Benefit concerts and songs were not invented in the Eighties, that credit goes to George Harrison in the early Seventies when he recorded “Bangla Desh” and organized a concert, and subsequent album, for the war- and natural disaster-ravaged country of Bangladesh. The whole thing was a bungling mess as far as a relief for that nation, yet it was something of a success artistically speaking as that album picked up the Grammy for Album of the Year. Still, the whole thing did plant a seed of responsibility within the rock community, especially in England.
Sporadically, other concerts were held to raise money for various charities, which reached an apex in 1979 with the No Nukes concert and album and the Concert for the People of Kampuchea and it’s album in 1980. No Nukes was held at Madison Square Garden in NYC with the likes of the Doobie Brothers, Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt leading the way, with the help of a couple of young up-and-comers by the names of Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty. Both the concert and album achieve its goal of slowing the proliferation of nuclear power here in the States. As far as the Kampuchea concert was concerned, the concert and album were great, but I really do not know well all of it did for the people of Kampuchea.
After those two ran their course, the benefits kind of died down until the Winter of 1983 when the BBC ran a story concerning the Biblical famine taking place in Ethiopia and some surrounding countries. For one of the first times in human history, the images of a devastating national disaster on another continent were being transmitted around the world via new technology based upon satellites in orbit in space. Those images were so powerful that they moved two musicians to compose a song for the upcoming 1984 Christmas holiday to be performed by an all-star band in order to raise money for famine relief. Those musicians were Boomtown Rats lead singer Bob Geldof and Ultravox leader Midge Ure, and together the pair wrote the granddaddy of all charity singles “Do They Know Its Christmas?”
That single went onto to become the biggest-selling single in UK history, but it has since been surpassed by Elton John’s loving tribute to Princess Diana “Candle in the Wind 1997.” Now that Sir Bob Geldof (or St. Bob, as some deridingly call him) had a Feed Africa campaign rolling, he got Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, arguably the two biggest pop stars in the world at the time, to create an American version charity single. Since Jackson was still riding high with Thriller, he turned to his producer to help direct this endeavor. All the big names that were invited showed up except for Prince. Yet, Prince did take a public relations hit, but, of course, he probably really did not care.
The musicians and singers met in January after the American Music Awards concluded to record “We Are the World,” the American’s entry into the charity single sweepstakes. The single sold well but did not set any sales records in the States. However, it was all over radio across the major formats and plastered seemingly every 15 minutes on MTV.
Shortly after USA for Africa’s “We Are the World” ran its course, it was time for the Canadian song “Tears Are Not Enough” by Northern Lights. And, then, the inevitable arrived. Some heavy metal vocalists got together as Hear N’ Aid to record the criminally overlooked “Stars.” The Northern Lights song sold well in Canada but did not make much noise outside of the Great White North. I blame it on David Foster and his massive ego as a songwriter. He gave that esteemed group a piece of his usual schlock, then removed the soul of the song and singers until what was left was just another Peter Cetera-sounding single of the time. That’s unfortunate because he had a veritable Who’s Who of Canadian rock at his fingertips with Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Helen Reddy, Gordon Lightfoot and Geddy Lee of Rush, to name a few. At least Quincy Jones knew to back out of the way and let his iconic singers do what they do best. Hell, Foster told Neil Young to redo his vocals because Young was a flat. At least Young had the balls to remind Foster that’s how he sings. So, to me, that’s what made the whole metal single so much more endearing because these great yellers did what they did best and the producer got out of their way.
Now that the music world was fired up about feeding the world, Geldof went to work to organize the biggest benefit concert ever. His idea was to have simultaneous concerts connect by satellite transmission to the other stadium. Plus, this thing would be broadcast throughout the world on ABC, MTV, BBC, etc., etc., etc. Upwards of a billion people would be able to watch this event that was broadcast from London and Philadelphia on 13 July 1985. Of course, there were glitches and the concerts were supposedly boycotted by Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder due to the lack of diversity in the performers. What we got was essentially a last gasp of classic rock (white) radio acts attempting to raise money for this devastating famine.
