The Concert for Bangladesh, forgotten chapter of our history

The Concert for Bangladesh was the first benefit concert of its kind in that it brought together an extraordinary assemblage of major artists collaborating for a common humanitarian cause - setting the precedent that music could be used to serve a higher cause.

“Hailing from Bengal, my heart went out to the Bengali speaking people of Bangladesh and it was natural for me to reach out and want to help the refugees and the hundreds of thousands of little children. I expressed my concern to George Harrison. He knew about the turmoil of my mind and a concert to raise funds was initiated. An enormous amount of money was collected and this could never have been achieved without the help of dear George. What happened is now history: it was one of the most moving and intense musical experiences of the century.

Again and again I am asked which concerts stand out in my memory, and it is very difficult to remember all the prominent ones as my career spans over seventy-five years of performances; but the Concert for Bangladesh was very significant to me as the conception of the idea came from me and the people needing aid were very close to my heart; some of them, of course, being distantly related to me. Ali Akbar Khan and Alla Rakha joined me on stage for the first half and George Harrison played the second half, joined by other eminent musicians including Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton. George closed the concert with "Bangla Desh," the special song he wrote for the occasion. As a result, overnight the name of the country Bangladesh came to be known all over the world. Millions of dollars were raised and given to UNICEF who distributed milk, blankets and clothes to refugees. It touches my heart very deeply to know that this event is not to be forgotten, and that with the re-release of the film and the album people in Bangladesh will continue to be helped. I am sure that the music of this electrifying concert of 1971 will move the listeners even today”. - Ravi Shankar June 05

After being made aware of the gravity of the situation in what was then known as East Pakistan by friend and musician Ravi Shankar, Harrison quickly organised two performances in their aid, in addition to composing and releasing a single called "Bangladesh" just preceding the event. With Harrison, highly popular following the success of All Things Must Pass, leading the shows, he wanted to surround himself with his closest musician friends, including Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan (both of whom were in reclusive states at that time), in addition to Billy Preston, Badfinger, Leon Russell, Shankar, and Ringo Starr, among others. Both John Lennon and Paul McCartney had been asked by Harrison to join, but McCartney felt it was too soon for a Beatles reunion and declined. Lennon was keen to take part, but recanted his acceptance after Harrison stated that he did not want Lennon's wife, Yoko Ono, to take part in the concert.

The two concerts on 1 August 1971 were highly successful, with a cheque for US$243,418.50 being immediately sent to UNICEF for relief. All involved were pleased with a job well done.[1] As much as $15 million was made by the album and film, but the money was held in an Internal Revenue Service escrow account for years because the concert organisers hadn't applied for tax-exempt status. It's uncertain how much money actually went to relieve the initial refugee crisis and Harrison himself was said to have been "disgusted" over the matter.[2][3] - Wikipedia

The Concert For Bangladesh, Released: 1972 The Concert for Bangladesh is rock reaching for its manhood. Under the leadership of George Harrison, a group of rock musicians recognized, in a deliberate, self-conscious, and professional way, that they have responsibilities and went about dealing with them seriously:

My friend came to me, With sadness in his eyes, He told me that he wanted help, Before his country died, Although I couldn't feel the pain, I knew I'd have to try, Now I'm asking all of you, To help us save some lies...

Heard at the end of the album, during the concert's single greatest performance by all concerned, the simplicity of the lyrics takes on a new and powerful force. For by then they are no longer an expression of intent but of an accomplished mission help has been given, people have been reached, an effort has been made and results will be felt. With such names as Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Billy Preston, Leon Russell, and finally, Bob Dylan, involved, the concert would have been an enormous success no matter how it was planned or run. But part of the record's beauty is that Harrison staged a concert worthy of his purpose in every respect. With such an array of talent on hand, he created a program that miraculously avoided comparisons with any previous super-shows by staging it not as a collection of individual performances or fixed sets, but as a revue. His presence throughout undermined from the beginning the superstar quality of the evening and put the emphasis on the concert as a fraternal gathering of musicians devoted to a single charitable purpose. Seen in that light, his introduction of Ravi Shankar at the beginning of the concert is particularly moving, as is the inclusion of a full side of Ravi's music. George's personal intentions resonate when he begins his own performance with "Wah-Wah," a simple statement by a musician who knows who he is and what he wants to play. "My Sweet Lord" and "Awaiting on You All" have a rough quality to them characteristic of most of George's performances on the albums. His efforts, with the exception of "Here Comes the Sun," are production numbers that required the articipation of all the musicians. It is no wonder that on one number the chorus is noticeably off-key, or that on another the guitars occasionally clash with each other. More important than any technical imperfections that remain in the performance was George's decision not to tamper with the original tapes. By the end of the performances on side two we feel fully in the middle of a true musical experience. George's songs had already been heard once in perfect productions either on Beatle albums or on All Things Must Pass. I don't mind it all being a little rough around the edges when the quality of the music runs this deep. On "Awaiting On You All" it is exhilarating to hear his voice clearly singing the song for the first time, likewise the excellent guitar. And it is great to have a version of "My Sweet Lord" in which the emphasis is on the voice, words, and guitar, instead of on the sound as a whole.

