548. ‘We Are the World’, by USA for Africa

You wait thirty-odd years for a charity single, and then two come along in the space of four months…

We Are the World, by USA for Africa

2 weeks, from 14th – 28th April 1985

Trust the Americans, eh? They see a successful, popular original and, rather than just accept it, they have to remake it… Is ‘We Are the World’ to pop music what ‘The Office’ was to sitcoms, or ‘Ringu’ to horror movies? And in true American fashion, everything here is bigger than anything found on ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’: bigger production, bigger stars, a bigger song (literally… it’s over seven minutes long…)

Bigger, yes. But is it better? Well, no. From the minute the syrupy, faux-grandiose intro kicks in, you know what this is going to be. Seven long minutes of earnest, self-indulgent, do-gooding cheese. As with Band Aid, I try to identify as many voices as I can. Lionel Richie gets things underway, I can hear Stevie Wonder, and Kenny Rogers, and Michael Jackson on the chorus (he and Richie were the Geldof and Ure here in writing this behemoth, while Quincy Jones was on production duties). I can hear Diana Ross, and Cindi Lauper (who really goes for it). And Bob Dylan – this is the only time he’ll be appearing on a #1 single – and in true Bob Dylan fashion he sings his lines like your uncle obliviously singing along to something on his headphones… It’s true we make a better day, Just you and me… (it’s my personal highlight of the entire song, to be honest…)

I’m quite embarrassed by the voices I didn’t recognise, for this makes Band Aid look like a primary school assembly. George Michael? Bananarama? Pfft. They were clearly going for current acts, to attract the kids. USA for Africa is a ‘Who’s Who’ of American popular music, including Tina Turner, Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Dionne Warwick, Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, Ray Charles, all the Jacksons, Smokey Robinson, Bette Midler and Harry Belafonte (whose idea this whole thing was, after he’d seen the success of Band Aid) among many others. There was a sign above the studio asking these superstars to ‘check their egos at the door’, while Stevie Wonder joked that if the recording wasn’t finished in time he and the equally blind Ray Charles would be driving everyone home. And yet. None of these names, or this admirable attitude, manage to make this a particularly enjoyable listen…

For a start, what are they singing about? This was recorded for the same reason as Band Aid – to raise money for those starving through the famine in Ethiopia – but where ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ has so many memorable lines (for better or worse) this has very few. We are the world, We are the children… sticks with you, as does the soaring It’s a choice we’re making, We’re saving our own lives… (which is the best line, for me, musically). The rest just float past in a sea of glossy blandness. What they’re really missing, I think, is Status Quo…

Some people think charity records should get a free pass. That because they’re raising money they can be as crap as they want, and it’s our duty to buy them anyway. I disagree, and will not be holding back as I rip into charity singles on this countdown. Starting with this one. Just because it’s for a good cause doesn’t mean it shouldn’t try to be a good song. Plus, there’s always the uncomfortable sight of wildly rich recording artists – who could have donated a million dollars without blinking – caterwauling on about us all being a part of God’s great big family…

Still, despite it being a bloated fart of a record, ‘We Are the World’ actually ranks towards the higher end of the charity song scale. It was written by Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson, after all. And, as someone who has lived in Asia for many years, I can confirm that this is a much more widely-known song than ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’, largely thanks to the MJ-factor. Plus, this ‘We Are the World’ is for any time of year, not just Christmas… I was going to add that, unlike Band Aid, USA for Africa hadn’t been re-attempted. Except it turns out that it has been: in 2010, after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, featuring the likes of Justin Bieber and Kanye West, as well as Jackson’s original vocals. It made #2 in the US, but only #50 in the UK… There may well be a reason I’ve never knowingly heard it…

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24 thoughts on “548. ‘We Are the World’, by USA for Africa

  1. I have to agree with all you’re saying – especially Dylan having the best part of a pretty third-rate song, and about despite that, their making some effort to attract a better cross-section of major names than the mostly teen fare of Band Aid. (Which they did for The Crowd coming up shortly – Bruce Forsyth and Lemmy…). But the thing that sticks in my memory is – and I think if came from Geldof’s ‘Is That It’ – is that how a buffet was laid on for all USA for Africa performers after the recording session, and Diana Ross was seen with a plate of nibbles in her hand, saying excitedly how great it was to do something for Africa like that. When they recorded ‘Do…Christmas’ in London the previous year, for anyone who was peckish it was a case of ‘there’s a chippy down the road, sunshine’.

    • Yes, Diana Ross may be a legend of 20th century popular music, but I can’t see her taking kindly to being sent for a fish supper… That is my main problem with charity records: too much massaging of egos in appearing to ‘do good’, not enough hands in pockets from the multi-millionaires involved….

  2. The only two to give it life is Bob and Bruce… this was way too overblown and boring…at least to me. I agree with you.

  3. I bought this purely to give money to the cause. It was fine and fun guessing who was on it but it palled very quickly pretty much like every post Commodores lionel ritchie ballad. Want a better song in 1985? Err Springsteen. Wonder. Barry gibb. Paul simon. Billy joel. All available in the usa. Schmaltz works in the usa but doesnt travel well abroad to more cynical places where egos get called out….

    Good cause though.

    • Yeah, good cause… But the sight of Michael Jackson in full messiah mode (the rest of the artists had the decency to turn up in casual clothes, at least) makes me feel that this wasn’t just about the starving Africans…

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