“The Making Of We Are The World” - The Doug Guide
Many of you already know the history around “We Are The World”, but for those who don’t, here’s a short summary for context:
In December 1984, Bob Geldof (Boomtown Rats, main guy “Pink” in The Wall (1982) film) responded to the famine in Ethiopia and called together all of the biggest UK names in music to perform “Do They Know It’s Christmas” - a song he wrote with Midge Ure especially for the event. The resulting supergroup was called Band Aid and included Bono, Sting, Phil Collins, All of Duran Duran, Boy George, George Michael, and buttloads more. It was a who’s who of British music and the rest of the world took notice.
Over in the US, Harry Belafonte had been thinking for years about doing a similar thing, and with the momentum underway thanks to Band Aid, got the hottest producer in music - Quincy Jones - to get involved. Quincy brought on Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie who co-wrote the song We Are The World, and after they got Stevie Wonder involved, word spread in the American music community and everyone wanted to be included. The American supergroup was called U.S.A. For Africa and in addition to the primary players, included Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Diana Ross, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Billy Joel…..and crap-tons more.
Sidenote: Canada also did their own song called “Tears Are Not Enough” with their own supergroup they called Northern Lights. Artists included Bryan Adams, Gordon Lightfoot, Anne Murray, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Bruce Cockburn, Burton Cummings etc. CBC aired a 90 min doc on the making of that, and I've yet to see it - it's on my list now!
Okay, back to We Are The World.
Not only did they perform and release the song, there was a half hour documentary of the overnight recording session that was filmed and released. My Pops had a copy of the documentary on beta (remember betamax??), so I saw the video many a time. You know, despite any criticism of the writing itself, I still like the song - but then again it’s hard to be neutral about a song you loved when you were 5 years old. That stuff sticks with you - I still happily sing along with Sugar Sugar by The Archies despite it being a pretty unimaginative, yet catchy tune.
Anyway, I was recently thinking about this documentary when I realized it was probably up on the YouTubes. I was right, and had a late night nostalgia fest watching all the big 80’s music stars interacting with each other. I found myself noticing things I wouldn’t have had a clue about when I was a kid and started taking notes.
In the end, I found this to be a fascinating look at some big names in the music industry figuring out how to work together. Oh, and before I forget, if you do choose to watch this all the way through, you will have to put up with a relatively brief Jane Fonda sales pitch, but don't worry, it lends itself to be completely entertaining for it’s own reasons.
In this day and age of interwebnets, a 33 minute video is a big ask, and so - as I am including my notes for your perusal - if you’d want to skim to any specific moments out of curiosity, here’s your guide to the We Are The World Documentary from your dear old friend Doug. Enjoy!
2:47 Michael Jackson portrays normal human behaviour to us by hugging Lionel Ritchie. Notice Kenny Loggins conspicuously checking to make sure he is on camera for this 'main event'. The very next shot Kenny mugs for the camera with Diana Ross. He was definitely working this event with purpose.
3:16 Street cred time. Quincy Jones speaks to all the artists like a working musician and establishes himself as the man in charge.
4:37 Lionel Ritchie - likely responding to people expressing a preference of one word better/brighter, seemingly opens up discussion of the lyric to the group. Paul Simon and Billy Joel discuss with Tina Turner looking on; Huey Lewis and Bruce Springsteen then have a turn at discussing the same issue. Stevie wonder chimes in by saying “Better has more BITE!” and Quincy calms the discussion, they are going with brighter.
5:21 Great moment: Stevie Wonder & Ray Charles sharing a unique intimacy as they read lyrics on a braille machine together.
5:34 A really funny moment where Huey Kewis in two seconds deftly assures Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones he knows what he’s doing, what they want, and how he’ll nail it.
5:56 Pro handling of personalities while communicating the importance of their part: Quincy Jones tells Bruce Springsteen he’s got a key spot in the song when he tells him “you open up the chorus, you know.”
7:17 The Lionel Ritchie quarterback job as he communicates how Everyone needs to approach the mic for this particular recording process.