Acutely aware of the need for pacing, if he was to remain on stage for the entire rock program, George introduces two individual performers. Billy Preston's turn on "That's The Way God Planned It" is sheer delight. The song is beautiful and while some of its musical force is lost at the end, when Preston was too busy playing with the song visually to sustain his vocal, it nonetheless remains one of the true highpoints of the album. Ringo's "It Don't Come Easy," on the other hand, is great just because it is Ringo being totally real. It is thoroughly to his credit that he did not overdub a new vocal on this track. He sings the song off-key, awkwardly, but with tremendous good-nature and humor and his performance contributes immeasurably to creating the mood of the evening. It is, like almost everything on the album, honest. "Beware of Darkness" and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" features George with two other talents, Leon Russell and Eric Clapton respectively. The vocal duet on the former comes as a terrific surprise, one of the concert's best-balanced moments musically, a performance of almost stately proportions. Eric Clapton receives the largest applause the line-up and he then duets on guitar with George on a driving version of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." The song remains possible the best that George has written. Eric's performance on guitar only reminds us how inactive he has been lately and how much so many of his admirers would like to see him contributing again. His last album, Layla, was surely his best and one can only hope that he will pick up where he left off soon.

To me, Leon Russell's performance represents the one incongruous note in the program. Part of the brilliance of the concert is, first, hearing so many people who we are not used to hearing live at all, and, secondly, hearing musicians we have always admired playing with each other on stage for the first time. With the exception of Russell, nobody did a piece from their live sets in most instances because the artist doesn't do regular live performances. It was all something fresh, original, and unexpected. While Leon's music here is as dazzling as ever, during his set the concert suddenly became a Leon Russell show and I have heard that before. Good as his actual performance is, his conception of the role was too commonplace for an event as special as this.

George's capacity for pacing and timing is nowhere better illustrated than in his next move. Following the high's of Russell's rock performance, he had the stage completely cleared so that when he introduced the next guest there would be no need for further delay. He then went into an acoustic performance of an enormous Beatle hit, thereby accomplishing two things: he brought the level of the music down from full-scale rock to a quiet, acoustic sound and he did it without losing his audience for a second due to his brilliant choice of song, "Here Comes the Sun," to which he gives a superb performance, with the assistance of that excellent Apple band, Badfinger. All of which led perfectly into Bob Dylan's performance. The 17 minutes of music he offers us here is certainly the best he has released in recent years. While conceived of as a special sort of greatest hits performance, the selection of tunes was merely a vehicle for Dylan to exhibit another new vocal style a style so rich and perfectly suited to him I can't help wondering why he immediately changed it again when he recorded the new material for Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, Vol. 2. The performances are all great but "Just Like a Woman" sung with a sort of fierce, personal, but musical, determination is surely the best of it, one of the two or three great moments on the set as a whole. And of course, how does one come back out after a set by Dylan that literally takes the roof off of the Garden, but with another enormous Beatle hit: And so George offers up a superb version of "Something" and then he is gone and back with what is again, for me, the album's most meaningful moment, the group performance of "Bangladesh."

Besides everything else, Bangladesh was a great show, brilliantly put together by an artist who not only knew how to assemble a lot of great musicians but had an instinctive feeling for how best to present them and their music with honesty, dignity, and maturity. The total effect was that the event did justice to everyone connected with it. The idea of an enjoyable rock show as a vehicle for aiding starving refugees never becomes incongruous precisely because both musicians and audience conduct themselves with such self-respect. In particular, George Harrison emerges, from the introductory remarks to Ravi Shankar's set to the closing of "Bangladesh," as a man with a sense of his own worth, his own role in the place of things, and as a man prepared to face reality openly and with a judgement and maturity with few parallels among his peers. As much as the music contained within the package, the spirit he creates through his own demeanor is inspirational. From the personal point of view, Concert for Bangladesh was George's moment. He put it together; and he pulled it off, and for that he deserves the admiration of all of us. - Jon Landau, Rolling Stone, 2/3/72.

