Tuesday 21 September 2010

VARIOUS ARTISTS: The Concert For Bangla Desh

(#104: 29 January 1972, 1 week)

Track listing: George Harrison – Ravi Shankar Introduction/Bangla Dhun/Wah-Wah/My Sweet Lord/Awaiting On You All/That’s The Way God Planned It/It Don’t Come Easy/Beware Of Darkness/While My Guitar Gently Weeps/Medley: Jumpin’ Jack Flash-Youngblood/Here Comes The Sun/A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall/It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry/Blowin’ In The Wind/Mr Tambourine Man/Just Like A Woman/Something/Bangla Desh

Although Bolan cried, “It’s a rip-off!,” some sixties survivors evidently felt the need to prove that rock music needn’t be a rip-off. In 1980 John Lennon opined, apropos the Concert for Bangladesh and the controversy regarding the whereabouts of the eight million dollars that the concerts and associated records and film had raised, “But it’s all a rip-off.” Then again, George Harrison had invited Lennon to participate, provided that Yoko didn’t, but an argument between John and Yoko took place and Lennon pulled out.

However, if the 105 or so minutes of the triple box set prove anything, it’s that they stand as a marker of rock’s attempt to grow up, to prove that, as had been promised in the sixties, this music could make a difference to the world, and in particular to the lives of people who had nothing to do with rock. Bangladesh had been born, painfully, out of the ashes of East Pakistan, but West Pakistan, under the iron rule of Yahya Khan, did not wish to relinquish its control over the country; there had already been a disastrous cyclone in 1970, but in March 1971, refusing to acknowledge the results of the democratic Bangladeshi election three months previously, Khan sent his troops into the country and undertook Operation Searchlight, a genocide programme comparable to that which would be unleashed by Pol Pot in Camodia four years later. The original album sleevenote refers to a million Bengalis murdered, although subsequent statistics have put that figure up to three million; this led to the beginning of the Bangladesh Liberation War. In addition, ten million Bengalis fled the country, seeking refuge in neighbouring India, and were susceptible to cholera and other diseases, not to mention the continued threat of monsoons.

The concerts had been the original idea of Ravi Shankar; himself a Bengali, and horrified by the massacres, he wanted to put on an event to raise both funds and awareness, and asked his friend George Harrison for advice with the hope that he might be willing to produce the concerts, if not participate in them. He gave Harrison extensive literature and newspaper cuttings concerning the history and then-current state of Bangladesh; similarly horrified, Harrison immediately offered to take part and get as many other musicians as possible to do so. Liaising with Allen Klein, the final line-up was agreed in some 4-5 weeks; as Harrison comments on the album, many of his colleagues had cancelled other gigs or commitments in order to participate. One, Eric Clapton, was in the middle of his heroin phase, and only turned up for rehearsals the day before the concerts. For Harrison himself, this would be his first stage appearance since the break-up of the Beatles, and – the ultimate coup – Bob Dylan agreed to take part, marking his first gig since the 1969 Isle of Wight set.

The organisation took place on the turn of a dime – as did the quick writing and recording of Harrison’s fundraising “Bangla Desh” single – and two concerts were given on 1 August 1971, one at noon and the other at seven in the evening; the album collects the best performances from both. As a feat of management, the event was something of a miracle; as a listening experience, it raises some peculiar issues.

The album begins with Harrison wandering onstage to a wall of whoops and cheers from the audience; he asks them to “settle down” for Shankar’s opening set, attempting to convey to them the complexity of Indian music (“a little bit more serious than our music”), and then Shankar comes on. He too asks for patience and open-mindedness from the audience, and also requests silence and non-smoking. Evidently both men were being cautious, and Shankar takes pains to explain that “your favourite stars” will appear in the concert’s second half and that this is the music, the culture, of the nation for whom they are here to raise funds; to understand the cause, one must understand the culture. The four musicians – Shankar on sitar, Ali Akbar Khan on sarod, Alla Rakha on tabla and Kamala Chakravarty on tamboura – tune up for around a minute and a half, only to be met by a round of applause. Shankar smiles and indulges the audience before launching into the two-part “Bangla Dhun,” a pair of improvisations based on a Bangladesh folk tune. A relatively light run for these masters, the piece is divided into a dadra sequence (six beats) and a teental sequence (sixteen beats). In the meditative first half, Shankar and Khan intertwine beautifully, Khan’s sliding quarter-tones in particular reminding us how this music had so beguiled and entranced the likes of Coltrane a decade earlier; there are of course reminders of the other musics which this music would go on to influence, including both English and Scottish folk music, country and bluegrass, and (of course) psychedelic rock – in the teental section, the patiently escalating dazzle of the four musicians’ interactions (plaintive sitar, flowing sarod, dramatic tabla-tamboura call and response sequences) is enough to send one into hypnosis; as the music speeds faster and faster, psychedelia suddenly seems the plaything of children – and it is all based on a subtly rephrased (with every recurrence) four-note sequence. As with Dylan’s later set, this seems a league above everything else that would go on that day, and the audience’s thunderous reception proves that they were ready.

