Music (General)

We Are The World - Plus 40 Years


We Are The World - Plus 40 Years
A Review Of "The Greatest Night In Pop"

Posted by Charlie Recksieck on 2024-02-13
I'm old, I remember 1985 and We Are The World. To be honest, I haven't thought for one moment about We Are The World since the list time I heard it, which might have been around 1998.

Lo and behold, Netflix just put a documentary in front of me called "The Greatest Night In Pop" about the all-star song. I lead a full enough life but I had the 90 minutes available to watch it. I'm glad that I did.

Background On The Song

I'll quote the "We Are The World" Wikipedia entry extensively here: "'We Are the World' is a charity single originally recorded by the supergroup USA for Africa in 1985. It was written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie and produced by Quincy Jones and Michael Omartian for the album We Are the World. With sales in excess of 20 million copies, it is the ninth-best-selling physical single of all time." Go ahead and read the article; this is one of those times as with sports articles that Wikipedia gets its facts totally right.

First of all, the fact that it sold that many copies is shocking and I lived through it. I remember it being a thing on MTV a lot. But Live Aid from later that year was a much bigger thing in my memory.

Bob Geldof with Band Aid was the first massive multi-superstar recording for charity (unless it was The Beatles televised "All You Need Is Love" event in 1967 or producer Robert Evans court-ordered PSA "Get High On Yourself" after a drug bust in 1981). It spawned some truly awful knockoffs for charity - the two silliest that come to mind were: 1) A 1989 effort from Billy Barty "From Where I Stand" which benefitted god-knows-what, and 2) Krusty The Klown's "Sending Our Love Down The Well"

1980's: An Unexplainable Time

I'm still close with my ex's son and I'm always fascinated when I get to explain something from the past that logically makes no sense to him. On the more serious side, just when COVID was coming to America even just in late February 2020 he asked me, "Is this a bigger deal than 9/11" and I immediately told him, "This will affect our lives 1000 times more than 9/11."

On the lighter side, I have multiple times tried to explain to him that Huey Lewis & The News were the biggest act in rock music even while Purple Rain and Born In The USA surrounded them on the charts. Yes, I loved and still like Huey Lewis personally and musically. But this dad band from the Bay Area being the biggest act in music still doesn't compute.

The Film - Brief Review

I could quibble with a scene or two, but I won't. Overall, I thought it was great viewing. As somebody who's passionate about music and for whom a recording studio is my favorite place, this couldn't be more up my alley. Just as Peter Jackson couldn't go wrong since he had the access to the Beatles "Get Back" footage, just making this documentary at all with all of this footage from the session was bound to be terrific.

That said, it’s definitely enjoyable for people of a certain age (mine). I’m involved in a music documentary that’s hopefully going to be finished this summer and in our case, watching even unknowns assemble songs from start to finish can be fascinating. A peek behind the curtain is pretty interesting for people that haven’t been in a studio. Now when you add in some of music’s greatest legends, it’s pretty much a must-watch; even if the film was poor (which this is not).

What I Learned

I didn't know it was initially Harry Belafonte's reaction to Bob Geldof and Band Aid. I hadn't given thought to the planning it took for arranging all of the solo parts to various star singers and carefully considering their range. And where to place them near each other; as difficult as making a seating chart for a wedding with very catty families.

The arrangements from Tom Bahler, Quincy Jones' go-to guy for vocal arrangements, were incredibly thought out.

Also, the clip of Michael Jackson’s solo in the original video showed him recording his vocals with nobody around him. I’d always thought it was because he was a reculsive oddball who had to be wheeled in a plastic bubble with nobody around. As it turned out, he recorded his vocals ahead of time as one of the producers; and he laid down the guide track for EVERYBODY’s vocals. He, Lionel Richie and agent/producer Ken Kragen were the heroes of this endeavor. I haven’t even mentioned Ken Kragen, Lionel and Kenny Rogers’ super-agent, enough. I owe you all a separate article sometime about Ken Kragen and some timeless advice of his.

Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie and Quincy Jones were the architects of the project. First of all, I thought MJ was so off in space mentally that he just did his vocals in a box and left; but he was the main songwriter and really working with the various singers along with Lionel on their parts.

Stevie was involved but seems like he dropped the ball a couple of times - forgetting it was a recording session and not a songwriting session. Huh? Then he was a big part of the only serious drag and threat to the record. First of all, Michael shoe-horned in some dopey trademark "sha-lum sha-lin-gay" call and response thing that never worked. Stevie Wonder was trying to re-write it in real time with 50 egotistical singers waiting in front of mics; as Lionel said, they HAD to keep moving. Bad call, Stevie. He insists on bringing Swahili lyrics instead which caused idiotic disagreements which got even worse when Waylon Jennings walked out of the session, saying what amounted to "I ain't singing no damn Swahili" on his way out the door. Cooler heads prevailed and the didn't even use that part. Waste of time.

Winners & Losers & Too-Ignored

Based on my viewing of the documentary yesterday, here's what I've got.


- Lionel Richie. Quincy Jones was the producer of record, but watching this film makes me think that Lionel was the unofficial producer of these sessions. He kept everybody moving, kept everybody on track, flattered everyone properly, tried to put everybody in a position to succeed. Everything a producer does in a session, he was doing it.

- Cyndi Lauper. She absolutely was crushing it. She was not overwhelmed by the moment at all. She sang the shit out of everything and brought levity to the session when it desperately needed it.

- Harry Belafonte. I didn't see anything first hand to remind me or educate me why Harry Belafonte was so terrific. My knowledge of his greatness is from reading histories, not from anything I've witnessed. But the reverence that music's biggest superstars had for him counts for something.

- Bruce Springsteen. He was no Steve Perry when it comes to vocal talent but he understood the assignment and really brought it along with a great energy.

- Diana Ross. The vignette at the end about her just not wanting to leave at the end was really beautiful. It almost got a little dusty here during the screening.


- Al Jarreau. Fucking things up because he had too much champagne. Maybe Al was still riding high from recently cutting the theme from the tv series Moonlighting but it was a bit of a fail, and I'm writing that as someone who loves Al Jarraeu from his goofy Chick Corea jazz to smooth R&B hits like "Roof Garden" and "We're In This Love Together".

- Waylon Jennings. For walking out on Stevie Wonder's Swahili idea. Although in Waylon's defense, it was a pretty stupid idea and it derailed the progress of the whole night.

- Bob Dylan. A little bit of a loser. Nobody expects Dylan to sing well, that's not his bag. Yet I'm listing him here because everybody else seems to be having fun meeting their idols. Even admittedly overmatched Huey Lewis (who was wrongfully assigned a part in too high a key) was "in the moment."

- Sheila E. Yes, she admitted that she felt privileged and amazed to be a part of it. But to be pissed that she didn't get a solo and that she was there only as bait to get Prince to show up (he didn't) and then leave, that's a bad job by Sheila E.


- Just a smidge of Dionne Warwick but she killed her little solo.

- Lindsey Buckingham. I don't even remember seeing him in frame in this.

- 3 WHOLE GROUPS. We saw Huey Lewis a bunch and in great interviews, but he bandmates, The News were there and not mentioned. The rest of the Jacksons were there but only mentioned Michael; I really could have used at least one nutty La Toya Jackson moment. And the Pointer Sisters also were present and not mentioned.

Lessons For Studio Recording

Make Decisions. Several film directors say that when they are under the gun and asked for dozens of production decisions every shoot day that any decision isn't necessarily that important, what a director really needs to do is be seen making a firm decision.

Think Out The Arrangements Ahead Of Time. Of course you should do this in a recording session but I'll admit that sometimes I wait to write harmonies until "in the room" to try them out live with the voices we have.

Make Everybody Comfortable. I've written about this before, but it is so easy to get intimidated in a studio. You have to be loose.

Unique To The We Are The World Recordings

Being comfortable in a studio is hard enough. But doing it in front of your heroes is even harder. I hadn't thought about it but Huey Lewis articulated it perfectly in the movie.

If you've read this far, then that does it: just watch the damn thing instead of listening to me talk about it.