What was the greatest day in Canadian pop culture history?
You might say October 11, 1952, when Hockey Night in Canada appeared on the airwaves for the first time. Or February 28, 2010, when Michael Bublé sang The Maple Leaf Forever with giant floating beavers, flying moose, dancing Mounties and tabletop hockey players at the Vancouver Olympics closing ceremonies (I swear I am not exaggerating in the slightest) hours after Sidney Crosby’s golden goal. Or something else involving hockey, because we’re
obsessively single-minded adorable like that.
But you would be wrong. The greatest day in Canadian pop culture history happened 30 years ago today.
This is We Are The World, the American all-star charity single that saved Africa forever. You probably already knew this, because it’s the lens through which every “celebrities come together for a CAUSE” parody has been inspired by since.
We Are The World came after its British counterpart, Do They Know It’s Christmas, and recorded in January 1985. Producer Quincy Jones thought it would be great to have a Canadian version, phoned David Foster….and on February 10, 1985, the largest gathering of Canadian stars (insert obvious joke here) ever joined in song in a Toronto studio.
The song was Tears Are Not Enough. It was everything you imagine 1980’s Canadian culture to be and more. And 30 years on, it’s threatens to become a footnote to Millennials. Which is why we need to lionize it today in a way Millennials will appreciate—with snark, nostalgic joy, and GIFs.
Now, unlike most Canadian retreads of American and British ideas (DID YOU KNOW CANADA MADE A CHARITY SINGLE TOO?!?), there was some merit to this most ultimate of Can-Con projects. Much of the world learned of the Ethiopian crisis through a CBC documentary that aired months earlier. And while the idea of rich celebrities telling people to feed poor Africans has grown, shall we say, problematic, there were nothing but good earnest Canadian intentions at the time.
But today, we don’t care about any of that. We just want to gleefully praise and mock it.
Joining me on this journey is James Lewis. Like me, James is a Global News producer, born and raised on the west coast, cynical beyond his years and with a love of nostalgia. HOWEVER, James is in his early-to-mid 20s, while I’m in my mid-to-late 20s. Diversity.
Enough chit-chat. Time to examine this most Canadian of songs.
(We’re going with the highest quality, producer’s cut of this classic.)
0:01—Once you realize you’re not listening to Chicago’s “You’re the Inspiration” – you instantly recognize the era. Power piano had truly reached its height by 1985. (JL)
0:09—David Foster (the song’s producer, cough cough) sighting #1. He nods purposefully – as if he’s thinking, “Canada doesn’t even know what it’s about to hear. It’s so good, surely they’ll still be playing this on the radio 30 years from now.” (JL)
You can’t discuss Tears Are Not Enough without discussing David Foster. First: he’s the producer and main composer. Second: he inserts himself into this song far too many times, in ways that are both hilarious and egotistical. Third: it’s amazing to think that he’s had the greatest post-Tears career out of anyone in this production. Finally: the song (syrupy, schlocky, piano-synth, extremely catchy if you let your guard down) and production (Stars! Broad warmth! Generic emotions!) is peak Foster. Really, how you feel about David Foster probably determines how you feel about this song. Myself, it’s “general bemusement”. (JM)
0:15—Gordon Lightfoot (dressed as if he’s going to an optometry appointment) rightfully takes the first line. The country melts. (JL)
Lightfoot is a solid choice to start the song on the right track. Also, you know all those jokes you heard about Canadians and mullets back in the day? There was a reason for that. (JM)
Those glasses are also very “of their time.” (JL)
0:23—Burton Cummings blankly stares into space and delivers his six words without blinking once. (JL)
Relevant: In 2008, Burton Cummings told The Globe and Mail “I shovelled an awful lot of the white lady up my nose. I did a lot of acid, smoked a lot of great hash, great weed. I barely even lay down till I was about 40.” He was 37 when this was recorded. (JM)
No sugar tonight in his coffee – but almost anything else? (JL)
0:30—”Oh! Anne Murray! She was nice,” says everybody. (JM)
Canada’s songbird arrives to teach us a lesson about sharing and caring. (JL)
0:36—I understand they need to spread the load evenly, but to give someone like Joni Mitchell a SEVEN WORD solo is baffling to me. To her credit, she sure sells those seven words. (JL)
Part of the fun of these celebrity charity songs is seeing how much various singers meet expectations and stereotypes, and Joni just kills it. Nobody will ever understand what she’s doing with her hands. (JM)
0:43—For millennials, the first “who are you?” moment of the video. According to the internet, his name is Dan Hill – and he actually achieved modest success in his time. So there you go. But considering the ensemble, it’s puzzling why he would get such high billing.
