Rock Chronicles, Part 10 — From Badfinger to Bangladesh

Rock Chronicles, Part 10 — From Badfinger to Bangladesh


In the last chapter of Rock Chronicles, we found George Harrison totally invested in the Badfinger band’s progress as they were serving as early roster artists on the Apple label. At the end of May, 1970, Harrison had taken over the project, officially serving as the band’s producer—he held the sessions in Abbey Road’s Studio #2, where he’d recorded some of his own songs for All Things Must Pass. Badfinger’s third album, Straight Up, was released in December 1971 in the US and the following February in the UK. Meanwhile, progress on his own newest passion project was also on the horizon—one that would lead to a musical event that registered on a global scale.

Harrison’s yogi and spiritual mentor, Ravi Shankar, had earlier enticed Harrison to record the soundtrack and promote the movie for the 1971 film Raga, a documentary on Ravi’s life and his sitar music in India. (George is also featured on-screen in the movie.) Shankar emerged as the most influential figure in Harrison’s life during the end of the Beatles era—dozens of the Hari Krishna members had already taken residence at the Harrison mansion since April 1970, much to the dismay of a few others like Chris O’Dell who also lived there with George and wife Pattie at the time. Ravi now found an opportunity to appeal to George’s sense of duty when he described the tragic conditions involving the people of Bangladesh.

Indeed, Shankar had good reason to be concerned and take up the cause; he personally had many distant relatives among those suffering. Pattie Boyd recalls the situation, writing in her memoir, “He [Ravi] had told George about the catastrophe in Bangladesh: three million people had been killed in the war with Pakistan, and ten million had fled to India where they were starving.”

The two Muslim regions designated as East and West Pakistan were carved from the primarily Hindu-dominated continent of India. The collective nation of Pakistan was divided along political and economic lines, when General Yahya Khan won the first free democratic election in 1969 and promised to end dictatorship. The West’s regime had no plans on abiding by a fair and balanced peaceful agreement, and thus a power struggle ensued, which led Urdu-speaking Pakistan to force its position upon the Eastern, Bengali-speaking people of India’s Bangladesh. Hundreds of thousands of Bengalese fled across the border into Calcutta in India, and there was nowhere near enough money or medicinal resources available to address the endless onslaught of unprecedented violence that the West unleashed upon the East. Cholera plagued the refugees, and the resulting unsanitary conditions only complicated matters further.

George Harrison with Ravi Shankar (photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

This story immediately drew George’s interest. Marc Shapiro’s 2002 biography, All Things Must Pass: The Life of George Harrison, describes how Ravi approached George. “The idea occurred to me of giving a concert to raise money to help these refugees,” recounts Ravi. “Something on a bigger than normal scale… I asked him frankly, ‘George, can you help me?’” Initially, Ravi had hopes of raising $25,000, but George had much bigger plans, and wasted no time recruiting his most trusted and available musicians, starting with singer, songwriter, guitarist, bassist, and pianist Leon Russell, who spoke at length about his involvement in his self-titled autobiography: “George was a little apprehensive about appearing in public again… I had no doubt that the audience response would be incredible… he wanted me to put the band together.” In the span of a night, Harrison wrote the ballad “Bangla Desh”, whose lyrics spoke of the anguish Ravi held when he approached George. “My friend came to me with sadness in his eyes/Told me that he wanted help before his country dies.”

But when George suddenly dropped out in the middle of recording the Badfinger project in July 1970 to take on Bangladesh, some weren’t too happy about it. “I’ve got to help Ravi. I’ve got to split,” George said, according to Dan Matovina, biographer of Without You: The Tragic Story of Badfinger. To help smooth things over, George invited band members Pete Ham and Mike Gibbs a few days later to participate in the charity concert. “Within six hours we were on a flight,” Ham said. Gibbons added: “We were asked to do what we did on the All Things Must Pass album”.

