In the spring of 1965, the Beatles were roped into filming a movie in support of their upcoming album Help! To say its slapstick comic plot has not aged well would be an understatement: a fan gives Ringo Starr a ring belonging to a group of “oriental mystics,” as the DVD box puts it; wacky antics ensue. The band, perpetually stoned out of their minds, did not particularly enjoy making the movie, but for one member, it was transformative in its way. George Harrison was the group’s youngest member, a diligent guitarist who was all knees, elbows, and biting humor. He was deemed the “quiet” Beatle, but a better label might be “the searcher.” While filming a scene set at an Indian restaurant, Harrison began toying around with a sitar belonging to some hired background performers. Fascinated, he purchased his own, and brought it to the studio for Rubber Soul, their next album, to accompany John Lennon’s infidelity lullaby “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown).”
Harrison and the Beatles were not the first Western musicians to find inspiration in Indian classical music—John Coltrane and Philip Glass both studied the tala, its metric cycle; Glass’ fellow minimalist composers Terry Riley and La Monte Young experimented with drones; rock bands like the Yardbirds, the Kinks, and the Byrds used their guitars to emulate the sitar’s distinctive tone. But Beatlemania ensured that anything a member dabbled in became a cultural phenomenon. “Norweigan Wood” helped kick off the popularity of so-called “raga rock,” a brief fad for Western pop that gestured vaguely at Indian musical and spiritual concepts; a raga is the melodic framework of Indian classical music. As critic Sandy Pearlman wrote of raga rock in a 1966 issue of Crawdaddy, “If used only in the interest of exoticism, it can quickly become shopworn and ‘ordinary’ and not particularly justifiable.” Pearlman pointed to “Norwegian Wood” as an example: Since the sitar simply echoes Lennon’s guitar melody, its presence conveys gimmicky Orientalism and not much else.
Roughly in tandem with these developments in British and American rock, master sitarist and composer Ravi Shankar experienced his own surge of Western popularity. In the 1940s and ’50s, he had established himself as one of India’s most celebrated musicians, composing for ballets and films, working as the music director of All India Radio, and founding its National Orchestra, Vadya Vrinda. He began touring internationally and releasing recordings with Columbia, EMI, and World Pacific, and by the late ’60s had gained a large following abroad. As a romantic vision of India captured the Western imagination, he floated between superstardom in both the classical and countercultural spheres, performing at both Lincoln Center and Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. He was also unimpressed with “Norwegian Wood,” telling a reporter, “If George Harrison wants to play the sitar, why does he not learn it properly?”
Soon enough, the pair met and discovered they were kindred spirits. Shankar began instructing Harrison on melodic structure and playing technique, as well as the underlying spiritual discipline. As Harrison’s interest grew more sincere and less LSD-laced, he became so preoccupied with the sitar that he essentially abandoned the guitar for a period. Suffocated by fame and lost within the power dynamic of the Beatles, Harrison found new meaning in Indian music and philosophy. Times changed—the ’60s ended, the Beatles broke up, Western mainstream interest in Indian music subsided—but Harrison remained. His friendship with Shankar would prove to be one of music’s richest.
In the summer of 1971, the pair were in Los Angeles finishing the soundtrack of Raga, a documentary about Shankar’s life that Harrison and Apple, the Beatles’ multimedia conglomerate, were helping finance and distribute. But Shankar’s mind was elsewhere.
The Indian subcontinent had been divided into two independent nations in 1947 after decades of British colonialism. Each of them housed a religious majority: Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. The partition triggered a massive, horrifically violent wave of migration; the division of Pakistan into two non-contiguous territories, one on each side of India, was especially precarious. Although East Pakistan had a slightly larger population, the government was based in West Pakistan, over a thousand miles away, resulting in many political, cultural, and economic disparities. In March 1971, East Pakistan declared independence, adopting the name Bangladesh, and West Pakistan responded with a brutal attempt to quell the movement for autonomy. Over the next nine months, between 300,000 and 3 million Bangladeshi people were killed in a military and militia campaign that has since been recognized as a genocide. Millions of refugees poured into India, straining an already exhausted system.
