Toto’s Mark on the Musical Landscape of the ‘80s

Today, I am pleased to present this article written by Robert, our regular Return to the ’80s contributor. Today’s article is about one of my favorite bands – Toto. I loved them from the first time I heard them – 1982’s smash hit “Africa”. They have so many other incredible songs. Robert will take you on a journey to enjoy some of their hits once again, and help us discover more awesome Toto music. OK, Robert, I Won’t Hold You Back, so go ahead and take it away!

The recent death of Toto’s bass player Mike Porcaro in March due to complication form ALS has made the rock world a little less perfect. Toto is one of those band that straddles the line for most rock fans. Nearly everyone recognized a few of their songs, but few casual rock listeners could name more than a handful. Toto’s hit songs are in many aspects, timeless – they appeal to a wide range of listeners from several decades.

This is not meant to be a complete history of Toto, rather an homage to a group of fantastic musicians who have left an indelible mark on the rock world. Toto was originally formed in 1977 when studio musicians David Paich (keyboards) and Jeff Porcaro (drums) recruited friends Steve Lukather (guitars), Dave Hungate (bass), Steve Porcaro (keyboards), and Bobby Kimball (vocals) to create their own band. As with many bands, members change and the band is forced to evolve. Mike Porcaro, the brother of Jeff and Steve, joined Toto in 1982 and was a member of the band until 2007, when his ALS Diagnosis forced him to retire. Members of Toto played and wrote music for like likes of Boz Scaggs, Steely Dan, Seals and Croft, and Sonny and Cher; but it was not until the formation of Toto that their talents were allowed to soar.

Clearly the members of Toto have plenty of musical experience to be considered masterful studio players. One of the most successful and forgotten (or unknown) examples is by virtuoso guitarist Steve Lukather. Lukather was a major player on Michael Jackson’s mega album Thriller. Lukather played on many of the tracks. In a recent interview on Dutch television, when asked about how much he played on Thriller, Lukather humbly uttered, “Over 50%. And it was a blast.” Everyone knows that Eddie Van Halen plays the searing guitar solo on “Beat It“. What many do not know is that Lukather is the master of the rest of the song’s killer guitar work.

When considering the music of Toto, I cannot conceivably discuss all of it in the space here- it would not be fair to them. Instead, I am going to take a look at the big singles that the band released in the ‘80s, eleven hits to remind all of us about how good Toto is. This greatest hits entry is not (and not meant to be) a complete retrospective. Toto released five studio albums between the years 1981 and 1988. These album represent a clear high point of the band commercially due to the eight Top 40 hits (the had two previous to the ‘80s). Despite several lineup changes, which in the ‘80s included three different lead vocalists, Toto was able to maintain high quality music through excellent musicianship, solid writing, and sheer talent.

Rosanna (album: Toto IV) #2

This was the first single off this Grammy award winning album. The song itself won the Grammy for song of the year and helped the album Toto IV becomes the band’s most commercially successful release. Legend has it that this song is about actress Rosanna Arquette (yes, the one who will soon film Desperately Seeking Susan). Despite this often heard story, songwriter and keyboardist Steve Porcaro has denied this in several interviews. The song is one of the many that features Toto’s fantastic musicianship that has its roots in the members long time involvement as studio musicians. Yes, it is catchy and the chorus is great, but do not stop the song too early or you will miss the tight sound Toto produced as a unit. The video does feature Cynthia Rhodes (the future star of Dirty Dancing and Mrs. Richard Marx).

Africa (album: Toto IV) #1

This song has always been of my favorites by Toto because it strikes me as being a bit different than the rest of their music. This song was one of my early experiences with Toto. I can remember playing this song non stop for hours. The keyboards are soothing and match the smooth beat and bass line along with Paisch’s vocals. The chorus is one that has always stuck with me and pops in my head at the strangest times- I don’t mind, I just leave it there: “It’s gonna to take a lot to drag me away from / There’s nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do.” This is Toto’s only #1 single and holds a strong place in the overall canon of ‘80s music.

Make Believe (album: Toto IV) #30

This song once again demonstrates Toto’s creative music talents that cannot be pigeonholed. It features a soaring saxaphone that highlights the great piano work. Lyrically, the song returns to the lost love story – a love that the speaker wishes he could get back, “Always remember – we met in the pouring rain / You were content and we went our separate ways / No matter which way the wind blows, I’ll hang on to it anyhow / Don’t ever say it could never be the same.”

I Won’t Hold You Back (album: Toto IV) #10

This is an excellent ballad and Toto’s third Top 10 single from Toto IV. This is a simple, but powerful song about guilt and the toll it can take on our hearts. I have always been intrigued by the fact that there are several band members who serve as lead vocalist. On Toto IV alone, the four hits have three different lead singers – this one features guitarist Steve Lukather. Not only is he one of the top rock guitarists (and underrated), his voice is smooth and fits this soulful song perfectly. This video is a live version that displays his great talent – and his solo is great!

