Sep 09

USA FOR AFRICA – “We Are The World”

FT + Popular80 comments • 6,801 views

#548, 20th April 1985, video

A charity record is a bargain struck between the urgency of the situation and the weight of the subject: you want to get something done quickly, but it also has to be serious enough not to seem tasteless. As gesture turned into genre, instigators would reach for readymade gravity in the form of cover versions: but initially the donation of songwriting talent was as important as that of singing time. “We Are The World”, written and performed by genuine heavyweights, is the most monumental example of this.

The rushed composition of do “Do They Know It’s Christmas” gave it an awkward, compelling weirdness – but Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie play things a lot safer. They had to: the Band Aid line up was a generation of new stars self-consciously coming of age together, but Quincy Jones’ and Harry Belafonte’s contact books were fat enough to include the really big beasts, ones who no longer appreciated being herded. “We Are The World” is carefully scripted to give each superstar a chance to sing without being hustled out by the next one – or that’s the positive spin on a record which is seven minutes long and almost all chorus.

At least they get something difficult to sing – “There’s a choice we’re making / We’re saving our own lives” makes sense in the song’s explicitly religious context: because we are all human beings, by saving others we save ourselves. But the line is – to say the least! – risky when sung by extremely rich people not generally known for their unselfishness. And as it is nobody really nails it – most of the singers simply thrash about and end up in that curious register of human speech that exists only on charity records, the concerned bellow.

Obviously, we had Band Aid first, so “We Are The World” left no emotional impression on me then and none now: at the time I mostly remember parochial irritation that we had to get the American version too, and that it was so long and cumbersome. There are little touches of entertainment in the record, beyond the soon-fading Panini stickerbook fun of spotting the various voices. Dylan, of course, puts in a gruesome but at least memorable fifteen seconds (and the song shrugs him off with a monster key change). And Jackson himself gets the record’s one genuinely shivery, vulnerable moment – “When you’re down and out…” – singing (as he often sang) as if he had one less layer of skin than anyone else.



  1. 1
    lonepilgrim on 21 Sep 2009 #

    …and Bob Dylan finally gets a number 1 in the UK…and as I recall Prince wisely ducked out of the recording – donating one of his zillion spare songs to the album.

    Now all this conjures up is ‘Kidney now’ on the last episode of 30 Rock

  2. 2
    Dan R on 21 Sep 2009 #

    I appreciate that the intention may be to express the cosmopolitan oneness of all humanity but the lyric is much too awkward for that. ‘We are the ones who make a brighter day’ sounds more like they are congratulating themselves on being entertainers (we can help! we’re good at making things better!), so there’s a clumsy shift from an inclusive we to an exclusive we, if you see what I mean.

    Elsewhere it’s really just pious cliches (‘their lives will be stronger and free’), mixed metaphors (‘send them your heart so they know someone cares’ feels pretty dumb when the whole campaign was precisely to send material things like food), and really truly mangled syntax (Michael Jackson’s section in particular).

    I really can’t bear this song. It may be the worst set of lyrics Bob Dylan’s ever sung, too.

  3. 3
    punctum on 21 Sep 2009 #

    On Tacky Souvenirs Of Pre-Revolutionary America, one of the key albums of the eighties, Culturcide attack “We Are The World.” Sonically their attack is not to the extent which we find on, say, their reworkings of “Dancing In The Dark” or “Ebony And Ivory” but the critique is spot on. Here is how they rephrase the chorus:

    “We’re not the world, we’re not the children,
    We’re just bosses and bureaucrats and rock ‘n’ roll has-beens.
    There’s a choice we’re never given, to run our own lives,
    Without it your ‘better day’ is just a better lie.”

    Elsewhere they point out: “There are people dying – oh, and they just noticed!” Where the saving grace of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” was its admittedly appealing am-dram let’s-do-the-show-right-here/sticky-backed-plastic approach – and where was Cliff Richard in that Band Aid line-up? – “We Are The World” from its arrogant title downwards through its depressingly pompous extended intro, is a Corporate Statement, brilliantined and polished to a curtain of platitude-sympathetic bland.

    Despite producer Quincy Jones’ instructions to the participants to “leave their egos at the door” – doubtless mindful of Geldof’s scowling presence in the studio – the song’s central concept, in its execution, is insultingly misguided. Yes, “we” should be “the world,” and the “All You Need Is Love” citation is taken into account, even though “the truth” is that far more than non-committal “love” is needed when trying to save lives; but then we come to this problematic line, “We’re saving our own lives” which in this self-congratulory environment is easily interpretable as “We’re saving our own careers, or consciences.”

    The message proposed in “We are the ones who make a brighter day” is that we, America, are The World, and will pat starving Africans on their prematurely withered heads with scraps from their flowing baskets. It is not so far from claiming “We are the master race.” Am I being too hard on what sounds, then and now, like an endorsement of Reaganite officious indifference masquerading as empathy? After all the song was composed and produced by black musicians, and nearly all of the participants were, and are, paid-up Democrats – but then a significant exception to that number is co-writer and then-recent Reagan endorser Michael Jackson, who had to be emphatically dissuaded by Jones and Richie from chanting “shalom” at key points in the song.

    From a Jackson point of view – and bearing in mind his own near-identical “Heal The World” from a decade later – the song does make its own curious sense; this is Michael, crouching in his darkening corner, possibly entirely genuine in his wish to reach out to the world…but as some of his subsequent songs demonstrate, he had an unfortunate tendency to treat “the world” like Ben the rat, a simple beast who indeed only needs love, and where does the distinction between best friend and God get to be drawn?

