Remembering Hear ‘N Aid’s ‘Stars,’ the forgotten ‘We Are the World’ of ‘80s metal

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·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music
·17 min read
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The all-star cover art for Hear 'N Aid. (Photo: Mark Weiss)
The all-star cover art for Hear 'N Aid. (Photo: Mark Weiss)

The years 1984 and 1985 marked a golden age of musical charity initiatives, with the Boomtown Rats’ Bob Geldof first organizing the British new wave all-star single, Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” to benefit African famine relief, followed by Quincy Jones, Lionel Richie, and Michael Jackson assembling USA for Africa’s Grammy-winning “We Are the World.” Artists from both singles then performed at Geldof’s global Live Aid concerts in July ‘85. Soon everyone was pitching in.

But one superstar effort that strangely tends to be overlooked when looking back on this charitable era is the heavy metal community’s contribution, Hear ‘N Aid’s “Stars.”

The credits list for “Stars,” which was spearheaded by the late Ronnie James Dio, reads like a who’s-who of ‘80s metal. Among the 40 rockers that gathered at Los Angeles’s A&M Studios 35 years ago for the historic recording sessions were Ted Nugent, Yngwie Malmsteen, and members of Blue Öyster Cult, Dokken, Journey, Judas Priest, Mötley Crüe, Night Ranger, Queensrÿche, Quiet Riot, Twisted Sister, W.A.S.P., Y&T… and even Spinal Tap, who of course stole the show. But multiple struggles in getting the song released — and getting it on the radio — caused Hear ‘N Aid to become a footnote, largely forgotten by everyone except true metalheads.

However, The Decade That Rocked, a new coffee-table book showcasing the work of legendary hard rock photographer Mark “Weissguy” Weiss, features unseen photos of those two amazing days. “It was just a memorable, vivid occurrence in rock ‘n’ roll history,” Judas Priest singer Rob Halford captions one of the book’s group shots. “When you look at that picture and you see everybody standing there having a great time, you know, it’ll never happen again.” (There was one moment when some of these all-stars did come together again to perform “Stars,” as the encore for Dio’s concert at Southern California’s Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre on July 26, 1986 — and Mark Weiss was the to capture that moment as well.)

Ronnie James Dio and friends sing Hear 'N Aid's "Stars" at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre on July 26, 1986. (Photo: Mark Weiss)
Ronnie James Dio and friends sing Hear 'N Aid's "Stars" at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre on July 26, 1986. (Photo: Mark Weiss)

To commemorate the 35th anniversary of Hear ‘N Aid, Yahoo Entertainment spoke to Mark Weiss, Ronnie James Dio’s widow Wendy Dio, and publicist Sharon Weisz, who oversaw the project. “Stars” is clearly the metal gift that keeps on giving.

Sharon: The [Los Angeles radio station] KLOS event that sparked all of this was a radiothon for African famine relief over the weekend of Feb. 22, 1985. That's when [Dio band members] Vivian [Campbell] and Jimmy [Bain] decided that the metal community could do something as well. … Everyone was talking about “We Are the World” and raising money for Africa, and they started talking about how were no metal people on that record.

Wendy: I think that they wanted to get together with “We Are the World,” but as musicians with “dirty nasty heavy metal people,” they didn't want us to do anything with them. So we decided to do our own thing.

Mark: I think at that period of time, 1985 — I went to the PMRC hearings with Dee Snider, [protesting] against the stickers that PMRC did with the records labels. And so that period right there was really like, we were shunned upon. There was the thing with Judas Priest, a suicide that people tried to blame on the music. So I think [other charity singles] made a conscious decision just to stay away from us because they felt that lyrically, some of [the artists] were a little dark. And, you know, they really weren't. …Like Ozzy’s “Suicide “Solution” wasn't about killing yourself, it was a reference to the alcohol-related death of his friend Bon Scott. But anyway, I think because of all the press, all the tabloid shows, all the court cases, I don't think they wanted [metal acts] to be attached.

