The Concert For Bangladesh was the event title for two benefit concerts organized by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, held at noon and at 7:00 p.m. on August 1, 1971, playing to a total of 40,000 people at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Organized for the relief of refugees from East Pakistan (now independent Bangladesh) after the 1970 Bhola cyclone and during the 1971 Bangladesh atrocities and Bangladesh Liberation War, the event was the first benefit concert of this magnitude in world history. It featured an all-star supergroup of performers that included Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Leon Russell, and Ringo Starr.
The concert raised US$243,418.51 for Bangladesh relief, which was administered by UNICEF. Sales of the album and DVD continue to benefit the George Harrison Fund for UNICEF.
Bengali musician Ravi Shankar consulted his friend George Harrison regarding a means of providing help to the situation. Harrison recorded the single "Bangla Desh" to raise awareness and pushed Apple Records to release Shankar's single "Joi Bangla" in a dual-pronged effort to raise funds.
Shankar also asked Harrison's advice regarding a small fund-raising concert in the United States. Harrison took the idea and started calling his friends, persuading them to join him in a large concert at Madison Square Garden. The event was organised within five weeks.
Harrison first asked his fellow Beatles to appear. John Lennon agreed to take part in the concert, however Harrison stipulated that Lennon's wife Yoko Ono not perform with him. Lennon agreed, but left New York two days before the event following an argument with Ono regarding his and Harrison's agreement that she not participate.
Paul McCartney declined because of the bad feelings caused by The Beatles' legal problems on their break-up. "George came up and asked if I wanted to play Bangla Desh and I thought, blimey, what's the point? We're just broken up and we're joining up again? It just seemed a bit crazy," McCartney told Rolling Stone years later . Ringo Starr, however, appeared.
Except for back-up roles in support of both the Delaney & Bonnie Blues Band and John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band, it was the first live appearance for George Harrison since the breakup of The Beatles. Eric Clapton made his first public appearance since the end of the five-month Derek and the Dominos tour the previous December. Clapton was still in the grip of a heroin addiction, and had been unable to attend any rehearsals until the final soundcheck. This was the first live performance of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and may have been the first time the general public was made aware that it was Clapton who played the solo on The Beatles' recording.
Musical help was also on hand from Billy Preston, Leon Russell, Klaus Voormann, Jim Keltner, Badfinger, a large horn section put together by Jim Horn and other musicians, including Carl Radle, Jesse Ed Davis, Don Preston and a host of backing singers organized by Don Nix.
Bob Dylan made his first stage appearance since the Isle of Wight Festival in August 1969. Apart from sitting in for a few numbers with The Band on New Year 1972 and an unannounced appearance backing John Prine on harmonica at a Greenwich Village club, he did not play live again until January 1974.
Harrison later complained that half the camera operators appeared to have been indulging in illegal substances, which left the focus of some shots rather soft.
The opening of the film features footage from a press conference to announce the concert with Harrison and Shankar. Harrison is asked by a reporter: "With all the enormous problems in the world, how did you happen to choose this one to do something about?"
"Because I was asked by a friend if I would help, you know, that's all," was Harrison's reply.
The concert begins with a performance by Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan. Harrison introduces the set and both he and Shankar attempt to convey the intricacies of Indian classical music to the audience. Shankar additionally asked the audience not to smoke during the performance. Shankar and Khan then proceed to tune their instruments and then stop after about 90 seconds. The audience, apparently believing they had heard an entire piece, respond with enthusiastic applause, to which Shankar replies: "Thank you, if you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you will enjoy the playing more." They then launch into a 17-minute rāga.
After an interlude of footage from backstage, showing Spector, Harrison and other performers making their way to the stage, Harrison starts off the rock portion with a string of songs from his hit album, All Things Must Pass.
He is backed by a large band, including two drummers, Ringo Starr and Jim Keltner matching strokes, pianist Leon Russell, organist Billy Preston, two lead guitarists, Eric Clapton and Jesse Ed Davis, Badfinger on rhythm guitars, a horn section and a small choir of backing vocalists, many of whom are also playing tambourines. He then turns the concert over to his friends.
Towards the end of Billy Preston's song, "That's the Way God Planned It", Preston gets up from his bench and dances across the stage and back again. This footage is taken during the evening performance. Starr sings his hit song "It Don't Come Easy" and appears flustered as he forgets some of the words. Russell offers a rock and roll medley and Harrison performs some of the hits he wrote with The Beatles. Bob Dylan appears for a semi-acoustic set of his songs, and the film is capped off with two more songs, closing with Harrison's song, "Bangla Desh".
The documentary reveals how quickly the concert came together, with Harrison working the phone during June and July 1971 to ask his friends to join the show. Madison Square Garden was booked for August 1 because it was the only open date available. Musicians began gathering in New York about a week beforehand for rehearsals.
Notably absent from the preparations was Clapton, who was in the grips of heroin addiction. Harrison says in the documentary that Clapton was booked on every airline flight from London to New York City for a week before the show. With Clapton still absent (according to his recently released autobiography, due to a cold turkey provoked by bad quality heroin that Harrison provided him as a condition for playing the concert), lead guitarists started "hanging around", hoping to be asked to join. Harrison tapped Jesse Ed Davis, who had played in Taj Mahal's band, and bassist Klaus Voormann volunteered to work with Davis in rehearsals. Another musician, Don Preston from Leon Russell's band, joined on lead guitar as well. Organizers then Telexed Clapton, telling him he did not have to come, but Clapton insisted he would play and finally showed up a day before the concert. He performed without benefit of rehearsal, and "he was brilliant," Harrison said.
Clapton, for his part, recalls the time as a period of "retirement" and that "I really made it hard for myself" in the concert, choosing to play a hollow-body Gibson Byrdland guitar for the bulk of the songs, including his solo on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", when a solid-body electric guitar (such as a Fender Stratocaster or Gibson Les Paul) would have been more appropriate.
There are also short features on the making of the film, the release of the album and the artwork and concert photography. Along with the extensive collection of still photos for the album package, stills photographer Barry Feinstein reveals that the photo used on the cover of Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits Vol. II was taken by him during the concert.
While the LP was issued on Apple Records (distributed by Capitol Records in the US and EMI worldwide), tape distribution (cassette and 8-track cartridge) was given to Columbia Records, Bob Dylan's label, in exchange for being allowed to include his set as part of the package. When the album was reissued on CD in 1992, Columbia (now owned by Sony Music) in turn reissued the cassette version.
The two-CD set was re-released in 2001, and Harrison had been working on a remastered and expanded deluxe edition prior to his death. It was released in October 2005 by Apple and Rhino Entertainment along with the film on a special edition two-DVD set.
However, there were complaints about the high price of the album and allegations that there were delays in money from the album sales being sent to help the Bangladesh refugees. Allen Klein, then an executive at Apple Corps insisted the company made no money from the album or film and was only recovering its advertising and production costs. However New York magazine reported in 1972 that some of the proceeds remained unaccounted for. Klein denied it and sued the magazine for $150 million in damages.
As much as $15 million was said to have been made by the album and film, but the money was held in an Internal Revenue Service escrow account for years because the concert organisers had not applied for tax-exempt status. It is uncertain how much money actually went to relieve the initial refugee crisis and Harrison himself was said to have been "disgusted" over the matter.
In a 1980 interview John Lennon opined that benefits are "always rip-offs" and regarding the question where the money from the Bangladesh concert went, commented: "I can't even talk about it, because it's still a problem. You'll have to check with Mother [Yoko], because she knows the ins and outs of it, I don't. But it's all a rip-off.