When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week Lowry takes on Toto’s “Africa.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!
I was born five days after Toto’s fourth album, the aptly titled Toto IV, was released in April 1982, so I can’t speak to the record’s cultural impact from first-hand experience, other than to say that songs like “Rosanna” and “Africa” seem to have been wired into my brain from birth. I’ve never owned a copy of the record, and I’ve never listened to the radio much, but the wistful lyrics of “Africa,” in particular, just sort of run horizontally through my brain when the song is audible, as if rendered on a stock ticker. In a way, this act of cultural transference is frightening, not unlike playing the role of a robot taking algorithmic cues from some master musical programmer pulling the strings in a cave behind the Hollywood sign. On the other hand, this experience speaks to the power of the popular song, which serves as a transcendent communion for millions of fellow men and women around the world who can at the very least share a love of an undeniable melody. This, of course, is what “Africa” is all about:
“Over many years, I had been taken by the UNICEF ads with the pictures of Africa and the starving children. I had always wanted to do something to connect with that and bring more attention to the continent. I wanted to go there, too, so I sort of invented a song that put me in Africa. I was hearing the melody in my head and I sat down and played the music in about 10 minutes. And then the chorus came out. I sang the chorus out as you hear it. It was like God channeling it.”
—Toto’s David Paich, speaking to Classic Tracks‘ Robyn Flans.
Toto was formed in 1977 by high-school friends Paich and Jeff Porcaro, two session players in Los Angeles who were already well-known among industry elites by the time the band issued its eponymous debut in 1978 because of its superb contributions to some of the biggest records of the era. The self-titled effort was massively successful, earning the band a “best new artist” Grammy and setting the stage perfectly for the global takeover that occurred with Toto IV. (Toto went experimental on its second and third albums, which reportedly almost cost the band its deal with Columbia due to the relatively low sales numbers of those releases). Indeed, Toto IV garnered six Grammys, including “record of the year” for “Rosanna” and “album of the year,” in addition to going three times platinum. For all of the usual reasons (waning relevance, internal disputes, evolving lineups, Rogaine), Toto never quite achieved that level acclaim again, but unlike many of its peers, the band has been able to sustain itself as a hot live ticket and a respectable recording force for more than 30 years.
Headed by Alex Lowry, the band Lowry hails from Brooklyn and has been plugging away in one form or another since 1999, though its nascent notoriety has just begun to creep in over the last two or three years. The sound of its most recent album, Love Is Dead, could be best characterized as “indie folk,” but its 2008 cover of “Africa” is more of a break-beat, lounge-y, space-rock jam. For me, the latter sound is not only preferable, it also makes for a much more interesting cover than what a heart-on-sleeve, coffee-house vibe could accomplish with such a classic track. Not to deride Lowry’s A+ effort, but there’s really no competition here. In fact, perhaps more than any other week, I searched high-and-low for a great cover of this song, and as far as I can tell, there isn’t one that comes close to rivaling the original. But, hey, when a song is allegedly ordained from above, it’s hard to compete, right?