The life of Nelson Mandela testifies to one indisputable fact: History is always the final judge in this world. Mandela was man who was once imprisoned and labeled a traitor by an oppressive government, but — with time and reflection — his stature grew to be recognized as what one British newspaper called “perhaps the only genuinely global hero.”
And so, it’s to history then to right so many wrongs. With perspective, eagle-eye observers can revisit, re-contextualize and revise the past, identifying true heroes and martyrs from the villains and copycats.
In the wake of Mandela’s death on Thursday and the subsequent media churn on the history and horrors of South Africa’s Apartheid regime, an ignominious moment in 1980s pop culture has resurfaced along with it. That infamous moment is the well-intentioned but ill-conceived protest single, “Sun City.” The anthem-ic song sought to strike a blow against Apartheid, but with hindsight, really only succeeded in embarrassing all of its participants.
Nearly 30 years after its birth, the song — and its hilariously awful video — has a comedic value and bizarrely iconoclastic blend of pop-music royalty that are the only reasons to rescue it from the dustbin of history.
The single was the product of an all-star collaboration dubbed Artists United Against Apartheid. This mission was the brainchild of longtime Bruce Springsteen crony “Little” Steven Van Zandt. Before earning fame as an actor on “The Sopranos” and as a garage-rock radio host in the late ’90s, Van Zandt spent most of the ’70s and early ’80s as the Boss’ musical consigliere.
But after years at Springsteen’s side, Van Zandt decided in 1984 to leave the E Street Band and make his own way in the music business. “Sun City” was Van Zandt’s first substantial step away from his old mentor. Unfortunately for Van Zandt, his big idea was a fairly unremarkable one: To copy the “We Are The World” phenomenon by enlisting a cast of rock legends, R&B superstars and hip-hop pioneers to front his own protest song.
As a composition, “Sun City” isn’t too terrible. Produced by hip-hop innovator Arthur Baker, the song has a strong rap influence that was unique in the then-segregated world of pop music and a hook-y, sing-along chorus. But, where the song truly goes off the rails is in its wacky parade of famous faces and voices. The vocal personalities and delivery styles consistently clash and collide through nearly every bar of the track. The song, but particularly the video, offers some very jarring juxtapositions. These are people who don’t or shouldn’t inhabit the same musical universe, much less the same recording.
Taken verse by verse, the video evolves like a gritty street carnival gone seedy Hollywood, adding a Fellini-esque air to the proceedings. Uncomfortable vignettes pass viewers by: The Temptations’ David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks walk and wail down a street with Springsteen, who is wearing a leather biker jacket that’s way too small for him; Punk icon Joey Ramone struggles to stay in rhythm to the music before he’s displaced by the ludicrous duo of reggae superstar Jimmy Cliff and Daryl Hall (no mustache) of Hall & Oates; Lou Reed awkwardly pals around with actor/singer Rueben Blades and John Oates (yes, mustache) from Hall & Oates; A bearded, mullet-ed Bono stares smolderingly at the camera, trying to make the viewer think he’s burning with unforgettable fire while Nona Hendryx over sings over his shoulder; Jackson Browne and actress Daryl Hannah harmonize together in a studio and then walk around a random neighborhood with a winnowing, sunglass-wearing Bob Dylan; Then-pop giant Peter Gabriel sings with gusto but is inaudible in the mix while a pre-fame Bonnie Raitt gets a whole verse to herself, leaving viewers plenty of time to watch her distractingly long, dangly earrings; J. Geils Band singer Peter Wolf thinks he’s still in the “Centerfold” video and attempts some strange dance moves in front of the camera; Clips of Parliament-Funkadelic potentate George Clinton mugging and Pat Benatar howling keep popping up; And finally, a feckless sax solo by Clarence Clemmons makes clear this travesty of song is thoroughly overstuffed.
Only Miles Davis, who appears in a pop-art-treated intro to the song and the track’s rap contributors, Run DMC, Kool DJ Herc, Melle Mel, the Fat Boys, Afrika Bambaataa and Kurtis Blow, come out of this largely unblemished. Their all-to-brief rhymes fit onto the song’s beats and are best suited to conveying the cut’s slogan-heavy lyrical message. Had Van Zandt dumped the rockers, invited more rappers and given them more space in the production, he would have likely had a better all-around song. He might not have sold as many records or garnered press attention, but he betrayed his inspiration by turning it into a musical version of “Hollywood Squares.”
At the time, the song was praised by some and did climb the Billboard charts, but this is likely because of overall support of its message instead of its artistic merits. When Mandela was freed and Apartheid ended a few years later, the song largely disappeared from public consciousness. Looking back, Van Zandt might thank his lucky stars for that.
History might admire Van Zandt and the other artists’ motivations and acknowledge how they attempted to take a stand in support of Mandela and other victims of Apartheid. But, one can’t ignore what a colossal mess this is. Had they held true to the song’s muse and not transformed into a cheap clone of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” or “We Are The World,” the musicians might have achieved something more worthy of their intentions.
In this case and with the passage of time to foster judgment, any audience will see this as a thoroughly odd relic. They can see and hear these guys just couldn’t stop piling stars and styles together. And now, this track will live in hilarity, if not infamy.
Note: David’s music column, Soundbytes, appeared on Wisconsin Public Radio’s website. This column was originally published there.
©Copyright 2013 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.