    Musically it is a lumbering, elephantine plod of a record; where “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is, if nothing else, brisk and eager, “We Are The World” is An Epic, a monetarist “Hey Jude.” And despite the urged ego-checks, nearly every featured performer overacts grievously, howling and roaring as though this signified Soul and Caring, bursting their lungs to demonstrate How Strong Their Love Is. There is some true poignancy in hearing Little Stevie trading fours with Uncle Ray towards the end, and a little unintended humour as Dylan drawls his line, correctly treating the song like one of Weberman’s rescued laundry lists – Dylan being very much the Paul Weller figure here, asking the others why they wouldn’t record a fundraising song for America’s farmers (Willie Nelson obligingly played the Heaven 17 role) – both of which elevate the record above minus zero. But in terms of missing the point – Geldof was diplomatic about the exercise but every twist of his jowls betrayed what he really thought – “We Are The World” becomes one of the least humble of number ones, and certainly one of the most presumptuous. “If children are starving, let them drink Pepsi?”

  4. 4
    pink champale on 21 Sep 2009 #

    I reread the greil marcus essay on this at the weekend. despite the odd (i think, actually, *bad* style in which it’s written) i don’t think there’s much arguing with his central point that this is a monstrous ego fest, that (whatever any positive outcomes) makes it clear that ethiopians are way, way less important than the people who are “for” them. he doesn’t explicitly make the contrast with the focus of band aid on the substance of the issue (however hamfistedly), but it’s there to be made.

    the thing the really struck me though, was a sentence that goes something like “bad politics, which can be based in real desires, can lead to good art, but bad art, which is always based in faked or compromised desires, can only lead to bad politics”. okay, the first half of the sentence is fair enough, but surely the second isn’t right? bad art isn’t always insincere is it? and can’t it ever be good politics? for a start ‘compromise’ is pretty much the essence of good politics isn’t it?

  5. 5
    Billy Smart on 21 Sep 2009 #

    The one record that I’ve heard recently that really reminded me of ‘We Are The World’ has been ‘Our Vision Of Global Strategy’ by ‘KPMG’, a corporate power ballad for the multinational that includes The Haliburton Corporartion – That big managerial sound, impersonal hymning of cliches about humanitarianism. Which is to say that not only do I dislike this, it sounds actively sinister.

    When I was 12, I didn’t yet go that far, but ‘We Are The World’ was already a collossal bore. Whereas Band Aid gave us a lot of familiar faces singing a tune, the American version was twice as long, very boring and I wasn’t sure who half of the performers were.

  6. 6
    Billy Smart on 21 Sep 2009 #

    And at number two, two weeks of Tears For Fears’ ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’, also global and titanic in its scope, but actually (like all their best songs) about the fragilty and vulnerability of the ego, and an absolute triumph of expansive eighties pop productions. That would have made a great number one.

  7. 7
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 21 Sep 2009 #

    i think he’s DEFINING all bad art as being based in faked or compromised desires*, which is almost certainly GM channeling guy debord: i haven’t read much recent marcus to be honest, but i wonder quite a bit how he’s since reconciled his fling with debordist absolutism with his subsequent clinton-as-elvis line; let alone with present-day currents in american politics, where the anti-pragmatic absolutist radicals are all massed on the side GM isn’t

    the problem i gradually began to have with culturcide – is that the strength of their work entirely pimps off the residual strength of the material they’re “detourning” and sneering at: a rarely admitted disingenuousness that itself becomes “spectacular”, to use an obfuscatory technical term hurriedly

    *which is either an inadequate or a locally polemical definition, depending on where yr standng

  8. 8
    punctum on 21 Sep 2009 #

    In your Banksy piece you’re making the elementary trapdoor mistake of “fans’ reaction to” = “artist”; also the bah! to “subversion” = unquestioning adoption of unquestioning “gee it’s great and on the level” => monolith-worship and NO FUN whatsoever. Because it’s quite easy to fling some 1987 modes together i.e. Negativland etc. without remembering not just how necessary this was in 1987 (and what are KLF if not etc.?) (and maybe even that pre-subtext was a secondary at the time) but the simple fun that was the thing with “Sonic Theft Merchantism” ((c) Sean O’Hagan) i.e. buying/listening to ILLEGAL ART ooer and Culturcide certainly didn’t benefit financially or in any other way from what they did and who’s to say that they weren’t just jockin’ like John Zorn was at the time (play the hatArt Cobra box side by side with TS e.g.).

    (actually someone like Stan Freberg probably pained me more than any of the ppl MS cites; shit-eating jazz snob who HATED rock with a vengeance – and probably all jazz after Red Norvo – and probably still does. “Old Payola Roll Blues” is kind of the meanest thing ever to appear on a 45 rpm disc)

  9. 9
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 21 Sep 2009 #

    no i’m not punctum, read it again: i’m saying pretty much the opposite — that when you’re using the enemy’s techniques against them, you’re cheering one side of the enemy’s being against another (which i approve of; which is why i said like banksy and dislike the lame interpretation of him, ie very carefully and clearly stepping round the elementary trapdoor); and two, as noted above, i CAME to dislike this about eg culturcide — i liked it a lot at the time, and it took me quite a while to recognise that hostile versioning is ALWAYS part-hommage

    subversion is simply a fancy word for guilty pleasures

  10. 10
    Kat but logged out innit on 21 Sep 2009 #

    #6 – agreed, I absolutely adored EWTRTW whenever my sister put it on in the car (somehow on the same tape as the Proclaimers???).

  11. 11
    swanstep on 21 Sep 2009 #

    Horrible in its stereotypically American self-regardingness: we are the world series and we don’t even know what the world cup is…. that sort of thing. And the contrast with “Do they know’s” other-centered ace, the ‘Feed the world’ sing-along – from ‘Feed’ to ‘We are’- was drastic and seemingly telling. As a piece of music it’s alright: Those are some *big* voices – Ray Charles is like a B-52 landing! Bruce is positively elephantine. And where’s Aretha for that final belt-off? – so 3 seems a little harsh to me, notwithstanding the dire lyrics and vibe. Raising to the power of Cyndi Lauper gets it a:

  12. 12
    will on 21 Sep 2009 #

    The most self-centred charity record of them all – just count the number of first person plurals on the lyric sheet. At least Band Aid in its clumsy, naive way attempted to paint a portrait of what was actually going on Ethiopia. In We Are The World, the poor starving folk get completely pushed out the picture by a bunch of self-regarding millionaires, each desperately trying to out-perform each other (Springsteen and Cyndi Lauper providing particularly hilarious examples).