As a Bengali himself, Shankar wanted to plan a benefit concert to raise awareness and funds for the refugees. He hoped that one of his famous friends, perhaps Harrison or actor Peter Sellers, might be willing to introduce the show and help bring in a little money—maybe $25,000 if they were lucky. When Shankar told Harrison about the unfolding humanitarian crisis, the guitarist immediately volunteered his services. With a surge of Beatles-learnt self-confidence, Harrison suggested that they raise the stakes and release an accompanying film and album. “Straightaway I thought of the John Lennon aspect of it, which was: film it, and make a record of it, and, you know, let’s make a million dollars,” he later said.
Things moved quickly from there. Harrison spent the following weeks planning the concert and enlisting friends to perform. After he consulted with an astrologer—as one does—it was decided that the Concert for Bangladesh would take place on August 1 at Madison Square Garden. There would be two shows, an afternoon set and an evening set, both of which were recorded for the album and film. Tickets were all $10 or less and sold out in a few hours.
At the top of each performance, Harrison emerged to address the audience. With Shankar, he implored them to listen to the performance of Indian music that opened the show with concentration and respect. “Through our music, we would like you to feel the agony and also the pain and lot of sad happenings in Bangladesh and also the refugees who have come to India,” Shankar explained. Their instructions were prescient: After the musicians—Shankar on sitar, Ali Akbar Khan on sarod, Kamala Chakravarty on tambura, and Alla Rakha on tabla—tuned their instruments, the audience burst into applause. “Thank you, if you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you will enjoy the playing more,” Shankar dryly remarked.
With that, Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan launch into “Bangla Dhun,” an emotional instrumental piece that draws on Bengali folk melodies. The duo’s rapport is instinctive and familial, having played together since they were young adults; Khan was both Shankar’s brother-in-law and the son of his guru. The two maestros begin the piece with a brief alap, an improvisational, contemplative exploration of the raga’s melodic possibilities. Chakravarty’s tambura drone and Rakha’s tabla join as the players transition into a medium-tempo gat, the more structured portion of the composition. About halfway through, as the pace increases to a breakneck drut laya, Shankar and Khan’s playing is so heated it seems to erupt into fireworks.
Up next was Harrison, who was admittedly nervous to lead the show. “Personally, I prefer to be a part of a band, but…it was just something that we had to do in order to get the money and we had to do it quick so I had to put myself out there and hope I’d get a few friends to come and support me,” he said at a July 27 press conference. When the lights came back on, it was clear how modest he was being: He had recruited a 24-piece band that included Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, Billy Preston, Klaus Voormann, the Apple band Badfinger, a horn section, a seven-piece soul choir, and more. All agreed to perform without a fee.
As the concert’s organizer and main attraction, Harrison was faced with a decision: fade respectfully into the background, or own the spotlight and put on a good show. From the opening riff of “Wah-Wah,” Harrison’s fiery declaration that he was done being creatively stifled by his former bandmates, it’s clear that he chose the latter. Looking like a sharp-dressed wizard in a white two-piece suit with the Om symbol embroidered on the lapel, Harrison exudes a radiant maturity; it’s staggering to remember that he was only 28 years old.
The Concert for Bangladesh also marked the first time that Harrison performed songs from All Things Must Pass, his triple-album opus from the year prior. Though it was easy to poke fun at Harrison’s spiritual transformation and embrace of Indian philosophy, his earnest belief is undeniable here. During “My Sweet Lord” and “Awaiting on You All,” two of All Things Must Pass’ most overtly religious songs, you can hear his yearning for connection with a higher power reach the rafters of MSG. Both songs espouse the belief of Harrison’s beloved Hare Krishnas, that through “chanting the names of the lord…you’ll be free,” and the gospel choir and Preston’s high-voltage organ playing heighten their joyousness. Harrison’s Beatles hits are unleashed from their studio restraints, expanding into their fullest forms. The acoustic “Here Comes the Sun” is as comforting as a warm soak. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” sounds like Harrison and Clapton—his dear friend and romantic rival, who was deep in the throes of heroin addiction— exorcising their demons in real time. “Something” is bursting at the seams with passion—for another human, a divine being, or for the all-consuming feeling of devotion itself.
