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Everyone knows about Ronnie James Dio's stints in Rainbow and Sabbath as well as his solo band, but his charity work also runs deep in the core of his character. Formed in the mid-80s to serve as a heavy metal answer to "We Are The World" and bring the finest icons of the era together in the name of African famine relief, Hear 'n Aid is one of his more interesting examples of his generous spirit. As you would expect, "Stars" is an incredibly dated song but one that demands to be enjoyed for that very reason.
If I'm being perfectly honest, I must admit that "Stars" isn't that special in terms of its actual songwriting. It's pretty much a "Rainbow In The Dark" rewrite right down to using a similar song structure but trades the iconic keyboard line for a one line chorus enthusiastically shouted by every musician involved. It's still a pretty fun song and wouldn't have been out of place on The Last In Line or Sacred Heart, but it likely would've been seen as a solid filler track if Dio had been the only singer on it.
But like all the other mid-80s charity singles, the guest singers are what make this worthwhile. Whether they were all passionate about the project or Dio was just that good at writing vocal lines, each vocalist gives it his all even if it's just for a single line. Hearing Geoff Tate and Rob Halford belting this out in their prime is life affirming but even the guys like Don Dokken and Kevin Dubrow manage to sound pretty damn epic. Of course, this being an 80s metal venture does mean that the well known shredders of the time get to shine in an extended solo section. This idea's execution is a bit misguided as the seemingly endless soloing threatens to kill the momentum established by the stirring verses and and each one is rather hard to tell apart unless you're that familiar with each guitarist's technique. Yngwie Malmsteen and George Lynch's solos are predictably flashier than the rest and I'm enough of an Iron Maiden fanboy to recognize their duo's harmonizing (and enough of one to wonder what the hell Bruce Dickinson was doing at the time), but it's hard to sit through it all without the video telling which guitarist you're supposed to be amazed by at a given time. Thankfully the drum solos are just a topper before the last chorus and not another section...
A friend and I once debated what singers would be on a modern version of Hear 'n Aid but this project could've only happened when it did and is best appreciated as a relic of its time. The driving rhythm, guest singers, and even the guitarists' contributions make it mandatory for 80s metal nuts but the typical structure and dated feel make it hard to recommend to anyone else. It's a fun listen and I'd probably get a copy if it were ever re-released. Rest in peace, Ronnie, no modern tribute could ever be as fulfilling as jamming this cornball.
Originally published at http://psychicshorts.blogspot.com
Everybody’s had a few conversations about how utterly and completely AWESOME it would be if all of their favorite musicians from a bunch of different bands got together for an epic, mind-blowing collaboration of sheer talent. This sort of fantasy is bound to disappoint if it actually occurs, though, as is demonstrated by the tendency of super-groups to fail to deliver on their promise. Hear ‘N Aid, while clearly formed for a noble cause, is no exception. The idea of a collaboration of titans with Dio, Halford, and Geoff Tate leading the vocalists and guitarists from Iron Maiden, Yngwie Malmsteen, Dokken, and Quiet Riot breaking out some shreds would make many metalheads quiver with anticipation. However, it’s clear that this collaboration was just too bulky and unwieldy to totally deliver on its promise; instead, it delivers only a decent and enjoyable, albeit overwhelmingly self-indulgent, single.
As you can probably tell from the lineup, the band really focuses on guitar and vocals. The bass is laid down competently by Jimmy Bain but it’s not very noticeable at all; he doesn’t even get a solo! This is surprising since even the single version of “Stars” has more than its share of solos. Since the extended version has enough solos for an entire album, I had hoped that there would at least be a bass solo in that version. Unfortunately, my hopes were cruelly dashed. Bass takes a serious back-seat to everything else in this song; the bass plays some very simple patterns that just flesh out the sound while the vocalists and guitarists each take their turn with the spotlight. There’s very little of interest to be found in the bass part, really.
Similarly, the drums generally take a bit of a back-seat. Most of the time, they’re simply pounding out a rock beat. The drums do manage to find a couple of opportunities for short drum fills throughout the song and actually have a short solo after the guitars. However, the drum fills generally consist of pretty simple rolls and basic syncopation. The parts are competent, if unremarkable. Considering Vinny Appice’s talent and the intricate drum patterns he put together for Black Sabbath, this is pretty disappointing. That said, there’s not too much that the drummers, Appice and Frank Banali, could do without sounding out of place; the song adopts a pretty simplistic rhythmic sensibility in keeping with its hook-heavy composition. In effect, the drums are competent but they don’t really get much opportunity to show off.
