(Hey, we got pictures now. Here’s why.)
At Christmas 1984, when Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas” became a worldwide smash, it became inevitable that American stars would do something similar for famine relief. The story of “We Are the World” is fairly well known. One of the more interesting things about it now is the list of participating artists: three of the songwriters, Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson, and Stevie Wonder, all got solos, as did Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Diana Ross, Paul Simon, and Bob Dylan. But other members of the group are definitely out of the mid-80s time capsule: James Ingram, Tina Turner, Al Jarreau, Steve Perry, Cyndi Lauper, Kim Carnes, Huey Lewis, the Pointer Sisters. (And what in the actual fk is Dan Aykroyd doing on it?) “Do They Know It’s Christmas” was on the air in the UK within days of its recording. It took USA for Africa over a month to get “We Are the World” out, 29 years ago today, on March 7, 1985.
Billboard‘s chart methodology was not as sophisticated in 1985 as it is now, and the charts lagged behind the streets. The first charts at ARSA show it on March 15, but “We Are the World” did not hit the Hot 100 until two weeks after its release, on March 23, when it entered at #21—astoundingly high by the standards of the time. It went to #5 the next week—the first single to reach the top 5 within two weeks since “Let It Be” 15 years before. For the week of April 6, it went to #2, held out of the top spot by Phil Collins’ “One More Night,” which was spending its second week at #1.
“We Are the World” finally reached #1 for the week of April 13, 1985. It topped the charts for four weeks, until Madonna’s “Crazy for You” bumped it to #2 for the week of May 11. It would remain in the Top 40 for four weeks after that (falling 8 to 14 to 24 to 29), and would trickle out of the Hot 100 after five more weeks. The song also appeared on Billboard‘s Rock Tracks and Hot Country Singles charts. According to Joel Whitburn’s accounting, it was the #2 single of 1985 behind Richie’s “Say You, Say Me.” It would reach #1 in 15 other countries.
That spring, I was program director of an automated Top 40 station. Our music was shipped to us from a programming service, and I had been told that based on the company’s production and schedules, “We Are the World” wouldn’t be added to our regular rotation until early April. This was simply not good enough, so I went down to our local record store and bought a copy. When I brought it back to the office and set it on my desk, it promptly snapped in two, the only time in my life I’ve ever broken a record that way. So I went and got another one, and I had it on the air within 15 minutes, sometime during that first week of its release.
Playing “We Are the World” was exhilarating the first few times. You knew you were part of an enormous cultural phenomenon, you were giving your listeners exactly what they wanted to hear (for they were caught up in the phenomenon too), and you even felt like you were personally helping feed starving Ethiopians. On April 5, over 8,000 radio stations around the world (including mine) joined in a simultaneous airing of “We Are the World.” At that moment, it was hot like nothing since “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” The feeling didn’t last, however. Something so hyped and pervasive naturally burns out quickly. By the time it fell off the charts in July after over four months of ubiquity, radio stations were ready to be rid of it. Although it would win Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Pop Vocal Group Performance, and Best Short Form Video at the Grammys, by the time it collected those awards in early 1986, it rarely got much airplay anymore.
But for those few weeks in the spring and early summer of 1985, “We Are the World” was it. Although some critics trashed it for not being political enough, it was barely political at all, except for the degree to which helping the less fortunate is a political issue. (In 1985, “let ’em starve” wasn’t something decent people said out loud.) However tame it was, there remains a plausible argument that “We Are the World” represented the last gasp of 60s-inspired rock-star activism. Stars would—and do—still speak out for causes, but they would never again attract the attention of tens of millions while doing so.