Monday, October 25, 2010

25 years of Sun City

It's hard to believe that a quarter-century has passed since Little Steven's defiant protest record, "Sun City."

Mark Deming wrote a good review of the song which you should read if you don't know of it. As a music fan, I can only offer my highly biased opinion: this is the one "charity" record of that period you should seek out.

As Deming remarks, "Between 1984 and 1985, it seemed as if every rock star on the planet had suddenly developed a conscience after that decade's long binge of cocaine and hair spray, and decided it was time to do something for their pet charitable cause." The trend started with Band Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas?" which featured a number of then-hot U.K. pop stars collaborating on a high-profile single whose proceeds would benefit victims of Ethiopa's drought. U.S. pop stars evidently felt left out, so under the rubric "U.S.A for Africa" they issued their own single, "We are the World," also benefiting Ethiopia.

In both cases, the goal was laudable, and both singles raised significant money. Musically, the results were mixed at best. "Do They Know It's Christmas?" is the better of the two: a mid-tempo beat, a decently ominous opening and a touch of reverb throughout give it a little energy and the sense you're listening to Something Special. "We are the World," on the other hand, has all the appeal of soggy bread. It's drippy and vapid, desperate to convince you It Means Well And You Should Feel Something Because All These Stars Are Raising Their Voices Together. I felt something all right: nausea. It was the product of Lionel Richie's and Michael Jackson's worst lyrical and musical instincts.

It probably helped the musical side of "Sun City" that Little Steven (Steven van Zandt, then primarily known as a member of Springsteen's E Street Band) decided to focus on the inequities of the apartheid system in South Africa. Sun City was a resort located in the then-independent state (as South Africa viewed it) of Bophuthatswana. Although the subject of a cultural boycott sanctioned by the United Nations, the resort attracted a number of high-profile artists from around the world. (Some of them are listed in Wikipedia's entry on Sun City.)

Much of the rest of the world regarded Bophuthatswana as an administrative fig leaf intended to justify South Africa's apartheid system in which blacks and whites were segregated. Sun City was a powerful symbol of the apartheid system, and van Zandt intended to shame not only South Africa's government but fellow entertainers who might consider appearing there. Anger, therefore, fueled van Zandt and undoubtedly many of the musicians who worked with him, and in my experience anger, properly channeled, produces great music.

Van Zandt worked with journalist Danny "the News Dissector" Schechter to assemble the "Artists United Against Apartheid." By the time they were done, they had enlisted musicians from straight-ahead rock, jazz, rap, reggae, funk, spoken word, punk, and various other places on the musical map (where, for instance, does Lou Reed fit?). It's an amazing group of respected performers, and the quality of these musicians undoubtedly is a big reason "Sun City" is, first and foremost, a great song. In fact, their collective creativity resulted not just in a single but an album of six songs, including two versions of the title track.

According to the liner notes, the following artists contributed in one way or another to the project, though not necessarily on "Sun City":
  • Afrika Bambaataa
  • Ray Barretto
  • Pat Benatar
  • Big Youth
  • Ruben Blades
  • Kurtis Blow
  • Bono
  • Duke Bootee
  • Jackson Browne
  • Ron Carter
  • Clarence Clemons
  • Jimmy Cliff
  • George Clinton
  • Miles Davis
  • Bob Dylan
  • Peter Gabriel
  • Peter Garrett (of Midnight Oil, remember?)
  • Grandmaster Melle Mel
  • Daryl Hall
  • Herbie Hancock
  • Daryl Hannah (apparently included on background vocals because she was dating Jackson Browne at the time)
  • Nona Hendryx
  • Linton Kwesi Johnson
  • Stanley Jordan
  • Kashif
  • Eddie Kendricks (credited as Eddie Kendrick; a former Temptation)
  • Keith Le Blanc
  • Little Steven
  • Darlene Love
  • John Oates
  • Sonny Okosun (credited as Sonny Okosuns)
  • Bonnie Raitt
  • Joey Ramone
  • Lou Reed
  • David Ruffin (a former Temptation)
  • Run-D.M.C.
  • Gil Scott-Heron
  • Shankar
  • Bruce Springsteen
  • Zak Starkey
  • Ringo Starr
  • Pete Townshend
  • Tony Williams
  • Bobby Womack
  • Doug Wimbish
(This is only a partial list, emphasizing recognizable names.)

(Tantalizingly, punk pioneer Stiv Bators -- listed as Stiv Bator -- is shown in a photograph with Michael Monroe and Little Steven, but neither Bators nor Monroe is credited with vocals.)

From its compelling start -- a voice intones, "Ahhhhhhhhh, Sun CI-ty" and then the backbeat kicks in -- "Sun City" announces that it's not just another plea for pity: it's altogether darker and fiercer than its charitable forebears. The first verse, rapped rather than sung, declares:

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
The chorus is memorably simple:
I ain't gonna play Sun City
I'm not a musician so I'd only embarrass myself if I tried to deconstruct the song further; just trust me that it remains fiery and eminently listenable.

"Sun City" didn't get a lot of airplay. While the Wikipedia entry on the song speculates (without attribution) that some radio stations refused to play it because of its criticism of President Reagan's policy of "constructive engagement," I think a bigger reason -- perhaps the main one -- was that the song didn't fit comfortably into the balkanized playlists of the day. American music radio of the 1970s and 1980s was divided into a relatively small number of well-defined formats: hard rock, soft or "lite" rock, soul, country, and Top 40 (although "40" was largely an irrelevant number by that time). Hard-edged music that wasn't pure rock had difficulty finding a home, and "Sun City"'s mix of rap, funk, rock, and bluntly political lyrics would have disposed most safety-minded programmers against it. In the Boston area, for instance, only the rock powerhouse WBCN was both adventuresome enough and secure enough in its ratings to play it. (It probably helped that Schechter was a frequent contributor to the station.) If memory serves, even WBCN only played version II of the song, which lacked most of the rapped verses -- no doubt because of the perception, right or wrong, that white audiences would not listen to music that was perceived to be for blacks, as rap then was. Alas, I have no doubt that 'BCN's programming gurus knew their audience, and other programmers around the country probably faced similar pressure.

It's ironic that the only "charity" song from that time whose cause has been achieved is the only one good enough to be played today. ("Do They Know It's Christmas?" isn't terrible, but by no means is it the vibrant creation that "Sun City" is.) Originally released on vinyl, it was issued on CD as well in 1993. Celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary by buying your own copy (they're cheap used), or by digging it out and giving it another spin.

No comments:

Post a Comment