The guitars, on the other hand, have more than their share of shredding. It’s absolutely ridiculous how many guitarists they gave solos on the song, particularly on the extended version. Some of the solos are better than others, but I wouldn’t say that any of them are that memorable largely because the solo tends to transition rapidly from one guitarist to the next, giving them little opportunity to really develop their ideas (on the single version anyway). On the other hand, the extended version has some interesting melodic solos that aren’t present in the shorter version but it gets to be a bit too much. The solos would probably be more exciting otherwise but, unfortunately, the chorus riff is really not very interesting and it’s repeated ad nauseum, by which I mean that you will literally be nauseated by the end of the song. It’s too bad, really, because the introductory acoustic riff is really quite good; Murphy’s Law thus dictates that it must last for all of ten seconds. They really could have used the acoustic section to resolve the song, too, but it seems that, instead, they chose to make the chorus literally interminable by fading out at the end. The rest of the song is left to simplistic chord progressions. At the very least, they did include some nice noodling at the end to make the chorus more palatable but, altogether, the guitars are disappointing. In short, the guitars seem to be exaggerate the failings of cheesy 80s metal without enough of its strengths.
The vocals also get some opportunity to show off, although not as much as I had expected. During the verses, the all-stars take turns showing off their pipes, but it’s too early in the song for them to justify any really dramatic vocal performances. That said, you can’t really go wrong with singers like Halford and Dio. Even the lesser stars among the lead vocalists give quite competent performances, so the verses sound pretty good. Unfortunately, the chorus is just too simple to be catchy. With as many in the chorus as there were, I can understand that the group really couldn’t manage any complex parts. However, the song would be a hell of a lot better if the chorus melody was made up of more than two or three notes ad infinitum. (Have I driven home how annoying this chorus is yet?) Again, what could have been really awesome instead ends up being rather bloated and directionless.
Lyrically, the whole production is exactly what you would expect from a charity project. There are some words about children, crying, hunger, “calling YOUUUU,” etc. I think that ultimately this is the song’s problem; for a collaboration involving as many great musicians as it does, it’s much less ambitious than I would have expected. It’s easy to tell that nobody involved really cared too much about the music – even the soloists just seem to be going through the motions and showing off their technical abilities without really giving their performances any emotion. With the exception of some of the vocalists, nobody on this single actually seems to care about the starving children in Africa which is pretty ironic. Consequently, there’s really no point to buying this now that the money isn’t going to charity. This is a forgotten footnote of metal history for good reason.
Regardless to how many other early metal giants were involved in this song, I’ve always seen it as a Dio song. And I mean this in the sense of the material that the entire band was putting out from 1983-87, not necessarily a culmination of Ronnie Dio’s various projects beforehand as well. But in order to hear it this way, you have to ignore all of the flashy lead guitar slots occupied by a dozen hard rock and heavy metal shredders and all the eccentric yet ingenious characters vocalizing the basic melodic material. Once this is done, the seemingly titanic beast screaming “this is the end all, be all of 80s metalness” fades away and what is left is an accessible, yet too simplistic concept that has been heard before, and in a much more subtle manifestation.
In a manner of speaking, musically this is the title track of “The Last In Line” communicated through the more subdued and radio friendly medium of “Sacred Heart”. It carries the mostly guitar oriented aspects of the former with subdued keyboard support, but downplays the intrigue and any sense of variation within the base riffs in favor of making room for fanfare, which proves to be all but carried completely by the vocal slots. There is a quiet exposition/intro that never returns in the fashion of the 2nd Dio LP’s title track and “Invisible”, and there is space filling lead guitar harmony put forth by Maiden’s two masters that is unfortunately buried under the vocal heavy chorus, but otherwise this is 3 or 4 chords banged out in a bare bones fashion in order to lay a smooth ground on which the Stars, no pun intended, are to stand. No real rhythmic fills, Zakk Wylde guitar screeches 4 or 5 years before he started doing them, or anything else to spice up what’s in between the vocal breaks that this thing should have yet doesn’t.