Stranger in Town (album: Isolation) #30

This song is the first single from Toto’s album that features new lead singer Fergie Fredricksen. He was brought in to replace Bobby Kimball who was having drug related issues. Richard Page from Mr. Mister was asked to join Toto but he refused because he wanted to stay with his band (and we know what is coming from them). I have no good reason, but I have always liked this song. I discovered it one day as I was sifting through my girlfriend’s record collection. I was on the lookout for records I did not own, and, while she did not have many, this was one of them. I am not sure how I missed buying this one – I owned (and loved Toto IV) – perhaps this is a result of the poor airplay it received as well as the lack of a positive critical response. It is a bit of an uncharacteristic song from Toto. The lyrics are a bit story-like and focus on several sightings of a stranger- a bit of a mystery, I suppose. I do like the chorus: simple, but with a few guitar chords that I have always enjoyed. This song is catchy, but does not have the typical Toto musical punch, although Lukather’s guitar almost saves it.

Hollyanna (album: Isolation) #71

As the chart placement suggests, this was not a huge hit for Toto, but it was the second, and last, single released from Isolation. One thing that Toto has typically been known for is a song or two with a female name as a title. This song is not bad as it is another that features Paisch on both piano and vocals. The lyrics are not deep or thought provoking, but the song is catchy and worthy of a little attention.

I’ll Be Over You (album: Fahrenheit) #11

“Would Toto’s third lead vocalist of the ‘80s please take the stage.” That vocalist would be Joseph Williams, who will be featured on Toto’s last two albums of the ‘80s. This song is another very smooth ballad that features a lie. The speaker in the song has lost a special someone and is lying to himself- he doesn’t need her and she will soon be forgotten – yeah, right, “As soon as my heart stops breaking / Anticipating / As soon as forever is through, I’ll be over you.” This song received substantial airplay and was helped out by backing vocalist Michael McDonald. The video is shot on a rooftop (a bit cliche, but I love it) and shows Lukather on vocals, once again letting his talent shine through. I listened to this album hundred of times during the beginning of my senior year in high school. This song became an important part of my outlook on relationships. I met my girlfriend (now wife) in October of 1986 and I did not want to end up like the speaker in this song – alone, and wishing he could regain what was lost.

Without Your Love (album: Fahrenheit) #38

This is another song that features Lukather on lead vocals. This is a somber, brooding song with a killer bass line and guitar work. The speaker on the song is pleading, and realizing that life is not as good as it was when he was with the woman he loves. Neither of these two songs from Fahrenheit features Toto’s new lead vocalist. For a great sample of his work on this, his first album with the band, check out “Could This Be Love“.

Pamela (album: The Seventh One) #22

I was in the second semester of my freshman year in college when the album The Seventh One was released. To my surprise (and dismay), I had a number of friends who were not well versed in what I considered good ‘80s rock – this included being nearly clueless about Toto. I forced them to watch the video to this song many times. I continued to wear them down by listening to older music by Toto and soon they had to admit that they were a pretty good band. We did return to watch the awesome hair bands that were featured every afternoon on Total Request Live, but Toto left their mark on them. I love this song – another one by Toto with a woman’s name as the title. And it does feature Williams on lead vocals. It once again demonstrates superior musicianship and an all out catchy song. Since hearing of bass player Porcaro’s death a few weeks ago, this has been the song that I have come back to most often-despite all of these great songs, it is easily one of my favorites by Toto. It has two of my favorite Toto lyrics: “Don’t try mixing truth with jealousy, the road we’re on is clear as far as I can see” and “Wanting every part of you is not a crime / Could it be that you’re the one who is wrong this time?

Mike Porcaro’s death reminds us that an all things will eventually fade- even the heyday of great bands from an era of excellent rock music. Toto is still recording and performing live, and I admire their commitment to their music, but an important piece of the ‘80s rock world’s puzzle has been lost and can never truly be regained.

Toto has so many great songs that it is nearly impossible to have them all here. The ‘80s were clearly a great decade for this band, but do not limit yourself to just these songs and videos. Dig into the music of this group of influential and slightly underrated band- you will not be sorry.

7 thoughts on “Toto’s Mark on the Musical Landscape of the ‘80s”

    1. I was as surprised as you when I watched the interview with Lukather. He was a little reluctant to talk about it, so I suspect he did more work than he mentions. As much as I like Thriller, this made me like it just a little bit more

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Great writeup of a great band! I’d forgotten about “Stranger In Town” and “Hollyanna,” but I’m very familiar with the others.

    My favorites are probably “Make Believe,” “I’ll Be Over You” and “Pamela.” I remember taping “Pamela” on VHS…wish I still had that tape!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The new Toto album is called Toto XIV and it available on iTunes. The musicianship shines through once again.


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