The Concert For Bangladesh
George Harrison and the Birth of the Benefit Concert
In 1971, the mega-concert was still a relatively fresh idea. Monterrey Pop in 1967 and Woodstock in 1969 were massive successes, while 1969’s Altamont was a horrific failure. What had never been attempted, however, was a concert for a good cause. To pull that off, it would take a Beatle, and many of his friends.
The Beatles were no longer performing live by the time the big festivals occurred. By 1971, they were broken up and all focusing on their own music. Paul McCartney debuted “McCartney” in 1970, the same year that Ringo Starr struck with “Sentimental Journey.” John Lennon released “Imagine” in 1971. Of all of the solo albums ever released by a former Beatle, none rose to the standard that George Harrison set in November 1970 with his colossal triple album “All Things Must Pass.” The masterpiece remains one of the most critically acclaimed albums in rock n’ roll history and shot the quieter Harrison, who often blended into the background in the Beatles, to international superstardom on his own.
In fact, Harrison mentioned in an interview with Dick Cavett that he felt as though he was being held back creatively by the band, and there’s a-lot of evidence to support that, like the fact that he had enough material to record a triple album within months of the Beatles’ breakup. “Here Comes the Sun” and “Something” made the cut onto albums, but he had mountains of material to sit on. With the momentum of “All Things Must Pass,” Harrison considered his next move, and his friend Ravi Shankar came to him with an idea that would change live music forever.
Shankar’s family was originally from East Pakistan – part of a nation (along with West Pakistan) that had formed after the Partition of India in 1947 following British withdrawal from the colony. By 1971, a Civil War was rippling through East Pakistan with India supporting guerilla fighters who sought to establish an independent nation. Giant protests were brutally put down by the Pakistani Army. The Civil War resulted in millions of refugees fleeing to India. Severe flooding that year as well as food shortages led to a severe humanitarian crisis – one in which the United States did little to intervene.
The infinitely talented Shankar, a wizard on the sitar, deeply wanted to help ease the suffering in his native region. When he reached out to Harrison about the idea of putting together and all-star lineup for a concert in which all of the funds raised would go to charity, the Beatle jumped at the opportunity.
The lineup for the concert was incredible. Obviously Harrison and Shankar performed, but for the first time in years, two Beatles graced the stage together, as Ringo Starr showed up as well. Bob Dylan hadn’t played live for most of that year, but he showed up. Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, and Billy Preston all played as well. The lineup of legends played shows on August 1, 1971 in Madison Square Garden. Among the highlights were Harrison’s booming performance of “Awaiting on You All” and Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman,” with Harrison and Russell joining in. The entire show was recorded and the live album was released in December, also for charity.
In total, the concerts raised $240,000 right away, which was donated to UNICEF, but it could’ve been much more. Since Shankar and Harrison hadn’t selected a destination charity before the show, they were ineligible for the tax breaks typically afforded to benefit concerts nowadays. The live album was tremendously successful, however, leading to millions of dollars that could further go towards the cause.
The template had been set for rock stars using their powers for good. In an era mostly associated with “glam rock” and vanity, this show was the best demonstration yet that music could in fact be used for good. Harrison would perform fourteen years later at “Live Aid,” which wouldn’t have been possible if not for his trailblazing Concert For Bangladesh.