Wednesday, April 15, 2015

USA For Africa - We Are the World

This month marks the thirtieth anniversary of We Are the World, the compilation album from a collection of artists known as USA For Africa that was released to raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia. The record was a huge seller the world over; here in the US it debuted at number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and held that spot for three consecutive weeks. It had an overall run on the Billboard Album chart for twenty-two weeks.

Side one begins with the seven minute long title track. "We Are the World" was the American follow-up to the UK's Band-Aid and their song "Do They Know It's Christmas" from late in 1984. As a single, it went to number 1 in Australia (for seven weeks), Belgium, Canada (for two weeks), Finland, France (for two weeks), Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands (for five weeks), New Zealand (for six weeks), Norway, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK. In the US, it went to number 76 on the Billboard Country chart, number 27 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart, and number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 (for three weeks), the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart, the Billboard Dance chart, and the Billboard R&B chart (for two weeks).

The song was penned by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie and was recorded in two sessions - the first on January 22nd and then the rest on January 28th right after the American Music Awards ceremony. The main line-up of soloists was a who's who on the charts at the time: Richie, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Kenny Rogers, James Ingram, Tina Turner, Billy Joel, Jackson, Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick, Willie Nelson, Al Jarreau, Bruce Springsteen, Kenny Loggins, Steve Perry, Daryl Hall, Huey Lewis, Cyndi Lauper, Kim Carnes, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. The band was made up of many noted session performers including Michael Boddicker and Greg Phillinganes. The chorus was also filled with many famous folks including Dan Aykroyd, Harry Belafonte, Lindsey Buckingham, Sheila E., Bob Geldof, the Jacksons, Waylon Jennings, Bette Midler, John Oates, Jeffrey Osborne, the Pointer Sisters and Smokey Robinson.

Back in 1985, you could not escape this song. It was on the radio constantly, and I can remember a time when MTV would show the video almost hourly. It provided a feeling of unity and accomplishment, like just by buying a song we could make a difference in the world. Ah to have that naïve optimism of a twenty-year old again. One of my favorite games to play when it came on, even today, was to identify who is singing at any given moment. Another game, when singing along, is to mimic the vocal styles and their facial expressions from the video. Come on, you know you've done Dylan's part before - admit it.

Next is Steve Perry with "If Only for the Moment, Girl", a light and breezy love song. The track has appeared on more recent CD re-releases of his 1984 album Street Talk as a bonus. For me, it is the weak link on this solid first half of the record.

The Pointer Sisters contributed "Just a Little Closer", an up-tempo dance tune. By 1985, I had become a big fan of their music so this was a welcome addition to my music library. I recall hearing this one a few times out in the clubs during the summer of that year.

A live version of "Trapped", a cover of Jimmy Cliff reggae deep cut, by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band ends side one. The album-oriented rock stations played this haunting rocker quite a bit during 1985 as Springsteen's live recordings were starting to become huge draw.

Side two opens with "Tears Are Not Enough", from a Canadian super-group called Northern Lights. The song was co-written by David Foster and Bryan Adams along with others. The vocal performances included a who's who of Canada's finest: Gordon Lightfoot, Burton Cummings, Anne Murray, Joni Mitchell, Dan Hill, Neil Young, Adams, Corey Hart, Bruce Cockburn, Geddy Lee (of Rush), and Mike Reno (of Loverboy). The chorus included Paul Anka, John Candy, Eugene Levy, Martha Johnson (of Martha and the Muffins), Aldo Nova, Paul Shaffer, and Catherine O'Hara. I like how they mix solo performances and duets, giving the song its own identity. Living in Rochester, NY, at the time, I remember we heard this one a bit on the radio as well since we were so close to the Canadian border.

Prince chose not to participate in the recording of "We Are the World" even though he was asked. Instead, he and the Revolution contributed "4 the Tears in Your Eyes", an acoustic parable with Biblical overtones.

Chicago follows with "Good for Nothing", an up-tempo tune co-written by Richard Marx and David Foster.

Tina Turner's slow, smoldering rocker "Total Control" is next. I like the stripped down, raw sound of this one. Turner has the perfect voice to pull it off.

"A Little More Love" by Kenny Rogers bounces in next with a bit of hope and optimism.

Closing out the record is a live version of "Trouble in Paradise", a song first performed by Huey Lewis and the News on their self-titled 1980 debut album. The live rendition is amazing in part because the News was such a fantastic live band. What you heard on the records is what you would hear at shows.

I owned a copy of We Are the World on vinyl back in 1985. My primary motivation for the purchase was the Prince track, but I found I enjoyed quite a bit of the album upon those first multiple listenings during the tail end of my sophomore year of college. I was always a fan of these kind of "team up" records and appreciated that it was, for the most part, all new and original material. Over the recent years, I've managed to piece together from various sources the entire record so I could listen to it digitally on my iPod.


HERC said...

My own 30th Anniversary with this album occurred three weeks ago.

As I said then, the interwebs and specifically Wikipedia have the album's street date wrong for the U.S. I have found an article on page 3 of the April 13th, 1985 issue of Billboard (via Google Books) that discusses the album's release as well as another article from the Broward County-Palm Beach Sentinel dated April 2, 1985 interviewing people who had just bought the album. It should be noted that there are discrepancies between the two articles as far as how many copies of the album were initally shipped to stores. Also the Billbard article hints at an impending CD pressing that wouldn;t occur for another five years.

Other articles as well as flyers and inserts advertising other USA For Africa merch point out that the cassette version was priced at $12.50, selling for over three dollars more than the vinyl album's $8.98 wholesale. As someone who bought less than 10 pre-recorded cassette tapes ever, I am curious if this was standard practice, pricing cassettes higher than vinyl? Martin, I know you and some of your readers bought tapes back in the day - remember any price discrpencies betweeen the formats?

Martin Maenza said...

Yeah, dates are tough to nail sometimes. My bad. As for cassette prices, I can't help on this one. I did not buy cassettes regularly until the summer of 85 and only until the end of 87.