Friday, January 28, 2011

"We Are The World" by USA For Africa

On this day in 1985 the cream of the American music industry (in addition to Canada's Dan Aykroyd and Ireland's Bob Geldof) recorded We Are the World as USA for Africa, following that year's American Music Awards... Only it almost didn't happen, thanks mainly to all the spectacular egos involved!

Despite the fact that he'd been working towards an end to world hunger for years, according to Lionel Richie's manager Ken Kragen, John Denver was rejected for inclusion on the grounds that he was 'uncool'*. As usual, the persuasive and unpretentious voice of Bruce Springsteen won out... 'I don't care who is here to record this track, I'm here to help save lives,' he said, which succeeded in silencing the lesser artists; between the exemplary attitude of the Boss and the calm intercession of Quincy Jones the rest of those involved were inspired to act more professionally.

Yet John Denver wasn't the only one treated shabbily in the name of charity; in contrast to the reported harmony at the recording session for Band Aid's Do They Know It's Christmas? - recorded in November 1984 - the divas of USA for Africa put their British brethren in the shade. Linda Ronstadt and Pat Benatar, despite their fame, had good reasons for not being there (influenza and pregnancy, respectively) but Waylon Jennings walked out after a hissy fit and rumours have always swirled around the event about who exactly might have been invited had they been cooler.

The song, of course, had been the idea of Michael Jackson, who missed the awards show that evening so as to record the chorus as a guide for the others to follow. Jackson's involvement got Lionel Richie onboard as co-author, then Quincy Jones and Michael Omartian as producers; eventually the full spectrum of American music would be present, including Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Kenny Rogers, Billy Joel, and Cyndi Lauper among dozens of others. As is evident from the video, the event is a snapshot of popular music at the time, and who is there is almost as telling as who isn't - Madonna, most pointedly - in the same way that who among them is still popular is as telling as who isn't.

*I wonder how many of those same individuals who insisted he be booted on that day wrung their hands and wept crocodile tears on talk show couches after he died in October 1997.
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The Death of Henry VIII


It was just past 2 AM when Henry VIII breathed his last, on this day in 1547, at the Palace of Whitehall in London. Having lived lavishly, and ruled tyrannically, he died ignominiously; his legendary beauty and strength gone to a life of dissipation, in the last hours of his life he was unable to speak or move or even offer his last confession (a rite of which he was sorely in need).

Long plagued by an ulcerated leg wound suffered at a joust in 1536, it's been the received wisdom for three centuries that his death had been hastened by the onset of syphilis; contemporary biographers also feel that it's just as likely the impaired mental state famously demonstrated in his final years was the result of untreated Type II diabetes. Born in June 1491, he was six months to the day shy of 56, and died on what would have been his father Henry VII's 90th birthday.

His nine-year-old son - for whom he had so devoutly wished that he broke with Rome, cast off wives, and generally carried on like a 16th Century King - became Edward VI under a council of regency which numbered 16 peers of the realm (as per the terms of the Act of Succession of 1543); from among them Edward Seymour, 1st Earl of Hertford - his mother Jane Seymour's brother - was chosen by them to serve England's new King as Lord Protector.

Henry VIII's body was buried at St George's Chapel in Windsor Castle alongside his beloved Queen Jane, but his spirit haunts history still; nearly 500 years after his death he remains one of the most biographied people who ever lived.

In addition to appearances both major and minor in myriad books, he's been played on film by Charles Laughton in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), Robert Shaw in A Man for All Seasons (1966), Richard Burton in Anne of the Thousand Days (1969), and Sid James in Carry On Henry (1970), and has more recently been played by Eric Bana in The Other Boleyn Girl; on television he's been played by Keith Michell in The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1973), Jared Harris in a BBC adaptation of The Other Boleyn Girl (2003), and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in The Tudors (2007).
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Pop History Moment: The Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster

NASA's 25th Space Shuttle mission - STS-51-L - had been eagerly anticipated, since it was to be the first one to carry a civilian, thanks to the efforts of the Teacher in Space Project. Although less than five years old (the first was launched in April 1981) the Space Shuttle program, like many modern marvels, was already being greeted with a blasé reaction from the public; the inclusion of New Hampshire high school teacher Christa McAuliffe, though, ensured that classrooms around the world were eagerly tuned in on this day in 1986 to watch as 73 seconds in - at 11:39 AM EST - the craft disintegrated...