Following Harrison’s desire to avoid the center of attention, the concert was arranged like a revue, with performances from the star intermixed with showcases from the backing players. Preston’s rendition of his gospel-rock song “That’s the Way God Planned It” is particularly electrifying, and culminates with the keyboardist leaping to his feet and running to the front of the stage to boogie in exaltation.
Aside from whether or not Clapton would make it through the night, the concert’s other big question mark involved one Robert Zimmerman. After his mythic motorcycle accident in 1966, Dylan retreated from his platform as the conscience of a generation, performing live only rarely. “Right up till he came on the stage, I didn’t know if he was going to come,” Harrison later said. His song selection was also surprising. Maybe he was moved by the occasion, or maybe he wanted to do something special on behalf of his pal Harrison, but instead of playing cuts from recent albums like New Morning, he played long-dormant folk classics like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” There’s not a hint of cynicism or ennui in his nasally voice as he sings of forgotten souls and conjures visions of wastelands; it’s the raw intensity of a poet crystallized in amber. In a few years, Dylan would step back into the spotlight and onto the hamster wheel of constant transformation, but the man caught on tape here is luminous in his stillness.
The concert closed with a performance of Harrison’s recent charity single “Bangla Desh,” often regarded as the first of its kind. Harrison begins by offering some narrative context: “My friend came to me with sadness in his eye/He told me that he wanted help before his country dies…Now I’m asking all of you to help us save some lives.” Then, with the full emotional weight of his backing band—and, in the film, a jarring montage of starving children—behind him, Harrison starts hollering the one word that he hopes his audience takes away from the performance: “Bangla DESH!” Concise, direct, and with a killer saxophone solo, “Bangla Desh” makes a convincing argument: Yes, the ’60s were done. The Manson murders terrified a nation, Altamont crashed and burned, Joplin and Hendrix were dead, and the Vietnam War raged on. Fear and doubt had poisoned the well of idealism. But right here, right now, Harrison suggests, you can honor some of the decade’s lost promises by lending a hand to help a fellow man.
The Concert for Bangladesh was a clear and immediate success. Ticket sales raised around $243,000 for UNICEF, nearly ten times Shankar’s initial expectation. Overnight, the name Bangladesh and its people’s plight became known to the world, which was the sitarist and organizer’s priority. But the celebratory bubble burst quickly. The album was beset by delays and issues with taxes and performance rights; proceeds from its sale were held by the IRS for years. “It was uncharted territory, the scale of it,” Apple employee Jonathan Clyde told The Guardian years later. “The money did eventually reach Bangladesh, although perhaps not in time to help the refugees at that point.” The general public was unconcerned with these issues, however, and The Concert for Bangladesh topped the charts and won a Grammy for Album of the Year.
The Concert for Bangladesh’s successes—its camaraderie, humility, and triumphant money-raising—established the framework for large-scale benefit concerts as we know them today. Fundraising magnate Bob Geldof reportedly reached out to Harrison for advice when planning 1985’s multi-continental Live Aid event. (Harrison’s advice: “Do your homework.”) With star-studded lineups that ensure broad news coverage, benefit concerts continue to be an effective (and popular) way for celebrities to raise money and awareness for a cause. At the same time, it’s easy to feel cynical about these occasions: A pop star gets to play philanthropist for a day before returning to their life of privilege. Conceptually and practically, the “benefit concert” is a short-term commitment to long-term, complex problems; and when it comes to raising money for international crises, there’s usually a whiff of white Western saviorism in the mix. And as the Concert for Bangladesh revealed, getting donations to the people who need them is not as simple as it may seem.
Still, the Concert for Bangladesh was a musical triumph and a momentous collaborative effort. In 1972, alongside Allen Klein—the late-era Beatles manager who was partially responsible for the concert’s financial disarray—Shankar and Harrison were awarded UNICEF’s “Child Is the Father of Man” award for their fundraising efforts. Shankar, initially so skeptical of “Norwegian Wood,” had come to view his collaborator as family. Harrison, he later said, was “my student, my brother, my son, all combined.” If Harrison’s earliest interest in Indian music had involved some trendy fetishism, The Concert for Bangladesh demonstrated that his commitment—to the music and the people themselves—had blossomed into something deep and profound.
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