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Live Aid To Sun City--a Dream Year

December 29, 1985|ROBERT HILBURN

Who would have dreamed a year ago this time that . . .

Nearly 50 of pop's biggest selling artists would get together in a Hollywood studio to record a song, "We Are the World," that much of the world would join in singing?

Looking back, it seemed so reasonable: superstars pooling their talents to raise millions of dollars for famine victims in Africa. But the logistics and trust involved made it nothing short of a pop miracle.

Some artists saw the January evening at A&M Studios as something good for their careers. How could you pass on the chance to be in the studio with Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson, Willie Nelson, Lionel Richie, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder?

Still, the recording session itself--as widely seen in the "We Are the World" video--came across as more than an exercise in selfish pop strategy. It turned into a generous and inspired moment that broke through the cynicism of the times to connect strongly with the pop community and beyond.

"We Are the World"--even more than last year's "Do They Know It's Christmas" charity single in London--introduced us to the age of Pop as Social Benefactor. The record--and manager Ken Kragen's subsequent, aggressive USA for Africa campaign--challenged both the pop industry and its audience. The recording session was the grandest pop moment of 1985.

Bob Geldof would emerge as the pop humanitarian of the year by putting together the most ambitious and widely viewed rock concert in history?

Geldof was such a man possessed in behalf of Live Aid this year that the British press playfully dubbed him "St. Bob." He made the "We Are the World" session seem like a neighborhood tea party by organizing the July 13 London and Philadelphia concerts that were seen by an estimated 1.5 billion television viewers around the world.

Geldof didn't just work while cameras were around. He spent hundreds of hours cajoling, debating and pleading with musicians and businessmen to maintain what he saw as the purity of Live Aid. He was pop's man of the year. (Ironically, Columbia Records dropped Geldof's band in the United States shortly after the concert--see Pop Eye, Page 72.)

Bob Dylan's chance remark at Live Aid in Philadelphia would lead to the best concert of the year?

In a spontaneous aside during his brief performance, Dylan suggested that American farmers need some financial aid, too. Willie Nelson had been thinking the same thing, so the remark spurred him into action with Farm Aid. With John Cougar Mellencamp and Neil Young, Nelson organized the Sept. 21 concert at the University of Illinois Memorial Stadium in Champaign.

And it was a dazzling collection of talent that reunited pop, country and rock in a way we haven't seen since the '50s. You'll never hear a mix of Dylan, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, the Beach Boys, John Fogerty, Randy Newman, Rickie Lee Jones, Joni Mitchell, X, the Blasters, Lone Justice, John Conlee and Emmylou Harris on the same radio station, but they worked marvelously together on stage. Farm Aid was the year's best concert.

Steve Van Zandt would emerge from sidekick Bruce Springsteen's shadow to be the catalyst for arguably the year's best single and album? Van Zandt is further proof of one of the year's pop lessons: One person can make a difference--and he doesn't have to be a superstar.

Like Geldof, who was considered a journeyman rocker with the Boomtown Rats, Van Zandt was viewed by most of the pop industry as a second-level player. The guitarist's two solo albums after leaving Springsteen's E Street Band attracted good reviews, but sold only modestly. He left EMI-America Records last year only to discover that no other company was interested in him. One reason: nervousness over the heavy political slant in his music.

But two visits to South Africa spurred Van Zandt into writing and co-producing the "Sun City" single, which brought together more than 50 rock, pop, reggae, salsa, rap, jazz and R&B artists in a blistering attack on apartheid. The single and album, both co-produced by Arthur Baker, were an all-too-rare utilization of the cross-cultural potential of contemporary pop that challenged radio programmers' practice of isolating musicians by category. "Sun City" was the album of the year.

John Fogerty would come back with his first album in 10 years and that it would be as good as "Centerfield"? It's hard to return to form in rock. Lots of stars have rebounded after years of inactivity, but no one has done it with his vision as strongly intact as Fogerty did with this LP, which went to No. 1. Fogerty was the comeback story of 1985.

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