Wednesday, September 5, 2018

"Sun City" by Artists United Against Apartheid

Song#:  2518
Date:  11/02/1985
Debut:  74
Peak:  38
Weeks:  13
Genre:  Rock, Charity

Pop Bits:  After E Street member Steven Van Zandt visited South Africa and witnessed the racial segregation that was happening at the time, known as apartheid, he wanted to try and do something to bring more attention to the situation. It was proposed that perhaps he do a song along the lines of "We Are the World," but one that was more political and not necessarily related to a charitable cause. Working with journalist Danny Schechter and producer Arthur Baker, Van Zandt wrote the song "Sun City," which was a resort that catered to rich white people. Big name music acts were coaxed to play there even though the UN had in place a cultural boycott for South Africa (obviously there's a lot more to all this, which I can't recount here - just look it up and get some history). Van Zandt then began asking other musicians to join in on the recording of the song with the stipulation that they would never play at Sun City. Around 40 artists decided to participate including Bruce Springsteen, U2, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Peter Gabriel, Hall & Oates, Keith Richards, Miles Davis, and Bonnie Raitt. A video would be made for the song along with a short documentary film on the making. Proceeds from the song would benefit several anti-apartheid organizations. When the song was released in the US, it didn't do all that well and it just scratched the Top 40. It did better in other areas of the world hitting the Top 10 in some countries. When it was all done with, Van Zandt's project netted about $1 million. It was a small fraction of what USA for Africa pulled in, but it certainly brought attention to apartheid, which would finally come to an end in 1994.

ReduxReview:  I think this song did a fine job bringing light to apartheid. Frankly, at the time I had no clue as to what was going on, so this song did make me aware and pay more attention to the situation. Although the song did have a tough time due to lack of airplay (see below), I still think it would have been a struggle to get further up the chart because it didn't have that mass appeal sound like "We Are the World." This was a brash synth-rock tune with a political message and that was going to be a difficult sell to a general audience. The song itself is pretty solid. Van Zandt did a nice job creating a hooky anthem. If he had just written this as a regular, non-political song with other words and recorded it himself, he still might have walked away with a decent chart entry.

ReduxRating:  7/10

Trivia:  Double Shot!  1) In addition to the song, an album was also culled for the project. It included two versions of "Sun City" plus new topically related songs from Peter Gabriel ("No More Apartheid" with L. Shakar) and Bono ("Silver and Gold" with Keith Richards and Ron Wood). The LP would make it to #31 on the chart, but failed to reach gold level sales. Unlike other benefit singles where the charities still exist and the songs get revised by another generation of artists, after the end of apartheid this song disappeared and the album went out of print. It is now more of a historical relic of a bygone era.  2) One reason cited that the song didn't do so well was because a large chunk of US radio stations decided not to play the track. Because it was a political protest tune, many stations didn't want to be associated with anything political in nature and refused to air the song.



  1. Catchier than I remember, and what a time capsule the video is! I wish I could watch it with all the celebs identified; I'm terrible at recognizing people.

    1. Me too! There are some I can't remember. A few were listed in the song's credits and that helped, but some I still can't fully recognize.