“But Dan Hill did Sometimes When We Touch, a huge hit!” you say. Yeah, 8 YEARS BEFORE THIS PRODUCTION. The only way this makes sense is remembering that, by law, each of these giant charity singles had to include someone who stuck out a decade later. We Are The World has Al Jarreau, Do They Know It’s Christmas has Paul Young, and Tears Are Not Enough has Dan Hill. (JM)
0:50—Who gave Jimmy Fallon a time machine? (JM)
Neil Young does his best Neil Young impression. (JL)
This is where the famous story of David Foster telling Young he was singing off-key and Young responding “That’s my sound, man” comes from, which tells you all you need to know about both men. (JM)
0:58—Alright, enough fun. Bryan Adams accentuates the importance of the song by giving us the first major fist-pump. (JL)
Bryan Adams is credited as a co-writer of this song, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s exclusively for this solo, where he gives himself a quintessential Bryan Adams exploding high note to rasp out. (JM)
1:05—Liberty Silver (Google it) and Mike Reno (Working for the weekend and…my former neighbour…) Fame sure can be fleeting, eh? (JL)
I know neither of us were alive when Loverboy was relevant, but it was deeply, depressingly relevant for a number of years. I’m just disappointed Reno beat out Trooper’s Ra McGuire for the sole “bombastic arena rock” slot. Also, have you ever wanted to hear the frontman of Trooper singing “Time Goes By” in the most bizarre 1980’s TV show ever? Because here’s you’re chance.
As for Liberty Silver, this is one of only three songs listed on her Wikipedia page. I feel as if that’s a bad sign. To the chorus! (JM)
1:17—Our first group shot of the affair. A couple things: Anne Murray appears to be dressed for a child’s birthday party – and is oddly captivated by her headphones.
Also, in what will become a familiar theme, each person starts to find a token dance move – in an attempt to stick out from the group. This round goes to Joni. (JL)
Every round, in every bout, goes to Joni. (JM)
1:21 to 1:25—Possibly my favourite sequence of the entire video – where an increasingly uncomfortable and out-of-place Lightfoot gets a reassuring nod from Bryan. (JL)
I’ll say this for the chorus – it’s undeniably catchy and polished, much more so than their British and American counterparts. (JM)
1:40—Foster (the song’s producer, cough cough) sighting #2. Count us in, David! (JL)
Quickly, start singing! There’s no time!!! (JM)
1:42—Oh good, the country contingent is here…wait – and now they’re gone again…(JL)
That was nice of them to bring in that Albertan family. Also, someone is going to get upset with us not knowing who Ronnie Hawkins is. (JM)
I thought that was Wolfman Jack – which really says more about me than anything else…(JL)
1:48—Corey Hart was the Drake of mid-1980s CanCon… so they flatter him with some special framing for his fist-pump…(JL)
Corey Hart was on fire at this stage of his career, and then very quickly people realized his songs weren’t as catchy as Bryan Adams’. Still, in 1985 I’m shocked he didn’t get in the first verse. (JM)
1:56—Look at that dude on the right. Look at that snark. Seriously Claude Dubois, is there somewhere else you’d rather be? ‘Cause if there is, just take your white pants and go… Meanwhile, the guy on the left (Robert Charlebois) tries to give Joni a run for title of best dancer. (JL)
Everything about this section is delightful. First of all, if we’re talking about dance moves, I love the weird neck snap Veronique Beliveau does at the end. Second, stuffing the Mandatory French Part in a Pan-Canadian Song in the second-last line of the second verse is a quintessential symbol of our commitment to bilingualism. Finally, I’m pretty sure none of them have any meaningful connection to each other except being French-Canadian. (JM)
2:03—HEY HE SAID CANADA THAT’S THE COUNTRY WE’RE FROM. That we needed to mention our country, while the British/American charity singles didn’t, is exhibit #812 of our “look at us! we’re important too!” streak patriotism. (JM)
And to give the French singers a line to sing in English, typical. (JL)
If you’re wondering why Bruce Cockburn looks awkwardly shoehorned in, it’s because he was: according to lyricist Jim Vallance, he was in Germany touring at the time, so they flew to a studio to record his parts, because no all-star Canadian music single is complete without our unofficial national poet,
Leonard Cohen Bruce Cockburn. (JM)
2:09—Geddy Lee milks the hell of his five seconds in the spotlight. (JL)
2:14—Foster (the song’s producer, cough cough) sighting #3. He knows he’s got a hit on his hands. But Mr. Moustache in the background isn’t buying it. (JL)
Foster’s impish smile is the best. (JM)