Can you believe that Live Aid took place without performances by Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson and Prince, the Big Three of that time period. Additionally, where were Van Halen, Stevie Nicks, Pat Benatar, Diana Ross, Rush, Kurtis Blow, Kool and the Gang (the only band to participate on “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and “We Are the World”), and all of the big alternative bands at the time like R.E.M., The Smiths, The Replacements and The Cure. Okay, so the lineup was not perfect. Reminder, neither was Woodstock’s lineup. But, those who did perform was great, outside of that stupid Led Zeppelin reunion (boy, did they EVER stink!).
On the plus side, there was this brand new singer who was just beginning to make some noise, and that was Madonna, who showed that she was the real deal. Another act who made a major statement in order to propel themselves to superstardom was U2, who just up their time so Bono could have a HUGE TV moment by going into the crowd to slow dance with a young lady.
As great as those moments were, as well as Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ set, the Black Sabbath reunion and the last gasp of greatness from Eric Clapton, no one grabbed the moment like Queen did. Although the band was in the midst of being written off by American critics for various stupid reasons as covered in their biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, the foursome proved they were not ready to pass the mantle as the Greatest Band in the World on to anyone else yet. Their set was perfectly chosen and executed to showcase all of their strengths as individuals and as a unit. That Queen set was the moment of the whole concert on either continent.
After Live Aid, the benefit concert and single began to pick up steam as artists started cranking them out en mass much to the chagrin of fans everywhere. It got to the point where these benefit concerts and singles began to bring out the cynic in critics, comedians, essayists and alternative bands. The backlash was slow but steady in the decline as the oversaturation of these “events” started to overlap and cancel each other out.
Today, we still have these singles being released, but the charity concerts are becoming more rare as the costs to put one on are now astronomical. Whereas the charity single remains a viable option. But, original ideas are lacking. Thus far, we have had three more Band Aid re-recordings of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by Band II (1989), Band Aid 20 (2004) and Band Aid (2014). Fortunately, “We Are the World” was not re-recorded until it’s 25th anniversary when aid was needed for the survivors of the earthquake in Haiti. Unfortunately, that recording was met by a completely different work ethic from a new generation of singers, who, according to producer Quincy Jones, kept losing their voices during the marathon recording process. So, do NOT look for “We Are the World” to ever be recorded again.
All of this leads me to list my favorite charity singles of all-time. Have fun with this and never forget that there once was an altruistic view toward humanity one time in our society’s not-so-distant past.
20. David Bowie & Mick Jagger – “Dancing in the Streets” (1985). This crappy cover was debuted during Live Aid as a video shown between acts. The original idea was for the two musical icons to perform the duet via satellite with Bowie in London and Jagger in Philly. Unfortunately, satellite delays kept this from happening. Hence the video.
19. Voices of America – “Hands Across America” (1986). I think this might have been for the homeless. This is a crappy song by session people (or was it Up with People?) for a great charity. Unfortunately, to get every American to go out and hold hands as if we were the Whos in Whoville on Christmas morning was a nice idea without a real grasp of the logistics. I rank it higher than Bowie/Jagger only because those guys should have known better.
18. Artists for Haiti – “We Are the World 25 for Haiti” (2010). I have heard that Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones had been bugged for years to do a re-recording of this song for charity. The three resisted because they did not want to taint their memories of that magical night in 1985. Then the earthquake happened in Haiti and turned that poor country into a worse mess than before. So, Richie and Jones tried to find the magic again. Unfortunately, the new generation of singers were not as thoroughly trained as the original crew and the whole thing turned into a mess, wasting a perfectly good moment.
17. Band Aid II – “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” (1989). Too soon and too few talented people ready to tackle the song.
16. Peace Choir – “Give Peace a Chance” (1991). Ever still the anti-war activist, Yoko Ono broke out her husband’s big peace hit, got together some famous friends to record a new version of this rock standard as a protest against the first Iraq War. It was a nice idea, but did we really another lesser version of the classic?