When Badfinger returned to England from the Bangladesh concert, they were told that Harrison’s unexpected exit wasn’t just a temporary situation—it was permanent. The news caught the band off-guard and led to an unlikely replacement. Producer/engineer Geoff Emerick hired an American, Todd Rundgren, to oversee production duties. In the U.S., Rundgren had somehow earned a reputation for working effectively and efficiently, except Badfinger didn’t know who he was, as the American-based artist wasn’t well-known in the UK. The band never really bonded with Todd personally during the sessions. In Geoff Emerick’s 2006 autobiography Here, There and Everywhere, the legendary longtime Beatles engineer describes Badfinger’s time with Todd as “traumatic, emotionally charged sessions during which, at one point, Pete Ham slammed his Martin guitar down in disgust, shattering the expensive instrument to pieces.” Rundgren ultimately resented the production work that Harrison did—in addition to his contribution to the project, he went a step further and remixed the previous tracks that Harrison had worked on, leading to friction between both men. “He [Harrison] didn’t finish any of the songs, though he was perfectly willing to take the credits for the songs that I finished,” Rundgren said (although it does appear that subsequent releases of the album indicated which tracks were produced by Harrison and which by Rundgren).

Todd Rundgren (photo courtesy of Shore Fire Media)

Once George got Leon Russell to agree to the Bangladesh concert, the roster expanded quickly to form an all-star lineup that included Billy Preston, Jesse Ed Davis, Bobby Keys, Jim Keltner Carl Radle, Klaus Voorman, and the four members of Badfinger performing supporting instrumental roles. In addition, there was a six-piece horn section, six backing vocalists, and, of course, the honoree of the entire event, Ravi Shankar with his four-piece Indian raga ensemble. And then there were the two big stars that were the most highly-anticipated participants of the event: Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton. Dylan and Harrison were longtime friends (George had written “I’ll Have You Anytime” expressly for Dylan as an affirmation of his commitment to their friendship).

Meanwhile, Eric Clapton had already retreated to his mansion, Hurtwood Edge, and holed up with Alice Omsley-Gore, who barricaded herself with him to go on a round-the-clock heroin binge that had been ongoing for months. Despite that, Harrison still wanted to include Clapton in his new venture to raise millions of dollars for the Bangladesh cause. Looking back, Clapton wrote in his 2007 autobiography, “[George] was only too aware of my drug problems and may have seen this as some kind of rescue mission”.

George invited Ringo and John to join the ranks of the recruited band roster but excluded Paul. “George never mentioned Paul,” Chris O’Dell wrote in her memoirs. “Lawsuits were flying, and I think the band was mad at Paul for the way he broke up the band.” Word got around that John Lennon bowed out at the last minute because Yoko wasn’t happy about not being invited. It was also true that the Beatles breakup led to serious acrimony between the boys. “There was also a bit of jealousy of George on John’s part”, Marc Shapiro wrote in his biography. “Because at the same time George’s All Things Must Pass was released to massive sales, John’s largely experimental album Primal Screams was released to only marginal reviews and poor sales. John took it personally and interpreted it as an assault by George on his still-perceived leadership in the Beatles universe. George took John’s ‘no’ at his word and moved on.” Ultimately, the only other Beatle besides George who participated was Ringo.

The Bangladesh concert was a huge deal—it would be the first time in his life that George would be the leader of his own band and appearing on stage not as a Beatle! It was also the first time he’d perform live in the U.S since the Candlestick Park concert in San Francisco in ’66.

Alice Omsley-Gore and Eric Clapton. Alice died of a heroin overdose in 1995. (photo: source unknown)

The concert was billed simply as “George Harrison and Friends.” The location was Madison Square Garden. The date was set for Sunday August 1. “We pinpointed the days that were astrologically good,” Harrison said during a July 27 press conference. “And we found Madison Square Garden was open on one of those days.” There were two shows scheduled: at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. (The evening show was added when the afternoon one sold out immediately.)

“But everyone knew that if Eric Clapton was to have a chance at getting through two performances,” Pattie Boyd wrote. “He would need a supply of heroin when he arrived in New York… he always snorted it, as if it was cocaine, from a gold spoon he wore around his neck.” Clapton confirmed this, saying, “We were wasteful junkies and chose to snort it like cocaine rather than inject it, mainly because I was terrified of needles, a fear that went back to primary school.”

The pair of concerts were an unqualified success. Harrison delivered many of his biggest hits from his new album, including “Wah Wah,” “My Sweet Lord,” and “Beware of Darkness.” Billy Preston gave stellar performances on “That’s The Way God Planned It,” followed by Ringo Starr who performed his Harrison-produced pop tune, “It Don’t Come Easy,” which had been released April 9 as a single and climbed to #4 on the Billboard charts. Leon Russell delivered the goods on the “Jumpin’ Jack Flash/Young Blood” medley.