  13. 13
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 21 Sep 2009 #

    But actually yr right, I’m probably not being fair to culturcide themselves there: I was trying to link them in that post to the Langley Schools Music Project and couldn’t and deleted what wrote. Well I just worked it out: they’re the Langley kids grown up and disenchanted that what they had loved had turned out so lame! And I’m talking about the same process: growing up out of a spasm of art excitement to realise it’s turned into its opposite. If the exciting thing about [xx] is subversion, the exciting — bcz scary and perilous — thing abt subversion is it’s always a two-way process.

    (I have in fact been reading Debord all weekend, hence am inclined to see everything as its opposite this morning.)

  14. 14
    Steve Mannion on 21 Sep 2009 #

    #6 #10 EWTRTW always reminds me of the first time I was taken to Thorpe Park

  15. 15
    col124 on 21 Sep 2009 #

    The only real defense I’ve read of this record is Dave Marsh’s, which was pretty much a direct response to the Marcus essay, and the core of it was (& i’ll dig out the book):

    “Among them, [Lionel] Richie, Jackson and Jones didn’t have enough objectivity or guile to see things in a more broadly politicized context. This was…a bunch of craftsmen who happened to be rich enough to afford a certain solipsism….What critics of “We Are the World” really wanted was an oppositional record about the famine…instead, they got something from the side of the music that’s about reconciliation and, typically, were unable to grant it any validity.”

    It’s a dreadful, woeful clunker of record that gets to me at times. I think it’s just the talent–Ray Charles, Smokey Robinson, Jackson, Dylan (his groaning bit is wonderful–it nearly stops the song dead)–is so strong, vocally, that they can sing the most banal navel-gazer of a charity record and make it compelling. A 5, somehow.

  16. 16
    H. on 21 Sep 2009 #

    I wonder how many other countries jumped on the Band Aid wagon? I’m pretty sure there was a cheesy French celeb-fest too. Were there Australian and Canadian versions as well?

  17. 17
    H. on 21 Sep 2009 #

    Woah, youtube answers my question!



  18. 18
    Pete on 21 Sep 2009 #

    Midge Ure & Australian Band Aid!!!!

  19. 19
    TomLane on 21 Sep 2009 #

    The type of record that doesn’t get reviewed for its musicality but its musicians. A simple sentiment, these lyrics are, but the song hangs on because of its vocals. Its not just the brilliant finish by Ray Charles. It’s top efforts by Stevie Wonder, James Ingram, and short sharp cameos by Cyndi Lauper, Daryl Hall and Steve Perry. Review the record? Most critics at the time never got around to it. The sentiment the record targeted: feed the world, we are all one, etc. was too easy a target. Most took one look at the millionaires in the video and decided that the song wasn’t even worth their time. An ego fest? Puerile, banal? 25 years later I hear the same thing that I thought when this came out: musicians who for one recording night actually thought they were indeed doing something worthy of their fame. And what’s wrong with that? A solid 7.

  20. 20
    punctum on 21 Sep 2009 #

    Canadian Band Aid

  21. 21
    H. on 21 Sep 2009 #

    French Band Aid:


  22. 22
    Jonathan Bogart on 21 Sep 2009 #

    I’m tempted to overrate this out of sheer cussedness, but another listen puts the kibosh on my huffy pro-Americanism. It’s balls through and through, and one of the supreme reasons “the Eighties” has been a cultural punchline in the United States for nearly two decades now.

    The first time I heard it was in Guatemala in the early 90s, watching a music-video channel which showed clips from the 80s heyday of MTV; I didn’t know who most of the people were, but my parents chuckled over the Dylan appearance, and its bland a-bunch-of-overcoiffed-people-in-a-recording-studio visual aesthetic made me anxious for the next clip to come up, whatever it was.

    Building off Marcello’s thoughts, my dominant reaction in this year of all years is: is this the first flowering of the messianic Michael Jackson? The all-consuming ego which was my first real understanding of Jackson — I encountered him in the 90s, you see — is on such grandiose display here that I wonder if for some people it wasn’t part of the appeal. The uniform rejection of that ego here is (perhaps) less than representative; a lot of people, as we have seen this summer, want to worship, and are willing to take pop stars at their own valuation.

    Which doesn’t make it any less immoral to eat up the starving Ethiopians’ oxygen; but one of the paradoxes of fame is that it’s impossible for famous people to point at a problem without their finger being the story. There is essentially nothing the Biggest People In The World can do that will make them less important than the thing they’re bringing to our attention; so embracing that importance is in its own way a kind of honesty that (to my ears) “Do They Know It’s Christmas” lacks*.

    (Hurray; I did manage a cussedly pro-American sentiment after all.)

    *Except Bono; or maybe that’s just hindsight.

  23. 23
    LondonLee on 21 Sep 2009 #

    Having lived in the States for 17 years now (bugger me) and being married to a Sherman my old knee-jerk, sniffy European anti-American attitudes are tempered somewhat but sometimes, Christ, they really live up to the worst expectations. You just want to punch this record in the face don’t you? When Dylan croaks in it’s like someone ripping a hole in the pop space-time continuum.

    The line-up is top notch though, real heavyweights to Band Aid’s plucky contenders. As an English mate of mine once remarked when I was describing some contestants on American Idol to him “you get people who sound like Luther Vandross while we get kids who only want to be a minor member of S-Club 7”

  24. 24
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 21 Sep 2009 #

    I don’t know if it’s some glitch on my link but when I click through to the video, it’s something with the right visuals and quite strangely wrong music. I blame John Oswald. Actually the music’s rather nice: asian pipes wailing…

  25. 25
    James K. on 21 Sep 2009 #

    I don’t think anyone has mentioned the worst part – the ludicrous misquotation of the Bible, with Jesus’s refusal to turn stones into bread changed into his having done so!

