David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 79: Toto (Africa)

July 14, 2020

It's funny the things that can bring a smile to one's face during a pandemic.  "Funny"-- ha ha, and "funny" -- weird. I never thought I would be writing about Toto's "Africa" to prove both of those.

To be honest, a special "quarantine" version of "Africa" did this, but allow me space first for back story.

First off, Toto's hard-pressed to be even counted as a guilty pleasure for me. I loved "Hold The Line" and bought Toto quickly in 1978. I faithfully bought each of their next three albums over the next four years, although each time I told less people about it. At some point during that period I remember reading, probably in Rolling Stone, a review that said, in essence, that Toto was the equivalent of a bad lounge act. Even though I wasn't sophisticated enough to know why, I heard that criticism in my head every time I saw some bad act in Spanky's or some other god-awful club in Morgantown. Granted, between Toto and Toto IV, there wasn't much to recommend (beyond at least a little more creativity with album names). Toto IV kicked off with "Roseanna," a pretty good first track (and first single), but beyond that, the album bored me and I put an end to my Toto's yellow brick road.

I wasn't helped by how offended I felt I should be about "Africa," Toto IV's final track and second single. Despite the fact that it had a dynamite hook and featured singer Bobby Kimball's voice as the second lead vocal in the song (to keyboardist's David Paich) better than many songs where his was the featured voice, the song seemed offensive and patriarchal, even for 1982. The first verse opens with "drums echoing tonight" and ends with longing for "ancient melodies." The second verse begins with "wild dogs cry out in the night," before delivering what for me is one of the worst lines in the history of rock and roll: "I know that I must do what's right/as sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti." Really didn't need the simile inserted awkwardly inside the simile, guys. It's music's version of Taco Bell's "double chalupa."

Ultimately, to have the audacity to want to "bless the rains down in Africa," as white LA session musicians, really did make these guys earn the label of "bad lounge act."

Yet, the melody, the rousing chorus, with Kimball's voice soaring, raise the cheesy keyboards, the African drums, the corny lyrics, even the equally deaf-tone video, to something better. "Africa" obviously did very well on the charts, ending up at #1, and securing Toto, almost certainly, with a lifetime of royalties. However, even when I wasn't buying any more of their records, I was cognizant enough to know that the original sextet was dissolving. Kimball and bassist David Hungate were gone by the next album, Isolation, and for thirty more years, some version of Toto would end up on some cable channel, or some late night concert, guitarist Steve Lukather as the only recurring member.  With each appearance, I was convinced that Toto should have returned home long ago.

Then, just this week, I discovered the link included below, Lukather and two other members of the current Toto, performing "Africa" from quarantine, a Zoom performance that many artists have tried to keep their spirits and fans' spirits alive in these troubling times. And, lo and behold, the performance is fun.  Singer Joseph Williams hilariously channels both his Bobby Kimball and David Paich vocals while he dances around his home, singing to bobble head dolls, air-guitaring with vaccums. Lukather, looking like the worst hermit we all fear we have become in quarantine, strums acoustic guitar, while percussionist, Lenny Castro, splits his time among different instruments.  The song, even if as Lukather says is "jazz fusion," still has the ability to get you to sing that stupid, stupid, stupid "I bless the rains down in Africa" line. 

I guess I had to take some time to do the things I never have, like openly embrace "Africa."

"Africa." Toto IV. Toto. Columbia. 1982. Link here.

Day 78: Steve Earle & The Dukes "It's About Blood."

Day 80: The Bobs. "Psycho Killer."

See complete list here.