The resurgent interest in vinyl LPs has resulted in more and more people surveying record shop bins like musical archaeologists. The careful eye and ear can trace cultural shifts, breaks, and trends through the images and sounds of 12-inch vinyl LPs encased in cardboard sleeves. The diligent (or obsessed) explorer will occasionally come across a record that stands out from the rest in both its aesthetic presentation and, perhaps, sonic appeal that hints at something significant.
Such is the experience of encountering The Concert for Bangladesh, a three-record set released on 20 December 1971. The recording is encased in a plain burnt-orange box whose design might have seemed innovative at the time but rarely escapes the wear and tear of five decades’ worth of use. Centered on the box is a haunting photo of a malnourished child sitting before an empty bowl; it is one of those images that sears itself into the viewer’s consciousness. At once, it invokes a paradoxical combination: the urge to avert one’s eyes from raw human misery coupled with an inability to look away from a call to action. In contrast, the back cover is bare, and there is no tracklist nor information on the artists or contents. Advertisements in 1971 might have mentioned that within this box was music from the humbly titled “George Harrison and Friends”, an understatement that both matched and shaped the mythology of the “spiritual Beatle”.
One could pick up the set as just an artifact of the live concert genre (a seemingly abandoned commercial form) without necessarily connecting it to its broader connections. Within this story are the turning points of careers—some launching, some rejuvenating, and some missing opportunities—and pop music’s evolution as a cultural force alongside the early formation of the classic rock pantheon. There are also geopolitical implications, such as the legacies and wounds of colonialism and genocide causing a humanitarian crisis. Of course, that also involves the current POTUS, Richard Nixon, and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, complaining about Harrison’s event on White House tape recordings.
Many other issues surrounded The Concert for Bangladesh, such as the fevered hopes of a Beatles reunion and a musician friend (guitar wizard Eric Clapton) in the throes of heroin addiction and an obsession with breaking up Harrison’s marriage to Pattie Boyd. There was also famed yet mercurial record producer Phil Spector to contend with, not to mention problems with distribution and the “taxman”.
“My friend came to me / With sadness in his eyes / He told me that he wanted help / Before his country dies.” These modest lines open charity single “Bangla Desh”, Harrison’s sincere but sparse plea for philanthropist concern. They capture the heart of this entire endeavor succinctly in human connection. Harrison developed a friendship with Ravi Shankar, a virtuoso of classical Indian music after the pair were introduced in 1966. Quickly, they went from teacher and student to good friends. Shankar, whose father was born in Bengal, approached Harrison in 1971 (when the two were already working on the soundtrack to Raga, a documentary about Shankar). Shankar talked with Harrison about his desire to help with the predicament in South Asia and gave him material to read about the situation. Moved, Harrison—with a little help from his friends—pulled off something extraordinary.
The situation Shankar opened Harrison’s eyes to was the political and philanthropist emergency in Bangladesh. Following the removal of the British colonial forces from India in 1947, the state of Pakistan was formed. The boundaries were unusual since the country was shaped by carving out the Muslim-dominated areas of India, resulting in two regions, West Pakistan and East Pakistan (Bangladesh), separated by over 1,000 miles. They were also divided by linguistic and cultural differences. Despite having a larger population, East Pakistan was subjected to years of dictatorial rule by West Pakistan’s military forces.
In 1970, democratic elections instituted by the military leadership resulted in an overwhelming victory for the People’s League of Bangladesh, which would have shifted power radically. In March of 1971, the military forces of West Pakistan engaged in a genocidal campaign against East Pakistan, resulting in upwards of ten million refugees pouring into India. This surge created a profound humanitarian crisis as India’s resources were overwhelmed by refugees lacking food and needing vaccines and medical care. Shankar and Harrison hoped to raise a significant amount of money to provide direct aid to those suffering.
Harrison moved from concept to concert in a mere four weeks. He secured the date of 1 August 1971 for two shows at Madison Square Garden: an afternoon matinee and an evening concert. In her 2008 book, Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Me, ex-wife Boyd claims that he chose the date after consulting with an Indian astrologer. It was also the only open date on the MSG calendar, sealing the deal and setting the rapid countdown in motion. Harrison reached out to former bandmate Ringo Starr, who was the first to agree to be involved. In contrast, neither Lennon nor McCartney participated, although several accounts suggest Lennon was interested but refused when Harrison clarified that his interest was only in John and not John and Yoko. As for McCartney, he’s claimed that he didn’t join because of possible legal implications related to the dissolving of the Beatles.
Harrison added bassist Klaus Voorman, drummer Jim Keltner, and the members of Badfinger (a group he was managing for Apple Records). Former Wrecking Crew member Leon Russell—who had just assembled and led the backing band for Joe Cocker’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” tour, as well as worked with Delaney & Bonnie & Friends—joined the endeavor, too. Harrison also reached out to Clapton by adding real-life soap opera intrigue to the mix. A risky choice, Clapton was enmeshed in debilitating heroin addiction amidst relentlessly pursuing Boyd (whom he had fallen for during his collaboration with Harrison). So uncertain was Clapton’s ability to show up and participate that Harrison put contingency plans in place. As British music journalist David Hepworth writes, Harrison hedged his bets by involving Peter Frampton in rehearsals. It wasn’t until later that Frampton realized he was only the first reserve.
Perhaps the most monumental get was Bob Dylan. Undoubtedly one of the most profound creative forces in the American musical landscape of the ’60s, Dylan had been in relative seclusion since his mysterious motorcycle accident in July 1966. He had continued to record albums that garnered critical acclaim but had not toured since then. However, his most recent release at the time, 1970’s Self Portrait, puzzled fans and critics, resulting in Greil Marcus’ famous lede to his Rolling Stone review: “What is this shit?” Dylan traversed the trail from upstate New York to the city for some rehearsals, where Harrison encouraged him to revisit classics from his early output. Dylan then left NYC abruptly, with Harrison having no guarantees that Bob would be a definite participant. In reality, Harrison and Dylan were nervous about appearing before 20,000-plus fans at Madison Square Garden.
Their apprehension can be hard to fathom, given their current deification in the classic rock pantheon. Yet, the Beatles had abandoned live performances in 1966, questioning the value in playing to screaming hordes unable (and perhaps uninterested) in actually listening to the music. Consequently, their album-making process set aside any overt concern for how they would sound in concert settings. The Phil Spector “Wall of Sound” was one thing in the studio, but what would fans expect to hear in a cavernous arena hall? Moreover, Dylan himself may have still been nursing the wounds of some fans’ vocalized rejection of his move from folk troubadour to electric guitar-driven rock. It may be difficult to imagine “rock gods” with feet of clay, but it is crucial to keep in mind that Dylan was the elder of the duo, having just turned 30. Harrison, on the other hand, was only 28.
The two sold-out shows (including fans who paid unscrupulous security to let them in without tickets) were recorded for an album and concert film. Combined, they would add to the nearly $250k raised solely by legitimate ticket revenues. The LP itself is a testament to the event and the spirit and personality of its progenitor, Ravi Shankar, and its executor, George Harrison. Despite its star-studded cast, humility and groundedness extend beyond the triple album’s packaging. The concert and the recording begin by centering Shankar and South Asian culture and music. Both Harrison and Shankar plead with the crowd to open themselves beyond their expectations for a rock concert. Harrison’s production takes a gentle poke at Western musical myopia by leaving in Shankar’s wry acknowledgment that the crowd had applauded for the musicians merely tuning their instruments. In fact, Side One is given entirely to Ravi Shankar.
Side Two opens with Harrison’s performance of “Wah-Wah”. Its title offers both wordplay on the distinctive guitar riffs created by the wah-wah pedal and a metaphor for his creative frustrations with McCartney’s dominance in the Beatles. Harrison’s temporary departure from the Beatles in 1969 is captured on film in Peter Jackson’s Get Back documentary, and Harrison penned “Wah-Wah” during that hiatus. Here, he inaugurates his first solo live performance with a declaration of creative freedom.
The remainder of the side is consistently spiritual, with “My Sweet Lord”, “Awaiting on You All”, and Billy Preston’s pentecostal-tinged soul rocker, “That’s the Way God Planned It”. A transcendent tone permeates this section and feeds into the “spiritual Beatle” mythos. However, any case for canonizing Harrison must contend with his song placement and lyrical ramifications. The opening line of “Awaiting on You All” is “You don’t need no love in”. Thus, he has taken swipes at the Lennon-McCartney prominence within the first three songs of his debut solo live performance.
The statement on behalf of the “other two” continues on Side Three with Starr’s hit tune, “It Don’t Come Easy”. Despite his “hm-hmming” some of the lyrics, it received a rousing crowd response. Another spiritually-themed track from All Things Must Pass is followed by the stellar “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” from The Beatles’ White Album. A less than 100% Clapton ends up making the concert and joining Harrison for the solo licks he laid down on the original recording. Obviously, the inclusion of Clapton makes an ambiguous statement. The soap opera story unfolding around him, Harrison, and Boyd notwithstanding, Harrison attempted to help a struggling friend. Yet, as Boyd recounts in her book, Clapton’s trip from London to participate in the concert was contingent on his ability to score White Elephant heroin (a condition that Boyd implies Harrison would have known).
If there is a weak spot in the three-disc set, it is within Leon Russell’s song selection, as his choice of material slightly obscures his immense talent. First, he works through a solid rendition of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” that doesn’t add enough creative difference from the original to head off comparisons to Jagger. Then, there’s a cover of the Coaster’s “Young Blood” that Russell manages to make an even more cringe-worthy ode to older men’s leering eyes with the scatting narrative he adds. Luckily, the side is partially redeemed by Harrison’s beautiful poem of hope from Abbey Road, “Here Comes the Sun”.
Side Five contains what The Village Voice declared in 1971 to be “[t]he real cortex-snapping moment”: the appearance of a blue jeans jacket-clad Bob Dylan. He performs a five-song sequence derived from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited, Bringing It All Back Home, and Blonde on Blonde. If Dylan retained any nervous reservations about his presence, they are inaudible in his remarkable performance. His distinctive voice is in fine form, and he works effortlessly through those classics from 1962 -1966. This nostalgic assemblage would become more past legend than a repeated live practice for Dylan in the future since he refuses to just “play the hits”. Really, it was meant as an homage to older fans and an introduction to younger fans now lining up at the cusp of the emergence of classic rock. Afterward, the sixth and final side sees Harrison drawing things to a close with “Something” before recentering the event’s purpose with the promotional “Bangla Desh”.
By most modest measures, the concert was a success, and its ramifications would resonate beyond itself. Harrison dedicated the rest of the year to this project, spending time over the next month producing and mixing the sound with Spector (who had recorded the concert). Allen Klein’s mismanagement on the front end caused headaches with the IRS, who claimed that the concert organizers failed to register as an official benefit for UNICEF before the performance. (Hence, they claimed that the box receipts were taxable income.) Harrison’s altruism was also frustrated by Capitol Records’ distribution delays and demand for a 25 cents per record cut to cover the cost of allocating the Apple album in America. At one point, a noticeably perturbed Harrison shared his exasperation on a 23 November 1971 interview on the Dick Cavett Show. Having dodged and thwarted Cavett’s interest in Beatles’ gossip, Harrison wrestles the focus on the album set, declaring it ready to go before calling upon the record company to distribute it (lest he would do it himself).
One of the most intriguing legacies of this record is its potential impact on Harrison’s career. In 1971, he was arguably the biggest Beatle in terms of commercial success and critical acclaim. His All Things Must Pass triple album remains the biggest selling solo project of any Beatle post-breakup. Thus, his music was ubiquitous back then. Conventional wisdom would generally dictate that an artist should capitalize on such a moment by touring widely to solidify and build their fan base. Instead, Harrison dedicated a good part of 1971 to successfully shepherding the project. He finally got the album released on 20 December 1971, within the same year of its performance. Sadly, he would never ascend to such overwhelming commercial success again.
