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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 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.