    It is a sad comment on the education of American pop stars that no one noticed or cared about this. I would probably peg Dylan and Simon as the most likely of the group to be well-read, and both are Jewish and perhaps not familiar with the Gospels – but what about Dylan’s born-again period? I guess Willie Nelson (who sang the line) didn’t have the hard-core Christian upbringing that so many country (as well R & B and early rock and roll) singers did. Perhaps if Johnny Cash had been invited to participate, the screw-up could have been stopped.

  26. 26
    JonnyB on 21 Sep 2009 #

    I can’t say that I thought the Bible-misquoting bit was the worst part of the record.

    I dunno. I agree with many of the comments here… but then are we judging the music for what it is, or the sentiments behind it, or the music as opposed to the British version… as you say, Tom – the charidee thing conquers all, and I like the review. Especially the ‘concerned bellow’ line.

    The fact is, taking a big step back, I can’t honestly find this any more mawkish as any other group of rich middle-aged stars singing about a) how tough life is being broke, b) how noble the working classes are, c) how I will love this one woman eternally for the rest of my life etc. etc. Which crops up quite often in pop music. I find ‘We are the World’ pretty cringeworthy – but that’s the cynical English heart of me.

    Conversely, criticising the particularly American nature of the way the charity sentiment is done does leave one on thin ice – last time I looked at this sort of thing, American people overall gave a far higher proportion of their income away to good causes than us Brits. [Somebody may correct me on that – but I think I’m right]. So perhaps it was just the right thing to do for its market, and it should get perverse credit for sacrificing art for practicalities.

    And sacrifice it it did. And what’s more, it’s been an ear-worm for a couple of hours now. Thanks.

  27. 27
    James K. on 21 Sep 2009 #

    “I can’t say that I thought the Bible-misquoting bit was the worst part of the record.”

    Well, what I meant was that it is (for me) a major contributor to the feeling of bloated self-righteousness that the record gives off. It’s not as if they called an apostle by the wrong name or something relatively trivial – they got the entire point of the story backwards.

  28. 28
    JonnyB on 21 Sep 2009 #

    No – fair enough. If you’re going to cite something like that then perhaps it is best not to cock it up. Perhaps it’s the ‘no snow in Africa’ equivalent in one way…

    I think perhaps it does all come down to that concerned bellowing, which harks to that most dismal of all art forms, the overwrought duet. Any song where the final chorus consists of one person singing the tune and the second person wading in eagerly during the gaps with all the upper-range look-at-me warbly improvisations that they can think of, deserves a special, special place in Room 101.

  29. 29
    swanstep on 21 Sep 2009 #

    @LondonLee ‘married to a sherman’. Brilliant, I’d not heard that one (risky as applied to the missus, I would have thought, but there you go…). I thought ‘Jarfur’ short for ‘J Arthur Rank’ was the preferred rhyming slang in this case?

    At any rate, clicking around a bit now I’ve been led to read stuff on wiki about ‘hands ascross america’ which was an event that tried to continue the spirit of USA for Africa (and involved many of the same people in high profile roles). It should be read to be believed:
    esp., the section on ‘Protests’. Sometimes the Vonnegut or Pynchon (or Simpsons) take on the US is essentially documentary.

    Private charitable giving by Americans is much higher than elsewhere (Interestingly, Americans falsely believe that the Fed Govt provides enormous amounts of foreign aid, and certainly more as a gdp % than elsewhere), and quite poor Americans and ‘red’ states give the most. It’s highly correlated with religiosity IIRC.

  30. 30
    col124 on 21 Sep 2009 #

    After listening to it again, i’d say the extended version of the song is better, mainly because around 5:00 in it becomes a duet between Springsteen and Stevie Wonder that lasts almost a minute: as such things go, it’s a hell of a lot better than “Ebony and Ivory”.

  31. 31
    pink champale on 21 Sep 2009 #

    #26, #29 yes, isn’t nearly all of this charitable giving
    church tithes? (hence the poor in red states). with the rest being alumni donations to already loaded ivy league colleges. so, basically, bad causes and self interest.

  32. 32
    Rory on 21 Sep 2009 #

    Australia sent this to number one almost two weeks before the UK and kept it there for nine, so I’ve been itching to lay the boot into this particular blot on my musical memories. Apart from the charitable intentions, this was the opposite of everything I liked about “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”: overworked instead of spontaneous, overlong instead of brisk, overacted instead of enthusiastic, and as overegged as a pudding of plum pop stars can get. Thriller‘s success had clearly gone to Michael Jackson’s head, erasing any lingering sense of perspective, and Springsteen’s strained croak guaranteed that I never became a fan.

    What was worse was that, as the more recent and bigger hit on our charts, this became the radio soundtrack of the lead-up to Live Aid; and worse than that, I have only spotty memories of Live Aid itself to overwrite it, because my mid-year exams started on the Monday and I had to spend most of the Live Aid weekend studying. (Well, I didn’t have to – plenty of my mates didn’t – but doing well in those exams seemed important at the time. But which are the crucial memories I wish I had today, eh, Tasmanian Higher School Certificate Board?) My family didn’t have a VCR back then, so that was that. On the plus side, it meant I didn’t have to watch this lumbering star vehicle get wheeled onstage yet again. 2.

  33. 33
    pink champale on 21 Sep 2009 #

    lord wotsit #7 i’m not sure i get your distinction about ‘defining’, but you’re probably right – there’s a bit in the essay about the stars getting to eat ethiopians which seems like pure debord (bearing in mind that i know basically nothing about debord except what greil marcus has told me…). i think maybe all the situationist stuff was a way for him to write himself into punk story (as it clearly did genuinely affect him) and to assert a continuity with the berkely free speech movement and all the other stuff he did know and care about. he certainly seemed to keep faith in his ability to see the punk impulse at work for longer than pretty much anyone else but it must have become a stretch and so it was probably a relief when clinton came along and he could go back to elvis and the boomers. though the elvis/clinton is pretty much just a collection of unrelated 90s essays with only the thinnest attempts to make the elvis clinton theory mean anything. nice cover though.

