16 Sep 2018

Toto and Steve Lukather: pulling the crowds for Africa

From Sunday Morning, 9:37 am on 16 September 2018

“It’s not like I’m walking around with a sign on my back that says ‘I played with Michael Jackson, please lick my asshole’”. Toto's straight-talking guitarist Steve Lukather talks to Wallace Chapman about a career working with artists including Ringo Starr, Dolly Parton, Aretha Franklin, and yes, Michael Jackson.

When you talk about Toto, star guitarist Steve Lukather is front of mind. But he's also a prolific session musician - the roll call of artists Lukather has played with includes Dolly Parton, Aretha Franklin, George Benson, Joni Mitchell, Paul McCartney, Lionel Richie and Ringo Starr.

Toto are embarking on a four-date NZ tour in January with local legends Dragon, where they'll belt out their well-known hits including 'Africa', 'Hold the Line' and 'Rosanna'.

Less well-known is Toto's central role behind the biggest album of all time: Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Lukather says Toto’s collaboration with the King of Pop came about after they'd done some work with Quincy Jones on his record The Dude

“He just called on the phone and he says ‘Michael is doing a new album, I want you to be with it’ ... Then Michael called me, I didn’t believe it was him, I kept swearing at him and hanging up. He’s calling me at 7 in the morning in 1980, I mean come on, give me a break. 

“But it ended up working out. He just fell in love with all of us and we love him and we just started doing all of his stuff. We all hit it off and we had a nice little team there, it was a great rhythm section.” 

Lukather says Toto didn’t get much recognition for their role in the recording, but it was still an honour to be part of it: “I don’t understand why, it's just always been that way with us. You just have to ask the media people, it’s not like I’m walking around with a sign on my back that says ‘I played with Michael Jackson, please lick my asshole’”.  

Toto also played sessions with Aretha Franklin who Lukather describes as “so good it was distracting”: “Like, you would look up and go ‘oh my god, that was incredible’, you would get lost reading the chart.”

Say "Toto" and the first song that comes to mind is 'Africa', which since becoming a hit in the 1980s has evolved into a meme, thanks not only to its banging chorus, but its rather baffling lyrics.

“Wait, why is everyone taking this so seriously?” Lukather laughs.

“There is such a thing as poetic license when it comes to poetry, art, music and songwriting and whatnot,” he says.

But he acknowledges the lyrics are also a bit unusual: “It is certainly an exercise in how to use words that have never been used to a pop song before ... Dave [Paich] wrote these lyrics with Jeff [Porcaro] and it was just like ‘really? OK. All right. It’s a catchy tune but the lyrics, what the hell does this song mean?’” 

'Africa' had a resurgence at the turn of the millennium when rappers and producers discovered how much it works as a backing track. Nas’ 'New World', Ja Rule’s 'Murder Reigns', and Xzibit’s 'Heart of Man' all centred around its percussive rhythm and keyboard hook. 

The Netflix show Stranger Things also featured the song in its first episode in a scene where characters Steve and Nancy make out. This spurred a young fan of the show to ask her favourite band, Weezer, to do a cover - which they did. Note for note. 

Toto responded by doing a cover of their own, picking Weezer’s 2001 hit 'Hash Pipe'. 

Lukather says he “would have never bet the farm” 'Africa' would be as big as it is. It’s a just reward for a band that was maligned by the press in its day for embodying “corporate rock” at a time when punk was taking off. 

“They picked us out thinking that we were put together in some boardroom,” Lukather says. “They made up all sorts of stories about us that aren’t true, and they thought they could get rid of us real fast.” 

He insists he’s over the early criticism now, and given Toto’s persistent popularity he has the right to be: “Forty-two years later here we are... I mean come on, I’m not a little kid that bruises easy anymore.” 

Toto and Dragon NZ Tour:

  • Wednesday 9th January – ASB Bay Park, Mount Maunganui 
  • Thursday 10th January, 2019 – Church Road, Napier 
  • Friday 11th January – TSB Bowl Of Brooklands, New Plymouth 
  • Sunday 13th January – Hagley Park, Christchurch
  • Live: Dragon at WOMAD 2018
  • Dragon - Live at The Powerstation