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All the concert(s) for Bangladesh

  • Published at 12:02 am November 28th, 2019
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Pete Townshend remembers 1971 when George Harrison 'shone a light on some of the Pakistani Hitlers'

As a small child in 1972, I was deeply impressed during a stay in London by two posters, one for the British Museum’s blockbuster Tutankhamen exhibition and the other for the film of The Concert for Bangladesh.

The film poster fascinated because the best-selling album of George Harrison’s famous concerts the year before at Madison Square Garden was already ubiquitous enough for me to be familiar with its sleeves, if not its sounds. Yet.

Fast forward to November 2019. The only question I wanted to ask Pete Townshend at an unrelated book talk is: Do you have any memories of the Goodbye Summer Concert for Bangladesh at the Oval cricket ground on September 18, 1971?

Though far less remembered than the ground-breaking event with George Harrison, Ravi Shankar, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr et al six weeks earlier in Manhattan, the day-long festival at the Oval cricket ground in South London had its own rock superstars. Headlined by The Who and The Faces in their Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood heyday, it drew about as many people in one sitting as the two shows, (matinee and evening) of the historic Concert for Bangladesh in New York on Sunday, August 1, 1971.

As the first of its kind, the Madison Square Garden superstar fund-raiser had the organizational support of Apple, the Beatles record company, and drew massive global attention. Nearly a quarter million dollars was immediately sent to Unicef and whilst delayed by tax disputes, many millions more were generated over the years as the Concert for Bangladesh was immortalized on best-selling records and cinema releases.

While no such official footage exists of the Oval concert, plenty of details can be found via Surrey Cricket Club and various cricketing and fanzine websites:

Tickets were £1–25 in advance or £2 at the gates. Around £15,000 was raised for aid to Bangladeshi refugee causes and £3000 for Surrey Cricket Cub. Estimates of people attending suggest close to 40,000 people got in, substantially more than capacity

By all accounts it was a hot day, aptly fitting its formal title “Goodbye to Summer -- A rock concert in aid of famine relief of Bangla Desh”

A good-humoured all-day event with cricket and music fans, hippies and Hells Angels getting along, the police reportedly said in the morning “if you want us, we’ll be outside”

The line-up included Lindisfarne, Mott The Hoople, America, and The Faces. The Who headlined as the sun came down with a strong set and there was no chance of an encore as Townshend and Moon duly trashed their instruments

Historically, what is most significant about these concerts is not the money they raised to alleviate suffering but the fact that they drew attention to and used the name Bangladesh.

Rock v geo-politics

Even at the end of summer 1971, it was not yet certain Bangladesh would escape the fate of Biafra barely a year or so before. The independence from Pakistan that Bangladesh’s people and the nation’s democratically elected leader Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had campaigned for peacefully had been brutally suppressed by Yahya Khan’s military junta since March of that year. A genocidal campaign of suppression by the Pakistan army in East Bengal/Pakistan swiftly sent 10 million refugees across the border into India.

While there was much public sympathy around the world, many doubted the Bangladesh Liberation War could be won before the year was out, as in fact did happen with the help of India’s intervention on December 16, 1971.

Far from being a seemingly non-political cause like Bob Geldof’s famine relief efforts in the 1980s, the hosting of the Concert for Bangladesh in New York, at a moment when the Nixon administration was actively supporting the Pakistan military to prevent Bangladeshi independence, was a politically significant act as well as a humanitarian gesture.

In his authoritative work on The Blood Telegram, Professor Gary Bass of Princeton University compellingly relates how President Richard Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger willfully ignored ample evidence provided by their own consular officers led by the late Archer Blood, of atrocities committed by the Pakistan army during 1971.

One reason the pair knowingly indulged Yahya Khan’s brutalities was because his regime was providing a clandestine back channel for Kissinger’s talks with Zhou En Lai, to pave the way for Nixon’s famous trip to, and subsequent recognition of, Chairman Mao’s China in 1972.

Lest anyone doubt the political significance of the Concert for Bangladesh, Bass notes Nixon can be heard bemusedly complaining to Henry Kissinger in recordings available in the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States series: “I see now the Beatles are up raising money for it” while elsewhere reasoning “Biafra stirred people up more than Pakistan because Pakistan, well they’re just a bunch of brown goddamn Moslems.”

George Harrison when asked at a press conference about contemporary causes such as opposition to wars against the peoples of Biafra and Vietnam, (the two main reasons cited by John Lennon in his jokily phrased protest letter to the Queen on returning his MBE medal on 25 November 1969) implied concerts like Bangladesh should happen more often, but that he had specifically got involved this time at Ravi Shankar’s request, because “a friend asked me.”

Narrating his memoir, I Me Mine to Derek Taylor in 1980, Harrison highlights his clear view of the geo-politics:

“The main result was that we were able to attract attention to events over there in Bangla Desh, because while we were setting up the concert the Americans were shipping arms to Pakistan. Thousands were dying every day, but in the newspapers coming after Biafra, it was just a few lines saying “oh yeah, it’s still all going on …

… We attracted a lot of publicity, turned it round and even now I still meet waiters in Bengali restaurants who say: “Oh, you Mr Harrison. When we were in the jungle fighting it was great to know somebody out there was thinking of us”

It did have a good effect; it was a necessary morale booster for the Bengalis, and it shone a light on some of the Pakistani Hitlers” 

Inevitably many obituaries of Henry Kissinger will cite “opening up China” as his and Nixon’s great achievement. Their complicity with various crimes against humanity will be traded off for “hundreds of millions lifted out of poverty.”