  34. 34
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 22 Sep 2009 #

    i mean that he would say “art that comes from sincerity etc which you consider bad, we shouldn’t call this bad art, let’s call it — i don’t know, say — failed art“: so he’s deliberately limiting the term in question to the area he wants to focus on… in other words, you can’t catch him out with it, bcz he would just say “that’s how i think we should use the word ‘bad’ here”, or something

  35. 35
    MBI on 22 Sep 2009 #

    I’ve always hated this song, but listening to it now, the second chorus — Springsteen! Kenny Loggins! Steve Perry! Daryl Hall! All of whom were clearly instructed to sound as much as possible like themselves! — is fucking glorious.

  36. 36
    tonya on 22 Sep 2009 #

    One of my favorite memories: right after this came out, sitting in paranoid park in Portland, I heard two homeless guys singing “we are the world, we are the winos”.

  37. 37
    koganbot on 22 Sep 2009 #


    Robert Christgau: by any reasonably objective critical standard, USA for Africa’s “We Are the World” is a good (maybe great) record where Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” was a bad (or terrible) one. Forget meaning momentarily, stop telling me rock and roll can’t feed the world, and just think voices…

    it isn’t just talent that gives “We Are the World”‘s humanism its force–it’s also concept, and even words. Where Band Aid’s female contingent consisted primarily of Bananarama, USA for Africa is sexually integrated, and also a lot more seasoned, probably too much so–there’s no one under 30 on the record who isn’t named Jackson (my nominations to replace no-show Prince: Melle Mel and Eldra DeBarge). And of course it’s blacker, which is crucial. USA for Africa celebrates a long overdue hegemony that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago–not merely interracial, but with blacks in the forefront and such relatively marginal black artists as Warwick, Ingram, Jeffrey Osborne, and Al Jarreau granted the pride of place they deserve in the pop-vocal firmament AfroAmerican tradition has generated. One reason the singers manage to mean the uplifting lyric is that they’re old enough to have lived through the civil rights movement. They’ve already stood “together as one” and made “a brighter day”–in fact, they’re among the rare black people who’ve reached gospel’s Jordan-on-earth. Though their belief that something comparable can be done for their brothers and sisters in Africa may be naive or self-serving (or just wishful or provisional), it does enable them to go at the problem from a more constructive angle: not “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” topped off with the appalling “Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you,” but “We Are the World,” climaxing with the inspirational “There’s a choice we’re making/ We’re saving our own lives.”

  38. 38
    punctum on 22 Sep 2009 #

    So how come virtually all the black performers on “We Are The World” boycotted Live Aid?

  39. 39
    MikeMCSG on 22 Sep 2009 #

    Good question Punctum. It’s also worth noting that Sting did an acoustic set at Live Aid because his all-black backing band wanted to be paid before going on.

    Of course this is a blacker record than “DTKIC”. I remember Harry Belafonte (who did leave his ego at the door) saying his first reaction to Band Aid was “What are all the black guys doing about this ?” In fairness to Geldof who did he have to pick from in 1984 ?
    Finding room for the likes of Leee John, Junior or David Grant would have diluted the record’s impact.

    The song is execrable in its self-congratulatory tone and probably fuelled more anti-American feeling than “We Didn’t Start The Fire” which was at least amusing.

  40. 40
    Rory on 22 Sep 2009 #

    With each review that I see, more and more I find myself concluding the opposite of what Christgau writes. Does that make me the Antichristgau?

  41. 41
    Tom on 22 Sep 2009 #

    I think it’s a simple case of who’s in their rolodex. Midge’n’Bob = two white guys who came up during/after punk – the people they know are similar. Michael/Lionel/Quincy/Harry = black entertainers, years in the biz, with contacts to match.

    “Diluted the record’s impact” fails as an argument though when you consider MARILYN WAS ON IT.

  42. 42
    MikeMCSG on 22 Sep 2009 #

    # 41 Yes but Marilyn wasn’t given a solo spot; of course those individuals wouldn’t have made a difference if they’d lined up for the chorus (like Kool and the Gang and Jody Watley) but if Junior had taken George Michael’s lines and Leee John Bono’s you would have seen a difference both in coverage and sales.

    I don’t agree with your point that either team went for their friends first and foremost.Phil Lynott doesn’t appear on Band Aid; it’s hard to believe that any of the Americans had much contact with Dylan or Willie Nelson. Both sides picked the best team available and a few non-entities came along for the ride.

  43. 43
    Billy Smart on 22 Sep 2009 #

    I’m now busily casting a phantom ‘black’ version of ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ in my head, with Phil Lynott, Phil Fearon, Errol Brown, Aswad, etc…

  44. 44
    Billy Smart on 22 Sep 2009 #

    Speaking of 1985 charity supergroups, here’s an Ian Levene hi-energy flop, protesting at the cancellation of ‘Doctor Who’. It isn’t very good!


  45. 45

    I don’t know enough about the various backstories but isn’t Tom’s point about rolodexes just that it was less a matter of — say — Al Jarreau being asked onto Live Aid and saying no way, as that the organisers didn’t ask him in the first place? Or was there an actual boycott?

