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CHARITY SONGS OF THE 80s/90s

In 1984, Bob Geldof threw together a bunch of England's finest performers and recorded "Do They Know It's Christmas". The success spawned at least 9 different other celebrity benefit singles that serve as bizarre all-star teams of their respective music genres of the time, like some sort of musical version of The Justice League. Some may have proven more effective in others in getting their points across or evils vanquished, but together, they're a mind-blowing testament to use fame to sell some records and perhaps help out their fellow man (after video editing, limousine and hotel expenses).

ARTISTS UNITED AGAINST APARTHEID
"I AIN'T GONNA PLAY SUN CITY" (1985)

 

"Sun City" by Artists United Against Apartheid is arguably the coolest of the multi-celebrity benefit songs. Steven van Zandt and Arthur Baker brought together Miles Davis, Peter Gabriel, Bono, Springsteen, Lou Reed, Herbie Hancock, Bob Dylan, Peter Garrett, Run DMC, Joey Ramone, and numerous others for not only a catchy songs and video, but an entire album which is sadly out of print, but contained tracks like "Silver and Gold" (featuring Bono, Keith Richards, and Ron Wood), "No More Apartheid" (a really cool stream of conscious protest wail by Peter Gabriel), and a very cool "Let Me See Your ID" which featured rap and poetry by Gil Scott-Heron, Peter Wolf and others set to new music by Davis and Hancock. The documentary (which is only VHS) is a great making of picture with near full length videos of each song included. The video for "Sun City" is a bit sloppily edited but is a great snapshot of the more edgy music of the time (if you look the other way when Hall and Oates appear). The real "what the hell" moment in the bunch is watching Daryl Hannah sing with Jackson Browne. And it's always fun to see van Zandt and pretending it's Silvio from The Sopranos singing.

 

HEAR 'N AID
"STARS" (1985)

 

Even the combined power of Satan's finest rockers couldn't save this ill-conceived and largely forgettable song, "Stars" which sounds like a bunch of cats being thrown into a chipper shredder. Even the chorus, "We're Stars" just sounds like a big self-indulgent yank-fest as sincere about charity as The Chicago Bears' "Super Bowl Shuffle". The song reportedly earned a million for charity, which probably wasn't enough to cover the hair spray budget for this video. Also unintentionally funny is the sub-titles actually explaining who everyone is as they sing "We're Stars!", lest you're too gauche to recognize the drummer from Quiet Riot.

 

WEST COAST ALL STARS
"WE'RE ALL IN THE SAME GANG" (1990)

 

While attempting to quell gang violence is a noble cause, 1990's "We're All In The Same Gang" missed the mark with an incredibly crappy effort and an even more ludicrous video. Though it gets point for having a super cool Digital Underground segment with Shock G and Humpty Hump trading lines, the rest of it makes you wish a giant drive by would just shut everyone up. It's also hypocritically funny to see NWA rapping about how the violence has to stop when the lyrics of nearly all of their other songs preach the exact opposite. Ice Cube even used their role in this tune to diss them in his song "No Vaseline":

"Got damn, I'm glad ya'll set it off.
Used to be hard, now you're just wet and soft.
First you was down with the AK,
and now I see you on a video with Michel'le?"

The video winds down with hardcore gangsta MC Hammer hopping around in his disco pants. Also funny is the gang members all wearing bright yellow, so as not to offend the blue and red wearing Crips and Bloods.

 

STOP THE VIOLENCE
"SELF DESTRUCTION" (1989)

 

But a year before "We're All In The Same Gang" came out, the east coast rappers of the day were pulled together by KRS One, inspired by the fatal shooting of a fan at a concert he shared a bill with Public Enemy at. The song is much better produced, and has some lyrics that are far deeper and more meaningful. I guess it helped that most of the people featured in this were already positive members of the rap community.

 

USA FOR AFRICA
"WE ARE THE WORLD" (1985)

 

Not to be outdone by the Brits, Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie got together with nearly every popular artist in America on a cold January day and recorded the sappy yet memorable "We Are The World". The best parts of which are Bob Dylan's and Ray Charles' lines. Plus you get a glimpse of Jackson in his 1985 prime with a classic camera shot that starts at his glittery socks, then sparkly glove, then his still mostly black face. Also funny is the segment which mixes Stevie Wonder singing next to a scary jumbo-sized Springsteen head. The amount of America's top talent in this video is mind-boggling, and had a bomb hit that building there's be nothing but Stryper and El Debarge left. Waylon Jennings apparently was supposed to be in the song, but got pissed off about something and took off before the recording started. You can buy a 20th Anniversary version of the DVD at the Official USA For Africa Website.

