|1. Sun City|
|2. No More Apartheid|
|3. Revolutionary Situation|
|4. Sun City (Version II)|
|5. Let Me See Your I.D.|
|6. The Struggle Continues|
|7. Silver And Gold|
|8. Sun City (single version)|
|9. Not So Far Away|
|10. Sun City (the final remix)|
It's difficult to say how future music historians will consider the "group protest ensembles" of the mid-1980s. While most of the causes were well-intentioned, their actual impact on the problems which they were addressing was often minimal. Despite having gained the highest degree of publicity (by far), the various attempts at providing relief to the famine-afflicted regions Ethiopia were perhaps the least successful of all such projects. Some reports after 1985 place the greatest part of the blame on Ethiopia's revolutionary government, which was frequently hostile to any relief efforts (perhaps because they were using starvation as a strategy of war against enemy groups). The lack of any long term success on the part of most of these projects has greatly contributed to the public perception that they were little more than cheap publicity for the artists involved. This is a sad legacy, but there's more than a bit of truth to it.
There's also the matter of the "musical value" of such projects. Put bluntly, "We Are The World" wasn't meant to be an "all-time classic innovative pop tune" -- it was written as an inoffensive soft-rock number, designed to appeal to as many people as possible. No matter how good the cause, the limitations on the artistic value of any such project are generally rather severe (see also "Candle In The Wind 1997" for a more recent example).
This does not mean that all such projects should be dismissed as a decade-old fad, however.
In terms of both "long-term success" and "musical value", Sun City compares quite well against other such projects. The project had a specific goal (establishing a boycott of Sun City from the entertainment industry) and a long-term goal (eliminating apartheid from South Africa). While it would be beyond presumptuous to attribute the success of both causes to Little Steven's single, the fact nevertheless remains that growing international pressure did eventually force the government of South Africa to abandon its policies of apartheid in the early 1990s. Whatever South Africa's problems today, its constitutional state is much healthier now than it was ten years ago.
From a musical standpoint, too, Sun City is more than simply a historical curiousity. The album features tracks by Peter Gabriel, Miles Davis, Gil Scott-Heron and Bono, as well as several versions of the "cast of (almost) all artists" title track. Not all tracks are world class, but none are complete embarrassments. And while the inclusion of five versions of "Sun City" (the least impressive track on the album) was probably overkill, the album has a whole can be appreciated for its musical value even after the passing of thirteen years. Which has to count for something.
"Sun City", the song, was inspired by the forced migration of many Zulus into the "homeland" of Bophuthatswana (the first stage of a more comprehensive project of such migrations). The South African government tired to pawn the area off as an independent nation, but no other country ever accepted it as such. Many Zulus were separated from their families in order to be brought into the area, and many actually laboured in South Africa itself. This was, in sum, not a valid expression of "national self-determination" by any real standard.
Bophuthatswana attempted to gain financial resources (and credibility) by calling for artists to play in Sun City, a glittery Vegas-esque recreational town. It was in opposition to this request that Steven Van Zandt (a former Springsteen guitarist) wrote the title track for this album.
The song is structured basically along the same lines as "Do They Know It's Christmas" and "We Are The World" -- every artist gets a line, and several artists join in on the chorus section (hackneyed though this may seem, it's still much better than the alternative of Van Zandt singing the track himself -- his vocals on the opening section of the track are the worst aspect of the album). The track is also notable, though, for featuring some moments of internal diversity. Before the "song" proper begins, a South African vocal group known as the Malopoets deliver a brief performance, as do Miles Davis and assorted American rappers (most notably members of the then-popular Run D.M.C.); these are reprised in the middle of the song. The various singers on this track are generally distinctive enough to allow for interesting vocal shiftings throughout the track, though it must be admitted that Lou Reed's section takes a bit of getting used to. Musically ... the keyboard line is a bit grating, but the actual song structure is much more tolerable to others of this sort. And in terms of the lyrics, the more comprehensive condemnation of America's international hegemony is enough to give the track some continued relevance (despite the occasional clunky rhyme). The song may be covered in self-righteousness, but that doesn't mean that it's without merit.
(This review leaves aside, of course, the question of whether or not any of the artists who sang "I ain't gonna play Sun City" would have been invited to do so in the first place.)
