The Meaning Behind “Hold the Line” by Toto

Toto is undoubtedly best known for their hits “Africa” and “Rosanna,” both of which helped them become one of the most successful bands of the 1980s. But it was “Hold the Line” from their eponymous 1978 debut album that became their first major hit. “Hold the Line” reached No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was hugely popular around the world. But more than anything, the popularity of the song paved the way for Toto to become international superstars a few years later.

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Critics had a mixed reaction to the song as well as the other tracks on the album. In fact, Toto received some painful criticism, with some experts calling them bad artists who couldn’t transition from being session musicians.

The criticism didn’t matter, though; “Hold the Line” topped the charts for six weeks, while two other singles from the album hit the Top 50. It was clear that Toto was a commercial success, and that fans were responding to their eclectic mix of styles.

Today, “Hold the Line” remains one of the band’s essential songs. But its lyrics have sometimes been the subject of debate as people wonder, Is it a love song? And what is the meaning of “hold the line,” anyway?

Writing the Song

The story of Toto’s first album is the story of experimentation across a huge variety of genres. They weren’t sure how to categorize themselves, having drawn inspiration from artists as diverse as Sonny and Cher and Boz Scaggs. Nevertheless, they embraced this eclectic style, and no song represented that style better than “Hold the Line.”

The song’s lyrics seem to be suited for a romantic ballad, but they are driven by forceful arena rock. “Hold the Line” opens with a distinctive piano riff followed by a powerful electric guitar part, none of which are traditional choices for a song about love. The result is a song that comes across as less of a declaration of love and more as a war cry.

Songwriter and keyboardist David Paich wrote the famous piano riff during his first few weeks of living on his own.

[RELATED: Top 10 Toto Songs (1978 – 2018)]

“On my first piano, when I moved away from home to go to college, I bought a little three-quarter upright, and I played that opening riff for days,” Paich told Songfacts. “I think they gave me eviction notices—people were pounding on the door, saying, ‘Stop that!’ And once I tagged ‘Hold the Line’ on it, the rest was just simple high school writing about everything that love isn’t, to figure out what it is.”

What Love Isn’t

“Hold the Line” opens with the singer reflecting on the reasons he loves the woman he’s seeing. But, a bit humorously, he can’t quite land on what it is that he finds so compelling. Instead, the verses become a reflection on what love isn’t:

It’s not in the way that you hold me
It’s not in the way you say you care
It’s not in the way you’ve been treating my friends
It’s not in the way that you stayed till the end
It’s not in the way you look
Or the things that you say that you’ll do

Paich said that the song was inspired by his teenage love life, as he dated different girls and tried to figure out which one he liked the most. Subsequently, he found himself wondering what it really meant to love someone at all.

The song also suggests that the singer’s girlfriend might be getting impatient, asking him if he really cares about her.

It’s not in the way that you came back to me
It’s not in the way that your love set me free

This suggests their relationship may have taken a break at one point, perhaps because he couldn’t commit to her, or prove he was truly invested.

“Hold the Line” Interpretations

The chorus has been subject to several interpretations surrounding the phrase “hold the line.” It repeats the phrases:

Hold the line
Love isn’t always on time

This might be interpreted as the singer asking her to “hold the line” like a soldier on a battlefield, refusing to back down in the face of adversity. He might be asking her to stay strong, even though he is still trying to work through his feelings.

But Paich offered another interpretation of the phrase, as well—and it has to do with some bygone technology.

“My parents were the first ones on my block to get a rotary phone,” he told Songfacts. “When you have more than one line, there are buttons on the phone so more people can call, and it rolls over. Well, when I was in high school, all of a sudden the phone started ringing off the hook, and I had a situation where I was at the dinner table and I had three girls all call at the same time, so all the lights were flashing. I was kind of juggling girlfriends, and that’s how that came about.”

So, “Hold the line” was what people usually said when rolling a call on a rotary phone. In this way, the song reflects the singer’s immaturity as he struggles to define his juvenile romances and find out which one is real.

The Legacy of “Hold the Line”

Today, the first song that comes to mind when we hear Toto is “Africa,” released in 1982. But “Hold the Line” was their first hit, and showed that their eclectic inspiration was their real genius. Critics were confused about how to categorize them, but it didn’t matter; the song and the album it appeared on were a massive success, proving that Toto could be superstars without fitting into a single genre.

Photo by Michel Linssen/Redferns

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