise I was won over by the subdued mood, snappy rhythm & killer chorus: “I…will surrender my heart to the sky; Oh our love doesn’t end here, it lives forever on the wings of time.”
  • “The Other Side” – A sparse ballad (but not a lighter-waving power ballad) with light percussion & loud rimshots. Lukather’s tasty lead guitar & smooth voice could have made this an Adult Contemporary hit. The highlight is another excellent chorus (they had plenty of them on this album): “I’ve been watching you from the other side, I’ve been wanting to hold you through the night…”

Absolutely Live (1993) was Toto’s first live album, recorded in Holland during the Kingdom Of Desire tour, with Simon Phillips on drums. They Toto - Absolutely Livealso brought along three new vocalists (Jenny Douglas-McRae, Donna McDaniel and John James) who added a soulful element to the band. None of them are as distinctive as Bobby Kimball or Joseph Williams but they do an excellent job. The set list was well chosen; of the 12 existing songs, 7 were Essentials and 4 were Notables. They also included one cover, The Beatles’ “With A Little Help From My Friends,” which Lukather dedicated to Jeff Porcaro. Most of the song is slow & mournful, but it shifts to a driving rock tempo for the final three minutes, similar to Elton John’s “Love Lies Bleeding.” In spite of their recent loss this is no somber affair, and I love the fact that they kicked off the show with the epic “Hydra.” There’s a lovely acoustic section in the middle that includes “Georgy Porgy,” “99,” “I Won’t Hold You Back” and “Don’t Stop Me Now,” the latter still effective even though it’s missing Miles Davis’ contribution from the studio version. Paich in particular shines on that jazzy gem. It’s a shame that their first live album didn’t feature the original lineup but it’s hard to complain when the performances are so strong.

By the time they released Tambu (1995) I wasn’t as passionate about their music as I was a decade earlier, and it would be a few years before I finally got a copy. Hearing it now in the context of their discography, it’s another high-water mark for them. The Toto - Tambuartwork depicting a pulp novel (with its “A Columbia Paperback” credit in the booklet) doesn’t necessarily match the music within, which pairs the heavier, more aggressive sound of its predecessor with even more melodic hooks and all the incredible musicianship we’ve come to expect. Simon Phillips appeared for the first time on a Toto studio album, and he would remain their drummer for more than 2 decades. He filled in admirably for Jeff Porcaro, whose presence is felt in the spiritual lyrical content and the occasional melancholy melody. Tambu is another 70-minute album but it doesn’t feel overstuffed, in spite of the fact that all but the last two songs clock in at 5 minutes or more. As good as Lukather’s voice sounded throughout Kingdom Of Desire, here he upped his game with more diverse & nuanced performances. Like its predecessor, Tambu stiffed commercially in the US & UK but it was a hit in many other countries. It’s too bad because more people should be aware of this wonderful album.

The Essentials:
♪ “The Turning Point” – Driven along by Phillips’ insistent groove and highlighted by the call-and-response vocals and Paich’s piano flourishes. In edited form this could have been a good single, especially with such a strong chorus: “Where do I go from here? How do I find my way?” Jenny Douglas McRae does a great job sharing lead vocals with Lukather.

♪ “Drag Him To The Roof”
– This is my favorite track on Tambu. I love Lukather’s aggressive guitar riffs and Phillips’ progressive rock drumming (with syncopation, cymbal splashes, offbeat hi-hat rhythms, etc). This is truly an essential track for both of those reasons as well as the super-catchy chorus: “Drag him to the roof, just push me over, I’ve got no better place to be.”

Other Notable Tracks:

  • “Gift Of Faith” – Bright & poppy with a huge drum sound. I love those organ washes & accents and the soaring female vocals. It’s interesting that they chose the longest song, at nearly 7-1/2 minutes, to open the album, but with a chorus that good it ended up being a perfect choice (“We can make it if we only take the gift of faith”).
  • Toto Photo (Paintings from Tambu)“I Will Remember” – Starts off with tribal drums, tasteful percussion & smooth harmonies, and transitions into moody verses with piano at the forefront. Well produced with sympathetic instrumentation, including Phillips’ killer drum work. It should be much shorter than 6 minutes, though, which keeps it from being essential.
  • “Baby He’s Your Man” – Lead vocals shared by Lukather & McRae, on top of programmed drums and bass loops. This production is a new sound for them, very slick & trip hop-influenced. Lyrically, it’s a conversation between a man & woman, and I like how each of them gets their own verse.
  • “The Other End Of Time” – A moody, atmospheric, synth-heavy ballad with programmed percussion accents. On the surface it’s about a woman but it could easily be about coping with the loss of Jeff Porcaro. Lukather’s vocals are heartbreaking, especially in the chorus: “A heart full of voices reminding me that it’s over.”
  • “Dave’s Gone Skiing” – The title indicates that Mr. Paich was not in the studio when this instrumental track was written & recorded by the other three musicians. Phillips does his typically amazing drumming while Luke riffs & shreds on top, fueling this syncopated, funky jazz-fusion track with multiple time signatures.
  • “The Road Goes On” – Co-written with noted songwriter/producer Glen Ballard. Features fingerpicked acoustic guitar & piano with Lukather’s sincere vocals through the intro, then brightens up for the mainstream pop chorus. I’m surprised it wasn’t a Pop or Adult Contemporary hit; the record company dropped the ball on this one. It’s not my favorite track but it is very good, most notably at “Now I see it all through different eyes, whoah, ohh.”

When I first saw Toto XX: 1977-1997 (1998), it was initially unclear whether this was another career-spanning compilation, a combination of old & Toto - XX 1977-1997new songs or something else entirely. It turned out to be a wonderful collection of rarities from multiple eras & lineups that’s as consistently enjoyable as anything in their discography. These weren’t just throwaway tracks that were left off the original albums for good reason, which is what many artists do with similar sets of rarities. Instead, we got songs recorded with their two best lead singers, Bobby Kimball & Joseph Williams, mostly spanning the first 11 or 12 years of Toto’s existence, along with a few live recordings. The CD closes with three spirited performances from a show they performed in South Africa in ’97 or ’98, including an African choir on “Baba Mnumzane” sandwiched between “Dave’s Gone Skiing” and (naturally) “Africa.” Of the remaining ten tracks, seven deserve special mention, and I urge any Toto fans who have overlooked Toto XX to find a copy. It’s an integral part of their catalog.

The Essentials:
♪ “Last Night” – A perky shuffle that drives forward courtesy of Jeff Porcaro’s subtle drumming. Recorded in 1987 prior to The Seventh One, and Joseph Williams’ voice sounds great. I love the bright, happy horn section and the chorus is as uplifting as anything they’ve ever done. Lukather shreds, as usual.

♪ “Mrs. Johnson” – From the sessions for the debut album, with Bobby Kimball on vocals. Bouncy piano with stomping kick drum in the verses, then funkier for the chorus. I like how there are several distinct sections that flow effortlessly together. Lukather channels Queen’s Brian May in the first half, and then moves into David Gilmour territory for the atmospheric, Pink Floyd-esque second half.

♪ “Love Is A Man’s World” – One of two demos recorded in ’77 in an effort to secure a record deal. Initially it’s a soul/gospel hybrid, with bouncy piano, bubbling synth bass & hand claps, before shifting into a disco breakdown at around 3:35. There’s a cool synth line mirroring Paich’s vocal when he sings the title.
♪ “On The Run” – A driving rocker with killer guitar, recorded live at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1991. I can’t believe they never included a studio version on any of their albums, but apparently they felt it worked better in concert. It’s got an excellent upbeat shuffle groove and it would have been a perfect addition to Kingdom Of Desire. Lukather soars & Jeff Porcaro swings on this would-be Toto classic.

Toto Photo (Collage 1 of 2 from Toto XX)
Toto Photo (Collage 2 of 2 from Toto XX)

Other Notable Tracks:

  • “Goin’ Home” – Recorded for the Past To Present compilation with Kimball temporarily back on lead vocals. Ironically, it was co-written by David Paich and Joseph Williams, who adds backing vocals to this track. Has a steady, metronomic beat and a solid chorus: “Goin’ home, ‘cause I’ve been away much too long.”
  • “Right Part Of Me” – From 1984, with Kimball on vocals prior to being replaced by Fergie Frederiksen for the Isolation LP. A slow, pretty ballad with weepy guitar and Elton John-esque piano. The London Symphony Orchestra strings add a grandiose element that works perfectly for this song. It’s actually not particularly memorable, either melodically or lyrically, but it’s worth noting for Lukather’s guitar work and Kimball’s incredible vocals.
  • “Miss Sun” – This version of a song that became a Top 20 hit for Boz Scaggs in 1980 was recorded three years earlier as a demo by the quartet of Paich, Lukather, Jeff Porcaro and original bassist David Hungate, along with Lisa Dalbello on vocals. I love the bubbling bass, Hi Records-style rhythm track and Paich’s soulful vocals. “Hey Miss Sun, what can I say, I tried to hold you but the moon got in the way” is an awesome chorus.