He knew what he should do and he went out and did it. The result was the first, and perhaps the greatest, concert-for-a-cause ever staged.


By Bill McKibben Dec. 1, 2001 | In Dhaka, the sprawling capital of Bangladesh, a small museum on a quiet side road commemorates the country's war of liberation -- a war that, though now dimly remembered, stands among the greatest genocides of the 20th century. The museum houses a numbing collection of tragic artifacts from that 1971 conflict -- shirts and sandals of some of the nearly 3 million Bengalis the Pakistani government managed to kill in their convulsive yearlong campaign to retain control over the eastern portion of their country. Maps of mass graves were left behind by the Pakistanis, who then as now enjoyed the patronage of America, in this case because Henry Kissinger thought they were geopolitically significant. Oh, and hanging on the wall of the museum is an LP jacket, and inside it the record of a fundraising concert in Madison Square Garden.

George Harrison organized the Concert for Bangladesh -- the first, and perhaps the greatest, concert-for-a-cause that rock 'n' rollers ever staged. "Rock reaching its manhood," Rolling Stone said in its review. "Under the leadership of George Harrison, a group of rock musicians recognized, in a deliberate, self-conscious, and professional way, that they have responsibilities -- and went about dealing with them seriously."

In a sense, the concert for Bangladesh begins with "Norwegian Wood," where Harrison first experimented with the sounds of the sitar. He went on to India to see Ravi Shankar, the master of the instrument (currently on his own farewell tour). "I felt that his enthusiasm was so real, and I wanted to give as much as I could express," said Shankar in a 1997 interview on VH1. Beatlemania intervened -- people recognized Harrison in Bombay and eventually he had to flee.

But the men stayed friends, and in 1971 Shankar, who had relatives in East Bengal, told Harrison he was trying to put together a benefit show "and maybe raise $20,000, $25,000, $30,000, and send it," Shankar told VH1. "George saw how unhappy I was, and he said, 'That's nothing, let's do something big.' And immediately he, like magic, phoned up, fixed Madison Square Garden and all his friends, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, and it was magic really. And he wrote that song also,' Bangladesh.' So overnight that name became known all over the world, you know."

It's hard now, 30 years later, to imagine rock stars as real honest-to-God consciences of anything. We're used to a certain smug self-satisfaction behind almost every gesture -- and used to the mediocre music that usually accompanies feed-the-world extravaganzas. But George Harrison clearly didn't need to buff his image by raising money for Bangladesh. And this was not precisely a safe cause: America was sending both money and arms to the Pakistanis. Harrison told VH1 that he'd been inspired by John Lennon -- "I think one of the things that I developed, just by being in the Beatles, was being bold. And I think John had a lot to do with that, you know, cause John Lennon, if he felt something strongly, he just did it. I picked up a lot of that by being a friend of John's."

The concert, Harrison added, ran on "pure adrenaline," without a full rehearsal. Who needs to rehearse, however, when you have George to sing "Here Comes the Sun," "My Sweet Lord" and "Something"; Ringo to sing "It Don't Come Easy;" and Dylan to add "Just Like a Woman." And everyone, all together, on the title track:

My friend came to me With sadness in his eyes, He told me that he wanted help Before his country died. Although I couldn't feel the pain I knew I'd have to try Now I'm asking all of you To help us save some lives...

Here we remember the Concert for Bangladesh as the birth of a new kind of political-artistic-philanthropic circus, one of those cases where the first example was also probably the best. There are moments now when one wishes that it had never occurred to singers that they should also preach.

But 1971 was not one of those moments. Not here, where in the midst of a dozen other crises the atrocities in Bangladesh were passing largely unnoticed. And certainly not in Bangladesh, where desperate people screwed by the imperatives of Cold War politics suddenly found themselves being heard by the world. "You can't imagine what a ray of light that was when we found out," said the museum's director.

That small museum in Dhaka is one of the most moving places I know on earth. It is haunted by the usual ghosts -- the millions of Muslims raped and killed by rampaging Pakistani troops, armed and funded by the grotesqueries of Cold War politics. And haunted now too by a shaggy-haired British musician who knew what he should do and went out and did it.