After this, the album shifts to "No More Apartheid", a track featuring a Peter Gabriel lead vocal over an altered sample from (what else?) "Biko". Gabriel's lyric line isn't terribly developed; he essentially just provides vocal emotings which eventually consolidate as the repeated "No more apartheid" line. In spite of this, his vocal performance is rather impressive, emphasizing the throatier aspects of his talents. Numerous instruments take "leads", including one period of an extremely high-mixed bass line. A sample from Gabriel's "San Jacinto" also appears towards the very end. While the song itself is rather simple, the embellishments are somewhat less so. Interestingly, the actual musical structure of the track sounds oddly like U2's "A Sort Of Homecoming" ... though it's not clear that this was the intention.
"Revolutionary Situation" begins with another performance by the Malopoets; after a one-second sample of Miles Davis, the track proper begins: numerous samples of assorted public figures commenting on South Africa appear over a rap backing track. Among those featured are Desmond Tutu, Ronald Reagan, P.W. Botha and, of course, Nelson Mandela. It's fairly effective overall, though the repeated line of "You can't go in there, you're the wrong colour" doesn't quite carry the same impact as the assorted historical speeches. The track also sounds as though it features a New Order percussion sample; given that Arthur Baker is credited for production on the album, it probably does. Miles makes another appearance towards the end.
At this point, the album shifts to another version of "Sun City". Why exactly this track was deemed necessary for the final release isn't entirely clear. The singing is identical to that of the first version, and the music is less interesting (many of the more interesting additions having been left out). This is a superfluous track, irrespective of its independent merits.
"Let Me See Your I.D." is the rap feature of the album, also starring a narration by Gil Scott-Heron (of "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" fame). Much of this track is ultimately hit-and-miss. Scott-Heron's section is consistly good throughout (proving that it's possible to use wry humour without diminishing the seriousness of the subject matter) -- I wasn't aware that Jerry Falwell had conducted a survey on apartheid in South Africa until being reminded by this track. On the other hand, some of the rap sections are just rather disruptive. Melle Mel's section is okay, and the brief appearance by Eddy Grant is quite impressive, but ... whose idea was it to give the Fat Boys a spotlight section? Miles Davis's trumpet continues to be heard throughout much of this track. Good, if not great.
The highlight of the album, from a musical standpoint, is unquestionably "The Struggle Continues", a Miles Davis track featuring his reunion with Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams. The track is structured in a fairly clever manner -- starting in a fairly subdued manner (more potential energy than anything else), it ultimately bursts forward in mid-song, then shifts back to the original "theme" may many of the newer elements still carrying over. Whether or not this was meant as a reflection on South Africa's political situation isn't entirely clear, though this certainly can't be ruled out. Davis plays some interesting tricks with time at the beginning; the piano/drums duet section is, moreover, amazing. Instrumental though it may be, this track obviously belongs here.
Bono's "Silver And Gold" (also featuring Keith Richards and Charlie Watts) is considered by some to be the best track on the album. I'm not entirely certain why this is. It's certainly a decent number, but it's hardly an album highlight. Bono's lyrics address the subject of exploited black labour in South Africa from a first-person perspective; this might have made more of an impact if he hadn't decided to oversing just about every line after the first verse. Keith Richards actually adds a bit more "colour" to the piece than one might expect (and it's unlikely the similarity of the opening riff to "Satisfaction" was accidental), but this still falls somewhat short of musical greatness. An overrated track, if fairly good on its own.
Following this, the album features three more versions of "Sun City" ("Not So Far Away" being simply an instrumental remix). The single version manages to retain most of the essence of the original track, keeping some of the more interesting moments excised from version II; it's still not essential, but one can at least justify it's presence here. "Not So Far Away" is essentially an Arthur Baker remix of the track, featuring some interesting studio wizardly but very little to add to the track's ultimate value (unless you count one section which sounds a bit like FGTH's "Relax"). A few rap sections are retained, and a bit of piano is "added" as well. Not a bad number, but Bono's cry of "Little Steven!" at the end takes its overall value down a bit. "The Final Remix" consists of the original version of the track with a few overdubs and the occasional extra vocal (including a strange ending by Midnight Oil lead singer Peter Garrett). Again, it's not really essential. All told, the album would probably lose very little by omiting "Version II" and "Not So Far Away" (if multiple versions of the track must be kept...).
Sun City is probably a musical curiousity today, sought out primarily by those who wish to collect those tracks which feature their favourite artists (I will admit that I bought my copy to acquire the Gabriel track, for example). That said, there is enough decent music here to justify a purchase on purely artistic grounds.
(review originally posted to alt.music.yes on 20 March 1998)