Though it’s “Do They Know it’s Christmas” that you’ll hear on the radio this time of year, the holidays always make me think of another charity anthem for Ethiopia.
Northern Lights’ “Tears are Not Enough” isn’t about a holiday, of course, but it does have its own Christmas connection: on December 25, 1985, about 10 months after its release to radio and music television, the song’s behind-the-scenes documentary aired on CBC, giving everyone a chance to see legends like Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell sing alongside stars-of-the-moment Corey Hart, Mike Reno and Mark Holmes of Platinum Blonde.
While it’s generally my brother that has the better memory for childhood happenings, I recall my affection for “Tears are Not Enough” quite vividly. I seem to remember the 90-minute documentary* airing each year around the holidays, and that my aunt had a copy of the VHS version that I would watch when I was over at her place.
*Insanely, in an era when everything is online, this full documentary is apparently nowhere to be found. All that seems to be digitized is a 10-minute video that two dudes made stupidly inserting themselves into some of the key scenes. You can, though, watch this great clip from CBC’s Good Rockin’ Tonight where Terry David Mulligan interviews organizers Bruce Allen and David Foster in between the song’s recording and its release.
Though I wasn’t even 5 years old at the time, all of the Ethiopia charity singles fascinated me: Band Aid’s “Do They Know Its Christmas,” USA for Africa’s “We Are the World,” and “Tears.” (That’s the weird, 1980s movie style single artwork on the left.) I chalk it up to the same reason I was drawn to King Kong vs. Godzilla, or Muppet Family Christmas: I loved the idea of larger-than-life crossover stories, where universes collided and characters came together. When you’re a kid, you’ve yet to truly discover that these sorts of things rarely add up (MFC being an exception). Instead, you approach crossovers with the wide-eyed belief in the power of simple mathematics: if one thing is amazing, then combining it with several other things must make it SUPER amazing.
Well, I’m pleased to report that my favourite of the bunch growing up—a little patriot, I was—actually IS super amazing after all… well, sort of. Sure, its value is almost entirely in its time capsule-ness (unless you REALLY like David Foster melodies 80s synths… or perhaps if you’re Bon Iver). But that’s not to say there isn’t lots to take in.
So break out those double fist-pumps, cool kids: it’s time for a trip down CanCon charity single memory lane.
0:06 – First, let’s start with the title, which came from Paul Hyde and Bob Rock of seminal Canadian new wavers The Payola$ (and yes, that’s the same Bob Rock that became the international megaproducer). It’s kind of perfect how each nation’s Ethopia charity single fit a different view of their role in the world: cultural ignorance and echoes of imperialism in “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” the smug self-importance of “We Are the World” and, in our case, a watery-eyed yet abstract perspective on internationalism.
0:15 – The song’s first eight lines go to its biggest stars, and though he’s not nearly as famous as some that follow him, it made all kinds of sense to give Gordon Lightfoot the first one.
0:30 – Yep, that’s the sort of thing Anne Murray could and would wear in the 1980s. Fun fact: Murray had her differences with song-organizer Bruce Allen in years previous, often related to statements she’d made about the Juno Awards, but they met and made up at the recording session. Eleven years later, he was her manager.
0:37 – Joni Mitchell is doing some really weird things with her hands here. But that’s only because no one’s shown her the proper gesture yet. It’s the same reason why everyone else so far looks like they’ve had their hands in their pockets. They’ll learn soon enough.
0:52 – The most famous scene in the documentary is of Neil Young recording his line, after which David Foster asks him to try it again because it was “a little flat on [the word] ‘innocence.’” Neil’s response? “That’s my sound, man.”
0:57 – Okay, time to get serious. Bryan Adams is the song’s cowriter, brought into the mix by Allen and Jim Vallance (his manager and songwriting collaborator). And he sets the tone for everything to follow, first with a single fist-pump and then…
1:10 – …DOUBLE FIST-PUMP! YES! This is totally the 100% appropriate, Bryan Adams-approved way to perform (or, for that matter, listen to) “Tears are Not Enough.” Take note, everyone.
1:16 – Okay, so it’s probably not surprising that it’s the Canadian charity anthem gets the cheapest looking video, and considering that the goal was to raise funds for Ethiopia (and since it was, you know, 1985 and MuchMusic would play almost anything) there wasn’t really a need to make it look great. But these slow-mo fade shots during the first chorus are something truly special. It looks like the singers are being haunted by the giant oversized novelty head of Burton Cummings.
1:48 – Corey Hart looks like he just came from the set of a Corey Hart music video. Perpetual sweatiness was apparently a thing in 1980s CanCon.
1:53 – See? Hart was taking notes. Double fist-pump!
2:02 – Okay, again, I know this was done on cheap, but the video was shot against generic grey walls. How hard would it have been to find something like that in Germany, where Bruce Cockburn was filmed? Hell, Berlin was SURROUNDED by one at the time!
2:09 – You might think that Geddy Lee is only doing a single fist-pump here. But note the quick fleshy blur in the lower left. That’s his right hand. Another totally committed double fist-pump.
2:21 – Unlike his peers, who sing pleasantly with big smiles, Neil Young’s sunglasses snarl suggests that he will knife you if you don’t fucking give Northern Lights your money.
2:27 – Burton Cummings’ “belting it” face is also the same face he makes when he laughs, cries or yells at children to get off his lawn
2:49 – These are things you could apparently wear in the 80s.
2:55 – Paul Hyde of the Payola$ and Carole Pope of Rough Trade look like they’re WAAAAAY too cool for this shit.
2:59 – Mark Holmes of Platinum Blonde did NOT take good notes from Bryan Adams. He’s doing this weird, lanky finger snappy thing, as if “Tears Are Not Enough” is somehow the sort of song you snap your fingers to. It most certainly is NOT.
3:05 – Mike Reno of Loverboy, of course, gets it right. He also gets the song’s single most ridiculous hyperbolic line, belting out “For GAWD’S sake, LEND A HAY-AND” with such force that he actually turns into a human bobblehead at the end of the line, shaking like he just got electrocuted.
3:20 – Among the “singers” who are in the chorus but don’t get featured vocal parts: Tom Cochrane, Kim Mitchell, Alan Thicke, Sylvia Tyson, Oscar Peterson, John Candy, Catherine O’Hara and (pictured) Eugene Levy and Paul Shaffer.
3:47 – David Foster wanted this to speak to Canada as a nation, so of course he had to put hockey players on there, recording this bit at the 1985 NHL All-Star Game in Calgary. I miss the Wales and Campbell conferences.
4:18 – Touchdown! Double fist-pumps for everyone!