Wendy: I think hard rock and heavy metal have always been stigmatized by the other people. They're like, “Oh no, we don't anything to do you!”

Mark: We just wanted to help. Don't let us not help because of what we write about! Everyone talked about how we want people to know that we're not bad guys and we really do want to help. I mean, there was no reason not to.

Sharon: So the three of us [Dio, Campbell, and Bain] just started talking and I said, “So, what — you wanna make a record?” We all went our separate ways that night, and they apparently called a few friends in the metal community and said, “What do you think?” And then they called me and said, “OK, we think we could get a bunch of people together and make a record. What do we do now?” … And they sat down that night and started writing a song, the three of them, which was cool.

Wendy: Ronnie was very intent. He had a lot on his head. He was the producer, the arranger, the writer, everything. So he was kind of really steeped into his business mode. … Ronnie being Ronnie, he was a control freak and he just took over, took off with it.

Sharon: Jimmy wanted to call it “Hearing Aid.” Wendy thought we were calling it “Hear in Aid,” which sounded more serious, but we settled on “Hear 'N Aid,” like “rock ’n’ roll.”

Mark: If anyone were to pull it off, I don't think anyone else was going to but Ronnie. … Ronnie was like the godfather of rock, pretty much. He was like a big brother, maybe even like a father figure, to a lot of these artists.

Hanging at the Hear 'N Aid sessions in May 1985. (Photo: Mark Weiss)
Hanging at the Hear 'N Aid sessions in May 1985. (Photo: Mark Weiss)

Sharon: So, I happened to represent Lindsey Buckingham, who was managed by a man named Michael Brokaw who worked for [music manager] Ken Kragen [who had worked on “We Are the World”]. So I called Michael to set up a meeting for us. I thought I wanted to meet with Ken. But Michael said, “No, you want to meet with Marty Rogol,” who actually was the head of USA for Africa. So he set up the meeting, and [Marty] explained how difficult it would be to make this record. And then he showed us the rough, rough video of “We Are the World,” sitting there in the office. We were looking at the TV, then looking at each other. And we left saying, “OK, I think we can do this.” And basically Marty gave us all of the vendors he gave us. Everybody that helped make the USA for Africa record, he gave us access to, otherwise we never could have done it. Marty really helped us structure the foundation and steered us toward people that had donated goods. We ended up with a half a million dollars in donated goods and services. … And by the way, the black backdrop used in the studio during the recording and filming of chorus on the first night was the black velvet stage curtains from Fleetwood Mac's Mirage tour — borrowed by me.

I also thought we should reach out to Bob Geldof I reached out to Bob Geldof via "telex" — remember those? — which was how we reached out to a lot of people back then. And one morning I came in to the office, the phone rang, and it was Bob Geldof. He was asking a lot of questions about what we were doing and gave us his blessing, which was absolutely shocking. … When I told him what we were doing, he said "F***ing great!”… I remember he told me that he was about to make a big announcement about an event that was tied to Band Aid, which of course was the Live Aid concert.

This Hear ‘N Aid project then became my life for essentially about 18 months. I kept a diary of that entire time and used a lot of it to create the written promotional materials. The overarching vibe of my writing is that we weren't being taken very seriously, but once we committed to making the record, there was no thought of going back. … The tracking session took place on April 1, 1985 at the late, great Sound City. In addition to having two drummers — Vinny Appice and Frankie Banali — there was also supposed to be another bass player besides Jimmy Bain and another guitarist besides Vivian Campbell. The two other musicians, Nikki Sixx and Brian May, were no-shows — in the not-taking-us-very-seriously vein.

Mark: Wendy gave me a call and said, “You’ve got to come out!” [for the May 20-21 sessions at Hollywood’s A&M Studios], because I was on the East Coast. I said, “Sure, it’d be an honor. Whatever you want to do with the photos, so it can help raise awareness and also rid this heavy metal stigma of the black sheep of the rock ‘n’ roll family, that would be nice too.” So they flew me out.