    Of course the drawback of using charity to sidestep politics is that you usually — especially over time — end up merely occluding rather than removing the politics, including the very interesting and tricky cultural politics of who is turning who off and who’s being apealed to: interesting to contrast this project with the vast “black power”/”pan-african celebration”/”rumble in the jungle” concert in zaire ten years earlier, as documented in the recent film soul power, mr james brown headlining… in the film and in the music the contradictions are, while not exactly verbalised, very definitely manifested

    i think xgau is bringing up an important issue re the music of the civil rights generation, though i think he’s also — rather untypically — sentimentalising it: and the solution to the question of formal musical unity (as a symbol of cltural solidarity) of course reaches to the wrong model: quincy had the roots and the knowledge to point the song towards a better old-school black-music model of individualist expression within unity, which is of course JAZZ… he should have brought wynton marsalis in!

    i think it’s revealing that the three grand old men of rockwrite are being drawn apart here in respect of their feel for black music: the arrival of rap would draw them further apart (marsh pro; marcus alienated) — i’d like to know what meltzer wrote abt this record, if anything; also stanley crouch

  46. 46

    better still, laswell and shannon jackson should have produced/written/arranged it — with all the same singers — as a material/collision/harmolodics project

  47. 47
    swanstep on 22 Sep 2009 #

    Reading Christgau is just so unpleasant! He tells us that this record has reason, objectivity, sexual integration, and a long-overdue black hegemony on its side. Well, that’s settled then. I guess we all *should* like it or something. Funnily, most of us experience and value music as a realm of relative freedom from ‘should’s of various sorts – this way of writing about it is horrible, anti-musical, and makes me re-appreciate Tom’s columns, with which I often disagree but which I always enjoy reading. Thanks Tom!

    And what’s ‘gospel’s Jordan-on-earth’ at which Stevie and the rest have so luckily/rarely arrived? LA? At any rate I thought Jordan (and the River Jordan) *was* on Earth… (Writes tirade about crossing the Jordan in the Old Test being immediately followed by divinely-assisted ethnic cleansing and genocide… but thinks better of it and erases. Considers sacrificing a Bunny.)

  48. 48
    Erithian on 22 Sep 2009 #

    Tom #41 – the contacts-book idea is probably correct for the time (and the story of Sting’s backing band is interesting too) but 20 years on the exiling of African acts from Live 8 to the Eden Project was rather more questionable. Particularly for an event which was less about the money than about hearts and minds – the presence of African acts in the front line wouldn’t have affected fundraising but their absence did raise a few questions about the validity of the message. As a concert Live 8 possibly shaded it over Live Aid, but there were still a few shortcomings as well as a general vagueness of purpose.

    But back to 1985. I like the point about the messianic treatment of Jacko starting here – note that he alone gets a bit of a build-up in the video. Everyone else has their face shown straight away whereas the camera pans upwards to him – “oooh it’s Michael’s trousers!” An ego not checked at the door there, or was it just down to the director?

    It’s obviously a starrier line-up than the Brits could come up with, but the song is undoubtedly schmalzier, and the whole thing suffers from being rather po-faced. The debate on the lyrics has said all that I could and more, but what seems to be missing from the USA project is British good cheer and humour. The Americans are ever so sincere, the Brits (even though the subject matter is serious as hell) show the acts arriving with the Sunday papers in hand, the joshing between rival bands, Francis Rossi checking out Jody Watley’s arse, etc. It’s fun as well as chariddy, and doesn’t detract from the purpose of the undertaking.

    US stars making a great ensemble record in 1985, though – “Sun City”.

  49. 49
    punctum on 22 Sep 2009 #

    #45 – I watched a documentary about Live Aid on BBC2 around the time of Live 8 (i.e. 2005) and the word was that MJ, Stevie, Lionel, Prince etc. had mutually agreed to say no to doing Philadelphia. This started when Geldof presumptuously included Stevie in the Philadelphia line-up at his initial press conference without actually having asked him beforehand, and there were other doubts being generally raised, some political, about the whole affair. It was an unofficial boycott.

    #46 – That would have been the most boring record ever! At the time in a long-defunct fanzine I proposed a Brit improv remix of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” where Derek, Evan etc. just did eight bars of their thing over the original backing track but no one took me up on it bah.

    As regards Phil Lynott appearing on a charity single plus curious personnel overlap with “Sun City”… (get away from me bunny!)

  50. 50

    @49: re boycott — aha! But this of course digs into swanstep’s question at @47: “Gospel’s Jordan-on-earth”, for these guys is less LA than “Not jumping to attention when some white guy sez ‘Do this now!'” I too think xmas is a better record — because it flaunts its own seams, and bcz i’m a brit and more in tune with cheeky brit sang froid, but i’d be a bit hesitant to jump from this to “Of course edgy white Brits of our generation and hence er mixed musical ability — Marilyn! also Bob! — understand racial politics better than ferociously talented and successful black Americans of their generation…”

    The fact of MJ’s ego isn’t so much that it’s titanic or unchecked-at-door, as that it was shattered in childhood; the love of everyone in the universe is what he had instead of acceptable parenting…

    Re my harmolodics project: I disagree! Well, if the singing cast were pruned somewhat I disagree! And Shannon Jackson has to actally write the tune…

    EDIT: by “politics” i suppose i mean “racial politics”, and have changed this to say so

  51. 51
    lonepilgrim on 22 Sep 2009 #

    Punk had put the nails into the coffin of the myth that the rock and roll lifestyle offered some utopian alternative to straight society so there was always something unconvincing about these charity records. I think that’s what I find so intensely irritating about Bono in his messianic pomp – he still wants to believe when he should (and probably does) know better.

    Plus it’s always easier to say ‘Make poverty history’ than its necessary counterpart – ‘Give up (y)our obscene wealth’.

    I ended up watching Live Aid while working on a summer camp near Toledo, Ohio so caught only fragments of the concert – and didn’t get the full-on experience of watching it all day on BBC

  52. 52
    punctum on 22 Sep 2009 #

    To an extent Manu Dibango (who IIRC also did some stuff for Laswell/CellulOid around this time) achieved that with his “Tam-Tam Pour L’Ethiopie,” the Actual African Band Aid record which came out as a double A-side with the Jerry Dammers/2-Tone “Starvation” project. Only a minor Top 40 hit but it got huge coverage in the NME at the time and the Dibango side isn’t half bad.

  53. 53

    ooh yes i’d forgotten about that entirely — must dig it out and play it! also manu d totally invented michael jackson!

  54. 54
    Conrad on 22 Sep 2009 #

    #40, I used to enjoy reading Christgau and have a well-thumbed copy of Rock Albums of the 70s, but his musical conservatism became a bore. The lauding of dull acts like The Band, the overrating of the Byrds and Big Star, and he’s on more comfortable ground discussing a Stones live album in 82 then a Dollar record. I can’t take his opinion seriously anymore, certainly not post new wave.

