The Concert for Bangladesh Review

The Concert for Bangladesh comprised of two shows, in the afternoon and evening of 1 August 1971, at Madison Square Garden, New York City. Decades don’t necessarily follow neat calendar boundaries, so there’s no contradiction when I call the concert a Sixties event, even though it chronologically belongs to the Seventies. (In any case, you could claim the Sixties ended in 1973, with Middle Eastern countries quadrupling oil prices and ending the Western affluence that the previous ten years or so had depended upon.) If the Sixties spirit had had its apotheosis – both musically and on film – with the concert at Woodstock, the mood had since darkened. Altamont had happened (as depicted in Gimme Shelter) and death had claimed Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. The Beatles had split up and Bob Dylan was in semi-retirement following a motorcycle crash. As Eric Clapton observes on this DVD, hard drugs had entered the scene, and peace and love seemed very far away. The concert was an attempt to show that rich rock stars could make a difference and think of others than themselves. The result was this concert, provoked by an international crisis.

Bangladesh was originally known as East Pakistan, separated from the rest of Pakistan by about a thousand miles of India, when the country was formed in 1947. Although both West Pakistan and East Pakistan were Muslim territories, they were otherwise completely different regions, racially, culturally and linguistically. Although Bengali-speaking East Pakistanis were more populous, power was concentrated in the Urdu-speaking West of the country. Free elections were held for the first time in 1969, and the East Pakistanis won an overwhelming majority – but the Western regime refused to allow power to be transferred and cracked down on the opposition. Anywhere up to three million people were killed in the conflict, while refugees fleeing into India were threatened by starvation and destructive floods. Foreign aid was inadequate to cope with the scale of the disaster. Ravi Shankar told his friend George Harrison of the tragedy, and Harrison took it upon himself to organise a large-scale benefit concert. The Concert for Bangladesh was the result. Predating Live Aid by fourteen years, it was the first of its kind.

We live in a more cynical age, and nowadays it’s easy to doubt the motivations of the performers in an event like this. No doubt the publicity aided their careers, though all of them appeared for free. One difference between this and Live Aid or Live 8, is that it was never a television event. As with Woodstock, you couldn’t watch it from your front room or listen to it on radio: if you weren’t there in person, you had to buy the (triple vinyl) live album, or watch the film version, which played at premium venues in 70mm and six-track stereo sound.

Certainly the one everyone wanted to see at the time was Harrison. The Beatles hadn’t performed live for five years. After they had split up, there was a sense of pent-up ambition in their lead guitarist, too often regarded as a junior partner by Lennon and McCartney. Yet one measure of the greatness of the band is that not only did they boast two great songwriters (together and separately) but a third, who was capable of writing a song that Frank Sinatra described as “one of the greatest love songs of the past fifty years”. So ambition he had aplenty, and with his triple album All Things Must Pass (actually a double with a third disc of Harrison jamming with his celebrity friends) he went for broke, as he never really did again. It gave him a number one single, “My Sweet Lord”, and a lawsuit for reproducing the chord sequence of the Chiffons’ “She’s So Fine”. In the concert, Harrison draws a line under his past: the only Beatles songs played are three of his own: “Something” (the one Sinatra liked so much), “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Here Comes the Sun”, all contenders for the best song he wrote for the group. The only other Beatle present, Ringo, performs “It Don’t Come Easy” from his solo album Ringo.

Other solo spots are given to other Harrison associates. Keyboard virtuoso Billy Preston (who had featured on the Beatles’s “Get Back”) plays an exuberant version of his own “That’s the Way God Planned It”. Likewise, Leon Russell, who acts as an all-purpose backing man (bass or keyboards by turns) does a medley of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Young Blood”. Eric Clapton stays in the background and plays some immaculate guitar – even more of a feat when you realised that he only attended at the last minute and missed all the rehearsals.

The concert begins with an Indian music section involving Ravi Shankar on sitar, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan (sarod), Ustad Alla Rahma (tabla) and Kamala Chakravarty (tamboura). This is more serious than western music, we’re told, so a respectful silence falls. This will be as much an issue for personal taste as Shankar’s sitar workout which closed Monterey Pop, though it doesn’t go on so long.

Finally, the major guest appearance was by Bob Dylan. Between that motorcycle crash five years earlier and the Rolling Thunder tour of 1974, this is one of only three live appearances Dylan made. He was still producing albums but, odd songs apart, they seemed shadows of the work he’d made in the early to mid Sixties. With an acoustic guitar and harmonica, he plays four of his own songs, sympathetically backed by Harrison on electric guitar, Russell on bass and Starr on tambourine. Somehow he seems distracted, a long way from the invigorated man who was to reinterpret his songbook in some quite startling ways three years later. It’s good to see him here, but you can’t help feeling that the event is a better showcase for Harrison than for Dylan.

