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46 Minutes That Shook the Pop World

April 09, 1993|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

It's no exaggeration to describe 1985's "Sun City" album as 46 minutes that shook the pop world.

In the socially conscious year of Live Aid, Farm Aid and "We Are the World," no album had greater sociocultural impact than "Sun City," which was released under the group name Artists United Against Apartheid. It is now available for the first time in CD from Razor & Tie Records.

"Sun City" was the brainchild of rock singer-songwriter Steve Van Zandt, who wrote the title song after two trips to South Africa to research material for his next album.

Where the Live Aid and "We Are the World" campaigns avoided partisan politics in raising funds for famine victims in Africa, Van Zandt was aggressively political in "Sun City."

His targets: South African apartheid and what he felt was the Reagan Administration's failure to apply sufficient pressure against the nation's government.

In the title song, Van Zandt, who goes by the name Little Steven, focused on Sun City, the controversial resort complex in the South African "homeland" of Bophuthatswana that was trying to attract Western pop-rock performers.

The song was a pledge not to perform in Sun City, and Van Zandt felt the best way to draw attention to the boycott was to put together an all-star recording a la "We Are the World." More than 50 musicians were involved by the time the album was completed. The single, co-produced by Van Zandt and Arthur Baker, reached No. 38 on the national pop charts.

The album--which also included Bono Hewson doing a version of "Silver and Gold" ahead of the song's appearance on U2's "Rattle and Hum"--raised more than $1 million for the Africa Fund, a New York-based organization that is involved with African issues.

In the liner notes for the new edition, Jennifer Davis, executive director of the Africa Fund, writes that the song "Sun City" became a "national anthem of the anti-apartheid movement, inspiring popular protests around the globe and sparking a new movement of protest in the music community."

But the album also generated impact in a second way. At a time when MTV and rock radio were far more segregated than today, Van Zandt's use of rock, rap, jazz, salsa, R&B and reggae artists was a revolutionary move that challenged radio programmers' practice of isolating musicians by category.

As such, the project served as a model for the kind of rock-rap-jazz interchange that makes today's pop scene healthier than it was in the mid-'80s.

The album's lineup included Van Zandt, Bruce Springsteen, Hewson, Miles Davis, Peter Gabriel, Bonnie Raitt, Lou Reed, Keith Richards, Run-DMC, Ray Barretto, Ruben Blades, Afrika Bambatta, Kurtis Blow, Herbie Hancock, Nona Hendryx and Gil Scott-Heron. The new Razor & Tie edition includes a bonus track: a remix version of the title song.

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