Harrison then returns to the stage, running through some All Things Must Pass material; “Wah-Wah” benefits from Leon Russell’s piano swipes, “My Sweet Lord” is done as though from the lounge, with some rather sour guitar commentary from Clapton, “Awaiting On You All” turns on the almost inaudible axis of Billy Preston’s organ. But, despite the phalanx of musicians onstage (including all four members of Badfinger, inaudibly strumming away on acoustic guitars), the original album’s sound wall isn’t quite recaptured, and moreover – and particularly halfway through “Awaiting” – the feeling comes through that we are at church, attending to a sermon. A long way away from the rabid rave-ups of Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!, Harrison is keen to remind his audience that they are there for a Specific Reason. The retrospective listener, however, feels as though he is being lectured to, and hence the protestations of both Harrison and Shankar that they deal in music and that politics have nothing to do with why they’re there are, charitably stated, disingenuous; if rock is supposed to change the world, shouldn’t it be taking a less fence-friendly stand?

Billy Preston gets his solo spot, and his “That’s The Way God Planned It” wipes the floor with the 1969 studio version; his idea of gospel is more florid and lively than Harrison’s, with fine call and responses with the multiple backing singers, a storming organ solo from Preston himself, and a real holy roller of a crescendo with doubling tempi and ecstatic tambourine. But Ringo then sings his hit “It Don’t Come Easy” and gets the second biggest round of applause of the day; even though he fluffs his words in the final chorus, the audience forgives and blesses him. The original single has much of the offhand joie de vivre about faith which Harrison wasn’t quite ready to unleash, and although his strained voice takes a firm second place to his and Jim Keltner’s drumming, he seems to be the concert’s most welcomed presence.

Harrison takes over again for a couple more songs; the gloomy “Beware Of Darkness” bears some extra light thanks to Leon Russell’s agreeably gruff co-lead vocal and Liberace piano, while following extended band introductions by Harrison (Ringo is acknowledged by a quick gallop through “Yellow Submarine”), Clapton – still wanting to be “Derek,” just another guy in the band – has his moment in “When My Guitar Gently Weeps,” his and Harrison’s guitars sobbing at each other, even if the backing is a little over-emphatic, a tad too pub-rock (amazingly, it was only at this point that most people realised that Clapton had played on the original recording).

Then comes the album’s unexpected highlight, Leon Russell’s solo spot. The least known of the featured musicians, and therefore probably the one with the most to gain in terms of reputation, he tucks into the Stones and Coasters with such volcanic force and ribald humour that he makes me want to re-evaluate his entire back catalogue; finally, here is the spark, the duende for which the concert has been crying out. “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” was a brave one to essay in this context, and the most astonishing thing about it is perhaps Russell’s vocal – with his repeated, ragged “WHOOO!” screams, he sounds like, of all people, Iggy Pop; and Don Preston’s guitar and Carl Radle’s bass respond with a deadpan thwack straight out of “TV Eye.” Halfway through, Russell modulates into an extended improvisation on the Coasters’ “Youngblood,” framing the song with long out-of-tempo half-scat half-rants about faithlessness and childishness, eventually dovetailing back immaculately (he’s been cheating, sneaks back in the early hours, his baby wonders what he’s been doing but after a considered pause decides that it’s ALLLLLL-RIIIIIIIGGGGGHHHTTTTT) into “Flash,” and then back towards a Merrie Melodies “Youngblood” signoff. Chaotic, rambling, rash – Russell pretty well steals the show, wraps it up and takes it under his arm to the pawnbroker’s.

Harrison comes back on, with Pete Ham of Badfinger in acoustic tow, and runs through a briskly-taken and rather superficial take on “Here Comes The Sun,” even if the twin acoustics’ interplay immediately recalls Shankar and Khan (it is a real shame that Badfinger didn’t get a set of their own; still the most undervalued pop group, power or otherwise, of the seventies, especially by those who ripped them off and drove half of them to suicide; their story makes that of their oddly logical twin Big Star appear like a walk in the park in comparison).

