Toto's "Africa" Hit Number 1 Exactly 35 Years Ago, May It Live Forever
It's gonna take a lot to drag us away from the most influential soft rock classic of all time, which topped Billboard on February 5, 1983.
Immortality is the one true goal of art and of humanity; to create something that will outlast one's physical and mental existence. Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro died in 1992, and though several of his contributions have entered the groove hall of fame ("Lowdown" by Boz Scaggs still slaps), his intro to "Africa" may be the one that provokes the most feelings today, long after his passing. The song was Toto's only number one hit on the Billboard charts, and it achieved that milestone on February 5, 1983. In the precisely 35 years since then, nations and movements have risen and fallen. Yet, "Africa" remains. Why?
Well, firstly, "Africa" has one of the greatest choruses of all time. What's nuts about said chorus is that it might be one of the few mainstream hooks that doesn't have a proper main melody. Bobby Kimball comes in with that high, keening part, but note how he mainly drones on the same note the whole time. He's just doing the high harmony. It's up to the rest of the band to fill out that vocal arrangement, so you're essentially listening to a giant chord subtly change voices. It's a karaoke classic where every voice could feasibly grab a different part without knowing they're doing so. The only other group that can lay claim to having pop hooks in complex multi-part harmony is Mumford & Sons, but their name will not besmirch this piece. There's also the fact that "Africa" is in three different key signatures: C-sharp minor for the intro and bridges, B major for the verses, and A major for the choruses. This is likely a result of Toto flexing their studio composition chops, but you can't deny that the key change into the chorus is exhilarating every time.
It's tough to pinpoint precisely when "Africa" became as ubiquitous a meme as it is now. A notable resuscitation of the song came about in 2007, courtesy of a cover by Lebanese-Canadian singer Karl Wolf. It took two years for his version to become a big hit in his home country, so who knows if it contributed to the eventual Totowave. It's a wild ride, though, if you haven't heard the song or seen its video.
Perhaps more importantly, "Africa" serves as the intro to Chuck Person's Eccojams Vol. 1, the enormously influential 2010 tape by Oneohtrix Point Never's Daniel Lopatin that near-singlehandedly inspired vaporwave with its dystopian, chopped-and-screwed edits of soft rock deep cuts. The sound of David Paich, stretched-out, eerily repeating "hurry boy, she's waiting there for you" is one of the most monumental opening statements in music this decade. We love the memes, but in this form, "Africa" is a nostalgia-employing critique of a near-future consumerist hell. But yeah, the memes are key too. As Toto guitarist Steve Lukather says in this great oral history of "Africa" by Billboard, "the millennials have taken a shine to ['Africa'], like 'Don’t Stop Believin' or some shit. My oldest son is 30, he goes out to the clubs, he goes, 'Pop, you won’t believe this shit. The place goes bezerko when they play this song.'"
Maybe there is no one reason for "Africa"'s longevity. Maybe it's just a song that can be appreciated ironically as a relic of a particular kind of early 80s smooth, as well as an honestly huge pop song. It's even a mystery to Lukather, who crudely explains in that Billboard piece that "If you had told me I had a 20-inch cock, I’d believe that before I believed [the longevity of "Africa"]. I mean, of all songs?" It hasn't hit number one again since that February day in 1983, but it still gets hundreds of millions of streams and is number one in our hearts, minds, and souls. Like Twinkies and cockroaches, but more enjoyable than either, "Africa" will survive whatever calamities befall the humans who created it. There's nothing that a hundred men (or more) could ever do to surpass it.
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