Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Sun City

So it's been 33 years or so since the last (and without a question the best) of the Holy Trio of Mid-80s Superstar-Packed Issue Awareness Songs was written and recorded.

"Sun City." By Artists United Against Apartheid.

Thirty-three years.

Feel old, Scott?

(Scott: Bows head and weeps.)


First came "Do They Know It's Christmas" from some of our top British musicians of the time at the end of 1984, by a Rockestra-like outfit calling itself Band Aid and recorded to raise money for relief efforts for war and famine-torn Ethiopia. It was star-studded and catchy as hell, had multiple interior arrangements and actually was not at all a bad tune. Despite some lyrics that made you cringe. ("And there won't snow in Africa this Christmas.") Ugh.

Then three months came the maybe the biggest song of the 1980s and very possibly the most 80s song of the 1980s, "We Are the World." Done for the same very righteous and critical cause and recorded by a very very large group calling themselves USA For Africa. Three things were made crystal clear.

1) This without a doubt the greatest assemblage of musical talent in one room in the 20th century. I mean GEEZ. Michael Jackson, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner and Bruce Springsteen??? And we haven't mentioned Willie Nelson or Paul Simon or Lionel Richie or Billy Joel or Diana Ross??? Not to mention vocal titans like Cyndi Lauper and Darryl Hall and Steve Perry and James Ingram? Wow. And wow.

2) The song was unspeakably, unavoidably and almost malignantly catchy, not to mention as ubiquitous as any song of that decade.

3) The lyrics were as, well, shallow and acrid as any written in that era. ("You know love is all we need." "Send 'em your heart, so they know that someone cares.") Yikes.

The good news, of course, is both songs generated a ton of public awareness and money, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian relief and making way for that summer's monumental, bi-Atlantic concert spectacular, Live Aid. It worked. It didn't solve the problem, of course, but only a true cynic can naysay the effort or results.

Then came the third installment seven months later. This one had a totally different focus; same continent, different region and different cause. "Sun City" was the brainchild of then-former E Street Bandmate and then-current Disciple of Soul Little Steven Van Zandt, and it was a searing, seething indictment of South Africa's government-sponsored system of institutionalized racism, apartheid.

Hard to think about now, but in 1985 it really seemed that South Africa really was going to have carte blanche forever to enslave, repress and brutalize its 3/4 black population. Any efforts to raise awareness of the subhuman nature of apartheid was blunted, at least in part, by the refusal of the U.S. and Great Britain to push for any kind of action against South Africa, despite United Nations sanctions against the country. The U.S. official policy was coined "Constructive Engagement" by President Reagan's people, which in effect meant that if we kept treating them with generosity and aid they'd be inspired to change their ways.


So anyway. Little Steven traveled to South Africa to learn more and be shown the true and hideous underside of the apartheid government. Working with a TV journalist he became inspired to write the song to scream against the fact that numerous international musical acts were (very very wrongly) playing the signature South African resort venue of Sun City (located in the black township of Bophuthatswana and off-limits to black citizens) in direct defiance of the (very very correct) UN sanctions. Steven decided to write a song in protest of both apartheid and the idea of darkening Sun City's racist doorstep, and created one of the finest multi-racial and musically diverse collections of talent in music history.

"Sun City" didn't tug at the heartstrings; it sought to tear them out. The song was fast and angry as hell. And unlike the first two, it gave centerstage to the (at the time) burgeoning art forms of rap and hip-hop, which lent the song even more urgency and defiant underpinnings. So not only did we get supercool icons like Springsteen, Dylan, Lou Reed, Eddie Kendrick and David Ruffin, Bono, George Clinton, Joey Ramone and Bonnie Raitt, but we also got rising stars Run-DMC, Afrika Bambaataa and Kurtis Blow alongside genuine rap pioneers Kool DJ Herc and Grandmaster Melle Mel. Oh, and we also got Miles Davis. And Darlene Love. And Ruben Blades. And Jackson Browne. And Pat Benatar. And Bobby Womack. And Jimmy Cliff. And others. Holy moly what a collection!

So this unprecedented pairing of black and white musical stylistic royalty (which I believe even preceded the epochal Run DMC/Aerosmith "Walk This Way" pairing) resulted in a sprawling, nearly seven-minute indictment of one of the earth's most despicable countries and practices. And it wasn't a plea for understand or money. Nope. It was way more visceral and way more simple.

Got to say I, I, I
ain't gonna play Sun City!
Everybody say I, I, I,
ain't gonna play Sun City!

And as you see above, it had a video that accompanied it that, damn, remains one of my favorite videos of all time. It's a frenetic, multi-dimensional splatter painting that evokes the same rage, outrage and bitterness that the song does. Everyone is in top form vocally and musically, and everyone is in top form as a dominating visual presence. Check out Bonnie Raitt's strut. Check out Run-DMC's glorious intro. Check out Bob Dylan's detached cool. Check out Darlene Love's...command of the camera. And those aren't even my favorites.

But I do have favorites. Here's a list.

The Top 10 Coolest Thing About the "Sun City" Video, In Order of Coolness, From Awesomely Cool to the Coolest Thing Imaginable

1. (:29) Miles' haunting image to accompany his haunting horn at the outset.
2. (2:15) George Clinton's incredulous and petulant wide-eyed look that accompanies the incredulous and petulant words he sings.
3. (3:09) John Oates and Ruben Blades sharing a perfect harmony with a mesmerizing camera gaze.
4. (2:14) Bruce, Eddie and David slapping fives at the end of their verse.
5. (2:18) Joey Ramone seemingly popping into the set unannounced to spit some venom at the then-U.S. President.
6a. (4:38) Nona Hendryx just bringing the damn attitude with her "don't fuck with me" stare.
6b. (5:09) Ringo Starr and son playing drums together.
7. (:58 and 4:06) Grandmaster Melle Mel and Duke Bootie just holding court every second they're onscreen, including Duke brazenly flipping up his shades not once but TWICE!!!
8.(4:40)  Bono's coiled snake presence, which event outshone his mullet.
9. (first around 4:15 and then really around 6:15) Those unspeakably joyous crowdshots around Little Steven.
10.(3:12)  Lou Reed. Every single thing about him.

The Uncoolest Moments of the "Sun City" Video

1. (5:37) Peter Wolf's dancing.
2. There are no other uncool moments in the "Sun City" video.

What a moment in time. A truly great musical experience that crossed so damn many lines.

As the man sang, "Look around the world, baby. It cannot be denied."

1 comment:

  1. I could not possibly agree more with every bit of this.

    Some other favorite bits:

    Seeing Herbie Hancock dance.

    The always imposing sight of Midnight Oil's Peter Garrett.

    Jackson Browne with his shirt buttoned like a gangbanger.

    The juxtapositions, especially (but far from only) that of George Clinton and Joey Ramone. Good god, who would have thought of that one?!

    It's a bit too low in the mix, but at 4:09, Pete Townshend makes his guitar shriek in a tortured and utterly on the money manner.

    Also, on a more personal note, this was actually the recording that made me realize Bono was unambiguously the real thing and not just a pop flavor of the month (or many months by that point). He had the same line that Springsteen had delivered in a typically powerful Springsteenian manner earlier, and yet somehow the little Irish dude cut the Boss. He not only sang the same line more effectively, his shortly later "I" was even more devastating in its understated menace. Cutting Bruce Springsteen in the mid-80s was not something which many thought possible--certainly not I. And yet.