All seven crew members - Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik and McAuliffe herself - died; there is some evidence that Smith knew something was happening (on recordings he can be heard to say 'Uh oh') but he may have been reacting to the loss of pressure in the fuel tank. There is also evidence that not all of the astronauts died instantly, although at an altitude of 14.6 km they would have certainly lost consciousness within seconds.

It's one moment most Gen-Xers share (not unlike the Kennedy Assassination for the previous generation); we all remember where we were when we heard it'd happened. I was in school (of course) about halfway through lunch, when I noticed a few of the girls crying; I asked what was the matter and that's when I heard the terrible news.

It was also one of the defining moments for the relatively new network CNN, and for those of us who didn't see it live we saw it there hundreds of times over the next couple of weeks, as officials gradually came to the conclusion that faulty O-rings had been to blame. That so much complex and expensive technology could be destroyed by its most low-tech component should be a valuable lesson for us all, a humbling reminder in the face of our collective hubris that we are not even a fraction as mighty as we may think we are.
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POPnews - January 28th

[An unfortunate allergy to the excessively mannered drawing-room comedies of Jane Austen has always prevented me from actually finishing a whole one of her novels, a dire situation only partially ameliorated by their numerous film and television adaptations; I can, without too much trouble, get through a whole one of them, however - such as Ang Lee's 1995 film Sense and Sensibility (which won an Oscar for its screenwriting star Emma Thompson) and this 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice starring the all-too lovely Keira Knightley - mainly because once my brain glazes over at the intricacies of Regency-era social discourse I can continue to admire the costumes, scenery, art direction and/or whatever bit of scrummy is portraying the cause of the heroine's busted corset stays, in this case Matthew Macfadyen as Mr. Darcy.]

814 CE - Charlemagne died; he was succeeded by his son Louis the Pious.

1077 - Following the Walk to Canossa, the excommunication of Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV was lifted as easily as the gates to Canossa Castle were opened to him, settling the Investiture Controversy between himself and Pope Gregory VII.

1521 - The Diet of Worms began, presided over by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V; it would last until May 25th, and in the process judge Martin Luther guilty of Protestantism for the heresies apparently contained in his 95 Theses, which had already been condemned by Pope Leo X in the papal bull Exsurge Domine, issued the year before.

1547 - England's King Henry VIII died; he was succeeded by his nine year old son, who became Edward VI, and the first of that country's truly Protestant Kings.

1573 - The articles of Warsaw Confederation were signed, sanctioning freedom of religion in Poland.

1621 - Pope Paul V died; he would be succeeded by Gregory XV on February 9th.

1624 - Britain's first Caribbean colony, at Saint Kitts, was founded by Sir Thomas Warner.

1754 - Horace Walpole coined the word 'serendipity' in a letter to Horace Mann.

1813 - Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, was first published in the United Kingdom by T. Egerton of Whitehall.

1846 - The Battle of Aliwal, marking a turning point in the First Anglo-Sikh War, saw Ranjodh Singh Majithia defeated by the British troops of Sir Harry Smith.

1878 - Yale Daily News became the first daily college newspaper in the United States.

1902 - The Carnegie Institution was founded in Washington, DC, with a $10 million gift from robber baron turned philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

1917 - The first municipally owned streetcars began service in San Francisco.

1922 - The Knickerbocker Storm - the worst snowfall in the history of Washington, DC - caused the roof of the Knickerbocker Theater to collapse, which is the single most fatal event in the city's history.

1932 - Japanese forces attacked Shanghai.

1933 - The name Pakistan was coined by Choudhary Rehmat Ali Khan and was accepted by the Indian Muslims, who then adopted it for the Pakistan Movement, which was seeking independence from the United Kingdom.

1965 - The current design of the Flag of Canada - chosen by an act of Parliament after several years of occasionally acrimonious debate - was proclaimed by Elizabeth II in her role as Queen of Canada; designed by George F. G. Stanley and John Matheson, it was first flown on February 15th of that year, which is marked by the little-celebrated holiday National Flag of Canada Day.

1977 - The first day of the Great Lakes Blizzard of 1977 - which affected much of Upstate New York, but Buffalo, Syracuse, Watertown, and surrounding areas especially - with each of these areas accumulating close to 10 feet of snow in a single day.

1986 - The Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated shortly after liftoff, killing all seven astronauts on mission STS-51-L.
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