I’ve always been intrigued by The Toll. I was too young for the clubs when they were at their peak and I never stumbled onto them like I did The Bellows, for example. I was aware of them, although I often confused them with The Cult. I never saw them live, but I did see their name spray painted around town. The Toll’s ascendence from the Columbus music scene to major label prominence may be the most improbable musical success story in Columbus history. An intensely serious rock band known for long, weighty improvised narratives signed to a major label out of Columbus. Wha?!?
Geffen Records – GHS 24201
The seeds of The Toll were planted in 1982 when cousins Brad Circone and Rick Silk began jamming in the former’s garage. After a revolving door of rhythm sections, drummer Brett Mayo and bassist Greg Bartram completed the lineup that would drop out of Ohio State University, begin touring seriously and ultimately sign with Geffen Records in 1987. As Bartram would tell it in their Geffen bio, “Very early one morning, 3 a.m., the band gave me a call and asked me to come over to their rehearsal space and teach this new bass player the songs. I knew the bass patterns from seeing the band so often. I started showing the guy the parts, but it wasn’t going too well. Since the gig was that same night Brad called us outside around 6 a.m. and said: ‘Greg, if you know the parts, you should play the bass.’ So I tried without a pick, and failed. As a last resort I tried again with a guitar pick and it worked. I borrowed the other guy’s bass, and we made an amp and cabinet out of old jukebox parts, went to breakfast, drove to Kent State, and played our first Toll show on August 24, 1984.”
Like many bands, The Toll had to leave Columbus to find acceptance. “Circone said the band was becoming bitter because of the lack of response from Columbus residents,” the Ohio State Lantern noted. Even after signing with Geffen, The Toll would open for bands like Eurogression when playing in their hometown. By 1985, they were playing historic clubs like CBGB’s in New York, where Psychedelic Furs bassist Tim Butler’s wife caught their show and set the dominoes that eventually lead to The Toll’s multi-album Geffen deal in motion. In early 1988, they would drive directly from the last stop of their tour in Mount Pleasant Michigan to Woodstock New York’s Bearsville Studios to begin pre-production on what would become The Price Of Progression. The team who had mixed Guns ‘N Roses debut the previous year, Steve Thompson and Michael Barbiero, would handle production.
The Price Of Progression is a remarkably improbable album. The Toll’s claim to fame was energetic live shows with lengthy improvised poetic narratives. It wasn’t comparable to anything else:
“(Circone) finds the Morrison analogies amusing and claims to have never heard the Doors’ music until six months ago.“ - American Garage, March-April 1987
“We try not to sound like anybody. I like to think we’re a modern-day Doors. We don’t sound like them. But just as Doors tried to break through the barriers of society, The Toll is trying to make people realize their dreams” - Circone, The Pitt News, April 3, 1987
“With a music style compared to the likes of U2, Circone has not only been referred to be, but has been billed in some towns as the craziest man since Jim Morrison.” - Central Michigan Life, September 11, 1987
“‘Compare me to Morrison,” (Circone) says. ‘I don’t care. Except, he did drugs and he’s dead and I don’t and I’m alive.’” - Pennsylvania Musician Magazine, December 1987
“(Circone) stated that ‘Morrison was a gothic Renaissance man. I’m an existentialist romantic. Those two things just don’t add up.’” - The Jambar, January 6, 1988
“I was never into The Doors… I’m not Jim Morrison,” - Circone, Ohio State Lantern, January 14, 1988
“The Toll stakes out a musical ground somewhere between The Doors and U2. Circone has a fondness for long, meandering rambles reminiscent of Jim Morrison’s tortured singing in The Doors’ classic, ‘The End.’” - Ohio State Lantern, October 26, 1988
“More like U2 or Tracy Chapman than Morrison, Circone says, he has a social conscience.” - The Pittsburgh Press, January 26, 1989
"It was only a matter of time before somebody reopened the Doors to psychedelic primal therapy, and now the Toll is ringing. Oedipus rocks again, and Geffen's got him. A Lizard King for Lost Boys." - The Washington Post, January 27, 1989
“(Circone) would have made Jim Morrison seem like a stable, unassuming frontman,” - Rolling Stone, April 6, 1989
The band described it as “psycho-drama.” But full marks to Geffen - they let The Toll do their thing, at least on this first album. Circone described the process in their Geffen bio, “In the studio none of the narratives were written down, I just walked in the booth and improvised from the visions in my head, and the band followed beautifully. Thompson and Barbiero realized immediately, after seeing us live, that the only way to capture our unstructured style and improvisations was by having us play live, as a unit, in the studio.”
