Playing defense 1: Artists United Against Apartheid, “Sun City” (Manhattan, 1985)

Back when I was a staff writer for Stylus Magazine (RIP), from 2005-07, I often relished in writing defenses of songs and albums thought to be indefensible. To wit: here I am on David Bowie’s Tonight, Diana Ross’s “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” and “Mirror Mirror,” and Journey’s Greatest Hits. (Not even to mention the hate comments I got when, in praising Paul McCartney’s “Take It Away,” I “admitted” that I’m not a Beatles fan.) I still stand behind all of these to this day.

Now that I’m blogging on the regular again, I’ve decided to start a new “series” called “Playing defense,” in which I defend much-maligned music that I love. I’m starting with 1985’s charity single “Sun City.”

At the time, “Sun City” was lauded by the critical cognoscenti. Both the single (by a landslide) and video (co-directed by Jonathan Demme and Godley & Creme!) topped the Village Voice Pazz & Jop Critics Poll, and the attendant album placed fifth. In his annual essay about the poll, Robert Christgau said this about “Sun City” and Sun City:

Yet there is one bright spot among both singles and videos–the top one. I don’t want to make too much of “Sun City,” a not quite superb single that generated a strong but flawed album and a corny, courageous, gut-wrenching, educational, and rather beautiful video, but it’s significant that amid all this year’s corrosive commentary only one critic (besides Chuck Eddy, whom see) was moved to put the thing down–Don Waller, who complained that except for the hook it didn’t jam. In a year paved with good intentions, “Sun City” was hard not to respect, and for many critics it fulfilled a long-cherished fantasy of really serious fun. Had it limited its attack on apartheid to South Africa it might have been dismissed as an elaborate radical pose, but “Sun City” brought its critique home, not only in its lyric but in its musical form, and perhaps even more important, it jammed sufficiently to dent those other charts, the ones in Billboard. It’s not just crippling cynicism that induces some to suspect that the song’s album votes exemplify what J.D. Considine (who made the single his number one) calls the “tendency to value ‘significance’ over listening pleasure.” Virtue rewarded once again. But Howard Litwak’s comment is just as apropos: “Maybe not the best album musically, but the best album emotionally, which is what counts in this poll.” Litwak doesn’t bother to mention that good emotionally presupposes pretty good or better musically, or that in this case (but maybe not the next) great politically plus good musically equals great emotionally. And no matter what Hilton Kramer wants you to believe, these are all aesthetic responses. That’s what I love about rock critics.

Yet today, for some odd reason I can’t ascertain, “Sun City” earns heaps of scorn from most of my crit peers. I agree with Christgau in that it “jam[s] sufficiently” — that’s one of its best qualities, the fact that you can (even though I can’t imagine doing so) dance to it. Co-produced by Steven Van Zandt and Arthur Baker, it’s got Baker’s fingerprints all over it; it sounds like an Arthur Baker record. Van Zandt’s fingerprints come more in the lineup, which nicely balances the politically conscious white artists you’d expect (his boss Springsteen, Bono, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne) with artists of African descent from Miles Davis and Nona Hendryx to Afrika Bambaataa and Run-D.M.C.

Lyrically it’s very of its moment, taking on artists who deigned to play Sun City, a huge South African resort (essentially the old-school Vegas of S.A.), and suggesting that they were supporting South Africa’s apartheid regime in doing so. (A demo version of the song actually named names.) And it just comes together so well: much better than USA for Africa did, in my book, and it’s definitely a better song than Band Aid’s. “Sun City” thumps, it grooves, and it puts a whole lot of artists (and vocalists) I love on one record, together — and I love it to this day.


About thomasinskeep

I write about music.
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