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‘We Are the World’

First time farce, second time .  .  .

Feb 22, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 22 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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The first week of February, a group of more than 75 celebrities met in a studio on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles to re-record “We Are the World.” The occasion was the January earthquake in Haiti, which left the bedraggled, destitute country even more bedraggled and destitute. 

‘We Are the World’

But Haiti was just the proximate excuse for the new “We Are the World.” Plans were already in the works to re-record the song to mark the 25th anniversary of the first “We Are the World.” In other words, it’s not fair to blame the Haitians for this new round of celebrity self-congratulation. These people were going to do it anyway. Who is to blame? Two of the most destructive forces of the 20th century: the United Nations and the Beatles.

American musicians have been preening for charity for a long time. In 1940, for instance, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and other assorted lefty singers put on a “Grapes of Wrath Evening in New York” to raise money for the John Steinbeck Committee for Agricultural Workers. In 1970, Joni Mitchell and James Taylor headlined a show in Vancouver to help Greenpeace send a boat expedition to Amchitka to protest a nuclear test.

But the modern pop-benefit extravaganza began on August 1, 1971, when George Harrison staged a two-day “Concert for Bangladesh” at Madison Square Garden. Moved by the plight of refugees who fled to India during Bangladesh’s war of independence, Harrison teamed up with UNICEF to raise money for relief. He put together an all-star bill including Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan. The other three Beatles were invited. Naturally, Ringo showed up. McCartney declined while Lennon initially accepted, only to change his mind when Harrison requested that Yoko Ono not insert herself into the performance.

Nonetheless, the 40,000 tickets sold out in six hours. The concert raised $243,418, and the ensuing album and movie documentary brought in, roughly, another $12 million. Hearts were opened; consciousness was raised; John Lennon was angry.

Not that it did the Bangladeshis much good. The $243,418 from the concert gate got to the United Nations pretty quickly, but the rest of the proceeds—about $8.8 million after expenses—were tied up in accounting for the better part of a decade. It wasn’t until 1981 that UNICEF received the balance, by which time Bangladesh had won its independence and was already onto its seventh presidential strongman. The money would surely have been welcome in 1981, since Bangladesh was (and remains) one of the poorest places on earth. But how much difference could $8.8 million really make? Since 1971, Bangladesh has been given more than $30 billion in grant aid and loan commitments to little effect.

The effect of the event on the music world, however, was substantial. In 1979, UNICEF sponsored another benefit concert, “Music for UNICEF,” which brought the Bee Gees, ABBA, Rod Stewart, and others to perform in the U.N.’s General Assembly Hall.

Not to be outdone by Harrison, Paul McCartney partnered with UNICEF for his own benefit concert later that year, “The Concerts for the People of Kampuchea,” staged in London over four nights with such acts as Queen and Elvis Costello. McCartney sold 35,000 tickets; a follow-up concert album and documentary were released. All told, the enterprise raised $400,000, which was handed over as a check to UNICEF—two years later. What good was $400,000 to a country with no government, in the midst of a protracted war between the brutal, semi-deposed Khmer Rouge and brutal, advancing Vietnamese invaders? Good question. In any event, the United Nations was happy to accept the money.

There were other benefits through these years—from Amnesty International’s “Secret Policeman’s Ball” series to the “No Nukes” concert at Madison Square Garden—but they rarely rose to the level of charitable endeavor. They were cultural poses, disguised as political rallies, masquerading as rock concerts. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that pop stars got serious—really serious—about making the world a better place. The occasion was the discovery of a place irresistibly chic and downtrodden: a place called Africa.

In 1984, Harry Belafonte heard “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” a song featuring 45 British pop stars. The single was produced by an organization called Band Aid and the proceeds went to benefit the starving masses in Africa—particularly Ethiopians, who were much in the news in the mid-1980s. (“Africa is sexy and people need to know that,” Bono—one of the participants—would explain some years later.) 

Belafonte decided to do a similar project in the States. He asked Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson to write a song while he established the charitable organization which would run the enterprise, USA for Africa. (The acronym stands for “United Support of Artists for Africa.”) The song Richie and Jackson concocted was blindingly insipid: 


We are the world

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