The 10-minute-plus track Anna-41-Box is a complete second take. That sort of artistic freedom is incredibly rare, especially on a debut album. The fact that this freedom didn’t extend to their second album is unfortunate, but that’s a story for another day. To their credit, Thompson and Barbiero let the guys do their thing. But aside from the three lengthier cuts, the rest of the songs are in the 4 to 5-minute range.
The late Mick Ronson of Bowie’s Spiders From Mars was based in Woodstock at the time The Price Of Progression tracks were being recorded and was a friend of Steve Thompson’s. Ronson wasn’t playing much guitar at the time, but he often dropped into Thompson’s sessions. Ronson was producing an album by Dutch band The Fatal Flowers down the road and stopped by Bearsville to check things out. He liked what he heard enough to contribute an inspired guitar solo on Stand In Winter. In fact, The Spider With The Platinum Hair makes a case that this experience helped inspire Ronson to reconnect with old buddy Ian Hunter. Lenny Pickett, who you might recognize from the Saturday Night Live band, also contributed a sax solo on Smoke Another Cigarette.
Mixing began May 9 at Manhattan’s Mediasound studio and the album was finally released on November 30, 1988. Just in time for Christmas, but also competing with the heavy hitters released at the same time. Remarkably, the ten-minute Jonathan Toledo was the first single. Whether this was incredibly ballsy or incredibly stupid, you gotta respect the choice. And the song did get some radio airplay while the video also aired on MTV. If you read the YouTube comments, any snark is refreshingly overwhelmed by fans, albeit ones that might not have known themselves what The Toll was on about. ‘I remember screaming along with the crowd at the top of my lungs "Nineteenth Sunday, this is the rose, let it go-ooo-ooh-oh.’ Always wondered what that referred to…”
But, perhaps unsurprisingly, the lengthy song about the plight of Native Americans didn’t shoot up the pop charts. Geffen half-heartedly released the follow-up Soldier’s Room to radio. It didn’t take. Critical reception was mixed. As is often the case, they were taken more seriously nationally than they were back home in Columbus. Accusations of pretension and lack of humor dogged them. David Wild’s Rolling Stone review of The Price Of Progression was mixed, yet he predicted success, saying Stand In Winter could be their Sweet Child O’ Mine. Considering that’s the song that broke label-mates Guns N Roses and propelled Appetite For Destruction to one of the best-selling albums of all time, I’m sure the guys would’ve taken that. Alas, it didn’t come to pass and Wild summarized that, “The Toll is one strange band: not as good as it seems to think it is, and not nearly as awful as it logically ought to be.”
England’s RAW Magazine gave The Price of Progression a 9 (out of 10) rating. But some of their strengths, like Circone’s stage antics, would also cause problems. Geffen had been planning a major industry showcase gig at the Newport Music Hall on October 14, 1988. They were going to fly in national media and retailers to see the band perform in their home atmosphere. But Circone broke his ankle jumping off the balcony at Pittsburgh’s Graffiti club the weekend before the big gig. Geffen canceled the flights and the show was off. This also delayed the release of the album, although ultimately the promo gig would never be rebooked. That fleeting opening when fate could have steered things down a different path had passed. But the road hadn’t yet ended for The Toll.
Saxophone – Lenny Pickett
Lead Guitar – Mick Ronson
Recorded At – Bearsville Studios
Mixed At – Mediasound
Manufactured By – Warner Bros. Records Inc.
Record Company – Warner Communications
Copyright © – The David Geffen Company
Phonographic Copyright ℗ – The David Geffen Company
Copyright © – Manumit Music
Copyright © – Ring Bearer Music
Copyright © – Thorstensen Music