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Charity begins at the microphone


Assumptions are made to be challenged. And a few of them get challenged after watching The Greatest Night In Pop, a documentary about the making of the 1985 charity single We Are The World.

Let’s acknowledge a few elephants in the room right away. For a start, calling this ‘the greatest night in pop’ is a stretch. Sure, nearly 50 of the biggest names in US music were gathered in A&M Recording Studios in Hollywood on January 28, 1985. Those names included Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Billy Joel, Kenny Rogers, Bette Midler, Dionne Warwick, Diana Ross, Cyndi Lauper, Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan.

But I’d suggest that February 9, 1964, when The Beatles first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, galvanising a nation, and subsequently the world, may have slightly more of a claim on that title.

And secondly, I’m going to throw objectivity out the window here and just say it – as a song, We Are The World is absolute schlock. This isn’t unusual. Charity singles in general are mawkish, chintzy affairs. I’ve bought them over the years to support the causes, but The Special AKA’s single Free Nelson Mandela and the Concert For Bangladesh triple-album are among the few I would play for enjoyment.

As Springsteen notes in suitably guarded fashion in the documentary: ‘People can look at the song and judge it aesthetically, but at the end of the day I looked at it like it was a tool. And, as such, it did a pretty good job.’

You don’t have to read too much between the lines to infer the Boss didn’t think much of the song either.

Do They Know It’s Christmas? was released the month before, pulled together by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, and featuring the likes of George Michael, Boy George, Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Sting, Bono, Bananarama and Paul Weller. The sound of Bono sanctimoniously wailing ‘tonight thank God it’s them instead of you’ still sends a little shiver down my spine, and not in a good way. But despite the song’s cringe factor, it had a rousing feel beloved of Christmas singles, and is still several notches above We Are The World. And it came first. We Are The World sounds very much like the Yanks trying to catch up. 


'Naturally, there are criticisms of rich, famous people doing charity songs. They’re pilloried for being preachy, for ramming their opinions down our throats, and for asking regular people to cough up money for a cause when they have millions of dollars to spare.'


Still, this documentary is a fascinating fly-on-the-wall timepiece. It turns out the song wasn’t a meticulously planned operation months in the making, but a last-minute thing, a logistical nightmare, and something that could have fallen apart at any moment. 

Also, it was the brainchild of Harry Belafonte, who had seen the famine in Ethiopia first-hand, saw what Geldof had done with a large group of mainly white English pop stars, and, as Lionel Richie says in the film, Belafonte wondered out aloud why ‘we have white folks saving black folks, but we don’t have black folks saving black folks.’

The most heart-warming moment in the film is when the entire group of superstars acknowledges and applauds Belafonte, and then spontaneously breaks into his most famous song, Day-O (The Banana Boat Song).

We Are The World itself was the work of Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, and Richie gets some laughs about working on it at Hayvenhurst, Jackson’s home in Encino, doing a good imitation of Jackson and telling tales about the star’s chimpanzee and python.

In fact, Richie comes across as a good-natured human dynamo and the glue that held the entire operation together. He spent the evening hosting and performing at the American Music Awards and then worked all night long (sorry, it had to be said) on the recording of the song, wrangling egos and encouraging everyone to keep up their energy levels.

Producer Quincy Jones put up a sign in the studio: Check Your Ego At The Door.

Although it was largely adhered to, there were moments. Prince was invited but said he would only agree to do a guitar solo, and only then if he could record it in a separate room away from everyone. When it was explained that there was no guitar solo, and everyone was singing in the studio together, he declined to show up. His percussionist/backing vocalist Sheila E eventually left the studio, feeling she’d only been invited to try to lure Prince.

At one point Stevie Wonder says that they should sing some lines in Swahili. This is met with scratched heads, and with country singer Waylon Jennings walking out, muttering ‘Ain’t no good ol’ boy ever sung Swahili. Think I’m out of here.’ The idea is scrapped when it’s pointed out that they don’t actually speak Swahili in Ethiopia, and then Geldof, who had been invited to the session, explains that the song’s purpose is to reach the people who will give money to help them.

In fact, Geldof provides the most sobering moment in the film when he comes in at the beginning of recording and explains to this group of stars exactly why they’re there, listing horrifying statistics about the famine. As you watch him speak so eloquently and passionately, you get the feeling he’s putting those egos in place.

Once the recording starts, it’s fascinating to see the various personalities come to the fore. Ray Charles, one of the most legendary names in the room, jokes around and makes people feel at ease. Huey Lewis is visibly intimidated. Cyndi Lauper overdoes it, virtually screaming into the microphone. Al Jarreau is drunk.

And Bob Dylan? Well, the footage of him is the most revealing of all, as we see one of the most enigmatic figures in music history clearly looking awkward and out of his element. As he hears powerhouse singers such as Diana Ross and Tina Turner do their thing, it’s almost as if he realises he’s not in the same league vocally, at least in a traditional sense. Sure enough, when it comes time for him to sing, he clams up and mumbles.

And then something magical happens. Stevie Wonder beckons him over to the piano and does a perfect imitation of Dylan, showing him how he could sing the lines as himself. Dylan cracks a smile and laughs. Then he goes up to the microphone and nails it.

The group spent all night recording and by the time the sun came up the next morning they had a song that may have had all the bite of a cola commercial jingle, but it sold over 20 million copies and raised more than $US60 million – and that’s 1985 dollars.

Naturally, there are criticisms of rich, famous people doing charity songs. They’re pilloried for being preachy, for ramming their opinions down our throats, and for asking regular people to cough up money for a cause when they have millions of dollars to spare.

The only time I ever made the august pages of British music weekly Melody Maker was a letter I had published after Do They Know It’s Christmas? came out. English music writers Fred and Judy Vermorel had written a piece lambasting Geldof and the other UK stars for what they saw as a patronising, guilt-relieving act instead of a charitable one.

My young, bolshy self was riled by this, and I said so in an impassioned letter. I wrote that yes, these stars were rich and privileged and had lives that were largely out of touch with the reality of how most of the public lived. But at least they were using their high profiles and fame for something good rather than doing nothing. Wasn’t that something to be encouraged?

I may no longer be that young and bolshy, but I still think I was on the money. With that said, I still think that We Are The World is a rubbish song. But as The Greatest Night In Pop shows, that’s not really the point.




Barry Divola is an author, musician and journalist who writes regularly for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. His latest book is the novel Driving Stevie Fracasso. Follow his writing at: authory.com/BarryDivola

Main image: USA for Africa in a 1985 promotional photo. (WikiCommons)

Topic tags: Barry Divola, Charity, USA for Africa, We are the World, Pop, Music, The Greatest Night In Pop



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