In 1984, BBC journalist Michael Buerk did a series of reports covering what he described as ‘the closest thing to hell on Earth’ – the horrific famine that was impacting Ethiopia. Boomtown Rats singer Bob Geldolf was deeply affected by the video footage streaming across his television screen- of images taken from the humanitarian crisis- and decided to raise funds to provide aid to the ravaged country. Playing to his most honed skill of making albums, Geldolf gathered some of his famous artist friends to record a charity single, the result being the now Yuletide classic, Band Aid‘s Do They Know Its Christmas?
First released on December 3 of 1984, the single went on to reach number one in 13 countries as well as in the UK, and still holds the number two spot of all-time biggest singles on Britain’s Official Charts- surpassed only by Elton John’s tribute to the late Princess Diana, Something About the Way You Look Tonight/Candle in the Wind 97’.
Belafonte Picks Up The Torch
American performer Harry Belafonte saw how successful the Geldolf-led effort had been for raising awareness and cash for the crisis and decided to duplicate the philanthropic efforts in the US. As in the UK, one high-profile artist begot another in an expected domino effect of participation, resulting in over 40 chart-toppers committing to be a part of the project. Under the banner-name of USA for Africa, Belafonte- with artist manager and friend Ken Kragen– wrangled two of Kragen’s clients, Kenny Rogers and Lionel Ritchie, to participate. This duo then drafted Stevie Wonder, who in turn rang producer Quincy Jones. Jones, who had worked with Michael Jackson on three previous projects, including Off the Wall and Thriller, dialled up the superstar. Originally, Wonder and Ritchie were tasked with writing the single; however, Wonder had already been engaged to make the soundtrack album for the Gene Wilder / Kelly LeBrock vehicle The Woman in Red, and soon dipped out of the mix. Jackson, who had already signed up to be a featured vocalist on the track, is said to have confided to Ritchie that he wanted to help write the song as well, replacing Wonder as co-pilot.
For a week, the two Motown legends sequestered themselves in the evenings to Jackson’s bedroom at his family home in Encino. Their aspiration was to craft an easy to remember and sing tune with a catchy chorus. However, it was not until the night before the recording sessions were start to commence- January 21, 1985- that Jackson and Ritchie completed what would be the final melody and words for the track. The next day, work started at Kenny Rogers’ Los Angeles studio, with Jones, Jackson, Wonder and Ritchie being joined by an assortment of musicians and film crews. The result of this initial session was a ‘vocal guide’ featuring Ritchie and Jackson. This was to be provided to all of the participating artists in preparation for the large group recording, accompanied by a note from Jones beseeching secrecy from all. Every tape was to be returned to Jones on the night of the full recording (so it will probably be fruitless to search Discogs for one).
Putting the Pieces Together
With so many different voices and ranges to choose from, Jones tasked his own arranger and associate producer Tom Bahler with matching soloist with appropriate verses to sing, figuring out how best to capitalize on the unique opportunity to have so many different icons on one record. This could not have been an easy task, as surely Bahler had to also take on board the various personalities and egos that the project brought together. Ritchie was also aware of potential clashes and spent the night before the full session ‘choreographing’ a schematic for where each performer should stand during the official filming of the song.
However, We Are the World has not had the same staying power as its British peer. With its holiday theme, Do They Know Its Christmas? is played every year around the globe during the festive season, making it part of the contemporary and timeless songbook. And while Jackson and Ritchie successfully accomplished their goal of creating a track that was easy to remember the same attribute- paired with the slow, near-ballad tempo- make it a bit cloying and too simple, lacking any specialness apart from the incredible star-studded line up. The song itself- if stripped of the glitz of A-listers- is fairly naïve and not compelling in the same way as the Geldof tune. There is a European melancholy and darkness in ‘Do They Know’ that gives it a self-effacing and action oriented message: ‘No farewell and no hug/ everyone dies alone… Heal the world/ Feel the world.’ Contrastingly, the American tune has an almost singular smugness about it, as if the Yanks are going to come to the rescue and save the day: ‘We are the ones who make a brighter day, so let’s start giving.’
It feels a bit wrong to be overly critical of such an incredible effort and iconic song. In what other context would Bob Dylan and the Pointer Sisters be performing at the same time, on the same stage, singing the same words? ‘We Are the World’ is a perfect time capsule snapshot, of the American state of mind, the American music charts and industry as well a moment when it did seem that music could indeed make a social, political and literally life-saving difference. It was also an example of how fans could feel like they, too, were directly interacting, shoulder to shoulder, with their favourite artists, in the fight against famine. By purchasing a 7”, you would be taking a stand and making a change. In our current arguably vapid economy of clicks, likes and followers, such honest and straight forward consuming for good seems centuries, not simply decades, in the past.