Finally available, the monumental ¡RELEASED! six-disc DVD box-set and two-disc companion CD of the historic Human Rights Concerts presented by the Nobel Peace Prize-winning human rights organization Amnesty International does not disappoint. And not just because net proceeds from sales of the DVD set and CDs benefit Amnesty International.
Amnesty International staged 28 concerts between 1986 and 1998 to draw attention to their efforts. Membership tripled as a result. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the catalyst for the concerts. This 1948 document spearheaded by Eleanor Roosevelt was unanimously adopted by the entire United Nations and subsequently forgotten.
The shows really started with Monty Python, the members of which held benefit performances for Amnesty International. On April 1, 1976 the Secret Policeman’s Ball was staged, a fairly low key evening of comedy and skits.
In 1979 producer Martin Lewis persuaded Pete Townshend to perform in his first major solo appearance, which was the catalyst for one of MTV’s two best series “Unplugged.” (The other was Ray Davies and “Storytellers”). By adding music to the mix, the Amnesty International event reached a whole new level. But awareness of the concerts was mostly limited to Brits and Anglophiles (like me). The subsequent 1981 concert attracted even more performers and fans. That was where Midge Ure met Bob Geldof, prompting the benefit single “Do They Know It’s Christmas.”
Exposure in the US to the Amnesty International benefit concerts was accelerated via a 1982 film that featured the best of the 1979 and 1981 shows, and was distributed by the fledgling film company launched by Bob and Harvey Weinstein (who had cut their teeth promoting concerts in Buffalo).
The stage was finally set for a full blown Conspiracy of Hope concert tour. Drawing a line back to Live Aid (1985) and forward to Live 8 (2005), the 1986 tour culminated at Giants Stadium. The show opened with Bob Geldof doing an acoustic version of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” accompanied by Steven Van Zandt on guitar. Van Zandt is no stranger to the power of music and politics; in 1985 he spearheaded the gathering of Artists United Against Apartheid to record the aggressive “Sun City” (which was in the spirit of “We Are The World” but far more urgent and some might say more successful in its admittedly narrower aim). Van Zandt later gathered his Disciples of Soul for a plea to address the plight of the Native Americans. His band was a throwback to Sly and the Family Stone: numerous, multi-racial, not all male, colorfully attired and socially conscious. Intriguingly, Van Zandt deigned not to perform his signature “I Am A Patriot” but deferred to Jackson Browne to cover it later in the day.
A few artists on the agenda do not withstand the test of time, but are fun to see. The Hooters captured a slice of the airwaves in the 80s but left more a mark for the artists that covered their songs (Cyndi Lauper, Miles Davis). The Philly band had attained credibility with their appearance at Live Aid, and shared a bill a few years before that opening for The Clash and The Who.
Peter, Paul and Mary along with Joan Baez carried the torch of 1960’s activism. In 1986 naturally both covered seminal Dylan songs: “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin,” respectively. Give Baez credit for covering Tears For Fears’ “Shout.”
Holding the attention of the massive arena crowd was an impressive feat for the various acoustic artists. Joan Armatrading and the opening verses of Jackson Browne’s set showed how less can be more. On record “For Everyman” features a dramatic drum roll that surges to a finale, and it was equally effective onstage. “As if freedom were a matter of might” Browne sang in “For America,” which was the perfect segue into his set closer “I Am A Patriot.” Browne travelled many miles from his Orange County home, and has left an indelible mark. His set confirmed that love of freedom and country cuts across all political stripes.
Former law student Rubén Blades (who several years later narrowly escaped being elected President of Panama) was joined by an hirsute and svelte Carlos Santana and Afropop icon Fela Kuti for the show’s most international segment. Santana’s scorching riffs played off the Latin rhythms, but Fela was sadly given only a few moments to noodle on the keyboards.
Yoko Ono pushed the edge of the sonic vocal envelope with “Walking On Thin Ice.” A better transition would have been the Miles Davis set, his thick slabs of funk were energetic. As was his wont, he wandered the stage, often with his back to the audience. That kept the cameramen scrambling. About the only time Davis acknowledged an audience was when he stuck his tongue into the lens of a camera hovering too close. Davis often sauntered to a bank of synthesizers, adding bubbling chords to the band’s musical cauldron. Santana joined Davis’ band on “Burn,” trading licks with bandmembers. He and Kuti also buttressed the Neville Brothers’ set; Kuti was then more pronounced on percussion than keyboards.