Given the Concert for Bangladesh inspired 1979’s Concerts for Kampuchea for victims of Pol Pot’s genocide in Cambodia, not to mention Band Aid, Live Aid, and their successors since the 1980s, George Harrison’s positive legacy is also hard to overstate. With Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan,the Concert for Bangladesh also had the virtue of showcasing artists from the region as its opening act.

On artistic merit alone, as encapsulated in the film and LP, the Concert for Bangladesh perhaps holds up better than Woodstock in showcasing the best of its era in terms of music, optimism, and goodwill.

Where’s Weeley?: Festivals and Bangladesh 1971

David Hepworth’s evocative 1971 Never a Dull Moment: Rock’s Golden Year writes of the Oval concert, among much else, that “In his autobiography, Rod Stewart remembers driving home after the show to Winchmore Hill with his posh girlfriend at his side, realizing that he was now truly the rock star.”

Goodbye to Summer, a rock concert in aid of famine relief of Bangla Desh on Sunday September 18, 1971, was not the only Bangladesh related rock event that summer in the UK.

Stewart and The Faces had outshone Marc Bolan’s T-Rex in the latter’s most successful year for UK number one singles, just three weeks before at the August Bank Holiday Weeley Festival.

Councillors in Weeley, near Clacton on Sea in Essex had with the local Round Table planned to put on a rock concert for charitable causes including Bangladesh via Save the Children and for Shelter and Release’s work on drugs/housing

That year’s cancellation of the legendary Isle of Wight Festival led to the good burghers being overwhelmed by an avalanche of bands, causing a considerable amount of chaos as overbooking led to acts having to play in the very early morning and reportedly 100,000 people descending on the small town for the weekend

One of the many popular if nowadays less famous acts on the Weeley bill was the Edgar Broughton Band, whose eponymous leader (and lifelong political activist) had earlier, on June 21, 1971, launched Edgar Broughton’s Save A Life, an appeal in aid of the East Pakistani refugees in Bangladesh in the Daily Mirror newspaper with no less than “John Lennon and Yoko Ono, along with Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Jethro Tull, and T Rex (among many others)” lending their support

Beatles and the Concerts for Bangladesh 1971 and Kampuchea 1979

Ringo Starr, who played on both John and George’s solo albums in 1971 was perhaps a given. But John Lennon and Paul McCartney were also asked by George Harrison to play the Madison Square Garden concerts.

While McCartney in the depths of his legal dispute with his fellow Beatles, to free them all from Allen Klein, was always likely to decline, accounts vary as to why Lennon (on whose Imagine album recording sessions Harrison played earlier that year) did not show.

Most commonly cited are that he would not play without Yoko, or that he wanted to rest in the Virgin Islands.

The latter is not entirely implausible as it was a busy year with lots of recording, activism, and trans-atlantic travel (when Lennon flew to New York from London at the end of August that year, it was the last time he was in the UK).

In the context of the Bangladesh war ending on December 16, it is poignant that Merry Xmas, War is Over (if you want it) was released for the first time in the US on December 6, 1971, making it perhaps the only year when a major war really was over by Christmas.

Some years later, candid as ever, Lennon during his 1980 Playboy interviews was highly sceptical of charity concerts, but even during his rant, also indicated that he supported the Christian practice of tithing:

“Bangladesh was caca. I can’t even talk about it, because it’s still a problem. You’ll have to check with Mother [Yoko], because she knows the ins and outs of it, I don’t. But it’s all a rip-off. So forget about it. All of you who are reading this, don’t bother sending me all that garbage about, ‘Just come and save the Indians, come and save the blacks, come and save the war veterans,’ … Anybody I want to save will be helped through our tithing, which is 10% of whatever we earn.”

Unavoidably, in 1971, there was huge media and fan speculation that the Concert for Bangladesh might spark a Beatles reunion.

Despite the facts proving it was never needed, a similar wave arose in late 1979 when Paul McCartney headlined a Bangladesh-style series of rock music benefit concerts in London (which have been largely forgotten because of 1985’s Live Aid) for UN sponsored relief in Cambodia following Vietnam’s overthrow of Pol Pot’s genocidal Year Zero regime the previous year.

Featuring contemporary new wave acts like Ian Dury and the Blockheads and Elvis Costello, the four gigs were noted for featuring key UK rock royalty missing from Madison Square Garden in 71 (Plant/McCartney/The Who) and the subsequent LP’s thorough sleeve notes excitedly celebrates the concerts for featuring “Three Led Zeppelins, two Whos, two Rockpiles, Gary Brooker, Ronnie Laine, an Attraction, a Pretender, and a host of others …”

It says something of the status of The Who at the time that out of many hours of potential contributions from all these artists, the first four out of only 20 tracks (including collaborations) on the Concerts for Kampuchea double album, were all Townshend compositions performed by The Who.

Recorded at a briefing on his novel Age of Anxiety to the Foreign Press Association, at The Sloane Club, London on November 7, 2019:

Niaz Alam is London Bureau Chief of Dhaka Tribune and Hon. Secretary of the Foreign Press Association in London.