8:09 Lionel Ritchie starts the recording off and is visibly affected by the noise being made by the camera crew. Quincy Jones steps in immediately and plays the bad guy to get the camera crew to shut the hell up while they record.
8:19 Immediately following is a gem of authenticity: Stevie Wonder intuitively diffuses the momentary tension with Lionel who - wearing multiple hats as songwriter, floor organizer etc. appears to be distracted from his current job of simply singing. Lionel takes a moment to clue into what Stevie is doing, followed by them snickering together beside a fairly serious Paul Simon.
Interesting note: Apparently Stevie Wonder played an important role in keeping the energy in that room from getting too stuck. He joked that if the recording wasn't done in one take, he and Ray Charles would drive everyone home.
9:04 Really funny early take blooper: Kenny Rogers misses his cue and then James Ingram hilariously forgets the second half of his line and hides behind Kenny’s shoulder, cracking Kenny up.
11:04 Cindy Lauper serves as a perfect example of how difficult it must have been for many artists in there not to “overperform" their part. Also, to be fair to Ms. Lauper, the room really hadn’t relaxed yet.
11:30 Cindy Lauper’s jewelry gets called out for being too loud and getting picked up by the mics. The room laughs as she takes off a couple pounds of necklace and everyone relaxes into it more.
11:51 In a moment of self deprecation, Kenny Rogers uses his Texas charm & apologizes to Paul Simon in front of Stevie and Lionel for singing out of tune the first time through by saying “I’m going to do everything I can to sing that in tune which I think would be a real nice gesture on my part.”
12:14 Showing how the room has begun to warm up, Billy Joel, in a classic piano player moment, decries the key of E - subtly alienating overly sensitive guitar players everywhere, but also serving to make it feel like it does when you're in the studio with artists.
13:17 A couple of big names using kid gloves with a bigger name: Stevie Wonder and Quincy Jones show Bob Dylan how to sing his line in their perceived versions of his style, making his role in this as little work as possible. This is an insight into the respect Mr. Dylan commands in the industry. Lionel Ritchie caps off the Dylan worship with a voiceover narration.
15:47 Bruce Springsteen with a great line after humbly accepting the love in the room for his solo take: “I broke a legitimate sweat on it”.
16:12 Jane Fonda hosts the infomercial, reminding you that only a heartless hoser wouldn’t buy this record.
21:18 the Lionel Richie Guilt Trip down Heavy Hand Lane that includes the line “until babies stop dying..” and “If you have any. feeling. in your heart. at all.”
22:05 The official video begins!
23:45 In a moment of nepotism, Michael Jackson gets his Diana Ross torch pass .
24:18 Bruce brings earth and grit and diesel fumes to the song.
24:53 Huey Lewis kills it.
25:31 Stevie Wonder in musical chorus heaven lifting his hands up to the sky with Diana Ross.
26:24 Dan Akroyd - because Blues Brothers.
26:35 Kenny Loggins, then Kenny Rogers say “fock no!” to hearing the music in their monitors, and forget their headphones altogether.
26:58 An absolutely wicked Stevie Wonder / Bruce Springsteen tradeoff that goes for two(!!) choruses in a row - utilizing much precious song real estate.
27:52 Jermaine Jackson followed by Latoyah Jackson enjoying the privilege of being Michael’s family.
28:18 Effectively stealing the whole song for me, James Ingram makes me believe that I would be safe with him on a dark street in Neighbourhood Sketch.
28:50 In a thumbs up success moment, Lionel Ritchie becomes “Achievement Citizen of Earth” with a smile so wholesome and vintage American, you want to go visit the Statue Of Liberty.
We Are The World was an interesting moment in history with an unusual collection of the world's biggest artists checking their egos at the door (well, sort of) and working together in the sort of complex environment they likely hadn’t been a part of before. However self aware everyone is for the cameras, there's enough vulnerability in the artistry that I'm glad we have a document of it to enjoy in hindsight.