2:19—Lightfoot and Murray counting down the minutes until they’re done with this kid stuff. (JL)
2:26—Burton Cummins, rock star. (JM)
2:32—Seriously, look at Joni move. (JL)
That Joni is finding some sort of inner meaning in this song should be enough evidence of her genius to silence any doubters. And Neil Young’s bandana becomes more curious every time I see it. (JM)
2:45—A staple of 80s charity songs, the classic “group shout.” Clearly, the editors missed the reaction from the dude over Joni’s shoulder. (JL)
2:50—We’re well into 80s one-hit wonder territory. (JL)
Duelling mullets! (JM)
Imagine lighting a match in that room! (JL)
3:00—More great dancing/snapping from Platinum Blonde’s Mark Holmes.(JL)
I can’t believe you’re ignoring Holmes’ mullet. It brings the entire thing thing together. We need a time machine so we can cryogenically freeze him in case we ever need to show the aliens what Canadian 80s culture epitomized. (JM)
3:03—TAKE US HOME, MIKE RENO!! (JL)
3:08—Foster (the song’s producer, cough cough) sighting #4. If there’s one thing people love before a song’s climax, it’s the sound of a producer screaming. (JL)
Foster has the reaction of a small child who convinced all his friends to star in a play for the school’s Grade 1 class, and is delighted it’s going well. (JM)
3:12—There they all are. What a group. (JL)
The world’s greatest awkward family photo. (JM)
3:24—There’s a reason a “YEAH” by Bryan Adams became a Canadian export unto itself. (JM)
3:30—Murray still paralyzed by her headphones. And who would have ever imagined seeing Neil Young fist-pumping next to Paul Shaffer? (JL)
There are 50 people singing the line “If we could pull together,” and Joni Mitchell is the only one with the wherewithal to actually pull her hands in. One of 10 reasons she’s the MVP of this song. (JM)
Wait a second, is that Oscar Peterson in the back? You seriously couldn’t let him behind a piano? And don’t think we can’t see you guys hiding back there, Eugene Levy and John Candy. (JL)
And Catherine O’Hara! I really enjoy that We Are the World got Dan Akroyd, while Tears Are Not Enough got the stars of Schitt’s Creek. This pretty much seals this song as the SCTV to We are the World’s Saturday Night Live. In that ours is better, weirder, and tragically less appreciated. (JM)
It’s too bad Levy didn’t come dressed as Bobby Bittman. (JL)
4:09—Foster (the song’s producer, cough cough) sighting #4. Mr. Moustache has given up and gone home. (JL)
Foster has eliminated all dissenters by this point. Also, we’re ignoring the greatest example of Foster’s egotism in the official music video, which is when he uses THE 1985 NHL ALL-STARS, LED BY WAYNE GRETZKY, AND HUNDREDS OF FANS SWAYING AS PROPS FOR HIS GRINNING MUG.
Foster didn’t have to be the first person seen in the shot. He didn’t have to be next to Wayne Gretzky. He didn’t even have to be in the shot. But there he is. It must be nice being the producer. (JM)
4:53—How do we end this thing? “WAAAAAAAAAAAAA YEEEEEEAAAAAA YEEEEEEAAAAA!!!” (JL)
“So how many times should we repeat the chorus? Five, six? At what point will we be 100% sure it’s wormed into people’s heads?” (JM)
5:01—No words. (JL)
“Whatever you say Mr. Young. Just please don’t hurt me.” (JM)
JM: Well, I am exhausted. And my first-generation Chinese-Canadian landlords upstairs are thoroughly confused as to why I’ve played this song 40 times in a row. Any last thoughts James?
JL: It’s significant to point out neither of us were actually alive when “Tears Are Not Enough” was initially released. I say *initially* – because there’s only one proper way to adequately honour its 30th anniversary… and that’s a re-release.
Look at its counterparts from the days of “charity single mania” in 1984-85. The moment the chants of “feed the world” start to fade, you just know Bob Geldof is already planning an updated version of “Do They Know It’s Christmas.” Seriously, it was re-recorded in 1989, 2002 and 2014.
Quincy Jones managed to get the band back together to mark 25 years of “We Are the World” in 2010.
As for Canada? It’s a challenge just finding a watchable version on YouTube. The song isn’t even available on iTunes. Truly mind-boggling for one of the biggest-selling Canadian singles of the 80s.
So let us appeal directly to David Foster and Bruce Allen “If we can pull together – we could change the world forever.” Let’s see the “Northern Lights” shine again.
JM: Bruce Allen, who put together the original supergroup, manages Michael Bublé. Justin Bieber needs the good publicity. Sarah McLachlan is always around. But on the other hand, can you really duplicate perfection? It might be that Canada will only ever produce one all-star charity single of this magnitude.
But what a single it was.