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August 20, 2021

From the Vaults: By George!

     At Christmas of 1970, you could have held my accumulated knowledge of George Harrison in a thimble.  My brother Ron came home from his first year teaching job in downstate Chesaning bearing a boxed set of cassettes and a music book for Harrison’s massive All Things Must Pass triple album.  It would have been a better Christmas present if it hadn’t coincided with him getting his own present from Uncle Sam – a notice of his imminent induction into the Army at the conclusion of his first (and last) year teaching high school biology.  With medical affidavits to prove he had (and still has) a severe allergy to certain kinds of fish, the Army still took him with the last group of draftees to come out of Marquette County, Michigan.  Someone must have considered this a potential medical problem.  After doing his basic training at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, he finished his two year stint at Fort Dix, New Jersey and not in a country where one of the dietary staples is fish, fish, and more fish.  I enjoyed the box set immensely but am still somewhat angry that I loaned the songbook to a keyboard player when we were trying to get a band together.  Keyboard guy and I ended up auditioning together for the band Cloudy ‘n Cool (later to be renamed Knockdown), so even though he got my ATMP songbook, I got the better end of the deal – I got a band gig that lasted two years. 

     In the wake of the unexpected and surprising success of Harrison’s triple LP solo effort, George decided to do something very unlike The Beatle George most people were used to seeing.  According to David Hepworth’s account given in his book Never A Dull Moment – 1971 – The Year Rock Exploded (2016 – St. Martin’s Press), George learned that the father of his friend and teacher, Ravi Shankar, had been born in Bengal.  Soon after East Bengal declared the formation of the state of Bangladesh in March of 1971, a combination of the nine-month Bangladesh Liberation War, famine, poverty, and natural disasters had killed thousands.  With millions of displaced people now facing starvation, George wrote a song called Bangla Desh to help raise awareness of the unfolding crisis.  With his new album selling three million copies and the lead single, My Sweet Lord, ringing in everyone’s ears, Harrison seemed well placed to use his influence to organize the first true humanitarian fund raising effort set to rock music.  Folk musicians already had a long history of staging such events for various causes, but that is another story for another day.

     The idea of The Concert for Bangladesh originated with Shankar, but when Harrison got involved, it became a fundraising rock concert.  The involvement of a former Beatle could only mean it would be a big event.  One of the first musicians to offer his services was George’s old pal Ringo Starr even though he was, at the time, engaged shooting a spaghetti western (Blindman) in Spain.   Thoughts of TWO Beatles together on stage naturally put a hum in the air and rumours in the mill.  Mainstream media outlets really didn’t care that much about covering rock music but they were more than happy to talk about anything involving The Beatles (or even A Beatle).  When The Beatles old Hamburg pal Klaus Voormann was the second to sign on, hearts went pit-a-pat.  After all, with the animosities created by Paul suing his bandmates to get out from under the thumb of the manager three fourths of The Beatles agreed to hire (Alan Klein), Voormann was being pitched as Paul’s replacement if and when the big Beatles’ reunion happened.  John Lennon had no kind words for Harrison’s new album and with his various Lennon-Yoko Ono projects in the works, the odds were pretty good he would not have been interested in anything that remotely sounded ‘Beatle-ish’.  Had John been interested, he no doubt would have insisted on Yoko being in the mix and all these years later, speculation is what passed for her ‘singing’ in those days would not have been a good fit.  It is a rather moot point because John didn’t inquire and George didn’t ask.  Still, TWO Beatles on stage along with a Beatle pal…pit-a-pat went the heart’s of Beatle fans.

     One person who George specifically asked to participate was Leon Russell.  Russell turned his talents as a studio musician into one of the most enigmatic careers;  he always seemed to be lingering in the background of big events when he was in truth pulling the strings.  As one example, he served as the musical director of the widely praised Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour.  All of Russell’s influences are on full display of this epic 1970s travelling concert extravaganza from the barrelhouse piano arrangements to the near Pentecostal line of tambourine-toting background singers.  If one is not familiar with Russell’s style, a quick listen to Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection and Madman Across the Water LPs will bring you up to speed.  Both were no doubt influenced by Leon’s work and would eventually bring John to, and over, the top, musically speaking.  The next high profile musician George wanted involved was Eric Clapton who was, for a variety of reasons, laying low.  It would take a team dispatched by George to visit Clapton in person and make certain assurances to get him to Madison Square Garden for the concert.