 

BAND AID
"DO THEY KNOW IT'S CHRISTMAS" (1984)

 

The granddaddy of them all, the Bob Geldof produced "Do They Know It's Christmas" inspired the Live-Aid concerts and all of the other celeb charity songs that followed. Still, the song is rather stupid and one of the more annoying tunes ever recorded. Does anyone in Africa even give a fuck about Christmas whether they're hungry or not? The white mentality of the song is stupid throughout, stating that "nothing ever grows" or moaning about how "there won't be snow in Africa this Christmastime". Good thing, that'd probably kill everyone that hasn't already died of hunger. Sadly, large amounts of money raised by this song, and ultimately Live-Aid went to fund "brutal resettlement programs that may have killed up to 100,000". The video is still fun to watch, though, with Bono's odd line "Tonight thank God it's them, instead of youuuu! still sounding powerful after two decades.

 

BAND AID 20
"DO THEY KNOW IT'S CHRISTMAS" (2004 REMAKE)

 

To celebrate the 20th Anniversary of Band Aid's original classic, Bob Geldof got Coldplay, Robbie Williams, Paul McCartney, and a ton of people you mostly haven't heard of to re-record the song. As the video above shows, it's a lackluster montage of people recording their own bits in a closed studio, while they stare at footage of starving people in Africa on video screens.

 

THE KING DREAM CHORUS AND HOLIDAY CREW
"KING HOLIDAY" (1986)

This was a pretty forgettable effort, but the video at least has a fun albeit slightly corny opening with Martin Luther King Jr'.s son talking to some kids who are asking about his father. The video looks like it was shot in a high school gym, but I won't quibble about charity singles trying to keep costs down. Especially when you get the guilty pleasure of seeing Menudo singing next to New Edition. Whitney Houston taped her video in a different location but she delivers a nice performance nonetheless. Kurtis Blow and Run DMC also turn up. This song was released in 1986 to coincide with the first national recognition of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday that same year. Sadly, there's not much info on the net about this song, so if you know what charity actually got cash from this record, I'd love to know.


"HANDS ACROSS AMERICA" (1986)
 

Ken Kragen, one of the guys behind USA For Africa, but this ill-fated and largely forgettable fundraiser together which encouraged people to pay $10 so they could hold hands in a giant line that stretched all the way across America. Not only did the biggest outbreak of the cold and flu virus in US history occur on that day, but it didn't quite work, with several broken spots throughout the chain. In addition a lightning bolt hit one of the participants in Oklahoma, which injured tens of thousands across the state.

 

DIONNE WARWICK AND FRIENDS
"THAT'S WHAT FRIENDS ARE FOR" (1986)

 

Though smaller in scale than other "cast of many" efforts, this charity single was performed by Dionne Warwick, Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder. Reportedly, less than $60,000 of the more than $2 million raised by the song and organization actually made it to charity, with Warwick coming under fire for her lavish conditions used while representing the group. It's unclear whether or not her financial controversy encouraged Warwick to become a spokesperson for The Psychic Friends Network shortly afterward.

 

"VOICES THAT CARE" (1991)
 

Before the entertainment industry decided they hated the military (just kidding!) they got together in 1991 to record "Voices That Care" to support the troops involved in Desert Storm, resulting in one of the most odd collections of random celebrities ever assembled for such a project. Where else can you see Don King, Mickey Dolenz, and Kevin Costner singing in the same place? It's easily the worst of these songs ever made, which is amplified by ear shattering vocals by Celine Dion, Peter Ceterra, and Michael Bolton that may have actually made our troops become deserters and frag their superior officers as a result.

NORTHERN LIGHTS
"TEARS ARE NOT ENOUGH" (1985)

 

Thanks to retroCRUSH reader Tom F. who reminded me of Canada's contribution to the charity song genre, "Tears Are Not Enough", which may be our only chance to hear Gordon Lightfoot, Geddy Lee, and John Candy sing together. This song raised over $1 million for fighting hunger, but since it was in Canadian dollars, it was only enough to be a 10 bags of rice and a book of coupons for The Sizzler.

-Robert Berry
rberry@retrocrush.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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