Trying To Get To You

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Sun City: The Best Of The 1984-85 Benefit Singles

I watched the Michael Jackson memorial show on Tuesday and was pleasantly surprised with how well it came off. The tributes were heartfelt and authentic, and the musical performances, for the most part, worked. It did him justice, unlike the disaster that was the B.E.T. Awards the Sunday following his death.

Unsurprisingly, the show ended with some of the schmaltz that Michael loved, namely, “We Are The World,” a song whose ickiness has grown exponentially for me as I’ve encountered it over the years. Whether it’s the trite and solipsistic lyrics (as Jackson Browne said, “That’s the problem with North America – we think we ARE the world”), or the mushy arrangement, the song has always occurred for me like the experience of eating Sweet N’ Low right out of the packet – so sweet I want to wretch.

Most of the singers on the project were at or near their pop pinnacle in the winter of 1985, and many of them – Kim Carnes, Huey Lewis, Al Jarreau, Jeffrey Osbourne, Kenny Rogers and Kenny Loggins – were bland MOR fare at best. Neither the song or the assemblage of talent has worn well over time, even though seeing Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and Bob Dylan singing on the same song will always hold a thrill for me.

Contrast that with the best of the 1984-1985 “benefit” songs, Artists United Against Apartheid’s “Sun City,” created by Little Steven Van Zandt, who at the time, had just recently left the E Street Band, just prior to Springsteen and the band embarking on the immensely successful and lucrative phenomenon that was the Born In The U.S.A. tour.

Van Zandt, producer Arthur and journalist Danny Schecter assembled greatest collection of rock, rap and soul artists ever on one single. The Lineup: Miles Davis, Bruce Springsteen, Kool DJ Herc, Grandmaster Melle Mel, Ruben Blades, Bob Dylan, Herbie Hancock, Ringo Starr, Pete Townshend, Lou Reed, Run DMC, Peter Gabriel, David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, Darlene Love, Bobby Womack, Afrika Bambaataa, Kurtis Blow, Jackson Browne, U2, George Clinton, Keith Richards, Ron Wood, Bonnie Raitt, Hall & Oates, Jimmy Cliff, Big Youth, Michael Monroe, Peter Garrett, Ron Carter, Ray Barretto, Gil-Scott Heron, Nona Hendryx, Pat Benatar, and Joey Ramone.

It was an incredible lineup then – and in retrospect, it seems even more incredible. Most of the artists, in direct contrast to the ones on "We Are The World," have gained in stature nearly a quarter century after the recording. Back then, as I wasn’t familiar with many of the artists on the record, it didn’t seem like a big deal. But thinking about it now - Lou Reed and Miles Davis and Springsteen and Joey Ramone and Bobby Womack and Melle Mel and David Ruffin on the same single? Jesus!

And to Van Zandt’s eternal credit, he structured the song so that the rappers would have their own indelible contribution to the song. Remember, “Sun City” was recorded and released prior to rap’s explosion to national prominence with Run-DMC’s “Walk This Way,” which was released in the summer of 1986. The rap section that opens the song leads perfectly into the first chorus – in retrospect, the song is perhaps rap-rock’s greatest moment.

The song was tough and defiant – capturing the best of rock's rebellious spirit . It was independent minded, clear in its intent to bring down Apartheid and wasn’t afraid to point fingers at home, namely at President Reagan’s “constructive engagement” policy with Pretoria.

Incredible song, eclectic lineup, a powerful and crystal clear message – and relative to “We Are The World” and “Do They Know It’s Christmas” – a commercial dud. “Sun City” peaked at #38 on the Billboard Top 40, as many radio stations wouldn’t play the song due to its explicit criticism of Reagan, its tough minded sound, and most likely, the inclusion of so many rappers, which in 1985, top 40 radio had no use for.

More importantly, “Sun City” raised over a million dollars and significantly raised awareness of the scourge of Apartheid. In 1986, Congress passed sanctions against South Africa, overriding a veto from President Reagan. In 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison and in 1994, he was elected president of South Africa.

"We Are The World" may have been the pop hit, but "Sun City" was by far the better song. Given that the song itself, with Apartheid gone, is now superflous, it's even further testament that the record holds up so wonderfully, in groove, spirit and soul.


Radames Rodriguez said...

Thanks for taking me back, Ben. You are so right. That video ans song is a hundred times better than We Are The World. Looking at this video again made me realize how many cool, true musicians that Little Stevie was able to gather up from so many genres. Run-DMC, Rueben Blades, Ray Barretto, Miles, David Ruffin, Kim Carnes, Joey Ramone, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and even The Fat Boys. Great post.

dave said...

Brilliant, thanks for reminding me of such a great collaboration by some great artists (nice hairstyle Bono !) I’ve got the vinyl upstairs somewhere, but haven't listened to it for ages or seen the video for 20 odd years

SoulBoogieAlex said...

The song is a cameo feast of great black performers who had way to little of their due in recent years. But I would not agree that it is a better song. For that it was too much attached to the current events of the time. I'd take Sun City personally any time of the day, but it the song has lost its function and urgency when apartheid was abolished. We Are the World however, syruppy as it may be, can be pasted on any current famine you'd like to choose. The message, how naive it may be, is till current today.

Unknown said...

Hi, Ben, it's Brian from Small/Stupid.

I had the Sun City album and loved it. It was like looking into the future. Just a brilliant piece of music.

You should post more. You write from a place of passion, not the snarky disengagement common to so many blogs. Even when I don't agree with you, I love how much you care about the music.