    Also, as Swanstep eloquently puts it at 47, this presumptious and didactic style of rock criticism really is off-putting.

    As for the record, absolutely horrendous. Bloated, imperialist corporate America, no thanks.

    #43, I’d have liked a bit of toasting from Ranking Roger added to that particular mix

    Actually, why wasn’t Jerry Dammers on Band Aid?

  55. 55
    Tom on 22 Sep 2009 #

    Where Christgau’s taste departs from mine is his Euroscepticism mostly but I’ve never thought of him as conservative in taste exactly: certainly not compared to Marcus or Marsh (though I haven’t kept up on Marsh’s views).

  56. 56

    I know it’s the thing that Meltzer twitted him about — viciously too, being Meltzer — but one of the things I admire, as pointed out I think by Chuck Eddy, is that if you look at the mark Christgau gave some minor LP by Joe Jackson that no one else remembers the name of, and compare the original mark with the mark in “Rock Albums of 80s”, he’s adjusted it, from D to C-: meaning he diligently re-listened to it! And all the others! Which is kind of mental and kind of awesome — what a pro!

    Of course I never listen to anything in case I taint my objectivity (/whiskered old mark s joke): so, no! *I* am the anti-xgau!

  57. 57
    MikeMCSG on 22 Sep 2009 #

    # 54 Interesting question Conrad. I’d guess one or more of these were correct

    a) The Special AKA album had bombed completely; Bob may have thought one has-been (i.e himself) on the project was enough.
    b) He was/is a control freak and without any vocal/instrumental talent to bring to the party he’d have wanted to be on the top team.
    c) he’d have wanted to politicise the venture possibly compromising its reach (look how they kept Weller on a leash).

  58. 58
    LondonLee on 22 Sep 2009 #

    #29 “J. Arthur Rank” is rhyming slang for something, erm, completely different.

    Wasn’t there some minor scandal at the time about there being a lavish catered buffet for the stars at the end of the recording session?

  59. 59
    Conrad on 22 Sep 2009 #

    57, I was thinking of his prominent role, i.e.composer/producer etc on Free Nelson Mandela – and he was a talented keyboard player, although I take your point about control-freakery/star on the wane

  60. 60
    MikeMCSG on 22 Sep 2009 #

    #59 Terry Hall alleged that Jerry couldn’t play anything well enough for recording purposes though of course he’s not an unbiased source.

  61. 61
    lonepilgrim on 22 Sep 2009 #

    re 57 I think (c) probably played a big part. Jerry Dammers was instrumental in organising the Artists against Apartheid concert on Clapham Common in 1986 (at which Boy George memorably appeared in white face and a slogan covered outfit – and less memorably I consumed at least one bottle of white wine and can barely recall any of the acts). He was around the University of London (including SOAS) when I was there between 85-86. He also helped organise the Mandela birthday concerts.

    He’s quoted in a recent interview in the Independent:
    Today, Dammers supports the Love Music Hate Racism charity, but finds the environment depressingly changed. “Most bands nowadays aren’t really political,” he says. “They’re looking after their careers, and for some reason they think getting involved will affect that. God knows why. I was disappointed with Live 8, too. Saying we’re just going to raise awareness – that’s all right if it’s in the music, if the artists are actually committed politically and are putting it in their lyrics. But just having someone on the stage singing about something that’s got nothing to do with it, how that’s going to raise political awareness I don’t know.”

  62. 62
    Jonathan Bogart on 22 Sep 2009 #

    It occurs to me that a further cultural divide might be in British v. American attitudes towards hymnody — “We Are The World” is after all a secular hymn (much like “Bridge Over Troubled Water”), with the usual faults of facile lyrics and repetitive dum-dum melodies towards which modern (and historical!) hymns trend. (This I think is some of what Christgau was getting at in his insistence on seeing WATW as an extension of gospel tradition.)

    My impression is that British music listeners mostly experience hymns as part of an official culture with which they’re not personally engaged; while Americans, even those who aren’t regular churchgoers, see church singing as an outgrowth of personal passion, in which “is it good” matters much less than “is it sincere.”

    I personally have quite a lot of affection for hymnody, thanks to my upbringing and general interest in music history; which isn’t to say that I like “We Are The World” — I just don’t dislike it for that specific reason.

  63. 63
    koganbot on 22 Sep 2009 #

    Xgau reviewed seven Joe Jackson albums in the ’80s in his Consumer Guide, grading none higher than a B or lower than a C-PLUS. He’d originally given Night And Day a B but when he re-reviewed it for the book he lowered the grade to B-MINUS.

    Both Xgau and Chuck Eddy have a second body each; their normal body carries out the regular activities of life: eating, sleeping, writing, etc. The second body does nothing but listen to records.

  64. 64
    Tom on 22 Sep 2009 #

    #62 – I think it’s fairer to say that British people tend to see hymns as a matter of communal rather than personal engagement – there’s a strong tradition of religious singing (which spilled over into secular singing) but not a lot of room for the solo passion that’s a hallmark of gospel.

    We have a good opportunity to think about the idea of the ‘secular hymn’ in a few entries’ time, in fact.

  65. 65
    taDOW on 23 Sep 2009 #

    the cut to mj in the video is presumably due to that part of the song having to be recorded later (it was initially to be prince’s line but then he no-showed – either due to having to bail out a bodyguard or just generally thinking this was corny i forget which – and mj had to step in). strange that by this point prince had peaked stateside and was already receiving blowback but in the uk was such a nonfactor that “i feel for you” (the closest the classic prince sound gets to #1) gets snarked at as nonrepresentative of 80s soul (unlike “careless whisper or “do you really want to hurt me?” apparently). the other notable non-hiphop big (arguably peaked also) in 1984 omission here: madonna. though she did play live-aid (as did run dmc). as for the tracks neither are great to listen to but they’re fun objects – prefer ‘we are the world’ for straight gawk factor and actual performances, much prefer the verses in ‘we are the world’ vs. the verses in ‘do they know it’s xmas’, slightly prefer the chorus to ‘do they know it’s xmas’ vs ‘watw’. much more likely to actually listen to ‘xmas’. much much much more likely to watch this or of course this. big ups to japanese bruce as always.