Lou Reed’s guitar barrage and talk singing left many in the audience a bit nonplussed until the opening bass riff of “Walk on the Wild Side.” This footage is all the more poignant with Reed’s recent passing.
Far more melodic and invigorating was Peter Gabriel. “Red Rain” and “Sledgehammer” were then recent releases, and were given solid, sweaty treatment. The pace grew more somber with “San Jacintio“ and “Biko,” the latter of which remains one of the most relevant songs for the Conspiracy of Hope tour. “The rest is up to you,” were Gabriel’s last words, which completely captured the spirit of the gathering.
A little less Bryan Adams and a little more Joni Mitchell would have been a smart tradeoff as between these two Canadians. Townshend was scheduled to perform solo and with Mitchell. It would have been his first American solo appearance, but his father’s deteriorating health necessitated that Townshend remain in England.
A very hirsute and earnest Bono marched U2 through their classic anthems (“MLK/Pride,” “Bad” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday”) before lightening up with covers of “Maggie’s Farm” and “Help!”
The seemingly ubiquitous Van Zandt returned to the stage to join the Dubliners for a powerful rendition of “Sun City.”
The Police put aside their acrimony to run through half a dozen of their hits. Drummer Stewart Copeland did not seem to have a message of hate written on his drum head directed at Sting, although the trio were a bit ragged at times. For their last song (“Invisible Sun”) Andy Summers is seen absorbed in his guitar solo and has an expression of near bewilderment when he notices Bono has joined Sting for the final chorus.
But Sting represents an interesting participant. He amazed me when I saw him lead a bevy of British stars at the Secret Policeman’s Other Ball in 1981. I had thought he and his fellow Police were lightweight artists. But when he was thrust front and center for the “I Shall Be Released” finale of that benefit, I ratcheted up my perception.
That song likewise closed out the 1986 tour, the stage filled with performers and recently released prisoners of conscience. It was yet another Dylan song attaining transcendent status, and it should be noted Dylan waived all royalties for use of his songs.
Sadly, performers that joined on a few of the tour’s dates are not in the collection. I was stunned when I saw Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers back up Dylan for a short tour, and that lineup only appeared at the LA stop of the Amnesty International tour. Petty truly inspired Dylan; it was the most energetic I have ever seen Dylan onstage. No doubt the seeds of the Traveling Wilburys were planted then.
You will notice lots of pastel colors on stage and in the crowd, befitting the fashion trends of the era. The stage also sported an (over) abundance of synth drums, another time stamp of the era. The dearth of monitor screens recalled an earlier age when every singer knew the lyrics. The cameramen lugged pretty bulky cameras, but managed well to capture the action.
Two years later a six week, 20 concert tour was staged in front of a million people with several of the same stars. A three hour disc captures performances from the tour-closing show in Buenos Aires by Gabriel, Springsteen and Sting accompanied by Tracy Chapman and Youssou N’Dour. Judging by the frenzy of the crowd, it is obvious why this show was selected for the box set. The disc intersperses clips of press conferences from the global tour, with a few postcard shots along the way. One intriguing sequence shows Springsteen jamming on harmonica with violinist Shankar in India. A sequence from Canada shows an uncredited k.d. lang in performance. There is a mesmerizing sequence of Gabriel performing “Lay Your Hands On Me;” I believe he is the first performer of note to crowd surf. His troupe ran through a sweaty, ecstatic and colorful version of “In Your Eyes” with N’Dour acting as Gabriel’s perfect foil.
In another of the unique collaborations, Sting joined Springsteen for the latter’s “The River.” Was that the Boss’ manager on guitar during the encore?
For the show closer, yet another Dylan song was performed by the assembled performers. “Chimes of Freedom” first came to my attention via the Byrds’ cover, but the original 1964 version by Dylan resonates in whatever form. Here, the Conspirators of Hope take turns at the mic, trading verses. Truly stunning. (Not surprisingly, Joan Baez had no need for lyric sheet assistance, she was around at the creation).