The concert also featured Pete Ham performing a beautiful guitar duet at the front of the stage with George on “Here Comes The Sun.” The multi-metered tune was executed flawlessly, with Pete playing perfectly in sync with George’s guitar. “George said he just wanted to keep it simple,” Ham recalled. “We never rehearsed it—[there was] no time!” (As a side-story, the song “Take It All” was written by Pete as a direct response to the jealousy and snide remarks aimed at him by Badfinger bandmate Joey Molland when Pete got the sole honor of playing side-by-side with Harrison. The tune was prominently featured as the first track on the band’s new album, Straight Up.)

Dylan slayed the audience with five tunes, highlighted by “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”. “Everybody wanted to play with Dylan and a bit of backstabbing began,” said guitarist Joey Molland. “Klaus was playing bass and Leon said, ‘Well, I’ll do that.’ There were some tense moments.” Indeed, “Just Like a Woman”—a stripped down version with only acoustic guitar, electric bass, and vocal harmony delivered by Russell and Harrison—was such a stunning performance it raised one of the loudest and longest audience cheers of the entire event (a 2005 2-DVD set features a fantastic afternoon show concert performance by Dylan of “Love Minus Zero/No Limit.”) Other highlights included George dipping into his Fab Four past, with stirring renditions of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Here Comes the Sun,” and “Something.” He closed the show with “Bangla Desh”.

Harrison and Bob Dylan (photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Harrison hired Phil Spector to record and produce the contents of the concert, and the resulting three-disc vinyl box set, Concert For Bangladesh, was released on December 20, 1971. It sold brilliantly. Not only that, the documentary film that captured the performances in all their glory also sold well. In the end, the collaborative efforts to raise substantial amounts of cash and raise awareness of the human atrocities inflicted upon the Bengali people of East Pakistan was achieved—due primarily to George Harrison’s genuine love for Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar. It was the first-ever pop concert for charity. It raised $15 million dollars, which was distributed to UNICEF per Harrison’s direct orders.

“When the concert was over, Eric and Alice went back to the horrors of their self-imposed prison at Hurtwood Edge and took up where they left off,” Pattie wrote in her 2007 memoir, Wonderful Tonite: George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Me. George, who was fully aware of the affair between his wife and Eric, was, oddly enough, also trying to get over Pattie, and had emotionally moved on to a new love interest, Chris O’Dell, who worked in the Apple Records offices since May, 1968. O’Dell was now in L.A., and George had flown out to begin a new relationship with Capitol Records for his new album deal. Like Clapton did for George’s wife Pattie with “Layla”, Harrison was now writing his own “Layla” for Chris, a song called, “Miss O’Dell”, which he brazenly and openly sang the ode—in Pattie’s presence—to his new love interest.

Two months later, Clapton and Pattie were sending love notes to each other between the resort cottage in Wales where Eric was staying and Pattie’s home at Friar Park. Yet another attempt would soon be made to rouse Clapton from his drug-induced slumber, this time led by yet another British guitar legend—Pete Townshend of The Who.

Until next time…

Books and videos on my shelf:

  • The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions Mark Lewisohn
  • Badfinger: A Riveting and Emotionally Gripping Saga (Directors Cut DVD)
  • While My Guitar Gently Weeps: The Music of George Harrison, by Simon Leng
  • Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of The Beatles by Geoff Emerick Pioneer Artists]
  • Behind The Music: Badfinger (VH1 DVD)
  • The Concert for Bangladesh: Gorge Harrison and Friends (Apple Records DVD)
  • Without You: The Tragic Story of Badfinger, by Dan Matovina
  • Badfinger & Beyond: The Biography of Joey Molland by Michael A. Cimino
  • Paul McCartney: The Life by Phillip Norman
  • The Longest Cocktail Party: An Insiders Account of the Beatles & the Rise and Fall of The Multi-Million Dollar Apple Empire by Richard DiLello
  • You Never Give Me Your Money by Peter Doggett
  • Bobby Whitlock by Whitlock/Roberty
  • Clapton: The Autobiography by Eric Clapton
  • Miss O’Dell by Chris O’Dell
  • Wonderful Tonite by Pattie Boyd
  • Fab Four FAQ 2.0: The Beatles Solo Years 1970-1980 by Rodriguez
  • All Things Must Pass: The Life of George Harrison by Marc Shapiro
  • The Beatles Solo on Apple Records by Bruce Spizer

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