  66. 66
    taDOW on 23 Sep 2009 #

    god in terms of lineup and actual track how much does ‘sun city’ absolutely slay both these records! dylan and bono! the fat boys!

  67. 67
    MichaelH on 23 Sep 2009 #

    I think the comparison with Sun City is very interesting here. Sun City is just as clumsy a record – more fun to listen to the first time, but equally vapid the second – so I suspect it’s only the combination of cause and artists (Joey Ramone! Run DMC! George Clinton! etc) that makes it seem so much more appealing. It’s also staggeringly, horrifically, unforgivably long. It does, though, have the advantage of being recognisably a pop record, unlike We Are the World.

  68. 68
    MikeMCSG on 23 Sep 2009 #

    Sun City doesn’t bother the bunny because it didn’t even make the Top 20 here, a combination of melody-deficiency, too many unfamiliar artists (to a mainstream audience) and boycotting by fans of artists who were implicitly being criticised in the lyrics and explicitly in publicity for the single. In the process it fractured the charity consensus; Queen felt they were unfairly singled out due to resentment at their stealing the show at Live Aid.

  69. 69
    Rory on 23 Sep 2009 #

    Hence Queen’s 1986 riposte, “Who Wants to Give Forever?”

  70. 70
    taDOW on 23 Sep 2009 #

    ‘self destruction’>>’bad cover version’>’we’re all in the same gang’>’sun city’>>’we’re stars’>>>>>’kidney aid’>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>’do they know it’s xmas’>’we are the world’>>>>>’hands across america’>’voices that care’

  71. 71
    Rosie Hunter on 26 Sep 2009 #

    Would love to know how many of those over inflated egoed Sceptics actually even knew where Africa was when they recorded the worst song in history…
    Will never forget an article at the time comparing the Brits recording ‘Do they know.., wherer they all just pitched up one Sunday as opposed to the Sceptics ‘Hospitality area and skiny Latte & Cappucino machines…

    Like everything else we did it first and we did it better – bring back Maggie!!!!

  72. 72
    Pete on 26 Sep 2009 #

    Ah the Sceptic Tank, the behemoth of the battlefield rumbling round, disbelieving everyone.

  73. 73
    lonepilgrim on 3 Feb 2010 #

    AIEEE!!! It’s back:


    mind you, the UK/Simon Cowell produced version of ‘Everybody hurts’ sounds even worse

  74. 74
    Tom on 3 Feb 2010 #

    I am at least vaguely intrigued to hear Lil Wayne’s bit which is more than I can say for anything on the Cowell horrorshow. Though I will be doing my bit and buying that for review once it inevitably gets to #1.

  75. 75
    vinylscot on 14 Dec 2010 #

    Vaguely amusing video using this as soundtrack (You’ve probably seenm the “Let it Be” from the same people recently)


  76. 76
    seekenee on 28 Apr 2012 #

    This always irritated me, esp. Bruce and Cyndi. I picked this up very cheap in the 90s just to have it but I will never play it. The checking in of the egos was obviously untrue, Michael Jackson’s appearance in the video is preceded by a shot of his glove or his shoes? – unsubtle bit of showbiz buildup they couldn’t resist – I remember thinking, c’mon who does he/they think he is? (since i wrote this I see this has been noted above – makes more sense if it was filmed separately but still this old style hollywood star approach seems vulgar for this record)

  77. 77
    Lazarus on 29 Apr 2012 #

    Actually, unpatriotic as it may seem, I always preferred this to Band Aid, the more so for being more slick and polished. Cyndi’s part was probably my favourite bit – the equivalent of That Line, as sung by Bono, I suppose – and there is still some fun to be gained from listening to the song and identifying the singers in turn (Kenny Loggins and Steve Perry would catch many Brits out, I guess). The little vocal duels in the long fade-out – Springsteen vs Stevie – also appealed to me. It’s not a record I would want to hear that often, but I would go at least a 5 I think.

  78. 78
    Alfred on 30 Apr 2012 #

    #35 is right on: “the second chorus — Springsteen! Kenny Loggins! Steve Perry! Daryl Hall! All of whom were clearly instructed to sound as much as possible like themselves! — is fucking glorious.”

    I’ll add the novel idea of following Dionne Warwick with Willie Nelson.

  79. 79
    DanH on 12 Aug 2013 #

    When I was a young’in, I saw some big deal cartoon special Cartoon All Stars to the Rescue, where all the favorite Saturday morning cartoon characters (circa ’89-’90) band together to stop a kid from using drugs. As a kid, I was focused more on ‘wow! Garfield hanging out with Baby Kermit! The Smurfs and Cartoon Alf talking to each other!’ than the actual message. I imagine a lot of people had this same kind of reaction with WATW, and I still do today (agree with #35 in particular).
    That Dylan part is a good reminder to non-Dylan followers that the ’80s were a verrrrrry bad time for him/

  80. 80
    hectorthebat on 24 Dec 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1002
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Dave Marsh (USA) – The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made (1989) 717
    Life (USA) – 40 Years of Rock & Roll, 5 Songs for Each Year 1952-91 (Updated 1995)
    RIAA and NEA (USA) – 365 Songs of the Century (2001) 121
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 50 Best Michael Jackson Songs (2014) 35
    San Antonio Express-News (USA) – Rock ‘n’ roll timeline (2004)
    Steve Sullivan (USA) – Encyclopedia of Great Popular Song Recordings (2013) 21-100
    The Guardian (UK) – 1000 Songs Everyone Must Hear (2009)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)
    Grammy Awards (USA) – Record of the Year Winner
    Rolling Stone (USA) – Singles of the Year 4
    Village Voice (USA) – Singles of the Year 17

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