The concert production is even better, with crisper closeups and more engaging editing. The fashion had evolved from pastels two years earlier to higher waisted pants, longer mullet-like locks and more leather.
In 1990 Amnesty International gathered in Santiago to celebrate Chile’s liberation from Pinochet’s 17 year dictatorial rule. The concert was staged in the same stadium where Pinochet’s thugs carried out the torture, disappearance and slaughter of thousands. The eclectic gathering of musicians ranged from the underrated Inti-Illimani (Chile’s exiled folkloric band) to an extremely bald and barefoot Sinead O’Connor. The latter performed Prince’s peerless “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Although a bit musically suspect, New Kids on the Block was a hit with the crowd. Wynton Marsalis thrilled the crowd with “Jungle Blues.” Stalwarts Blades, Sting, Gabriel and Browne were predictably satisfying. Blades was in particularly fine form, swinging through his “Pedro Navaja” in consummate style. The song is in the vein of “Mack the Knife” but with nueva canción flair.
On the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Paris, Amnesty International gathered in Paris in 1998 with a clutch of artists in concert. Chapman, Springsteen, N’Dour and Gabriel were the returning veterans, joined by several notable newcomers. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant were sterling, rolling through an eclectic quartet of songs. Page’s fretwork on his Gibson was undiminished, and Plant’s vocal prowess was evident. “Gallows Pole” was semi-acoustic, with Page strapping on a lovely double neck guitar. This was a rare opportunity for those who never witnessed the majestic aural onslaught of Led Zeppelin to get a glimpse.
Asian Dub Foundation stormed through three songs, but prompt the question ‘where are they now?’ Alanis Morissette made me wonder what all the fuss was about her debut and thereafter. Shania Twain was more a feast for the eyes than ears. Radiohead offered a glimpse of of their ambitious sonic explorations.
The remaining two discs gather a smorgasbord of documentaries, additional footage of related performances and new interviews. The completest in me would have enjoyed poring through liner notes listing all the musicians, but the 40 page accompanying booklet provides a wealth of context. Because these concerts were essentially broadcast only once, about 85% of the box set has never been available in any video format.
Clearly, this monumental 17 hour box set memorializes perfectly the mammoth and heroic undertaking of the concerts.
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PETE TOWNSHEND (first performance for Amnesty 1979) “Amnesty does things that I can’t do in my work. It deals with the specifics of injustice… It makes them public. It was 1979 that I appeared at ‘The Secret Policeman’s Ball’… It was amazing subsequently to see what ‘The Secret Policeman’s Ball’ triggered. Quite big names got involved in supporting Amnesty. And it became apparent that big names in music and Amnesty melded very well. It’s good to see that what I did kicked that off…”
STING (first performance for Amnesty 1981) “Amnesty in my opinion, is probably the most civilized and civilizing of human organizations. It uses the writing of letters or the commerce of ideas and opinion to change the world rather than a gun or an army or an air force. And that seems to be very civilized to me. And that seems the only way that we will get positive change in the world. And so Amnesty’s a fantastic flagship for that idea. I feel very proud of my association with it. And it’s ongoing…”
BONO (first performance for Amnesty 1986) “Amnesty International really appeals to me on so many different levels. What I really like about it is that simple action that can join you to somebody. Rather than just read about something in the news, you can be part of that news story. I love the efficiency of just writing a single postcard, and connecting yourself to an event that you previously had no involvement with, maybe not even any knowledge of. You connect yourself with another soul, another sentient being, and in that moment there begins a really powerful relationship.”
PETER GABRIEL (first performance for Amnesty 1986) “The world is a much better place for knowing that Amnesty’s around it. There’s still an amazing amount more work that needs to be done… that must be done. But Amnesty International have made an extraordinary start…”
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN (first performance for Amnesty 1988) “I was looking for something I could do… I would just devote some of my energies to something that felt worth putting our time in. And Amnesty was a great organization and it was just a perfect fit at that moment. You have your miles of road to cover. And you got your cross that you carry over those miles of road. And that’s something that every person has to decide. How they cover those miles. And how they carry the things that connect them to the rest of the human race. Amnesty is a tremendous tool to do that…”