The concert ends with the encore, a new Harrison song “Bangla Desh”. Like many topical songs, it’s a little too on the nose to be effective in itself, and you can’t help feeling that director Saul Swimmer’s intercutting of shots of starving Bangladeshi children is a manipulation too far – especially as his filming of the concert has been efficient and ungimmicky up to then.

Song listing
Bangla Dhun
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/Young Blood
Here Comes the Sun
A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry
Blowin’ in the Wind
Just Like a Woman
Bangla Desh

This DVD release, encoded for Region 1 only, is available in two forms. I’ve reviewed the two-disc digipak edition, and the affiliate links refer to this version. There’s also a deluxe edition available in a “unibox”, which has the following additional extras: a 64-page booklet, a copy of the original film poster, ten postcards, an Apple logo clingzee, the handwritten lyrics to “Bangla Desh”. In both versions, there are two DVD-9 discs, the film on one and extras on the other.

Shot in 16mm, the film is transferred in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. I suspect, but can’t confirm, that 35mm showings were in this ratio. For blowing up to 70mm (which must have had grain the size of footballs), the image was cropped - or “tilt-and-scanned” - into the 70mm ratio of 2.2:1. (Woodstock was a previous 16mm-to-70mm blowup, but that was different, as almost the entire film had two 4:3 images side by side in a split screen.) Not having seen the film before – it’s not been easy to see in any format until now – I can’t comment how sympathetically that cropping was done. No doubt it was considered worth it for the six-track stereo sound. But I’m glad we have the whole picture on DVD. Given its origins, it’s inevitably softer and more grainy, made more so by the preponderance of red and orange stage lights throughout.

The soundtrack is available in three options: an analogue Dolby Surround track and 5.1 mixes in Dolby Digital and DTS. The latter two are the ones to listen to: the DTS has a very slight edge as regards clarity, but there isn’t much at all in it. The surrounds are mostly used for crowd noise.

The main item on Disc Two is “The Concert for Bangladesh Revisted”, which runs 44:47 and is divided into eleven chapters (there’s an index on the disc). This is a straightforward making-of piece, comprising clips from the film with interviewees from both sides of the camera. The late Harrison is represented by footage from the press conference that also begins the film. Other interviewees include Lord David Puttnam in his capacity as President of UNICEF.and United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

In addition, there are three songs which are not included in the film. “If Not For You” (3:00) comes from rehearsals and is a vocal/guitar duet between Harrison and Dylan. Originating from the sound check is a rendition of the old Robert Johnson blues song, “Come On In My Kitchen” (2:46), led by Leon Russell on vocals and piano, backed up by Harrison and Clapton. Finally, there’s a bonus for Dylan fans in an extra performance from the afternoon show: “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” (4:14), backed up as with his other numbers, by Harrison, Russell and Starr. All three songs have the same sound options as the main feature.

Some mini featurettes round off the disc. In “The Making of the Film” (7:56), Saul Swimmer and others describe the logistics of making the film. The end result is a combination of the best takes from both shows. “The Making of the Album” (4:25) and “The Original Artwork” (4:09) both discuss the record that ensued, including the controversy over the image of a starving child on the cover. We also see Ringo Starr accepting a Grammy Award for the album. “Recollections August 1st 1971” (3:40) speaks for itself. There’s also a stills gallery (3:35), which self-navigates to the sound of “Beware of Darkness” and “Take a Bow” (1:46), brief pictures of all participants, underscored by “Here Comes the Sun”.

Subtitles are available for the feature and the extras for all spoken dialogue, but not for the song lyrics. This is not unusual for music DVDs and is presumably for reasons of copyright. Included in the packaging are a 32-page booklet (half the size of the one in the Deluxe Edition), which apart from including some historical background information and credits is mostly made up of stills. The box also includes a leaflet for the George Harrison Fund for UNICEF.

Because it has been so little seen in recent years, The Concert for Bangladesh is a less celebrated concert movie than Monterey Pop, Gimme Shelter and Woodstock, so now is the time to reassess it. Musically it’s just as good and is a time capsule of what may have been the Sixties’ last hurrah. It was downhill from here, and many people performing here – Harrison included – would never be quite so good again. The DVD package presents the film very well indeed.

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out of 10

Last updated: 15/07/2018 12:01:45

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