Toto Photo (Composite Band Photo from Toto XX)

Many Toto fans probably lost track of the band during the period covered in this post, and I’m one of them. I was always aware when they released a new album but it wasn’t until the following decade that I finally heard them all. I quickly realized my mistake and I’ve jumped on anything else they’ve released since then. I hope the songs I’ve highlighted above help convince some skeptics that Toto recorded some of their best music during this era. Please let me know if any of them made a strong impression on you. Thanks.

12 comments on “TOTO Part 3 – Gypsy Trains And Turning Points

  1. deKE
    January 31, 2015

    Well done Rich… It’s impressive there still going and putting out product ….more to them than Africa…you proved that here…great read!


    • Thanks, Derek. I continue to be impressed that Toto not only continued putting out product but actually released albums that were as good as, or even better than, their commercially popular releases from the ’70s & ’80s. And they have a new one coming out in March. I really appreciate your feedback. Hope you’re having a great weekend.


  2. deKE
    January 31, 2015

    That’s awesome about another release in March. Look forward to hearing about your spin on it Rich!
    Have a great weekend also!


    • After my next Toto post I’ll be putting this series on hold until the new album comes out, so I can include it in the final post. I have high expectations and I expect them to be exceeded.


  3. Jim
    February 1, 2015

    Regarding ‘XX’…I still don’t understand how they felt ‘Tale of a Man’ wasn’t good enough to be included on the Hydra album. It absolutely smokes.


    • Hi Jim. Thanks for stopping by. For some reason “Tale Of A Man” didn’t strike me as much as some of the others on Toto XX, which is why I didn’t highlight it in this post. It has a cool groove and I love Kimball’s vocals and the soulful chorus, but it still sounded like an outtake. Early songs like “Mrs. Johnson,” “Love Is A Man’s World” and “Miss Sun” made a much bigger impression on me. You know a band is great when they have leftovers like that.


  4. Heavy Metal Overload
    February 6, 2015

    I’m thoroughly enjoying this series Rich. Top notch! I think this is a period that might be worth further investigation for me. I love Don’t Chain My Heart and The Other Side and really like Lukather’s voice so Kingdom of Desire and Tambu look like safe buys. You’ve really put in the mood for more Toto with these posts.

    Is Joseph Williams back in the band now?


    • I’m glad you’re enjoying this portion of their catalog. I think hard rock fans who always dismissed Toto would be pleasantly surprised by a lot of this material. If you like Lukather’s lead vocals and eventually want to explore further, his solo albums are all excellent. Luke is a good starting point.

      Yep, Joseph Williams is back in the band and is the lead singer on their new album, which comes out next month. I will be suspending this series after Part 4, which should be done this weekend, so I can include the new album as part of the final post. I’ve never done that before…if an artist released a new album after I completed a series it just wasn’t included…but the timing is too close and I have very high expectations.


      • Heavy Metal Overload
        February 7, 2015

        It occurred to me that you must have loads of albums that the Toto guys would have appeared on as session musicians. You should do a tie-in where you cover some of those or your favourites of those.

        I don’t actually have that many but you must have tons! (Peter Criss solo and Tommy Bolin’s Teaser spring to mind for me) It would maybe be too massive a list for you to do but I thought I’d suggest it. Maybe a fun bonus post for your series?


      • That is a great idea but I would never find the time to devote to such an undertaking. The guys from Toto have probably appeared on hundreds or even thousands of records, from before the band existed through today, and I’m sure I’ve got dozens of them. Thanks for reminding me about those Peter Criss & Tommy Bolin albums. I had forgotten that they each had some Toto input. I believe Jeff Porcaro contributed some drums or percussion to Pink Floyd’s The Wall, so right there would probably be my top pick since Floyd is my second favorite band of all time (behind Led Zeppelin). I will definitely keep this idea in mind if I’m ever looking for an off-topic idea for a post. Thanks again.


      • Heavy Metal Overload
        February 8, 2015

        No worries! I think Jeff played on the song Mother from The Wall. I was looking through lists of their appearances the other day and it’s pretty staggering.


      • Earlier today I just browsed through Jeff Porcaro’s list of credits and it was, as you said, staggering. Considering that he died more than 20 years ago, I can just imagine what the recording history of his Toto colleagues must look like. I will check that out one of these days. Again, thanks for making that suggestion.


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