With the Yacht Rock revival in full swing, it was only a matter of time before someone tackled a cover of Toto’s “Africa,” the 1982 hit written by David Paich and the late Jeff Porcaro, inspired by a late-night documentary Paich caught on TV one night. The song hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, spurred by the Steve Barron-directed video starring Paich as a researcher in a library-turned-jungle, with the book he’s reading coming to life.
Like Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” in the finale of “The Sopranos,” “Africa” has taken on new life after being used on “Stranger Things” and as a ubiquitous Internet meme, with the likes of Dax Sheppard and Kristen Bell posting videos of themselves lip-synching to the song. Toto’s even collaborated on covers of “Africa” with EDM artists such as Skrillex and Aussie What So Not.
Now, responding to a teenage fan’s viral social media campaign (after hearing the song on “Stranger Things”), Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo has performed faithful covers of the band’s classics “Africa” and “Rosanna,” storming into the Top 100 with the former as Toto song streams and YouTube views skyrocket.
Toto guitarist and founding member Steve Lukather checked in from Prague, where he is currently on tour with Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band, to weigh in on this phenomenon. Toto embarks on its 40th anniversary North American tour July 30 in Vancouver, which carries through until November.
Can you explain the enduring appeal of “Africa”?
When we cut this track in 1981, there was no such thing as world music. We created this from the dust and ether. David came in with this tune mostly written, Jeff heard it and suggested we use a ton of real African percussion as well as traditional instruments, and we had legendary engineer Al Schmitt working with us and he knew how to do all this crazy stuff. It was the last track we cut for “Toto IV.” I loved the track and the hook was catchy as hell, but I thought the lyrics were silly. We never saw it as hit song. “Rosanna” was the hit, but “Africa” resonated with everyone who heard it. The fact it has endured and gotten bigger the last 35-plus years is insane to us. We never saw it coming. No one is laughing harder than us, but it has brought huge attention to us and our back catalog is flying out because people don’t realize we have like 17-18 albums out.
When did you first find out that Rivers wanted to cover both songs?
The likelihood of Toto and Weezer in the same breath is strange at first glance. It was a true WTF moment for us; maybe for them, too. I think they did on a dare or as a gag. I guess Weezer covers ‘80s songs for a laugh. I am sure they never saw this coming any more than we did. I see it as a win-win for both sides and we all laugh our asses off wishing we could see the so-called “hipster press” writhing in their worst nightmare of collaborations. But the kids don’t care. They like what they like and somehow this “Africa” thing has caught on. Never thought I’d live to see it.
How did you like their version?
We were flattered. They made it a bit more their own, but we were surprised to see they kept to the original arrangement with just some harder-edged guitars in the chorus. Our music is harder to play than it sounds. It’s the small details you don’t realize are there until you try and re-do it.
Isn’t there an “irony” or “camp” aspect to it?
Of course — huge!!! But they were very nice. The band reached out to Steve Porcaro and he sat in on Jimmy Kimmel and played the keyboard solo and walked off. It was hysterical and a huge surprise. Their manager reached out to me — I manage Toto now — so I had to ask if they were taking the piss out of us. He insisted the band really likes us. I’m not sure I believed him, but I told them to go for it, and they did. Now, wait until they hear our Weezer cover we just started recording, and will be out in the next couple of months. I dig them. I was never really aware of them outside their hits, but my kids hipped me to them. They are really good, inventive and quirky, hooks for days. Thanks to Weezer for doing this. We’re thankful for the gift.
With populist bands like Jon Bon Jovi, Journey and Rush being inducted into the RRHOF, do you feel Toto now has a shot?
No, I don’t see that. It’s a personal vendetta. In sports, stats count. Music? Not so much. I have personally worked with 75 people now in the Rock Hall, yet we don’t even exist in their data base. Forty million records sold, and literally thousands of albums as session musicians on the likes of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” There is no one like Toto in history in that we were both successful as session musicians and also had a band that sold so many million records. Yet none of that counts.