Sharon: Guitar solos were scheduled to be recorded at regular intervals during the first day of recording, May 20 — Neal Schon being first, around 12 noon. He called me at 6:30 a.m. to tell me he had the flu, and I apparently told him to go back to sleep and we would book him on a later flight — back when you could do that at will. When he did arrive much later that day, he entertained the troops with his impression of Bruce Springsteen singing on “We Are the World.”

Mark: For me as a photographer, I was like a kid in the candy store. It was like, anywhere I turned, I would have a photograph. Looking at the pictures now in the book, it's amazing that I was able to capture those moments. It was a moment caught in time, as Ronnie James Dio would once say.

Wendy Dio and Jimmy Bain (Photo: Mark Weiss)
Wendy Dio and Jimmy Bain (Photo: Mark Weiss)

Sharon: Everyone was shockingly punctual. Dedicated! Virtually everyone arrived on time, some brought from the Holiday Inn by a Hollywood Fantasy Tours double-decker bus. Only Michael McKean was late, because he was shooting the film Clue at Paramount. He changed into Spinal Tap gear in the men’s room.

Wendy: I liked the Spinal Tap guys. I thought that was crazy that they came.

Mark: Spinal Tap were like the real stars there, you know. Everyone was swapping stories, because everything that happened in that movie has probably happened to at least half of those bands in real life.

Sharon: We thought they were perfect … How they got involved was, a woman named Harriet Sternberg managed them — and she worked for Ken Kragen.

Mark: I first met Spinal Tap when they did their first walk-on interview at MTV [a few months earlier]. They just said they were in this band from England and everyone went with the whole thing, and I thought they were a real band. I kind of schmoozed up to then, trying to, like, get a gig out of it! And then later on, I found out Michael was guy on Laverne & Shirley. So you know, they knew how to play the part. And when they walked into [A&M Studios], they were in character. They had their wigs on. I remember them being interviewed and I think one of his lines was, “This is like one big black leather metallic family,” when they asked him how he felt about being there.

Sharon: At 10 p.m., Ronnie prepared to rehearse the choir and appointed [Quiet Riot frontman] Kevin DuBrow to keep order, because he had "the loudest voice."

Mark: I remember when they were doing the chorus and it was like 40 of them there, and Kevin was front and center, taking the stage, kidding around. He was a good guy, and a good friend of mine. Kevin at the time — and probably till the day he died, God rest his soul — people didn't like him, because he always spoke his mind. He was the nicest guy, but he was the loudest guy. And to see him with all of these artists… not that he had any qualms with any of them, but you know, he always thought he was the best and that everyone didn't give him credit for what he had done — which was really pave the way for a lot of rock bands as the first heavy metal band to go to No. 1 on the Billboard album chart. Credit where credit's due, but he never got it.

Sharon: Ronnie was shocked that the choir actually sounded like one – remember, many of them were not singers — but he was concerned about the enunciation of “We're stars”: "It's not 'we're studs!’ It's sounding more like ‘weird stars,' which is probably true." Rob Halford sang a full octave above everyone else.

Hanging at the Hear 'N Aid sessions in May 1985. (Photo: Mark Weiss)
Hanging at the Hear 'N Aid sessions in May 1985. (Photo: Mark Weiss)

Wendy: It was a real exciting time and there were no egos involved — everybody just wanted to do it to raise money for Africa. There was no rivalry. Everybody was there with their heart — as I find most musicians I know are, always there giving their heart with all of my charity work, and their time and their talent too.

Mark: That's the beauty of this kind of music. There isn't any rivalry. We didn't need any [“Check your ego at the door”] signs [like the “We Are the World” session had], because everyone loved everyone. I mean, maybe once in a while one of them stole another person's girlfriend or something, but that's about it.

Sharon: Ken Kragen surprisingly showed up, because he felt like this was a continuation of something he had started, in a way. … When Ken arrived, everyone started singing “We Are the World” to him.