     Despite the ‘Clapton is God’ graffiti that had adjourned London’s walls in Cream’s hayday, Clapton was anything but God-like in 1971 and his life was a mess.  Harrison knew what was going on because part of Eric’s messy existence involved the pursuit of Patti Boyd, George’s wife.  When she refused to leave George for him, Clapton sequestered himself at his Hurtwood Edge estate and tried to dull the pain by snorting heroin.  Besides trying to dull his pain with drugs, Clapton was having simultaneous affairs with Pattie Boyd’s older sister, Paula, and Alice Ormsby-Gore, Lord Harlech’s teenage daughter.  Ormsby-Gore held her junk habit at bay by downing two bottles of vodka a day as there wasn’t enough smack to go around.  When his 1970 Layla album sold poorly, Clapton felt rejected twice, although the record buying public wasn’t clear at this point who Derek and the Dominos were.  Ironically, it was Harrison who had suggested the band’s tongue firmly planted in cheek name.  Who is to say if George felt any guilt considering Clapton’s open pursuit of his wife.  George sent a posse to round up Clapton for the Bangladesh concert anyway.

     Of course, the public didn’t know the depths of Clapton’s addiction or that he agreed to come to New York only if he was guaranteed access to White Elephant, his favored type of junk.  One wonders what George thought while facing the press to talk ‘peace, love, and brotherhood’ while he had minions scouring seedier parts of the city as Hepworth says so unapologetically, “to make sure that the aristocratic teenage girlfriend of his overprivileged English guitar player would be able to secure his supply of drugs.”  Harrison’s insurance against a nonappearance by Clapton was Peter Frampton who, at the time, had recently left Humble Pie.  Frampton was blissfully unaware of why he was asked to be involved until much later in his life.  

     George filled out key band positions for the concert with members of the first band signed to Apple Records, Badfinger.  Badfinger’s Pete Hamm even had a striking resemblance to John Lennon, but that wasn’t why they were included on the bill.  Badfinger filled in the banks of acoustic guitars and background vocals to replicate the All Things Must Pass sound along with Jim Keltner backing up Ringo on drums, Billy Preston on organ, plus members of Leon Russell’s band and Frampton.  Harrison had never even fronted a combo, so assembling this massive array of talent and coordinating all of the egos involved must have been a daunting task for him.

     The story circulated at the time was that a mystic had picked the August 1 concert date because it was a ‘propitious date’.  The truth is, August 1 was the only date available at Madison Square Garden before Disney on Parade opened on August 2.  It was not yet the era of global telecasts of important events so there were no plans to broadcast either the afternoon or evening shows live on radio or to record them for TV.  A meager three camera setup was used to shoot the event with an eye toward a later theatrical release, but two of the camera angles were virtually useless.  The shots one sees from time to time came from the one camera that had been set up in the orchestra pit.

     Bob Dylan’s involvement wasn’t a sure thing until he actually walked on stage.  He had confessed to George that he was nervous about performing in front of twenty thousand people.  Harrison countered that he had never been the front man in The Beatles and the few steps toward the center stage microphone was going to be a very difficult journey for him to make.  Dylan had his own ups and downs in the five years before the Bangladesh concert, but it would prove to be a watershed moment for him as well as for George.  The Bangladesh concert would mark Dylan’s reappearance after having holed up in Woodstock for five years.  When he walked on stage to a thunderous ovation, one of the MSG security guards told the New York Times he had to ask if this was one of The Beatles he did not recognize.  After Harrison introduced, “a friend”, Dylan came on, did a half hour of his usual fare from Blowing in the Wind to A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.  His appearance not only stamped the concert as being a success, it gave Dylan a glimpse how he would be able to carry on in, as Hepworth describes it, “In the new world of enormous halls and crowds that stretched to the horizon.”

