Aside from the superfans, the few folks who’ll hear of the official disbandment of Toto will likely scratch their heads and confess that they had no idea the band who gave us such massive MOR hits as “Hold the Line”, “99”, “Rosanna” and “Africa” in the 70s and 80s were still together. After all, it’s been more than 20 years since the band has had an honest-to-goodness pop hit, and even in their heyday, they always seemed like such a non-band. They’ve had more lead singers than Spinal Tap had drummers.

But in fact, led by singer-songwriter-producer-guitarist Steve Lukather, Toto have been recording and touring on a fairly regular basis with an endlessly rotating cast of characters including prodigal alumni like Bobby Kimball (the group’s “classic” era frontman, who left – or was fired from – the band at the peak of their popularity) since the American Top 40 last heard from them. Toto still has a large and devoted following internationally and just a couple of months ago, they wrapped up a 30th Anniversary tour and commemorated the occasion with the release of a limited edition box set collecting the band’s first seven albums and a live DVD when Lukather started dropping hints about this tour maybe maybe just maybe being the band’s last hurrah. Finally, last week, in a heartfelt and at times (not unduly) boastful announcement on his website, Lukather, who’s got a new solo album called Ever Changing Times out in stores, dropped the coy act and made his departure from the band (and the band’s de facto dissolution) official:

“Honestly I have just had enough. This is NOT a break. It is over. I really cant go out and play Hold the Line with a straight face anymore. I was 19 when we cut the record. I am 50 now. ”

Le Toto, c’est mort.

This news, of course, is the very definition of anticlimax. But Lukather’s comments about how the band, over the last few years, had drifted so far afield from where it had started – as a core of high school pals that evolved into a collective of the most in demand LA session musicians and songwriters of the 70s and 80s – and, especially the way he related this transition to his middle-age made me feel just a little more grown up (y’know, like, old) myself.

This was one of the first songs I truly, truly loved, released in the summer that I think I first became conscious of top 40 radio, the very same summer that I dedicated myself in fanboy-dom to Casey Kasem and his weekly radio countdown. I was nine years old, and for a nine-year-old I was pretty well-versed in pop music. I’d already done an “educational” stint as a member (in not very good standing, it turned out) of the RCA Record Club and I had a small collection of 45s and LPs – a music collection that’s grown like kudzu ever since – including a copy of Andy Gibb’s Flowing Rivers which I’d gotten for my 6th birthday. Other kids had Star Wars action figures. I had the Captain & Tennille. (Okay, okay, I had Star Wars action figures too.) But it wasn’t until the summer of ’82 that I really paid close attention to the radio, and that was the summer of Toto’s “Rosanna”, a song which still feels like the quintessential summer single to me.

The song is a veritable smorgasbord of hooks and snazzy, expensive-sounding production flourishes: the rolling, syncopated piano lines, the thrilling loud-soft dynamics of the verses, the whirlwind horn section eruptions and Lukather’s decisive power chords on the chorus, a dazzling stars-falling-out-of-the-sky keyboard solo, and some of the cleverest, most elaborate vocal interplay I’ve ever heard on the radio. Bobby Kimball’s soaring high notes were heaven. (And so was his mustache.) Like just about everything Toto did, the song was a little bit blue-eyed-soulful pop and a little bit bombastic arena rock, all with a respectful nod to prog thrown in; and if you stuck around long enough (and if the DJ was feeling particularly generous that day), “Rosanna” ended with a supercool jazz epilogue.

“Rosanna” wasn’t just my introduction to Toto, it became a standard by which I’ve measured nearly every pop single I’ve heard ever since, a fact which, by the estimations of most rock critics, should discredit just about anything I have to say about music. Toto have not been well-loved by the Creams, the Rolling Stones, or the Spins. Witness Robert Christgau’s grudging ( ‘” ) praise of Toto IV, the album that gave us “Rosanna” (and “Africa”, and “I Won’t Hold You Back”.) and won 6 Grammy awards including Album of the Year. You can almost see the poor guy wincing as he’s typing it.

But while Toto may not ever fare as well as Journey – another critically loathed band (Christgau couldn’t even manage grudging praise) who have nevertheless attained a measure of lasting, if somewhat ironic, coolness (thank you, Tony Soprano) – the members of Toto, both as Toto and as individual singer-songwriter-session-men, attained something approaching a Timbaland-Timberlake level of pop ubiquity in the early 80s without ever becoming familiar faces or household names. In part, it was the group’s very ubiquity that made them seem so anonymous.

Toto was never so much a band as a fraternity of A-list studio talents. Check the liner notes of just about any pop or rock album released between 1975 and 1985 and you’ll likely spot a Toto alum: David (son of arranger Marty) Paich, Jeff, Steve, and Mike Porcaro, Lukather, Kimball and bassist David Hungate. They played on everyone’s records from Steely Dan to Boz Scaggs to Don Henley. But because they did play on everyone else’s records, their own records sounded a little like everyone else’s. Along with producer David Foster, various members of Toto were key to Chicago’s 1980s resurgence. It’s no surprise then that a song like Toto’s 1988 single “Stop Loving You” sounds like it might have been recorded for Chicago 19.

Never a telegenic bunch, Toto failed to establish themselves as an MTV act at a time when MTV was rehabilitating (if not outright reinventing) the careers of other 70s rockers like Yes, Phil Collins, and ZZ Top, and the multiple personnel changes didn’t help matters. I, too, fell out of touch with the band as their fortunes waned in the late 80s and they became increasingly – however unjustly – pigeonholed as a bland, adult contemporary act. Like most of the folks who fell in love with “Rosanna” in 1982, I couldn’t be bothered to hear what the band had on offer ten years later when they released Kingdom of Desire mere months after the depressing, freak-accident death of founding drummer Jeff Porcaro. Nor have I gone out of my way to hear anything they’ve released since. But now? Dammit, I’m curious. Fare thee well Toto. We really hardly knew ye.

-P. Lorentz