On August 1, 1971 an event took place, not once but twice. Long before Live Aid, Farm Aid, No Nukes, and We Are The World, The Concert For Bangladesh took place. It was the very first and second concert to benefit a worthwhile cause. It was also the first concert where musicians from different bands and groups worked together towards a common cause, and didn’t compete against each other. Sitar master Ravi Shankar proposed that he should do a concert to benefit his homeland to George Harrison. Shankar was of the opinion that if he was lucky he might be able to contribute twenty-five thousand dollars. Harrison knew a great deal more would be needed if they to help a country.
Phone Calls and Fights
Harrison said he spent all of June and half of July of 1971 on the phone organizing the event. First, he contacted his former bandmates, Ringo Starr, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney. Ringo was eager to come, postponing the completion of the film Blindman. John’s invitation was conditional. He was asked not to bring Yoko Ono. When John first received the invitation he was eager to take part. Then he and Yoko had a fight about her not being invited. The upshot of this domestic brouhaha was that John telephoned George saying that he would not be attending. Paul was still dealing with his own demons, primarily excess drinking and anger, and the business dealings of the Beatles. He was worried that if he went it might be thought of as a “Beatles Reunion”. He was trying to rid himself of the Beatles in court, and the thought going under those conditions was “daft”.
Badfinger Joins Roster and Eric Gets Lost
With one half of the Beatles still sulking and fighting, he asked a Apple band called Badfinger (formerly known as The Ivey’s from 1961 to 1969) to attend. They just had a hit record (Come And Get It) penned and produced by Paul McCartney. This would be fantastic exposure for the band. Plus it would be their first exposure to a North American audience. George asked Eric Clapton to attend because he wanted another “really” good guitarist there. Eric said he would be there, but George became concerned when he didn’t show up by mid-July. After Eric failed to arrive, George was unsure if he would attend, even though he had given George his word. With the concerts now just days away and Eric still missing in action, George asked Taj Mahal guitarist Jesse Ed Davis to fill in for Eric. For one entire week prior to the concerts a seat was booked for Eric on every flight from London to New York. He finally appeared with four days to spare. In 2005 Eric admitted he “was in rough shape” due to his drug addiction. He also admitted he was in “semi-retirement”. However, he does maintain he would have played much better if he had brought the right kind of guitar with him. On most of the songs he played a large semi-acoustic guitar. On the second disc of this fantastic two disc set he openly admits that he should have been playing a solid body guitar. The guitar he plays during most of both concerts was made for silky sounding jazz music. A solid body guitar is designed for rock music.
By the last week of July, Harrison and friends were in New York practicing with Starr, Clapton, Leon Russell, Billy Preston and a small posse of sidemen and backup singers. Harrison’s portion of the set consisted of four songs from his hit album All Things Must Pass, and three of his Beatles classics, including “Here Comes the Sun” and “Something,” none of which he had ever played for an audience. But Preston says rehearsals “went really well. I played on a lot of the original records, so I knew the songs. But the guys in the horn section wrote out charts, and we all pitched in to pull the music together.”
The Man Behind The Camera
The director, Saul Swimmer, was no stranger to film, rock music, or any of The Beatles. He had worked with Ringo on the film Blindman, and with Beatles when he co-produced Let It Be. He began directing in his mid-twenties, quickly gaining attention for his half-hour short The Boy Who Owned a Melephant in 1959. This short was produced with Peter Gayle and Tony Anthony, who soon became frequent contributors.
With the musical onslaught of the British Invasion in full bloom, came a flurry of films that copied, or tried to copy, the style of A Hard Day’s Night. Herman’s Hermits had a hit with the song Mrs. Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter, and it soon became a film with Saul Swimmer at the helm. He found a formula that worked for him. The Rockumentary was born.
I couldn’t find any source, not even the American Film Institute (AFI), that could definitively tell me how many 16mm cameras were used to film the concerts. In doing research for this blog, numbers between two and sixteen cameras were used. However, the source for the numbers were never given. According to Saul Swimmer Harrison initially wanted to do the show at New York’s intimate Town Hall: “He didn’t think he could sell out the Garden. He was very insecure.”
