The first single from Toto’s second album, Hydra, in 1979, was the band’s second Top 40 hit when it peaked at #26 in early 1980. Written by David Paich, this soft yet funky keyboard-driven jam featured lead vocals by Steve Lukather and a very jazzy solo on the outro by him.
Many have wondered what the title refers to. Some say that someone in the band had been dating Barbara Feldon – Agent 99 on Get Smart – and it was written about her. That turned out to be not true. [Coincidentally, Barbara Feldon released a 45 in 1966 called 99.] Some say that 99 is about a girl who’s almost perfect but is not quite 100. Again, false. And it’s not about Wayne Gretzky either. Or the number of beer bottles on the wall.
David Paich actually wrote the song as a tribute to George Lucas’ first film, THX-1138. This film takes place many centuries in the future where people live in a totalitarian state and are referred to by number. Thus it’s a love song to someone imagined in the world with the number 99. Why 99? (Two more Top 40 songs in the 1980s would have 99 in them – Prince’s 1999 and Nena’s 99 Luftballons.) It probably just sounds right.
Toto didn’t play the song live for many years, mainly because Luke didn’t like it all that much. As it peaked in the Winter of 79-80, I personally enjoyed hearing it on the radio. When it came on, I felt it breathing life into me as I stared out through frosted windows at the cold, dreary skies and leafless trees.
The song’s video reflects the film that inspired it by everyone wearing white jumpsuits with the lens a tinge out of focus. I think most videos back then were made for $20 and took 30 minutes to film. Check it out for yourself: