Canada 1985: Tears Are Not Enough

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While I don’t endorse the jingoistic, heavy-handed nationalism that normally accompanies the celebration of, say, my country’s 150th birthday, I also don’t feel I should have to apologize for certain aspects of my personal Canadian experience.

For example, I won’t apologize for finding Red Green funny. Or thinking Tim Horton’s Iced Capps taste better than Starbucks frappucinos. Or wanting Sidney Crosby named to the Hockey Hall of Fame before he even retires.

And I definitely won’t apologize for feeling a surge of emotion and getting more than a little misty-eyed every time I hear Canada’s contribution to the mid-’80s wave of all-star Ethiopian famine relief charity singles, “Tears Are Not Enough.” 

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Now, to properly frame this, you have to understand that the grand majority of Canadian kids had it pretty good in the fall of 1984, and had not been exposed to a widespread humanitarian crisis on the scale of the tragedy in northern Ethiopa. So when North American journalists finally focused their cameras on the faces of emaciated young Africans – particularly CBC reporter Brian Stewart, whose voice-over and footage from his earliest updates open the official “Tears Are Not Enough” video (even though he didn’t learn this until months later) – it was impossible for a shaken world to ignore.

Perhaps wisely recognizing that the world’s children were likelier to get their news updates from MTV and MuchMusic than the likes of Brian Stewart, Peter Jennings or Sir Alistair Burnet, the collective music industries in Great Britain, the United States and Canada sought to capture the hearts and imagination of the world’s youth (and the wallets of their parents) by having their respective countries’ hitmakers record catchy yet heart-tugging songs. And that’s how we wound up with, respectively, Band-Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” USA For Africa’s “We Are The World,” and “Tears Are Not Enough,” released under the group name Northern Lights For Africa. 

While “Tears Are Not Enough” was featured on the We Are The World album released in April 1985 and the two singles hit the airwaves concurrently a month earlier, the exact links between the two projects are somewhat sketchy. Some reports suggest that “We Are The World” producer Quincy Jones reached out to David Foster, already a Grammy-winning studio wizard on both sides of the border by this point, and asked him to gather up a Canadian super-group to contribute a song to the official album version of the U.S.-produced famine relief effort. However, several other accounts give the credit to the fellow Foster described as “the most powerful man in Canada,” veteran Canadian music manager Bruce Allen, whose clients at that point just happened to include a skinny kid from Kingston named Bryan Adams.

Whoever came up with the idea, I can at least verify (and have been able to verify for decades, so trust me on this) that the title “Tears Are Not Enough” came courtesy of Bob Rock and Paul Hyde, who Foster was producing at the time (under the name Paul Hyde and The Payola$); that Adams and longtime songwriting partner Jim Vallance wrote the grand majority of “Tears Are Not Enough” in a single night; that Vallance’s wife Rachel Paiement contributed the French verse sung by Quebecois pop stars Veronique Belliveau, Claude Dubois and Robert Charlebois; and that Foster composed the melody for “Tears Are Not Enough” – a melody that, astonishingly, wasn’t originally designed for the song at all but was originally destined for an American movie soundtrack.

No, I’m not joking. A year after the release of “Tears Are Not Enough,” during an interview with CBC’s The Fifth Estate, Foster confirmed that the original melody was submitted to St. Elmo’s Fire director Joel Schumacher as an instrumental backdrop for the 1985 Brat Pack coming-of-age flick. Schumacher turned it down, and Foster reworked it to become the Canadian music industry’s star-studded contribution to famine relief.

Years later, Foster told another CBC interviewer that Schumacher had an abrupt change of heart and “was really pissed” when he found out that the melody had officially become “Tears Are Not Enough.” Foster seems to have smoothed things over nicely by filling St. Elmo’s Fire with two of my favourite ’80s compositions, the instrumental “Love Theme From St. Elmo’s Fire and John Parr’s chart-topping soundtrack single “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man In Motion),” which doubled nicely as a tribute to globe-trotting wheelchair athlete Rick Hansen.

Besides, it’s probably just as well that things worked out the way they did with “Tears Are Not Enough.” This instrumental version, released as a B-side to the original song, is a lovely (albeit somewhat schmaltzy) piece of music but seems somewhat incongruous with footage of a young, mopey Demi Moore and Rob Lowe. And I suspect there are a cross-section of Batman fans that are delighted at the thought that, for once in his career, Joel Schumacher didn’t get to do exactly what he wanted with one of his movies.

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Apart from being a thorn in Joel Schumacher’s side, “Tears Are Not Enough” wound up becoming a state-of-the-union address for the Canadian music industry circa 1985 and a valuable educational tool for kids like me who weren’t as familiar with a lot of the featured artists.

By the winter of 1985 I was aware of many of Northern Lights’ most prominent faces, particularly Anne Murray, Bryan Adams, Corey Hart, Loverboy lead singer Mike Reno, Platinum Blonde’s Mark Holmes, The Parachute Club lead singer Lorraine Segato, Bruce Cockburn, Caroll Baker, and even the folk legend who – in Foster’s words – “killed it” on the song’s opening line, Gordon Lightfoot. But the Northern Lights for Africa project also marked my first real exposure to the likes of Burton Cummings, Joni Mitchell, Dan Hill (a last-minute replacement for Paul Anka, who apparently had a scheduling conflict), Neil Young, Rush frontman Geddy Lee, Murray McLachlan, Ronnie Hawkins, Alfie Zappacosta, Rough Trade lead singer Carole Pope, Paul Hyde, and Lisa Dalbello. Also in the Northern Lights chorus: Sylvia Tyson, Tommy Hunter (I’m completely baffled that neither of them were grouped with the three country artists that opened the second verse), Liona Boyd, Frank Mills, Jane Siberry, Martha Johnson of Martha and The Muffins/M+M, and two rockers who would make up a sizeable chunk of my post-1985 Canadian playlist, Tom Cochrane and Kim Mitchell. (I was so out of the loop on Canada’s rock scene at that stage of my life that, when I saw his name in the “Tears Are Not Enough” liner notes, I thought Kim Mitchell was Joni’s brother. Could be worse, I suppose; at least I didn’t think he was her sister.)

That line-up alone would have resulted in a wonderfully collaborative, all-hands-on-deck feel for the song’s nine-hour Toronto recording session in February 1985. But an element of humour crept into the “Tears Are Not Enough” process with the addition of SCTV cast members John Candy, Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara (all of whom could actually sing quite well) and the inimitable Paul Shaffer, who got off a great joke in the late-1985 Tears Are Not Enough documentary when he was asked for his favourite line in the song and answered with the “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” tag line “Feed the world.” (He promptly apologized, declared “I’m in the wrong documentary,” and hurried off-camera.)

That same documentary, by the way, boosted my affection for “Tears Are Not Enough” because it showed the fallibility of nearly everybody involved. This is never more apparent than in the footage depicting the recording of Neil Young’s solo line “Somehow our innocence is lost”; David Foster, at the main sound board, keeps asking for retakes and attempting to push Young beyond a few flat notes, to which Young famously replies, “That’s my style, man.” (Take note: David Foster may have been the first, and last, person to even come close to telling Neil Young what to do.) On the flip side, it’s lovely to see the joy in the control room, particularly when Mike Reno delivers a gloriously over-the-top rendition of the bridge’s closing line, “We can make it work, for God’s sake, lend a hand.” Foster’s response, seen clearly in this version of the video, is organic, authentic and real – just like “Tears Are Not Enough” itself.

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That’s not to say “Tears Are Not Enough” is perfect. Of course it isn’t; the melody, lyrics and overall arrangement bear the limitations of a mid-’80s pop song composed by a producer in his car on the way to the studio (true) and written over a matter of hours – in the middle of the night, no less – to respond to (a) the deadline set by a record company in another country and (b) a worldwide tragedy worsening by the hour. And, like “We Are The World,” there are a few somewhat self-indulgent moments by the individual vocalists; I got a few laughs from my seventh-grade classmates by imitating Mark Holmes’ nasally “Bridge the dist-annnnnce” in the last round of choruses, and I’m not the only one to notice Burton Cummings’ emphatic renditions of the song’s title during, and beyond, the midway point. (The Arrogant Worms even mocked it in the dying seconds of their 1996 song “Proud To Be Canadian,” following the last singing of the tune’s chorus: “We won’t say that we’re better, it’s just that we’re less worse.”)

And yet, despite these flaws, I fell in love with the basic concept of “Tears Are Not Enough” right from the start and it remains one of my favourite songs – Canadian or otherwise – to this day. I’m fond of the British and American efforts in this regard but the Northern Lights project feels more like a specific call to action; I sincerely doubt it was an accident that Bruce Cockburn, arguably better-known than any other Canadian artist for his worldwide humanitarian efforts, was given the line “Let’s show them Canada still cares” (and was the only participant permitted to record his part separately when his touring schedule kept him from attending the main “Tears Are Not Enough” session in Toronto).

The song also goes beyond a basic send-us-your-money-now plea to encourage a greater comprehension of the factors behind famine; its bridge opens “And if we could try/Together, you and I/Maybe we could understand the reasons why.” Not only are tears not enough, but throwing money at a problem isn’t enough either; the song urges us to get involved on a much deeper level than simply making donations, to ensure that a disaster on the scale of the ’80s Ethopian crisis never happens again.

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Unabashedly Canadian, right down to the original video’s inclusion of Wayne Gretzky singing the chorus with his Campbell Conference teammates and the NHL All-Star Game crowd in Calgary, “Tears Are Not Enough” has other aspects that feed into my personal experience growing up in this country.

I was touched by the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences’ presentation of a special JUNO Award to the people of Canada for their support of Northern Lights for Africa, after “Tears Are Not Enough” sold 300,000 copies and raised over $3.2 million for famine relief in Africa (and, in the case of 10 per cent of the overall take, for Canada’s food banks). The award was accepted on behalf of the Canadian public by then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and his wife Mila at the 1986 JUNO ceremony, a stark contrast to that year’s Grammy Awards, which saw “We Are The World” co-writers Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie make four glitter-filled trips to the podium to accept trophies for the USA For Africa effort.

And while I was delighted to see “Tears Are Not Enough” included on the official USA For Africa album, I was disappointed that the last 50 seconds of the song were lopped off. But maybe that’s for the best, because that set me up for a wonderful moment that came just over a decade later, when the Oh What A Feeling box set designed to celebrate the JUNO Awards’ 25th anniversary ended with “Tears Are Not Enough” – the original, uncut, five-minute-22-second version. I felt a surge of joy and even burst into tears upon hearing Lisa Dalbello’s late-song rendition of the line “If we could pull together, yeah” – the cut-off point for the song’s inclusion on the We Are The World album. Finally, at long last, Northern Lights for Africa were back together again in my heart, ears and stereo.

To understand why I had such a strong emotional reaction on that afternoon in 1996, you need to remember where we were as a country at that point of our history. The optimism of the mid-’80s had disappeared, national unity efforts had blown up in our faces, and Quebec voters had just barely accepted Canada over sovereignty in a far-too-close referendum the previous fall. It might seem silly for those of you reading this now, but the Northern Lights for Africa effort spoke to me of a time when we all came together for the common good; the French lines that precede Cockburn’s, “C’est l’amour qui nous rassemble, d’ici a l’autre bout du monde”“It is love that brings us together, from here to the other side of the world” – were needed then, and are needed now, arguably even more than they were needed in 1985.

The sense of hopefulness, that “we can bridge the distance,” and that “only we can make a difference,” brought us together in the mid-’80s – even this somewhat snarky VH1 Pop-Up Video version of “Tears Are Not Enough” points out that Canadians gave more per capita to the 1985 Live Aid famine relief concerts than any other country – and that spirit will hopefully keep Canada together for years to come and allow us to make that difference around the world for many decades into the future.

(I should point out that I didn’t realize until my final round of research for this blog that it was Lisa Dalbello who sang the line of “Tears Are Not Enough” that confirmed to me that I finally had the entire, complete version of the song on that box set in 1996. I wish I had known this when I was pitching one of my original songs to an East Coast Music Awards workshop that had Dalbello as a panellist in 2003; I would very likely have run to the front of the room and hugged her. On second thought, maybe it’s just as well – for me, Dalbello, and everyone else – that I didn’t know.)

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The lasting legacy of “Tears Are Not Enough” still manifests itself in many different ways, some more complimentary than others. The 2011 pre-Christmas edition of This Hour Has 22 Minutes featured a parody of the song, “More Beers Are Not Enough,” with the cast members playing several different Northern Lights for Africa participants within the same spoof video. One of my favourite bands, Newfoundland’s Buddy Wasisname and The Other Fellers, cheerfully reworked the song as “Darts Is Not Enough” in the early ’90s; only a couple of years later, I stumbled upon a tongue-in-cheek paperback book about Canadian pop culture that proclaimed “Tears Are Not Enough” to be one of the worst songs ever recorded.

Of course, you’ve probably figured out by now that I disagree with that assessment. In early 2005, with the world responding to the horrific tsunami that swept southeast Asia only days earlier, I worked out a solo arrangement of the song for benefit concerts in the Nova Scotia communities of Guysborough and Tatamagouche. (I’m not joking; scroll to the bottom of this page for a news article about the latter show.) It brought back wonderful memories of the mid-’80s, when I taught myself to play David Foster’s original instrumental version of “Tears Are Not Enough” on the family piano; I had no idea at the time that the song’s co-writer, Bryan Adams, had actually performed it as a solo song at Live Aid (with Paul Shaffer on the keys, no less!).

“Tears Are Not Enough” is also culturally significant as the first major recording to feature so many members of the Canadian music industry. It wouldn’t be the last, of course; a young Celine Dion and Northern Lights alumnus Veronique Beliveau joined several other francophone stars for a Quebec-centric famine relief song, “Les yeux de la faim” (“The eyes of hunger”), at roughly the same time as the Northern Lights effort. In 1992, dozens of prominent Canadian singers recorded this version of “O Canada” to celebrate the country’s 125th birthday; more recently, the powerful 2010 reworking of K’naan’s “Waving Flag” by the multi-genre Young Artists for Haiti topped the Canadian charts and raised millions for Haiti earthquake relief before being named the JUNO Awards’ 2010 Single of the Year. (What, no Prime Ministers receiving honorary JUNOs anymore?)

The Haiti earthquake, by the way, led to a reboot of “We Are The World.” A few years later, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” got a 30th-anniversary update as part of a campaign to fight the Ebola virus; it’s also been recorded by several other individual and group acts, even winding up on the Glee soundtrack. But when David Foster was asked about a “Tears Are Not Enough” sequel two years ago, during the single’s 30th anniversary, he wouldn’t hear of it:

“I think those songs are sort of untouchable. There’s just certain songs you leave alone. If you do it right the first time everything else is going to be second best.”

I’m with David Foster on this one. “Tears Are Not Enough” has done its job for Ethiopia and for the collective Canadian consciousness. I’d be more than happy to keep that amazing song, and the moment in time from which it emerged, the way it is.

But I’d be curious to see what would happen if Joel Schumacher ever decides to make St. Elmo’s Fire II: The Revenge of Rob Lowe. 

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Footnote: This CBC article gives a complete listing of the “Tears Are Not Enough” singers based on their appearance in the song and video. And for a thoughtful, thorough and occasionally hilarious analysis of “Tears Are Not Enough,” including a shot-by-shot breakdown of the original video, click here. 

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