We Are The World: The Story Behind The Song

Dir: Tom Trbovich, 1985. Documentaries.
We Are The World: The Story Behind The Song

Billy Joel famously told Rolling Stone magazine that most of the singers didn’t actually like the song and that “Cyndi Lauper leaned over to him and said, 'It sounds like a Pepsi commercial.'" Of course the song is pretty lame, but the spectacle of the one-night-only super-group, USA For Africa, recording the otherwise forgettable song, “We Are The World,” is one of pop music's most bizarre and fascinating stories. The infomercial/documentary We Are The World: The Story Behind The Song, hosted by Jane Fonda in the same stagey '80s home-video visual style as her hot selling aerobicizing videos, runs at a sparse 52 minutes (though the DVD is packed with extras on two discs), but I could have easily watched three more hours. It’s truly the greatest line-up in music history.

Back in 1984 Bob Geldof of the British band The Boomtown Rats became aware of the horrible starvation going on in Ethiopia and he gathered a bunch of his countrymen (and a few Americans) to record the wonderful little song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Calling themselves Band Aid, the super group was made up of then hot singers including Sting, Bono, George Michael, Phil Collins, Boy GeorgeSpandau Ballet, Duran Duran, Jody Watley, and a couple guys from Kool & The Gang. There were no older British super legends, it was the kids. No Bowie, no Elton John, no Jagger, not even a Ringo Starr. The song helped raise money and brought attention to the issue of African famine and, at the time, was the biggest selling UK single ever.

In America the biggest star in pop music, Michael Jackson, decided to do his own version, and like most things, the American version was going to be bigger and glitzier. As Mrs. Fonda shows us in the documentary, one day in January 1985 Jackson and his little buddies, producer Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder, and Lionel Richie (who is the credited co-writer with Jackson), got together in the studio and laid down the bare bones tracks for their song to raise cash money for Africa. (Weirdly, little-person, child Emmanuel Lewis was also there hanging and doing some dance moves with Jackson). A few days later, after The American Music Awards, hordes of celebrated singers, spanning generation and musical styles, joined the guys in the studio to record the all-star vocal tracks.

And let's look at that one of a kind line-up... You have your super legends: Jackson and Wonder, joined by Ray Charles and Bob Dylan. Then the next level of icons: Diana Ross, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Willie Nelson and Tina Turner. Then your total Hall of Famers: Billy Joel, Hall & Oates (Hall gets solo, Oates is just chorus), Dionne Warwick, Steve Perry (of the band Journey), Kenny Rogers, and Richie. Then a few people who were hot acts at that moment: Cyndi LauperHuey Lewis, and the guy who sang the theme to Caddyshack, Kenny Loggins. Rounding out your solo singers are the less important Kim Carnes, James Ingram, and Al Jarreau. The chorus has the visiting Geldof and another couple of legends, Harry Belafonte and Smokey Robinson. And also the respected Lindsey Buckingham (of Fleetwood Mac), Bette Midler, Jeffrey Osborne, and The Pointer Sisters and even Sheila E. Rounding it out are Jackson’s brothers (one time or another of The Jackson 5) and his less celebrated sister, LaToya.

The guy who always gets the most question marks is Saturday Night Live alumni Dan Aykroyd. Keep in mind he was in the musical duo The Blues Brothers (with John Belushi), which had the number one selling album of ’78, so he did have some street-cred for being invited. For a while I was wondering who the gumpy white guys were singing in the back right, but I later came to realize they were from the Huey Lewis backup band The News. Also noted, Waylon Jennings was there at some point (singing in the chorus) and left during production (one story is that Wonder and Geldof got into an argument about whether Ethiopians spoke Swahili and Jennings said “this is bullshit” and stormed out). Prince was slated to take part, but bailed (and Lewis got his solo line). Fresh off the heat of Purple Rain, seeing Prince’s giant ego take part would have made this twice as fascinating.

