Over the past few years, I’ve found that Toto’s hit song “Africa” has become a weird obsession for many people, essentially becoming a meme at times for literally no apparent reason. It’s interesting how the band has become synonymous with only that song, mostly to the younger generation. But today, I want to take it back even before it became a hit and talk about the band’s debut that was released four years prior, which at this point is over 40 years old. Toto debuted officially in 1978 with their self titled album that contained the hit song “Hold The Line”, a song that I fondly remember from playing Grand Theft Auto on my Playstation 2. The track stuck around for a long time because even though I never knew who sang it when I was younger, I could recognize it in a heartbeat and knew all the words. “Hold The Line” was a weird song that managed to live through all these decades and bended aspects of multiple genres so easily that it sounded like anyone could do it. But in retrospect, not everyone could do it, and clearly critics at the time definitely didn’t want the group to try either. Their debut wasn’t very favored by critics although it was well received by the general pop music listeners (just going to show that critical opinions mean close to nothing). Something about this album made people want to listen to it despite how apparently “lackluster” it was made out to be by the music reviews of the time. And I think I figured out what that “something” is.
Around the late 70’s, people were starting to accept differed kinds of music but they weren’t completely there yet. The artists that dominated included iconic artists such as Queen, Pink Floyd, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, The Eagles, and Led Zeppelin, all of which are phenomenal in their own right. However, the thing about all of these groups or performers is that they excelled in their own genre, whether is be rock, progressive rock, funk, jazz and soul. Not to say they didn’t branch out to other genres but they all had a very definitive, singular sound that was unique to them and they were all a different kind of pop, but they all specialized in a certain tone. Now let us think ahead: the 80’s classic pop songs are heavy synth infused tunes with a strong dance beat and a lighter feel than the previous decades sounds. And here comes Toto, right in between all of that. This collection of songs is based off of primarily a pop feel with literally this entire range of genres that were popularized by other artists in the 70’s. The first few tracks, “I’ll Supply The Love” and “Georgy Porgy” are the perfect prequels to 80’s pop, as they’re rock based with nice guitars but also have influences of jazz and funk, and even small influences of disco. Certain songs like “Rockmaker” even remind me of 90’s pop in a way, taking us even further out in time. It’s remarkable as it is to sound a few years ahead but many times it’s not easy to find music that has the ability to sounds decades ahead. But let’s take it back to 1978: “You Are The Flower” and “Girl Goodbye” are lovely songs from the time, with some of the most outstanding instrumental on the entire record that blends in so smoothly, it’s nearly impossible to dissect each part on its own. The piano and guitars sound so effortless, and even little pieces like horns on “Manuela Run” and the Spanish inspired guitar of “Takin’ It Back” never sound out of place, even for one second. To to it all off, the pop melodies and choruses are beyond infectious and are guaranteed to stick around for a very long time.
This project was understandably jarring at the time. I mean, if it’s not broken don’t fix it right? Popular artists tended to specialize in a certain sound (and they still do) so what’s the point of squishing everything that’s worked before together and hoping it works? Well, it’s because people get bored. Branching out to more unchartered territory is exciting, scary and fun, and that is where the divide between critics and fans comes into play. Objectively speaking, something like this during this time wasn’t supposed to be good, hence the poor critical reception. And yet, Toto’s debut was a breath of fresh air and something so new, I’m sure most people didn’t know what to do with themselves. It almost veered on the edge of absolutely crazy but the balanced production and even distribution of instruments kept it from being too much to handle. This record take a leap of faith and is a complete adventure from the first track to the last, and goes into sounds that other artists wouldn’t dare to try. The album isn’t just ridiculously colorful; it’s fluorescent and it was exactly what we needed at the time of its release.