It was 37 years ago Sunday (October 16th, 1985) that “Little” Steven Van Zandt enlisted like-minded performers into a studio to cut the track “Sun City.” The song, which featured contributions from Bruce Springsteen, Bono, Lou Reed, Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan, and many others in an attack on apartheid, has been credited with helping bring down the all-white minority government of South Africa.
Among the notables appearing on the track and in the video were Joey Ramone, Run-DMC, the Temptations' David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks, Pat Benatar, Ruben Blades, Ringo Starr, Zak Starkey, Darlene Love, Bobby Womack, Kurtis Blow, Bonnie Raitt, Hall & Oates, Jimmy Cliff, Nona Hendryx, Peter Wolf, George Clinton, and many more.
Steve Van Zandt said that he never had any idea the track would have such an effect on people: “At the time, all I was trying to do was politicize other artists, politicize whatever public I could reach. I was just trying to get people into the frame of mind of being involved with issues on a daily basis.”
He said that he can look back and see just what the track meant to people, both at the time and today: “Because it was such a clear-cut victory, it also helped those who had just become recently politicized to see that your efforts actually do have an effect. By buying that record, that government fell — that was something people could actually relate to. Believe me, the awareness created by that record was directly related to that government falling. That's the truth. It just shows you what we can accomplish when we get together and do the research, do your homework, organize, and, y'know, do the right thing.”
Jackson Browne revealed the back-story on how he and Bob Dylan came to duet on “Sun City”: “They had already gotten me to sing this line. This line was ‘Relocation to phony homelands.‘ And then Steven called me up and said, ‘I don’t know how to tell you this, but, I gave the same line to Bob.' I said, ‘Well that’s great — so we’re singin’ the same line! It’s a harmony, right?’ He said, ‘No, no, no.’ For some reason, he sang the same notes I sang. He had run out of lines in the songs and he was, like, not going to not have Bob Dylan on this record. So, I said, ‘Well, whey don’t you slow it down and make it, like a delay — maybe that’ll work?’ And that’s what they did. But then we had to do the take (laughs). . . We had to do it that way for the video! I see Bob, he says, ‘Why did they do that and make it sound. . . ‘ (laughs) ‘. . . I sang it right in time with you. . . ‘ (laughs) ‘. . . Why did they do that?'”
The single of “Sun City” only topped out at Number 38 on the charts, but went on to receive massive airplay on MTV. The album, Sun City: Artists United Against Apartheid reached Number 31 on the charts.
Steve Van Zandt goes into great detail about the “Sun City” recording and circumstances leading up to and following the classic track in his recent book, Unrequited Infatuations: A Memoir.