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The Secret Policeman Rocks!


A defining cultural event of my late adolescence was the epochal LIVE AID concert, staged simultaneously at England’s Wembley Arena and Philadelphia’s Robert F. Kennnedy Stadium in the summer of 1985, the same year I could register to vote. The shows were organized by British rocker Bob Geldof, best known at the time as lead vocalist of Irish band The Boomtown Rats — who had little audience in the States — and his starring role in Alan Parker’s celluloid adaptation of Pink Floyd’s world-conquering concept album The Wall.

His purpose was to raise funds and awareness to alleviate the tragic situation of global hunger. Few would have realized then — or now — that the future Sir Bob was violently opposed to charity concerts on the grounds that they constituted the useless grandstanding of “hippies”.

Geldof had been approached by promoter friend Martin Lewis — in partnership with manic Monty Python alumnus John Cleese — to perform in an Amnesty International-sponsored show curiously titled “The Secret Policeman’s Ball”. A fitting monicker, really, when you consider that AI’s stated goal is to expose human rights abuses across the world, said abuses often perpetrated by law enforcement agencies, secret or otrherwise. The Balls evolved into a long-running series, featuring the crowd-pleasing titans of Rock Britannia, including Sting, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Peter Gabriel, Bono… in other words, most of Johnny Rotten’s favorite punching bags.

As 2009 is the 30th anniversary of the debut Ball, Shout Factory has released this commemorative DVD, The Secret Policeman Rocks!, which compiles many notable performances from those three decades. First at bat, we have Gordon Matthew Sumner, a.k.a Sting, warbling about a certain Parisian lady of the evening. Setting the tone for most of the solo acts, he gently strums a guitar, with no other Policemen present. In fact, his clip seems to be the same used once-upon-a-time by that former music channel MTV. It’s a potent reminder of the vocal gifts of this classically-trained Englishman.

Next up is God, er… Eric Clapton, and which greasy-haired stoner annointed him thus, I wonder? Oh well, he’s joined onstage by Axe Legend numero dos, the estimable Jeff Beck, as they gallop through blues chestnut “Farther Up The Road”. The duo return for “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers”, a melancholy instrumental which manages to transcend its occasional muzak cadences. I much prefer, however, Pete Townshend’s following number, “Pinball Wizard”. Mister Pete wields an acoustic guitar, sans windmill arm gyrations and instrument destruction, choosing instead a quiet rendition of the Who’s bombastic original. Sure, it’s difficult to imagine anyone but Daltrey singing it, but I’ve always found Townshend’s voice to be much warmer.

MOR stalwart Phil Collins also appears, on piano, doing his inevitable — and overrated — “In The Air Tonight”, though accompanied by flamenco-ish chords. It’s a different reading than Collins’ somewhat mechanical Top 40 version many of us associate with Crockett and Tubbs’ racing down Biscayne Blvd in a Ferrari.

I do recall buying the ethereal-voiced Kate Bush’s hit “Running Up That Hill”, but don’t remember actually ever playing the 45. I must admit I don’t really comprehend her evident popularity in Old Blighty, but maybe that’s unfair, as I can name only three songs she’s recorded. At any rate, her backing group delivers a Wall-of-Sound performance of this signature tune, and Phil Spector would probably melt on first listen, then slide right out of his penitentiary cell.

Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler strokes a somnambulant – were the early Balls a precursor of MTV’s “Unplugged”? — cover of Lennon’s “Imagine”, partnered with country/Western legend George W. Bush! In truth, it’s Chet Atkins, but damn, if he don’t resemble ol’ G.W.! The clip was made for YouTube, and I ‘imagine’ that Comedy Central would have a field day with it!

Sad to see Eurythmics wunderkind Dave Stewart leading a sizable orchestra and chorus through a dirgesome din titled “Amnesty”. Please, grant my eardrums some amnesty! This inventive man deserves better, and was Annie Lennox busy that day? Eurythmics’ eclectic 1985 release “Be Yourself Tonight” remains a personal fave, and I’m forever entranced by their ghostly earlier single, “Love Is A Stranger”.

Infinitely more compelling is Geldof’s passionate rendering of his most renowned recording, the snarky, subversive “I Don’t Like Mondays”. Backed only by piano, he spits out the words in a desperate, nasally tone, and I’m now curious to hear more of his defunct band’s oeuvre. Let’s see… I first read of The Boomtown Rats in a 1979 Life magazine piece about “New Wave Rock”, and years later, watched him romance a python in the promo vid for another Rats single, “Up All Night”. Still later, a classmate in my Film Production class used the tune to great comic effect in a short movie about dressing for work on that despised day.

Sting, in some respects the honored guest on this DVD, returns for “Message In A Bottle”, his effortlessly soulful charisma as fresh as ever. To no one’s surprise, Peter Gabriel pops up for his rousing, vaguely martial “Biko”, perhaps outdoing Ms. Bush in sheer sonic force with the tune that established the veteran rocker’s liberal-cosmopolite street cred. Would you hear him at Starbucks otherwise. I think not.

I was jazzed to hear “I Shall Be Released”, Dylan’s sad perennial, interpreted by countless artists, but immortalized by The Band, whose seminal version appears in several films, and even an episode of “The Wonder Years”, my own late-night introduction to the song. Dig how baffled I was, then, when Sting skipped onto the stage and jumped into reggae ‘riddims’, leading a joyous, celebratory rendition, backed by numerous stars and even a horn section. Dylan was absent, but he’s surely heard it. I was prepared to say “Yeccch!”, but in fact, I hummed Sting’s reworking for days!

Among the copious extras, many anticlimactic, are clips of Sting’s myriad press conferences over the decades, Townshend musing about his Who mates savaging his pretensions, and the hyperbolic Lewis laughing over the pre-LIVE AID Geldof’s profane denunciations of rock charity benefits. For myself, the 80s MTV vignettes are a bittersweet time capsule, watching VJ Alan Hunter interviewing Peter, Paul, and Mary or a healthy, cherubic Michael J. Fox decked out in Miami Vice duds.

Sadly, from a visual standpoint, most of the clips are rather static, a few — Geldof and Sting — redeemed by their obvious passion for the material. Unfortunately, sound quality also varies from clip to clip. Purchasing this DVD will accomplish the laudable goal of dropping some cash into Amnesty International’s pockets, but only hardcore fans of the participating artists will find much thrilling in the presentations.

It pains me to suggest that viewing The Secret Policeman Rocks! is akin to swallowing a tablespoon of humanist medicine, but one would do much better to check out LIVE AID, also available on home vid, instead. In the meantime, look for me in the organic underwear aisle at American Apparel. If you hear me humming “I Shall Be Released”, feel free to sing along.

RATING 7 / 10