|Concert for Bangladesh, The: George Harrison and Friends|
|Written by Charles Andrews|
|Tuesday, 25 October 2005|
Like any artist, or any human for that matter, much of what becomes your legacy is not premeditated but rather the result of what you do with what comes your way. What came George Harrison’s way in 1971 was the plea of his dear friend, mentor and revered music icon Ravi Shankar to do something to bring relief to the millions ravished and dying from war and natural disaster in his native Bangladesh, a country then-recently carved from the former East/West Pakistan. Few Americans could find this new nation on a map, but many had seen the haunting photographs and news reports of starving children with distended bellies, too weak to even fend off flies.
Like many, Harrison was left asking himself, why isn’t anyone doing anything, what can I do? Shankar had an answer: use your fame as a musician, your status as a former Beatle, as a stage from which to draw attention to the tragedy and offer the world a chance to help. Literally, a stage: call upon the cream of pop musicians to join you in a concert that will raise consciousness and money. George, in this release, also credits John Lennon with making him aware of using “Beatle power.”
In a post-9/11, -Live 8, -Live Aid, -Amnesty International concerts, -We Are the World world, it now seems the obvious, almost expected thing to do. But in 1971, it had never been done, no one knew if it would succeed or fall flat, and Harrison had never, ever done anything as a solo artist, but it seemed clear only a musician of his stature and notoriety had a chance to pull it off. It was up to him to risk his reputation for something he believed in passionately, he made the choice, and the rest is history, previously preserved in the boxed set album and the theatrical release, and now chronicled for all to experience in this two-DVD set.
Many of the things we learn about the staging of this historic concert contrast with what the process has become. Harrison claims to have spent six months on the phone, arranging logistics but mostly cajoling musician friends to lend their names and performances. Certainly he had assistance, though we don’t get many details (today the first call would probably be to someone equipped to get “The Making Of” down on video from moment one), but one can imagine him sitting at a desk at home and going through his noteworthy Rolodex (remember those?), spending countless hours reaching and pitching his buddies at their homes, rather than checking into a central location where a well-oiled team experienced at all aspects of such an event would be going down their checklists, phoning agents and managers and lawyers and accountants, and no doubt instructing Harrison what his duties were. And of course they’d be going for the biggest “Now!” names in the business, the superstars du jour, damn the compatibility or appropriateness, whereas Harrison’s close friends and collaborators were some of the biggest and most respected artists ever (even absent Paul and John), and the resultant big band on that stage in Madison Square Garden probably has never been equaled. Just check the nine guitarists.
It all has the feel of another time, from the way the organization was handled, to the publicity, the performance and the way it was shot. Way before MTV decided we all have three-second attention spans, producers Harrison and Apple’s Allen Klein and director Saul Swimmer gave us a film of a concert that felt like being at the concert, with lots of in-audience camera angles, group shots showing the affection of the players for each other and their concentration on delivering a good performance, lingering close-ups and long unbroken shots.
The sound mix adds considerably to the effect. While at first there may be disappointment at the lack of bells and whistles in the 5.1 mix, you soon realize that what you’ve been given is a center seat in the first 10 rows at the Garden that historic night. Both the 5.1 and stereo mixes (Paul Hicks and Allan Rouse at Abbey Road Studios; original sound produced by Harrison and Phil Spector – ‘nuff said) are as clear and vibrant as you’d want a concert to come across, aided noticeably by the hum and roar of the audience around you, mostly in back of you, and to the sides, up to the rafters.
Disc One is the concert; Disc Two is all special features, and they’re mostly fascinating, with some information never before revealed. The documentary includes 1971 footage of a press conference with George and Ravi and TV coverage of the crowds camping out in front of the Garden for tickets (interviewed by – hold on to your sandals – Geraldo Rivera, demonstrating his remarkable longevity of smarminess), along with interviews then and now with some of the principals intercut with their performances and off-stage footage. The “Mini Features” section includes “The Making of the Film” (jolting to hear what was required back then, and how groundbreaking it was – try going from 16 to 70 mm for theatrical release), “The Making of the Album” (then-Capitol Records president Bhaskar Menon, an Indian, tells why it took much, much longer than the “week to 10 days” George publicly promised to get the album out, and why he honored Harrison’s wish to put a starving baby on the cover and what havoc that wreaked in their marketing division), “The Original Artwork” (working with that famous photo, and the travails of stage shooting that night), “Recollections August 1st, 1971” (fab insights from George, who reveals he didn’t know if Bob Dylan would actually be there until he saw him walk on the stage, Ringo – “I rung up and said I was coming, that’s how I got on the show,” Ravi, Eric Clapton – dancing all around the fact that the reason he barely got there in time after a week of missing planes was that he was totally smacked out, Leon Russell and Billy Preston, who explains his spontaneous manic dance on his own “That’s the Way God Planned It,” a few glorious moments worth the whole ticket).
Also on Disc Two are three previously unseen performances from rehearsals, sound check and the afternoon show, emphasis Bob Dylan, interesting, but the cream is in the concert itself, kicked off with a long, virtuosic, smokin’ performance by Ravi and friends, followed by a nonstop string of classic rock songs by legendary performers backed by probably the best all-star band ever, well-rehearsed and delivering the goods. After you’ve been swept back in time and entertained to the max, why not pull out your checkbook and send something to Unicef and ask them if there aren’t still some folks in Bangladesh who could use a square meal. George would think that was something, and be pleased that his first and as it turned out only big step out was a good choice with lasting good effect.