Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
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 commercial 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 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 CDs 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.
♪ “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.
Absolutely Live (1993) was Toto’s first live album, recorded in Holland during the Kingdom Of Desire tour, with Simon Phillips on drums. They also 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 artwork 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 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:
When I first saw Toto XX: 1977-1997 (1998), it was initially unclear whether this was another career-spanning compilation, a combination of old & new 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.
♪ “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.
Other Notable Tracks:
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.