15. The Killers ft. Tony Halliday – “Great Big Sled” (2006). The Killers get two thumbs up from me for recording several original Christmas songs to raise money for AIDS awareness and research. The songs are decent, with this one being the second best of the bunch.
14. Northern Lights – “Tears Are Not Enough” (1985). Just see my comments above.
13. Band Aid 30 – “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” (2014). I think we can put this song on hiatus until the 50th anniversary. This one could NOT help me forget that the TV show Glee had made a mess of it leading up to this version. Sorry, but everyone seems to putting this song on their Christmas album these days. Just stop it!
12. West Coast Rap All-Stars – “We’re All in the Same Gang” (1990). Back in the early Nineties, gangs were raging drug warfare in inner cities, especially in California. The West Coast Rap All-Stars came together to broker a cease-fire deal between the fractions. Unfortunately, it took many more years to achieve.
11. The Stop the Violence Movement – “Self-Justice” (1989). The East Coast got a jump on the anti-violence movement with this great tune created by a Who’s Who of NYC rappers.
10. One Direction – “One Way or Another (Teenage Kicks)” (2013). Comic Relief has been do their thing to combat homelessness in the UK and the USA since the mid-Eighties. At least in England they get a fun song as a fundraiser, and this mash-up of two punk hits by the world’s biggest boy band at the time is just pure genius.
9. Michelle Obama ft. Kelly Clarkson, Chloe x Halle, Missy Elliott, Jadagrace, Lea Michele, Janelle Monáe, Kelly Rowland & Zendaya (2016). “This Is for My Girls” (2016). How could any woman turn down the former First Lady’s request for a Girl Power anthem?
8. Dionne & Friends – “That’s What Friends Are For” (1986). This Burt Bacharach & Carole Bayer Sager song was recorded by Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and Elton John for AIDS awareness and research. Oh, Dionne’s the only one NOT in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame!
7. Elton John – “Candle in the Wind 1997” (1997). Elton rewrote some of the lyrics of his classic 1973 hit song and moved the world with the rendition he performed at Princess Diana’s funeral. Later, he recorded the version and released it to raise money for Princess Diana’s favorite charities. And, he vowed to never play the song again in that version. Now, that’s how you do it!
6. Band Aid 20 – “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” (2004). It was cool in 2004 to redo this song in 2004. One, the original had been played to death so we needed a new version to breathe fresh air into it. Second, my boys were excited that they were finally getting their charity single. And last, it had a hot guitar solo from that dude from The Darkness who looked like Peter Frampton on a bad acid trip. This version has fun written all over it.
5. USA for Africa – “We Are the World” (1985). Yes, the song’s a little schlocky. But, there was nothing more fun than sitting in a bar when the video came on and naming all the singers with solos. Great memories surrounding that song.
4. Hear N’ Aid – “Stars” (1985). This is just a fun charity single. I like hearing these metal screamers singing this more of a Barry Manilow song and less than a power ballad. Plus, it has a heavy metal choir! What more could you ask for?
3. Artists United Against Apartheid – “Sun City” (1985). This song represents the best of a charity/protest song. Little Steven, fresh from the E Street Band, brought together everyone under the sun, from Miles Davis to Joey Ramone to Afrika Bambaataa to Lou Reed to Daryl Hall, and so much more, to record this song blasting South African white rule. This thing sizzles with 1985-era technology and production values.
2. George Michael and Elton John – “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” (1991). Yet another AIDS charity song, this is the ultimate version of the song. Originally, this duo covered the song at Live Aid, but only Michael sang. And I still get shivers when George says, “Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Elton John!” These two push each other and the song to greater heights. What a version of this classic song.
1. Band Aid – “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” (1984). Do you really think I was going to choose against the granddaddy of all charity songs? Hell, no! Especially when the song has George Michael, Paul Weller, Paul Young, Boy George, Simon LeBon, Sting and Bono all sharing the opening verse? This is my 21-year-old new wave self’s swansong. It’s just perfect since Phil Collins is handling the drums.
And, there you go! Peace and love to all.