For all the redundancy that would suggest an utter bore fest, this thing all but overcompensates with a collage of fairly exceptional vocal performances all around. Paul Shortino in particular outdoes himself with a gravely high end wail that I don’t think Blackie Lawless could have pulled off if he’d been given lead duties on this beast, shocking mostly because the former's work with both Rough Cutt and Quiet Riot seemed pretty tame by comparison. Tate and Dio basically measure up to the high standards they’ve always held for themselves, although Tate does get a tiny bit overdramatic and sounds less like an 80s singer asking for relief donations and more like a prophet warning the masses that if they don’t donate that evil cyborgs from the future will obliterate Ethiopia. Part of the problem is that the melodic material that most of them are singing is so hook driven, as it is likely supposed to be in order to garner radio listeners’ attention that it works against the showmanship that these guys are known for. As a result, Kevin Dubrow and Eric Bloom sound powerful and on their game due to their comfort range being catered to, while Rob Halford and Don Dokken sound like their holding back and come off as contrived, despite that their voices contrast quite well with the others. The chorus is pretty cliché, almost like an oversimplified answer to Survivor’s “Eye Of The Tiger”, though thankfully when it gets repeated multiple times lead vocal and guitar fills get added to offset the utter sameness that sets in the 3rd time they go at it.
What basically stands out most in this song is the gargantuan, garrulous, mouth gaping monster of a guitar solo interchange/medley/contest that takes up a good 3 minutes of the song. And I say that with regard to the fact that the radio cut of this song is not “the song”, precisely because it butchers, shortens and abridges what truly makes this song interesting. Someone not versed in the mysticism surrounding the various lead players in congress on here might just assume this a monstrous Van Halen homage, but an educated ear hears several layers of generational evolution spanning nearly 20 years. The generation gap between Buck Dharma and George Lynch is pretty damned huge, as is that of the otherwise ahead of his time fret board blazer Neil Schon and the guy who rediscovered playing a Bach toccata at warp 10 Yngwie Malmsteen, but everything is placed in a methodical fashion to showcase this evolution without any abrupt shifts in feel. In the midst of it all are the two principle figures at war in Dio’s history, at least as far as I’m concerned, in Vivian Campbell and Craig Goldie. Campbell basically throws out every trick he has in his book, sounding technically impressive yet also disheveled and all over the place, as if he’s trying to upstage the two people he’s been situated next to in the solo section (Gillis and Malmsteen, two of the most technically oriented guys on here) and knowing that he's failing in the process. It utterly amazes me that to this guy insists that Ronnie was pressuring him to play like a maniac when considering that the guy who replaced him is the most uninterested in trying to impress. When Goldie takes the helm, his solos exhibits a calm and methodical character, almost a Zen-like balance between showmanship and musicianship, resulting in the leads that basically define this song. He can play like Malmsteen when called for, but he doesn’t need to all the time to give the song what it needs, and a simple sampling of his work since joining forces with Dio puts the final nail into the coffin of the illusion that Vivian’s lack of adequacy as a player for the Dio fold existed anywhere outside of his own mind.
When judging this song, it’s easy to get caught up in all of the historical drama and intrigue of the time; after all it was the golden age of heavy metal. But when you take away the “Stars” that put their talents into this song, it’s a pretty average song by both Dio and overall metal standards. The intensely AOR oriented structure, the lack of any real instrumental contrast or riff development doesn’t give this the lasting appeal that a “The Last In Line” would, or even a “Into The Fire” if you want a song to which this is also comparable. Take away the solos and hearing only the short version, and this is an occasional fun song to break out with your friends every few months while drunk. Keep the solos and blow 7 minutes instead of 4, and then you’ve got something that will appeal greatly to G3 fans, but will only be par for the course for someone who follows most of the bands that provided talent to this project.
The concept behind this whole project is, in my eyes, a massive hypocrisy. To gather huge names like Dokken, Dio and Judas Priest together and do an album to raise one million dollars is folly and a clear attempt at "softening" the image of heavy metal. If these musicians wanted to help famine in Africa, they could have each reached into their deep pockets and simply written a check instead of dropping the load of dung that "Stars" is upon us. The release of this album is none other than a combination of covering up personal selfishness and reaping the rewards of an easily digested commodity / format. "Rewards? All the profit goes to charity!" you say? After you take off your blindfolds and eye patches, read the news; money isn't the only prize to gain from participating in an incredibly successful collaboration. Every single person participating in Hear N Aid knew that the single would sell like vanilla umbrellas during a chocolate syrup hurricane. Every single person involved knew that this would attract attention to their own projects, make parents slightly less likely to throw out their son's albums, and buy them a ticket to the promised land - and in the name of Heavy Metal they did this shit anyway. Blasphemy...
