Columbia Records’ Ultimatum To Toto And Steve Lukather

Formed in 1977, Toto‘s founders started their musical journey as session musicians who had gained experience in the field by playing on many records. This situation gave the band a significant advantage in expanding their horizons to new musical ideas since the band members had played in many genres. Toto made a significant impact in the industry with their 1978’s self-titled debut studio album, featuring their first hit, ‘Hold the Line.’

The well-received first album was succeeded by ‘Hydra,’ released in 1979. Although it failed to reach the debut record’s vast success, it was still certified gold. Following a tour to support the second album, the band began working on the follow-up. Toto’s third release, ‘Turn Back,’ dropped on January 1981, but the album was again a commercial failure. Yet, it had an exciting creation process due to the record company’s attitude towards the band.

What Did The Record Company Demand From Toto?

Toto has always been open to new musical directions as the band never wanted to be stuck in a specific genre. This line of vision has consistently demonstrated itself in the band’s works released since their inception. They’ve always been versatile in their style and tried to avoid repeating themselves. While the first two albums had a lighter sound, the band wanted to catch a heavier arena rock sound with their third record, ‘Turn Back.’

While embracing new musical ideas looked good on paper, it also prevented the band from establishing a signature sound and a particular style that would distinguish them from the other bands of the era. So, this disadantage was generally cited by critics as the reason behind Toto’s commercial failure after the success of the debut album. Apparently, their then-record label Columbia was also bothered by this situation.

In an interview with Ultimate Classic Rock in 2013, Toto’s Steve Lukather looked back on their long career and reflected on the band’s previous albums one by one. The guitarist stated their aim with ‘Turn Back’ was to prove that they were an arena rock band. Although he admitted that it was a sonically weird record, they were still proud of it when it was first released. Despite its initial commercial failure, Lukather was glad that it received the recognition it deserved by the fans in later years.

Steve Lukather also revealed that they were so distressed with the negative feedback the record received that they didn’t even want to support it with a tour. Then, the guitarist disclosed the record company’s ultimatum to them at the time. They told the band they would drop Toto if they failed to generate a hit song with ‘Turn Back.’ Thus, the record label allowed them to do what they wanted and didn’t push them to create in a particular style. Although the album didn’t produce a hit, Columbia continued to work with Toto on their next album.

Here is how Steve Lukather revealed the tension between the band and the record company:

“But with ‘Turn Back,’ we wanted to prove we were an arena rock band. It’s probably the weirdest record we’ve done, certainly sonically, but we were really proud of it when it came out. It didn’t really catch on – over the years, it’s sold, and now it’s kind of a cult favorite with fans, but at the time, it was kind of a stiff. And then we panicked – we never even went on the road for that one. The record company was like, ‘Okay, guys. We let you do what you want to do. Are you going to give us a hit record? Because if you don’t, we’re going to drop you.'”

You can listen to ‘Turn Back’ through Spotify below.