But then Harrison asks us to welcome “a friend of us all – Bob Dylan,” and the audience goes apeshit. Much horsetrading between Apple and Columbia was required to ensure Dylan’s presence on the record (and indeed the 1991 2CD version on which I am basing this piece appeared on Columbia/Sony) but it was more than worth it; the pictures alone indicate that this was something other than what had previously been going on, and Dylan wisely opts to stick to the folk; his is a deceptively understated and nonchalant set, and all five songs have a relevance, however indirect (from “Just Like A Woman”: “I was dying there of thirst”), to what was actually happening in Bangladesh (earlier on in the show, the audience clapped along to Harrison’s “Bangla Desh” record as it played under documentary footage of atrocities – did they really only come to see lots of famous people on the same stage together, with the cause trailing a very distant second?); “A Hard Rain” is treated almost playfully, the lines coming at almost random divisions (though the scratch band assembled for Dylan’s set – Harrison on electric, Russell on bass, Ringo on sturdy blisters-on-fingers tambourine – do a fine job of second guessing the great man), but the song is never treated as a throwaway. “It Takes A Lot To Laugh…” dices with death, ownership and commitment but here it’s Dylan’s pivotal “BOSS,” un-resolving into a spreading helter-skelter of ululations, which commands the song’s regretful flow. “Blowin’ In The Wind” is treated with careful solemnity but that too is almost completely overwhelmed by an unexpectedly passionate vocal – my God, he still CARES about this at this late stage – from Dylan, an octave above his normal range, stretching like James Carr, howling like Pickett. On this night it could scarcely have sounded less relevant. This “Tambourine” teems with pain, almost losing itself before Russell’s walking 4/4 bass strolls with us back to reality. “Just Like A Woman” is taken at a funereal 4/4 pace; at first it sounds as though Dylan is taking the piss out of Jagger (this “she begs” is gnarled up to sound like “she BAKES”), but then the hurt steals into his timbre, and that last extraordinary “guuurrrlllll” he holds like an unstable Colt .45, turns it into a Shepp wobble, then a terrifying growl, hurling its shards, its atoms, into Harrison’s guitar (the only live version to beat it is the one Bridget St John did, somewhere in the middle of England, in late 2007, where she sings it quietly, from the perspective of the woman – and you are numbed, truly shocked; now, she quietly hisses, you think you know about pain?).

There’s no real way to follow that, but Harrison has to come back on and finish the concert somehow; his “Something” is somewhat gruff and the attendant irony of Clapton’s querulous slides need not be over-underlined. Still, it rocks up to an entirely inapposite finale, and then the cheers and the inevitable wait for the encore. Amazingly, “Bangla Desh” the song is a tougher little cookie than I had remembered; the words still sound as though tossed together in twenty seconds (which was probably not far from the truth) but Spector’s production (and he is on the unobtrusive mix for this set) takes full advantage of the wrong-footing chord changes and there is a cloud of numbed rage which somehow lifts it out of the bob-a-job league. Here Harrison gives his most ferocious – and life-filled – performance on the record, with everyone – Jim Horn’s tenor, Clapton’s anguished, breaking-out-of-himself guitar solos – elevating towards a double tempo rampage, as though failure to resolve things in Bangladesh could drag the rest of the world down with it. After that, there is really nowhere else to go.

And, for the all-star benefit concert, there were surprisingly few other places for it to go throughout the seventies; unlike Live Aid, etc., this was an integrated group of famous people on stage pretty much throughout the whole event, rather than a slideshow of famous people doing their individual turns. Perhaps those nasty, inconvenient politics might have had something to do with it, but there is also the fact that the proceeds from the event, in all its manifestations, languished in limbo for several years due to the simple omission by its producers to apply for tax-exempt status. It does seem that the money eventually did get through; it wasn’t nearly enough to make any practical difference, but awareness was raised, and Bangladesh struggled slowly and painfully towards a full democracy in the early nineties. I myself was pleased to come across my copy in a branch of Oxfam, since the money raised from my purchase will go – with any luck – towards relieving the current flooding crises in Pakistan. But if rock wanted to grow up, it seems to me that it had to acknowledge things like politics as well as accidents of nature, and it’s possible that the only such events which still attract mass audiences and funds are those which strive to be as apolitical as possible. It’s not until the turn of the eighties, with the likes of Secret Policeman’s Ball, the Concerts for the People of Kampuchea and No Nukes, that the crossover all-star fundraisers began to pick up real steam. Still, as fumbling and messy as their approach was, Shankar and Harrison were ahead of their time, and ripping anyone or anything off was, I’d wager, the last thing on either of their minds.