Harrison was extremely nervous about his solo concert debut that he had doubts about even filming the Bangladesh shows. “That’s why we shot in 16 mm — so nobody was bothered by the cameras,” Swimmer says. “We didn’t even have a set list. At one point, Leon Russell’s voice suddenly comes out of the dark [for his “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”/”Youngblood” medley], because we didn’t know Leon was going to sing. We were searching for where this voice was coming from. George even went so far as to say that if the concert was a disaster he would purchase the film and tapes.”
After the concert Swimmer described the editing of the film as a “nightmare. None of the cameras were synced. Luckily, we had two concerts from which to choose footage from. George would choose the best performance of a song. When I think about the cameras we were lucky anything was filmed. They only held about fifteen minutes of film. George wanted the film blown up to seventy millimetre so he could put a six track stereo track on the film. We went to Hollywood to get this done. There wasn’t a way to do it except to increase it frame-by-frame. It was a real headache, but I’m still very proud of the film. The film you see on the DVD is very close to the actual concert”.
It was just one high level of experience from beginning to end – Leon Russell
The Clash Between a Titan of Vinyl and the little guy
Most people understood the purpose behind the concerts, the film, and the records. However, for some people the word “Charity” simply didn’t exist in their personal lexicons. Most record labels were glad to have their artists associated with a concert/film/record deal, glad to let them get exposure they couldn’t afford to give, so they didn’t demand payment. Leon Russell and Billy Preston saw their careers blossom because of the exposure. However, not all record labels were content to do something for nothing, nor were they to lend their artists out, or work for free, and they wanted their money – a lot of it.
Clive Davis, Head of Columbia Records
The original plan was to have the concerts recorded, filmed, and when the records were ready they would be distributed by Capitol Records. For free. Bhaskar Menon, head of Capitol Records in 1971, requested approximately half a million dollars to recover costs. And Davis wanted a significant amount of money for his client, Mr. Bob Dylan. George Harrison was not a business man and should have expected this. He didn’t. Both labels were simply trying to protect their interests. They had stockholders to answer to, and George didn’t. George simply did not have all the facts. Infuriated with Capitol Records, convinced they were behind the plot to hold off making the records, George went on the Dick Cavett Show and publicly shamed Bhaskar Menon. He made him look very bad, and with the Christmas buying season going full steam there was a very real possibility of a boycott of all Capitol records. After the broadcast George was informed of information he should have known before going on the show. The following day George phoned Menon and apologized for his tirade. In the end a deal was reached that all sides could live with. Neither side, Harrison, Menon of Capitol Records, or Davis of Columbia Records were thrilled by it, but they could live with it.
A villain in the works
Allen Klein, was the manager for John Lennon, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison. And he didn’t mind lying, bluffing, or misrepresenting the truth to any client. He is billed as the co-producer of the concert for Bangladesh. But he also the only individual to have profited from the sale of Concert For Bangladesh record albums.
In November 1971 an article appeared in New York magazine. The article entitled “Some Sour Note From the Bangladesh Concert” by Peter McCabe, alleged that Allen Klein was making a profit from the sale of every three-disc set. Reporter Ben Fong-Torres of Rolling Stone Magazine wrote an article on the fallout from the McCabe article. The Fong-Torres article entitled “Did Allen Klein Take Bangla Desh Money?” was followed by a sub heading that asked the question “A $1.14 is coming up unaccounted for per every Bangla Desh album and New York Magazine is pointing the finger at Allen Klein”. The McCabe article started very simply. It started with a collection of prose and a simple mathematical formula.
At the press conference which announced the concerts Klein took every possible opportunity to say that every penny raised from the concerts and records would go towards Bangladesh. Yet, when you total up the money paid, and where it went, it’s painfully obvious that some money ended up in somebodies pocket when it shouldn’t. While there is no definitive proof that would stand up in a court of law, you can’t help but be reminded of the sub-heading of Peter McCabe’s article – “…All proceeds, we were told, were to go to Bangladesh. If so, about $1.14 per album sold seems to be unaccounted for…”.