POLITICS

Tears (still) are not enough, 30 years later

02/10/2015 05:00 EST | Updated 04/11/2015 05:59 EDT
"As every day goes by..."

David Foster is singing over the phone, remembering Gordon Lightfoot "killing it" on the opening vocals of Tears Are Not Enough, the all-star Canadian charity single recorded 30 years ago today.

Foster's Malibu, Calif., home is far away in both time and space from the frigid February Sunday in 1985 when more than 50 of Canada's top entertainers met at Toronto's Manta Studios to make a recording for African famine relief.

"It was a magical day," he says. 

But it's all a blur to him, because he barely slept the night before — so intense was the pressure to get it right after fellow music producer Quincy Jones phoned and asked him to helm a Canadian song for the We Are the World album his USA for Africa supergroup was recording.

Foster, working with manager Bruce Allen, had nine days to do it.

"The West and East Coast of Canada weren't exactly on the best of terms, musically," he says. "We were bringing them together for the first time."

The group, named Northern Lights, boasted some of Canada's top recording artists including Joni Mitchell, Anne Murray, Bruce Cockburn, Dan Hill, Paul Shaffer, Paul Anka, Tommy Hunter, Carole Pope, Véronique Béliveau and Burton Cummings, among many others.

The tune itself, Foster now reveals, was a reject – he'd offered it to Joel Schumacher for the soundtrack of St. Elmo's Fire, but the film director hated it.

Jim Vallance and Bryan Adams stayed up all night to turn it into a famine relief anthem instead. Then Schumacher called back. The melody was right for Rob Lowe's face after all.

Too late. "He was really pissed," Foster says.

And Adams's demo tape was so good, Foster ended up using those vocals in the final mix.

"Nothing was as good as that feeling that he had from staying up all night with that gravelly voice of his," he says.

Their song, urging Canadians to "pull together" and "change the world forever," went triple-platinum — topping the singles chart and raising $3.2 million.

Canadians gave $150 million

The video opened with CBC footage from the Ethiopian famine. Correspondent Brian Stewart, then based in London, learned only later that his voice was on what would be the most requested video on MuchMusic for March 1985.

A last-minute shoot at the NHL all-star game captured a young Wayne Gretzky singing along.

"This is what we do, so this is what we give," Rush frontman Geddy Lee said in the documentary about the making of the Tears Are Not Enough recording. 

Mila Mulroney taped the introduction for the doc, which aired on CBC-TV on Dec. 22, 1985.

David MacDonald ran the Mulroney government's co-ordination office for African famine relief. He remembers Allen, the organizer, approaching him for financial assistance, although he doesn't remember now the exact amount of the government's contribution to the recording session, which he attended.

The former MP remembers then external affairs minister Joe Clark telling him he had thousands of dollars in his desk drawer: people were mailing him cash and cheques, so strong was the collective sense of "we need to do more."

The record's proceeds were matched by the Canadian International Development Agency and funded projects by the Red Cross, UNICEF and CARE. Ten per cent went to Canadian food banks.

MacDonald says Adams in particular stayed involved, making several trips to Africa. Adams also performed the song at Bob Geldof's Live Aid concert that summer.

French-Canadian artists, including Céline Dion, also recorded a famine relief single, Les Yeux de la Faim.

"I went around and did a survey around all the NGOs that were raising money ... I think their estimate was that they raised another $150 million, so there was a collective response which was in today's terms pretty darn impressive," MacDonald says.

However, it was a "once in a lifetime" phenomenon, he says.  "I think the pitch it was making ... it's not a balanced approach to the problems of Africa."

'Ethiopia Thanks U'

With international help, Ethiopia made steady progress toward food security. It's now one of Africa's fastest-growing economies.

Thirty years ago, Ainalem Tebeje was one of only a few hundred Ethiopians living in Canada. She'd been studying journalism at Carleton University for less than a year when she started seeing the traumatic images the Ethiopian government didn't want her family back home in Addis Ababa to see.

Organizers brought her to Toronto for the recording session. She didn't know any of the celebrities, but became emotional when she saw fans lined up outside holding signs saying things like "Ethiopia Thanks U."

"The public relates better to celebrities than to politicians," she told the performers.

She also got to sing along, and her relatives back home passed the video around. 

"It was surreal for me," she says. "There was so much compassion in those days." 

Today, Tebeje works for the federal government and helps run an organization that supports medical students in Ethiopia.

"That period gave Canada its image, its credibility as a nation that extends a helping hand," she says. 

When fist bumps were fist pumps

Halifax-based music journalist and critic Ryan McNutt blogged about the fist-pumping awesomeness of "Canada's charity anthem." He's still drawn to the "mega-wattage of star power" in the original charity singles. 

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Each represents a cliché stereotype about its country, he suggests. The British Do They Know It's Christmas? takes a colonial attitude, while the American We Are the World is very self-centred. Tears Are Not Enough offered an emotional but indistinct humanitarianism. 

"The songs don't feel like a dialogue with a problem or a place. We're talking to ourselves ... it's more about us," he says.

No one would consider any of the three truly great songs, he says. "They're like an artifact or a time capsule ... [none] have aged very well."

Pop culture and music journalist Alan Neal thinks David Foster knew exactly what he was doing.

"A song should be structured to get to a desired purpose," the CBC Radio host says. "If you're trying to write a song to inspire to give, this song does that."

Looking back, one of its most powerful lyrics, Neal thinks, was Neil Young singing "somehow our innocence is lost."

Northern Lights revival?

Neal would love to hear a remake of Tears, but concedes that today's more cynical attitudes would diminish its appeal.

"There's something fair about saying this is the way we saw the world in the '80s," he says. "Maybe Canada would say something different now?"

Foster says he's never thought about his song's legacy. It's been 20 years since he listened to it.

Would he ever put a group together to re-record it – as Bob Geldof's Band Aid 30 did last Christmas for Ebola charities, or Quincy Jones did five years ago, reviving We are the World to help victims of Haiti's earthquake?

No one's ever suggested it to Foster. And he doesn't think he should.

"I think those songs are sort of untouchable. There's just certain songs you leave alone," he says. 

"If you do it right the first time everything else is going to be second best."