Monday, December 31, 2007

"I Ain't Gonna Play Sun City"

"We're rockers and rappers united and strong
We're here to talk about South Africa we don't like what's going on
It's time for some justice it's time for the truth
We've realized there's only one thing we can do"
"Sun City," Artists United Against Apartheid (1985)

Amid all the political difficulties being experienced by South Africa right now, it's worth noting how far this country has come. How millions of people now have the right to select a new leader – something they didn't have more than 20 years ago.

On several levels, this 1985 protest song was the most successful record of the decades many charity singles. Written and produced by Springsteen sideman and future Soprano Steven Van Zandt, the song is a brilliant fusion of hard rock, hip hop and synth pop with a jaw-dropping guest cast that includes Bob Dylan, Pat Benatar, George Clinton, Joey Ramone, Kurtis Blow, Lou Reed. Bonnie Raitt, Peter Gabriel and Miles Davis. It also accomplished its main intention, which was to make the South African resort city disappear as a booking option for dozens of rock, pop and soul acts. (Among those who had performed at the glittery entertainment complex, reportedly for seven-figure sums: Queen, Elton John, Julio Iglesias and Linda Ronstadt)

On the charts, despite widespread critical acclaim, it fell well short of expectations, peaking at No. 38 on the Billboard Hot 100.

It seems almost anacronistic in a period where white suburban teens are doing their best to imitate 50 Cent and Kanye West. But this was the period of radio segregation where it was difficult to find a black face on MTV. Simply put, many white and black stations refused to play it because it failed to fit within their narrow formats. A few years later, it took a songs like "Walk This Way" to break down those barriers, hopefully forever.

The song was also deemed by some to be too critical of the Reagan Administration. Witness Joey Ramone's ironically delivered line: "Constructive engagement is in Ronald Reagan's plan."
Or Darlene Love's even more pointed critcism: "This quiet diplomacy ain't nothing but a joke."

You can see the Pop Up video video right here:

(If you are confused about who is who, leave a comment underneath this post. I can identify most of the artists – and those I can't identify, I'm sure that other readers of this blog can. But the pop ups explain most of them)

I love this song. Not just because it's a musical triumph, but it captured the political feelings of many of us who went to college during the 80s. We didn't have the Vietnam War to make us sing along with Country Joe and the Fish's "Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag." Or the Iraq War to wave our arms in response to Linkin Park's "Hands Held High." But those of us who were left-leaning certainly got involved in the drive to stop universities from investing in companies involved in South Africa. At Georgetown, where I went to school, and at other universities, students were arrested for setting up shantytowns in front of university buildings to demonstrate the inequities of a system that had South Africa's minority white population repressing blacks.

Songs like these (including the almost equally artistically successful "Free Nelson Mandela," which I hope to talk about in a future post) apparently did make an impact on South African society as well. In the years before the apartheid system finally was dismantled, journalists wrote stories about the changing attitude towards among young white South Africans – in part because of the music they were listening to by politically active artists such as Midnight Oil and U2.

The accompanying "Sun City" album was quite praiseworthy as well. It featured a reunion of the classic Miles Davis Quintet (Miles, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams) on one track. And U2's Bono collaborating with Rolling Stones' Keith Richards and Ron Woods on an acoustic song called "Silver and Gold" – a track so hastily assembled at the last minute that it wasn't even listed on the label of the original pressing.

Besides Van Zandt, the other person mainly responsible for putting this effort together was former "20/20" producer Danny Schecter, who has his own account of how he both clandestinely and openly helped make it happen. Among other things you learn: The song was recorded without a record deal (it was ultimately put out by Manhattan, an EMI subsidiary) and it was recorded in donated studio space.

Without further adieu, here it is:

Artists United Against Apartheid – Sun City