Ex-Beatle recruits Rock Royalty for good cause
The 1960’s was a decadent, extremely hedonistic decade, where to be young was everything, and people all around the world were beginning to connect through the power of popular culture, just as many teenagers had done in the ‘50s, thanks to the advent of rock ‘n’ roll and movie stars such as James Dean and Marlon Brando. And at the vanguard of all this radicalism were The Beatles, whose influence on pop music remains to this day even greater than that of Elvis Presley, which is truly saying something.
So when The Beatles finally called it a day, and went their separate ways, perhaps with the exception of Ringo, for the other three the whole soul searching process began in earnest. Paul McCartney went veg and moved to the country, while John Lennon took up primal scream therapy and thought he could resolve many of the world’s problems by lying in bed with his misses. However George Harrison, always the quiet Beatle, decided to really do something.
In 1971, East Pakistan, now known as Bangladesh, was experiencing a serious humanitarian crisis. Ravi Shankar, who was a good friend of Harrison’s, approached him to ask if there was anything he could do. He agreed. What resulted was the largest rock charity event ever staged to date, and undoubtedly the first of its kind.
Helping Harrison along the way was a stellar cast of friends and musical associates, including Billy Preston, Ringo Starr, Leon Russell, Badfinger, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and of course Ravi Shankar. Harrison asked John Lennon if he wanted to appear, yet despite pressure from Yoko and even Allen Klein, Lennon detested the idea of benefits, even though he himself was a keen supporter of human rights and social benevolence.
But no matter, because Harrison had secured the support of Dylan, and not only that, he had also convinced the reclusive singer/songwriter to perform some of his older hits, such as “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Blowin’ In The Wind,” a definite coup.
Held at Madison Square Garden on 1st August 1971, Concert For Bangladesh consisted of two shows on the same day, both of which were recorded and filmed with the intention of releasing a triple live album and documentary movie, with all proceeds going to assist the flood and famine-effected people of George’s musical guru, Ravi Shankar. However almost straight away, problems arose. Dylan’s commitment to attend wasn’t always a sure thing, while Clapton, already under the weighty clutches of heroin addiction, had shot up some junk mixed with talc, and had collapsed as a consequence.
Thanks to Lord Harlech, the father of Clapton’s girlfriend Alice Ormsby Gore, a doctor was called in to administer a dose of methadone, thus enabling the famous guitarist to participate that weekend.
The set opens with Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan on sarod, along with Alla Rakha on tabla. Even if raga is not the listener’s exact thing, it’s an impressive display of virtuosity all the same. Simply hearing the music alone doesn’t quite do it justice, hence the DVD, which allows one to also witness the complexity of Shankar’s playing, which is considerable indeed.
But then we segue from raga to rock, with Harrison kicking off the western portion of the concert with a superb rendition of “Wah-Wah,” off his epic All Things Must Pass album. Two drummers (Ringo and Jim Keltner), Klaus Voormann (bass), Leon Russell, Billy Preston, Eric, seven horns and a nine-voice choir, manage to deliver an impressive wall of sound. The gospel-hindu of “My Sweet Lord” gets an appropriately emotional airing, as does Harrison’s jaunty “Awaiting On You All.”
Billy Preston gets the crowd going thanks to a rousing “That’s The Way God Planned It,” while Ringo delivers a bit of soul of his own on the upbeat “It Don’t Come Easy,” from his solo debut. However trust Harrison to darken the mood with a brooding “Beware Of Darkness,” followed by an affecting “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” with Clapton replicating his original guitar lines as played on the White Album (at this point it was a miracle he was even standing).
Leon Russell shows some Southern hospitality by banging out a piano/choir led medley of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash/Youngblood,” before Harrison wows the audience via an exquisite and all acoustic “Here Comes The Sun,” after which George introduces the evening’s next guest, Mr. Bob Dylan, who begins his set with “Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.” “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” are both given the necessary conviction and compassion each song requires in order to convincingly pull it off. “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Just Like A Woman” are equally compelling, Dylan singing with the sort of confidence and sincerity to justify his place in the pantheon of great troubadours.
Harrison takes the listener back to Beatle-land via a beautiful “Something,” a song which Sinatra described as containing one of the finest melodies written by anyone in fifty years, before concluding with the catchy, buoyant “Bangla Desh,” a song specially written for the event, and one which Harrison released as a single.
Concert For Bangladesh was a spectacular success, eventually raising millions of dollars (even if most of that money was held back due to legal hassles for several years). Still, what George and everyone who took part achieved that day may not have changed the world, although what it did do was give pop/rock musicians the opportunity to make a real difference, something that had rarely happened before.
Both George and Phil Spector spent about a week mixing the 16-track tapes, not just from the concerts but also the rehearsals, hoping to release an album as quickly as possible. What resulted was, like All Things Must Pass, another triple LP set. Although if the makers of Woodstock could get away with it, why not an ex-Beatle.
All this talk of peace love and happiness is one thing, though actually putting those sentiments into action is another. Emmett Grogan’s Ringolevio puts paid to the idea that it takes more than merely good vibes to keep a society running. Therefore what Harrison achieved transcended pop star arrogance and hedonistic self-indulgence. Without Concert For Bangladesh, there might not have been a Live Aid, nor the likes of Bono canvassing politicians the world over to donate and make a difference.
So it is ironic really that Harrison, always the quiet Beatle, would go on to make the biggest impact, at least from a humanitarian perspective. I guess it’s the quiet ones you have to look out for after all.