Cult Heroes No. 3: The Toll

This week, we celebrate one of the forgotten names from the late 1980s, an era which gave us Faith No More and Jane’s Addiction – and right up there with them should have been The Toll. Well, that’s what Malcolm Dome reckons. So, let Malc explain his reasoning (or idiocy…) Check out all of Classic Rock’s Cult Heroes here.

At the end of the 1980s, rock was in a weird place. The era of big hair, bigger ballads and even bigger sales was virtually over, and we all wondered what was coming next.

We had Faith No More , King’s X and Jane’s Addiction – all of whom were poised for great things. But of those bands who bridged the gap between the glam of the 80s and the oncoming storm of Seattle and grunge, there was one who stood apart from all others. Well, that was my opinion anyway. They were The Toll, a massive groove of art rock, punk and darkness who burst out of Columbus, Ohio and threatened to engulf us all in a rebirth of downer rock. Only with a level of insight, intelligence and intensity that told of a band with parable and stories to tell, and the vision to be among the great names of the 1990s.

It never happened. Two albums for the Geffen label came without the deserved mainstream fanfare, and the four-piece (bassist Greg Bartram, vocalist Brad Circone, guitarist Rick Silk and drummer Brett Mayo) eventually split up.

“I don’t know if we were perhaps a little ahead of our time,” says Greg Bartram. “But I still believe that, had we been able to stay out on the road a lot more, then we had a shot of doing well. I genuinely feel that we were a great live band. While there were some folk who understood what we were all about through the albums, a lot more got it when they saw us onstage.”

The first album, The Price Of Progression, was released in 1988, and was a mightily impressive work. I call it ‘work’, because the flow of narrative and music made it far more than just a collection of songs. What especially stood out were the lyrics, which had a real feel for meaningful communication.

“I really wish people these days would pay more attention to their lyrics,” sighs Bartram. “All too often they’re disposable. Such a waste.”

The album, co-produced by Steve Thompson and Michael Barbiero, sold out its first pressing of 80,000 copies. A promising enough start, you’d have thought, for the label to really push the band? You’d have thought wrong.

“Geffen had put out Jonathan Toledo as our first single (it still holds the record as the longest non-Michael Jackson video ever played on MTV). Now, they told us the idea was to introduce The Toll to people with this, not to have a hit. But when it wasn’t a big chart success, they were disappointed. What Geffen seemed to forget was that Appetite For Destruction took a year to happen, and then it was only when Sweet Child O’ Mine was released as a single for the second time that Guns N’ Roses happened! But the label panicked, and released our ballad Stand In Winter, without much warning.”

Hilariously, The Toll were over the England when that happened and, on instructions from Geffen to play the song live, had to rush around trying to find a piano to reproduce that part of the song!

While over here, The Toll played a truly titanic set at The 100 Club in London. On March 12, 1989. I know the date, because my review of said gig, for RAW magazine has been posted up at www.myspace.com/thetoll – it was an evening when, back then, I was irritated by Circone’s attempts to clamber over the tables and across the overhanging piping. I felt that it detracted from the monstrous pain, anguish and sheer dysfunction of his voice, his tales and his charisma. With hindsight, I might have been a touch too harsh – it was a stunning evening where The Toll didn’t so much perform as burst, all over the place. Filling the venue with their visceral honesty and sense of creative hysteria. It should have been the stepping stone to greatness, but instead they slipped and slid.

In America, Stand In Winter could have been huge; one reviewer claimed it was a sleeper single that could be their Sweet Child O’ Mine. But it never happened.

“I still believe it could have taken off, had it been properly promoted. But, in reality, that would have changed everything. I probably wouldn’t have met my wife and had my family. Given the choice, I’d go with that over success.”

In 1991, the band released their second album, Sticks And Stones And Broken Bones (the first to be released by Geffen solely on CD, with no vinyl equivalent). If anything, this was even more powerful that the debut, despite the fact that the songs hadn’t been road tested before the band went into the studio, this time with producer Matt Wallace. However, the deadly force of fate was about to push The Toll right out of the balloon, without a parachute.

“Firstly, we released the album on November 22, 1991, which is about the time that most labels put out their Christmas sellers. We had a single, One Last Wish, and I think that could have been a hit – I really do. But we were competing for radio airplay with Bruce Springsteen, ZZ Top, Prince, Stevie Nicks… what musical director at any radio station is gonna choose an unknown band like us over those names?”

Despite this, the single picked up sufficient airplay to suggest it was on the verge of breaking. But it never quite tipped over the hump.

“Geffen said they’d give it a real push in January 1992. We believed them – suckers!”

On top of this, the A&R man at the label who believed in them, Michael Rosenblatt, left. With him went The Toll’s true champion and defender. Then there was the tale of the free cassette that never really was…

“I came up with the idea of giving away a cassette called The Christmas Stocking Filler, They had the songs One Last Wish, Boys Are Bustin’ Bricks and Something ‘Bout The Struggle. The idea was that, if you got this for free, you might stick it on in your car and give it a chance.”

A clever marketing ploy, but in March 1992 Bartram got a call from a warehouse where WEA, Geffen’s distributors, had stored boxes of the cassettes.

“They were never sent out! It was case of the right hand not knowing what the left was doing.”

Eventually, with Geffen pouring increasing amounts of money into Guns N’ Roses to get the Use Your Illusion project finished, the label were forced to drop a number of acts to finance this increasingly frustrating task. The Toll didn’t escape the cull. Within a matter of months they’d split up.

Today, the four members are involved in various different occupations. Bartram is a photographer, Silk is a lawyer. Circone has his own marketing consultancy company and Mayo is director of student facilities at a university.

You can track down copies of the two albums if you try hard enough. But really someone should re-issue these. They’re really not just of their time, but a template for much that was to happen. The Toll might never have been given the chance to influence and inspire, due to circumstances that were out of their control, but they pre-empted a lot of music we now take for granted. A great band in the making who never got to flourish. True cult heroes.

“Cult heroes?” laughs Bartram. “Must be a small cult.”

Originally published on Classic Rock Magazine – 19/02/2010