     Was the Concert for Bangladesh a success?  It depends who you ask.  It certainly raised the profile of some of the artists who appeared (like Dylan) but it was also followed by the ‘thump’ of some whose careers never rose to that level again.  Badfinger continued to struggle with little help from their manager who was skimming more profits from their work than they were.  It cost Pete Hamm his life when after a night of heavy drinking, he wrote a caustic note about what an S.O.B. their manager was and then took his own life.  Shankar had hoped to raise $25,000 and the take from the two concerts actually pulled in ten times that amount.  George’s grand money making plans for the album release went south when the record companies proved reluctant to endorse a product that would cost them money to help Harrison raise money.  The suits were certainly not keen to market an album with the image of an emaciated Bangladeshi child on the cover, the image George wished to use.  It was a short-sighted business view, but mostly forgotten as the album (and now DVDs of the concert) are being celebrated this past summer, fifty years on.

     When the IRS decided it was a taxable event because the charity in question wasn’t picked until after the concert (which seems to fly in the face of all logic when the name from inception to end was The Concert for Bangladesh).  The British Treasury could see no way to waive the purchase tax just because a Beatle asked them to.  It wasn’t a total bust, however, as Shankar would say, “In one day, the whole world knew the name of Bangladesh.  It was a fantastic occasion.”  In the end, it also did pretty well as a fundraiser.  By 1985, sales from the live album and film did send $12 million to Bangladesh and revenues since then continue to benefit the George Harrison Fund for UNICEF.  How could Harrison have seen farther down the road when The Concert for Bangladesh would be the template for future fundraising efforts like Live Aid and Farm Aid?

     Looking back in 1992, Harrison gave his account of the concert:  “The money we raised was secondary.  The main thing was, we spread the word and helped get the war ended . . . What we did show was that musicians and people are more humane than politicians.”  George may have been a reluctant leader at the start, but he learned his lessons well.  Before organizing the initial Live Aid concert, Bob Geldof came to Harrison for advice.  George told him, “Do your homework.”

     This year marks another fiftieth anniversary – the one for the release of All Things Must Pass.

Back in the day, much of the press surrounding the album was the plagiarism suit stirred up by the close resemblance to the lead single My Sweet Lord to the Chiffon’s 1962 hit He’s So Fine.  With only so many chords to play and the number of songs that share the same chord patterns, it is the songwriter’s equivalent to a sand trap in golf.  Songwriters will often cite ‘unconscious plagiarism’ when a snippet of a familiar tune finds its way into a new song.  When he was composing My Sweet Lord in 1970, George was touring with Delaney & Bonnie.  Delaney Bramlett worked with Harrison on the song (expecting but not getting a share of the songwriting credit) and he even pointed out the similarity of the two tunes.  Working with Phil Spector, the king maker of 1960s girl groups, it would be difficult to believe it did not come up in conversation.  Harrison pressed on and all was well, at least until it became a hit.  As the old saw says, “Where there is a hit, there’s a writ”, and thus began years of legal wranglings between Bright Tunes Music, the owners of He’s So Fine and the Harrison camp.

     Being less an argument about ‘artistry’ and more about ‘money’, Allen Klein tried to work things out by organizing the purchase of Bright Tunes Music for Harrison.  There was less incentive for the label to sell when the song kept racking up big sales numbers.  The case finally came to court in 1975 but was not finally settled until 1998.  Harrison had long since cut ties with Klein, but business man that he was, the former Beatles manager secretly bought Bright Tunes Music for himself.  Who was in a better position to know how much the song had earned than Klein?  Certainly George never saw this coming back when he cast one of the three votes that brought Klein on board, the act that proved to be the final straw for The Beatles.

     George’s son, Dhani, took on the massive task of remastering All Things Must Pass for the album’s 50th-anniversary release.  One wonders what ‘the quiet Beatle’ would think of the various packages being offered, including a whopping 47 demos and outtakes.  The package can be purchased digitally, as eight LPs, five CDs or in what is called the ‘Uber Deluxe edition’ that comes in a 50-pound wooden crate which also contains two books, small models of the garden gnomes from the original album cover and a host of other trinkets.  Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band and McCartney’s McCartney albums were originally released in 1970 and there was some ado made to mark their 50 years out of the gate, but nothing to the scale of what is being done with ATMP.   

     George himself has been in the grave for twenty years, but ATMP is still seen as his legacy.  Many have said the music he wrote after 1971 was never as good, but it seems to me George found himself in a winning position.  His future albums and collaborations with his musical buddies in The Traveling Wilburys were for him to enjoy.  If the rest of the world came along and enjoyed his music too, then that was alright by him, by George.

Top Piece Video – a little montage of scenes from ‘Bangladesh’