“We Are The World,” the charity single to end all charity singles (except it didn’t), was recorded 30 years ago this week. It was an instant sensation when it was released that March, but less well-remembered is the “We Are The World” album, which followed in April. One reason for that could be that it’s horrible.
Well, maybe I’m exaggerating slightly — but it certainly wasn’t good, at least not most of it. Since I’m willing to bet that even those of us who threw ourselves behind the movement to end famine in Africa — primarily by buying “We Are The World” and watching Live Aid on MTV — haven’t spun it in decades, I thought the 30th anniversary would be a good excuse for me to revisit it track-by-track, so you don’t have to.
It’s worth noting that the tracks actually appear in a different order on the album than they’re listed on the cover, which indicates the degree of attention given to this money-grab for starving people. Which is a good reason to grab for money, but still.
1) “We Are The World,” USA For Africa. A few months before, the British artists in Band Aid had put out a nice little Christmas song about starving Africans and how good it was that we weren’t them. It was a huge success, so of course we Americans weren’t going to take that lying down. We (mostly Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson) came up with our own song, which was less about starving Africans than it was about us (“We”) and how we’re “The World.” That’s America in a nutshell.
This goes on for seven interminable minutes, saved only by certain individual performers who do their best to elevate the material — Bruce Springsteen practically shredded his vocal chords trying to give the thing some heft, and Ray Charles could sing a Sarah Palin speech and still make you want to send money. And of course there was Bob Dylan’s nasally whine, which left the young and uninitiated peeking into the album sleeve looking for Alan Funt, but which we now realize was awesome.
And I’ll admit that certain combos were inspired, notably Springsteen and Stevie Wonder and the trio of Huey Lewis, Cyndi Lauper and Kim Carnes, who should get together and do an entire album right now. But it wasn’t enough to keep the song from being, ultimately, a big mound of dreck — the proof being that we still listen to “Do They Know It’s Christmas” every year, but if “We Are The World” ever came on the radio we’d probably drive immediately into a highway abutment.
2) “If Only for the Moment, Girl,” Steve Perry. It’s interesting that they’d pick this as the first non-“We Are The World” song on the album, because it represents everything that was wrong with solo Steve Perry, and also the ’80s, not necessarily in that order. Between its Casio-level synths, cheesy sax solo and mushy delivery, it made you want to reach into your stereo and shake him until he started singing “Ask The Lonely” instead.
3) “Just a Little Closer,” The Pointer Sisters. The Pointer Sisters were having a moment in the mid-’80s, primarily owing to their bouncy hit “Jump (For My Love),” a.k.a. “Jump (But Not Van Halen’s ‘Jump,’ The Other One).” Unfortunately, this song sounds less like that than it does the soundtrack to an ’80s aerobics video, which it may have been.
4) “Trapped,” Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Far and away the best track on the album, this live cover of a Jimmy Cliff song that no one remembers remains a highlight of any Springsteen show where you happen to catch it. Also, unlike the rest of the album, it feels like it actually relates the urgency of the cause at hand — or possibly the urgency of being stuck in a recording studio with Al Jarreau jumping up and down behind you in a “USA For Africa” sweatshirt. (Apparently they only gave them to Jarreau, Kenny Rogers and Diana Ross — what, Dan Aykroyd didn’t rate?)
1) “Tears Are Not Enough,” Northern Lights. Northern Lights was the Canadian USA For Africa, much the same way Bryan Adams was the Canadian Bruce Springsteen, so it’s appropriate that Adams (a co-writer) offers the song’s vocal high points. As for the Lite-FM cheesiness of the rest of it, it can be forgiven because they’re Canadian and Anne Murray is involved, so it’s the law. I’d actually go out on a limb and say it’s better than “We Are The World” — the chorus is catchier, plus they bring the whole thing in at a perfectly reasonable 4:21. Also, there’s French in it.
2) “4 The Tears In Your Eyes,” Prince & The Revolution. The only song actually recorded specifically for the album, it’s definitely a minor Prince song, but that it’s a Prince song at all makes it by default 1 million million times better than that Steve Perry song, or any Steve Perry song. (Sorry, “Oh Sherrie.”) It’s also lyrically on point, in that famine is sad. (Suggested alternate title: “4 The Tears In Your Eyes That R Not Enough.”)[Prince made sure it wasn’t on YouTube, but it’s included in the full album, below.]
3) “Good For Nothing,” Chicago. Full disclosure: When it came to 1980s Chicago I actually liked “Chicago 17,” the one with “You’re The Inspiration” on it. But “Good for Nothing” is no “You’re The Inspiration.” At least there’s a horn section that sort-of fleetingly reminds you of “25 or 6 to 4,” but the lyrics, blandly sung by Bobby Lamm, almost immediately start to break apart into meaningless little chunks.
4) “Total Control,” Tina Turner. I loved Tina, but remember when I said that “Good For Nothing” is no “You’re The Inspiration”? Well, “Total Control” isn’t even “Good For Nothing.” It’s worth noting the copyright is from 1979, which means she probably just pulled this logy bauble out of her giant 1970s handbag of unused material without even listening to it. Besides, because of “River Deep Mountain High,” all is forgiven.
5) “A Little More Love,” Kenny Rogers. What was it about the ’80s that even country songs sounded like aerobics music? Still, the melody here is not bad — it would have been a half-decent track if it was just vocals and steel guitar. And sung by Johnny Cash. And had the exact same lyrics and music as “Folsom Prison Blues.” OK, never mind, it’s a lousy song.
6) “Trouble In Paradise,” Huey Lewis & The News. I still say Huey is a national treasure, and like every other Huey Lewis & The News song, this live offering is full of guitars and pianos and saxophones and not an ounce of pretension. Still, it’s an odd album closer — is it because we’re supposed to be left contemplating the concept of Africa as a fallen paradise? Or was it that whoever made the master was drunk? It’s probably better if we never know.
And so you have it: A bunch of mostly bad songs cobbled together for a good cause — good enough that I promise I’ll never say another bad word about it. Until maybe the 50th anniversary, if I’m looking for material.
Hear the full album straight through here:
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