Climbing out of their limos and entering the A&M Studios building is like a who’s who at the Grammy Awards. Christie Brinkley kisses her man Billy Joel goodbye. Lionel poses with The Pointer Sisters. Kenny Loggins is with a pretty lady in a billion dollar fur coat. Jennings, with a sweaty face, smokes a cigarette. Kenny Rogers wears a tight white leather jacket with the sleeves rolled up (later changing into his complementary white USA for Africa sweatshirt - with the sleeves rolled up - along with Ross and others, while Loggins wears his wrapped around his shoulders, preppie style). Once assembled, Geldof, who had just returned from Africa, gives a long-winded speech to get them into the mood while Kim Carnes looks around the room blankly. Everyone practices the chorus and looks over their lines. Springsteen, in his fingerless leather gloves, seems especially confused by the lyrics and Lewis explains to him it’s "brighter" not "better." Jackson experiments with adding a “sha-la” to the chorus, but Fonda explains in her voice-over that “it didn’t work.” The two blind men in the front row, Charles and Wonder, sport dark sunglasses, as does Sheila E. next to them. Paul Simon holds back from just kicking everyone out and taking over the entire production. Finally, big laughs, everyone breaks into a impromptu tribute to Belafonte, singing his “Banana Boat” song. Dylan seems uncomfortable, as if he’s never heard the song before.

Finally at 3AM they start rehearsing the solos. Lauper does her vocal warm-ups. Lewis drinks a Bud while Jackson teaches him how to sing. Charles and Wonder use an electric brail machine. Quincy works with Bruce, and then two Ethiopian women come in to speak, bringing a buzzkill to the party. Finally 4:30AM, they lay down the tracks. Stevie and Paul Simon sing next to each other. What if these two had gotten together in 1970 and recorded an album? Ingram looks like “why do I have a solo while Smokey is sitting over there drinking coffee?” Then a great odd couple, Dionne Warwick and Willie Nelson, two total opposites stylistically, step up to sing. With all these major voices around him, Nelson proves to have one of the most memorable bits in the song. Perry steps up and totally shines, reminding us no matter how corny you think Journey is, the guy has some pipes. Then Jackson, Lewis, and Carnes are totally bland, while Lauper goes about totally stealing the song with her enthusiasm, her rainbow hair, and her voice which moves gracefully from whine to Aretha like a perfect gymnast. Lauper wins the night (though her earrings and necklaces make too much chatter and they have to cut recording). It’s reached morning and the main vocals are done. Most folks hug and say their goodbyes, Billy Joel waves but is ignored. Tina Turner is hungry for a fish burger. They saved the hardest for nearly last...Dylan’s solo. Quincy and Stevie work with him. They look flustered and Dylan looks exhausted, though in the documentary Lionel comes in with a nice voice-over about the importance of having him there.

The rest of the doc is filled out with Quincy and the team editing the song and bringing Ray Charles back to the studio to add some vocals (they seem to just let him go improvising and dancing). In front of the studio big board, Fonda, as if she just finished editing the track, gives a speech about how important this musical event was to the world. She then holds the record up imploring to the viewing audience to go buy a copy to save a life. This is the actress who deservedly won Oscars for Klute and Coming Home, and is now doing an advertisement for a record. Finally we have some pleas from the stars and then the music video, which used the same clips as the documentary...

The song was a massive hit, coming in the peak years of Michael Jackson mania. Though Lionel, Bruce, and Billy were all over the charts it was Michael who was the driving force, popularity-wise. He alone had the commercial power to send it out of the stratosphere. Had this just been a Michael Jackson solo song, it would have been totally forgettable. Like so many of his “save the children” tunes, it might have sold, but it would have sucked. It was the crazy montage of voices that make the song so oddly compelling, like a walk though the last couple decades of pop music history. Besides wishing Prince had been there (because I would kill for a Prince/Bob Dylan photo op), imagine if Elvis Presley had still been living. The different scenarios in my head are like a puzzle that never ends. Elvis and Loggins and Diana. Ray and Elvis. Bruce and Elvis. Elvis, Prince and Michael. And... oh wow, Elvis and Dan Akroyd! The possibilities are endless.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Feb 27, 2014 4:52pm
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