White Label Wednesday: Artists United Against Apartheid, “Sun City”
Ladies and gentlemen, meet the rarest of breeds in the music world: the protest remix.
It’s unclear which is more inconceivable today: that a major label would release a stinging protest song aimed at the government of an extremely wealthy country, or that the song would crack the Top 40. But thanks to the overwhelming good will that came from Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” in late 1984 and USA for Africa’s “We Are the World” a few months later, benefit fatigue had thankfully not yet kicked in, and “Sun City,” shepherded by Steven Van Zandt, became a surprise hit in late 1985. Now consider some other curiosities about the track:
– Two of the verses feature rappers, a full six months before Run-DMC and Aerosmith would drop their game-changing collaboration.
– The production was by New York big beat maestro Arthur Baker, who was adored by musicians but not exactly known as a hitmaker.
– The majority of the artists who sang on the record hadn’t scored a Top 40 hit of their own in years, if ever.
Indeed, “Sun City” is about as hipster a benefit/protest record as you’re likely to find. Daryl Hall and John Oates, Pat Benatar and Bruce Springsteen are easily the biggest commercial names at the time to appear on the record, while socially conscious artists like Peter Gabriel, Midnight Oil’s Peter Garrett and, of course, Bono would find mainstream success in the coming years. The rest of the contributors are a who’s who of New York cool. Joey Ramone, Afrika Bambaataa, Kurtis Blow, Run-DMC, Duke Bootee, Grandmaster Melle Mel, Stiv Bators and Lou Reed all make appearances, as do Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, George Clinton, a pre-comeback Bonnie Raitt, Temptations David Ruffin and Eddie Kendrick, Jimmy Cliff, Peter Wolf, and Herbie Hancock. (Jackson Browne contributes as well, though getting him to work on a protest song back then was like shooting fish in a barrel.) Bob Geldof’s name appears on the 12″ single’s back cover, though one wonders if that was the benefit record equivalent to giving Berry Gordy writing credit on a Motown single; whether he contributed to the track or not, you gotta put Bob’s name on it.
The song itself is easily the best of the big benefit singles, with a crazy catchy “I ain’t gonna play Sun City” chorus and a slammin’ rhythm track assembled by Baker. And again, one must give credit to Van Zandt and Baker for leading off the song with rappers, an unprecedented move at the time. Some stations refused to play the song for that very reason – which just seems hilarious in today’s musical climate, where whitey is the odd man out – and that makes its rise into the Top 40 all the more impressive. What, then, would Baker do with the remix?
Go absolutely apeshit, that’s what. The A-side mix is over nine-and-a-half minutes long, and the “Not So Far Away” dub mix is a gargantuan twelve-and-a-half minutes. He samples Daryl Hall’s voice and turns it into a percussion track – something Girl Talk would turn into a copyright supervisor’s nightmare some 20 years later – and allows what I can only assume to be Hancock to noodle for the final five minutes of the dub mix. And, per usual, there are lots and lots of edits, though the credits for those edits go to Albert Cobrera (note the spelling) and Aldo Miran, which has to be the Latin Rascals (Albert Cabrera and Tony Moran) in disguise. Can anyone confirm or deny?
One of my favorite things about the A-side mix was how Baker turned the last lines in the verses sung by Springsteen, Bono and Bobby Womack into a cappella bits, only to bring the track thundering in on that fourth drum beat in the final measure. And man, listen to that Bono vocal. He hasn’t put anything that passionate to tape in ages.
These days, of course, “Sun City” has as much relevance as songs about occupied Germany, since apartheid came to an end in 1994. I am also reminded of a professor of mine who taught a class on the Sociology of Popular Music (help me out, Ohio University grads: he had a wooden leg, and would sometimes turn it around backwards to mess with people): he thought “Sun City” was fascinating because it’s basically musicians singing to other musicians. After all, no one buying this record was about to play Sun City, were they? (You could make a similar argument that Michael Jackson was singing about how he and his fellow pop stars are the world, and the ones who make a brighter day, blah blah blah.) And, adding an extra dose of irony, half of the artists who sing on this record were nowhere near the Sun City concert director’s radar (though if the video below is to be believed, Daryl Hall turned down $2 million to play there), which means that their declaration that they ain’t gonna play Sun City is like me saying that I’m not going to do business in Dubai. It’s good to have principles, but it’s a lot easier to have them when you know that you will never have to exercise them.
Still, you can’t deny that “Sun City” did an incredible job raising the average person’s awareness to an alarming human rights issue, and that was Van Zandt’s primary goal all along. That the song cracked the Top 40 as well was gravy. I will confess that I did not rip either of the tracks below (still need to save up the coin for a USB turntable, right after I plunk down my soul for the upcoming Beatles version of Rock Band), and the dub mix has a skip in it, but hopefully this will make up for it: the video I’ve included for “Sun City” is done “Pop-Up Video” style, woo hoo! Who would have thought that a third of the video’s budget was spent covering Jimmy Cliff’s hotel room?
Post script: I spent a day at Sun City in 1997, and while this may fly in the face of the thousand words before it, I have to say, the place was pretty sweet.