Now, I can't knock the music too much. It sounds like Dio except for the first solo which sounds like an alien spaceship recorded using a microphone and a rainbow scented distortion pedal (no pun intended). The solo actually makes me laugh if I listen to it several times in succession. The solo afterward is much more metal than the Martian tomfoolery of the first solo. Considering that the song was written almost entirely by the Dio gang, the traditional style of the tune is no surprise. While I can't complain that the song sounds like Dio, I can wholeheartedly wish that there were other people involved in writing the actual music for the song. There are a ton of awesome song writers on the album that could have contributed ideas and excellent riffs: Dave Murray and Adrian Smith (who only get a chance to contribute a barely audible melody line to the chorus), Ted Nugent, and George Lynch. I'm kind of surprised that Ted Nugent would ever agree to do a song like this or even take part in such a project. He seems like the "let them fend for themselves, and let me kill the boar on my acres of farmland" kind of character. Ultimately, the song is a generic 80's metal anthem-styled song with a raging hard-on for itself, "shredding" solos (notably in the extended version where the solo section is bearable (why did they chose the two worst solos to put in the single track?) and contains some actual interesting guitar work from egoist overlord Yngwie) and a catchy general melody that flows along like a nice little river from which deer drink happily and bunny rabbits fornicate besides.
I do really love the guitar tone on the single and the whole sound of the song. It is crisp, and has that vintage lots of mids and treble tone. It is clear throughout the whole track. The song would be laughable without the classic tone which is almost the only thing that allows this atrocity of metal history to survive without sounding like a joke. The cheese of the song is supported by the cheese we associate with the guitar tone. The keyboards are buried though you can hear them at points. The drums are clear too though I wish the snare was louder in the mix. The kick drum tone is beautiful though and sounds like a kick drum and not the marching band kid in math class tapping on his desk with his untrimmed fingernails. I also appreciate the clean, booming bass that cuts through the the rest of the instruments. Sadly, Jimmy Bain is not doing anything at all interesting. His plodding makes me wonder if he originally brought the idea to Ronnie as a joke. Like telling your friend "Hey lets go eat those ants that are always crawling near your front door" and then he says "Sure!" and you are pulled into eating insects off his stoop.
The huge chorus would be awesome if they were not shouting "We're Stars." No shit you're stars assholes - your all singing on a heavy metal fund raiser album with the Dio. Is it possible that this song is a hidden attempt at making fun of the mentally handicapped? "Hey guyz! I'm da Staaauurrr!" If they were shouting something like, "We're Napalm Warriors!" it would be total kick assery though not at all appropriate for a famine relief fund raiser album. I get the same basic feeling from the chorus that I get from Dream Evil's (Hah, Its like everything is a Dio reference) Made Of Metal - big balls to the wall chorus with lame lyrics. If there is one thing I always prided Dio for, it was his lyrics. He has written some of the best lyrics in metal in his time with Sabbath and with Dio but the lyrics here are trite and meaningless. Does Ronnie James Dio really "cry for the children?" Or how about Chris Holmes? Maybe when he was floating his Vodka filled pool in the blue raft he looked to the 'stars' and wondered if the hungry African children were looking at the same night sky. Holmes wondering if famished African children have anything to eat while downing bottles of vodka in a pool is an image I would love to see a renaissance painting depiction of. Maybe David Alford really cares for "the shrunk up kids" as he gives his best Tom Hanks in Forest Gump impression. The attitude towards the starving children is less than concerned by almost all those involved. I think Rob Halford is the only one who actually says anything meaningful in the interview.
Don't get me started on Gale Murphy from Rock Network Affiliate KLOS in Los Angeles. The title for the interview is misleading. It's not four and a half minutes long. It's five grueling minutes of strung out rock stars trying to sound intelligent. But then, so is the single track itself.
Uggghhhh...I am feeling old up in here after reading about this! I used to own this single when it came out in 1986, and I actually rather liked it at the time. Of course being considerably older and more cynical and grumpy these days tempers my memories and makes me realize that, well, this was a pretty mediocre tune.
The lyrics are terribly cliched even by Ronnie James Dio's standards (and he's turned out some groaners in his time) and the music is pretty typical hair farmer fare of the time. The number of guest vocalists is impressive, though, it has to be said; yet most of them only show up on the gang chant chorus. "WE'RE STAAAARRRRSSSSS!!!!!" (repeat) Oooh, imaginative, folks.
The only section worth remembering is the solo section where a bevy of players trade off, and it of course is edited heavily to fit the single format's time limit as well as the time limit of radio airplay. This was the era where solo sections had to be 8 bars or (preferably) less to garner radio airplay. This, of course, was at a time when radio airplay for metal was actually somewhat feasible, unlike these days of nu-metal garbage passing itself off as the real article.
All in all, this is for completists of metal history only. I really wouldn't recommend this as other than a historical curiosity.