Dylan would experience a rejuvenation and resurgence post-concert. In the same year, he issued his biggest-selling album, Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. II, whose cover displayed a close-up photo of Dylan cropped from a picture of him and Harrison from the event. The concert was crucial in establishing the classic rock canon and standard-bearers, too, with Dylan ascending to elder statesman. Within a few years, he would hit the road with his Rolling Thunder Revue, joined by a collection of luminaries in a fashion similar to the Concert for Bangladesh.
Leon Russell enjoyed critical and commercial success as a solo act. As for Preston, the album introduced his enormous talent to a new generation of rock fans unaware of his work with giants like Little Richard and his role as the “fifth Beatle”. Clapton would also enjoy solo success and, in March 1979, marry Boyd after her divorce from Harrison. Starr would also ease into classic rock icon status, touring with his All-Starr Band. Harrison’s benefit concert became a model for benefit concerts like Live Aid and Farm Aid, among others, too.
Sociopolitically, the album had an impact as well. While its sales helped add significantly more money to the UNICEF fund than the concert itself, perhaps the record’s most immediate and lasting legacy was to open eyes in the Western hemisphere oblivious to South Asia’s happenings outside of the Vietnam War. It is hard to understate the impact of putting Bangladesh within the consciousness of young rock fans. The acknowledgment of Bangladesh was an acknowledgment of their act of self-determination that produced ripples of political repercussions.
In his book The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide, historian Gary Bass details how Harrison’s LP prompted Pakistani officials to warn their embassies of the danger of what they termed the “Anti-Pakistan gramophone record”. They claimed that it contained “hostile propaganda against Pakistan” and instructed the embassies to prevent its distribution. As Bass notes, American youths’ interest in the event also concerned the Nixon administration. American foreign policy had turned a blind eye to Pakistan’s acts of atrocity because Pakistani officials provided Secretary of State Henry Kissinger backchannel communication to China in preparation for Nixon’s eventual diplomatic splash. Among the many topics on the Nixon tapes is a derisive discussion (between Kissinger and Nixon) of Harrison’s benefit.
These legacies and more lend themselves to the enduring impact of this 50-year-old album, yielding an effect that mixes the myth with the mundane. In Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock, critic Steven Hyden points to the quasi-spiritual impact of the era spawned in part by the Madison Square Garden benefit by George Harrison and Friends. He writes, “Loving classic rock has always been an act of faith: albums as sacred texts, live concerts as quasi-religious rituals, and rock mythology as the means of self-discovery.” It is tempting to ignore the mess in the throes of the myth. However, The Concert for Bangladesh story includes it all—the fallible side by side with the heroic.
Perhaps the most enduring legacy of this live triple collection—alongside continuing the George Harrison Fund for UNICEF—is the humble path of the event’s namesake. Harrison continued to create and produce, but he never seemed driven to the heights of ambition like others. He never equaled his immediate post-Beatles’ splash. Intriguingly, though, his most significant cultural impact after this era was when he formed the Traveling Wilburys. It was another incarnation of George Harrison and Friends in which he, Dylan, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne displayed once again how the whole can be something more unique and magical than the sum of its parts.
There are now different and, no doubt, more efficient ways pop culture interacts with pressing issues. Yet, 50 years on, the question from The Concert for Bangladesh’s closing track remains fresh and urgent: “Now, won’t you lend your hand and understand?”
Bass, Gary Jonathan, 1969- The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide. New York: Vintage Books. 2014.
Boyd, Pattie, 1944- and Penny. Junor, Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Me. New York: Three Rivers Press. 2008.
Heckman, Don. “The Event Wound Up as a Love Feast“. The Village Voice. 11 May 2017.
Hepworth, David. Never a Dull Moment: 1971–the Year That Rock Exploded. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin. 2017.
Hyden, Steven. Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock. New York, NY: Dey St., an imprint of William Morrow. 2019.