Mark: Everyone was there for hours and hours and hours. They stayed around even if they weren't going to be playing, just to watch the other artists. It was a remarkable couple days. … Ronnie and Don Dokken, they went back a while, and I remember them playing off other, joking around. I think Don made some kind of a joke about one of Ronnie’s lyrics, like “Rainbow in the Dark,” because that's so Ronnie James Dio — he always talks about rainbows. So Don put the lyric in there [“We all want to touch a rainbow”], just for a rainbow reference. And then Ronnie chuckled and said, “Hey, GQ is waiting for your photo shoot,” because Don was dressed up in a white suit, like really a GQ look. That was a good laugh there.

Hear 'N Aid sessions, May 1985 (Photo: Mark Weiss)
Hear 'N Aid sessions, May 1985 (Photo: Mark Weiss)

Sharon: "Stars" was finished and mastered in the following weeks, before Dio left on tour in early August 1985. … There were a couple of reasons [for its delayed release]. First of all, we were still hoping to add some additional people to the record. Like, the manager of Iron Maiden realized that he had probably made a mistake by not committing them to be part of the project. So members of Iron Maiden ended up doing one of the guitar parts, but they weren't there for the chorus recording.

One of the people that we wanted to get was Jimmy Page. … A recording session in Philadelphia was set up for July 14 because Jimmy Page said he would record a guitar solo on the record the day after Live Aid. … [Led Zeppelin] was playing at Live Aid, and we'd gotten a commitment from his manager that he would do a guitar part if we could record it in Philadelphia. I found a recording studio to donate their staff to do this recording, and Ronnie and Wendy flew in. Then Jimmy decided not to do it. … He canceled that afternoon, after we all had arrived in Philadelphia. No reason given.

Wendy: Also, for all the people that were involved, you had to get releases from their record labels, from their management, from all that. That's what takes time. It's not the artists — the artists give their arm and leg for you. But you've got to deal with the business aspect of it.

Sharon: Wendy brought the project PolyGram and they wanted it, but they decided that it would do better if it was an album. And so then the process began of getting donated tracks, which in a funny way was a precursor to the Dio tribute album [This Is Your Life, which Wendy put together in 2014 to benefit Dio’s Stand Up and Shout Cancer Fund]. We spent six months getting donated tracks to make the Hear ‘N Aid album, with the “Stars” track as the single. I don't know if there had been another album like this, with donated tracks, at that point. … Phonogram/PolyGram was originally going to release it in September, but were going to re-release [Band Aid’s] “Do They Know it's Christmas” at pretty much the same time, so they decided to delay.

Mark: It probably comes down to radio. … Let's face it, a lot of the metal bands that got on the radio, it was with either a ballad or some more pop and commercial. “Stars” was just this really just a heavy metal song. Maybe it was just wasn't meant to be a commercial song. … But I'm surprised it didn't do well, to be honest with you. Why wouldn't it, with all those people on it? Today it would have done good because of social media. Everyone would be blasting it out. But back then we just relied on a company to do it, and that company wasn't behind it.

Sharon: It’s certainly possible that [the delay, with “Stars” not coming out until January 1986] took the momentum away. There was a lot of publicity going on around the recording. We had a press conference when we were done with it, and there was a big story in the L. A. Times. A lot of the music magazines had covered it too. … But there was probably a fundraising record every two or three months at that point.

Wendy: But we raised money, and we actually did a clever thing because I think “We Are the World” sent the money and a lot of money got eaten up by the government. We bought [farm] machinery and sent it to [Africa].

Sharon: Hear 'N Aid raised $1.2 million, from record, video, and merch sales and direct donations.

Mark: I felt these photographs needed to be part of my book, because the book is a visual history of how hard rock and heavy metal kind of changed: Sabbath and Priest at Live Aid, Hear ‘N Aid, Farm Aid where Bon Jovi was at, the Moscow Peace Festival, the PMRC hearings.

Wendy: But that is the way of the metal world, isn’t it? We always get left behind, and it's only the real true fans that are there, that are buying it or listening to it. If you ask any true metal fan, they know about Hear ‘N Aid. If you ask the mainstream, no, they don't know about it. Because we're not mainstream.

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