This week I was asked to write about philanthropy. My immediate thought was ‘oh no, how will I manage to hold back my cynicism?’. Yes, I know it is cold, and cruel, and harsh, but I can’t help but think of rich (mostly) white (rather) old people who give money to feel better about themselves. Or to give themselves a pass from thinking about the problems of this world, and how they contribute to those problems. Or to quote Zizek: ‘When we are shown scenes of starving children in Africa, with a call for us to do something to help them, the underlying ideological message is something like: “Don’t think, don’t politicize, forget about the true causes of their poverty, just act, contribute money, so that you will not have to think!”’. And yes, I know, some philanthropist make a huge difference. I mean, the fact the Bill and Melinda Gates work towards the eradication of polio, for example, is admirable and should not be dissed by lazy bums like myself who sit around and listen to music all day. Think of it—ridding the world of a disease, in a matter of years, thanks to donations is HUGE. And it wouldn’t have been possible without the help of philanthropists. It definitely wouldn’t have been initiated by wealthy governments, because their thinking is narrowly focused on national interests. And as cynical as I can get, even the awful culture of philanthropy as a status symbol—as a show of wealth—contributes towards such goals. Nonetheless, this was a major concern for me approaching this week’s playlist. I think philanthropy is important, to an extent, but has to be taken with a grain of salt coming from owners of multinational conglomerates, and so I wouldn’t want to dedicate this playlist to singing their praise. Instead, I thought this would be a good time to talk about benefit concerts, where artists stage musical events to exert their political—and yes, economic—influence for the greater good. So sit back and enjoy my list of the five greatest benefit concerts in history.
1969—Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music
The ultimate music festival of all times, and a role model for each one that ever followed, Woodstock was the epitome of 1960’s counter-culture. Set against the backdrop of the ongoing, tragic and unnecessary war in Vietnam, Woodstock wasn’t an attempt to raise money for a benefit, but marked the realization by artists of the power that such mass events may have. I literally don’t have enough space to list here not even the highlights of the performances held in those fateful four days in the Catskills mountains, but I doubt there is a music fan who wouldn’t list Woodstock in the top five concerts he would’ve wanted to attend. That, however, might have been a bit tricky. The festival’s association with drug culture led to the immortal saying ‘if you remember Woodstock, you weren’t there’ (and also to the fantastic official announcement about the bad brown acid). However, the drug and free love cultures must not distract us from the fact that Woodstock was, first and foremost, a political event; and that while it did not end the war, it was certainly a demonstration of the power of peace. Watch the 1970 Academy Award winning documentary ‘Woodstock’ for more on the phenomenon that is, perhaps, the greatest music festival ever.
Country Joe and the Blowfish—I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixing-to-Die Rag https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8qPUJhy0Dz4
Jefferson Airplane—Somebody to Love https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2EdLasOrG6c
Santana—Soul Sacrifice https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AqZceAQSJvc
Joe Cocker—With a Little Help from My Friends (Beatles cover) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=POaaw_x7gvQ
Jimmy Hendrix—Star Spangled Banner https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MKvnQYFhGCc
1971—NYC: Concert for Bangladesh
The concert for Bangladesh is, ultimately, the first-ever benefit concert. Held not only to promote a political goal, the concert was held in order to raise money for a benefit, namely for funding the relief efforts for refugees fleeing from the genocide that ensued the Bangladesh Liberation War. Ravi Shankar, a Sitar player and a good friend of former-Beatle George Harrison (Ravi Shankar also played in Woodstock, two years earlier) came up with the idea. Fearing that he won’t be able to raise enough money to make a substantial contribution, he got George on board. In a fantastic piece of history, George Harrison explicitly acknowledges his ability to raise funds for benefit, thus giving birth to the idea of benefit concerts. To make the proceedings even more significant, the concert was also filmed and recorded, and copies of the record were sold around the world (indeed, the concert itself raised ~$250K, while the contract for the live record was signed for $3.75M).
Ravi Shankar—Bangla Dhun https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vo7lxXW6tO0
George Harrison & Eric Clapton—While My Guitar Gently Weeps https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A8CivPhu0fw
Ringo Starr—It Don’t Come Easy https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=emKEFXWk4Yc
Leon Russell—Young Blood https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ICr9lfWq3yY
Bob Dylan—Just Like a Woman https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kIBxQ1SAXe0
1985—London & Philadelphia: Live Aid
Inspired by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, actor, singer and activist Bob Geldof sought to arrange a similar benefit concert, this time towards the relief efforts of the Ethiopian famine. The concert, this timed aired live on TV, was one of the largest TV broadcasts of all time, viewed by an estimated audience of 1.9 billion people from 150 nations. Spontaneous concerts were held in various other countries in solidarity, including in the Soviet Union. It is estimated the $150M were raised in the event. This concert was so massive and so in consensus that high-grossing artists that failed to participate had to provide explanations as to why. On 2005, around the 20th anniversary of Live Aid, Bob Geldof held another massive benefit concert, this time titled ‘Live 8’, and again featuring many of the greatest musicians on the planet.
Sting and Phil Collins—Every Breath You Take https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V6t4E8C0klc
David Bowie—Heroes https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AGOx0ZpMrrU
Bob Dylan, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood—When the Ship Comes In https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L4HYqC8II9I
Band Aid—Do They Know It’s Christmas? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bjQzJAKxTrE
USA for Africa—We Are the World https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zi0RpNSELas
1992—London: The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert
In late 1991 the lead singer of Queen, Freddie Mercury, died from bronchopneumonia brought on by AIDS. In celebration of his life and his work, and in a launch of The Mercury Phoenix Trust—an AIDS charity organization—members of Queen and many other musicians gathered for the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert. Just like so many benefit concerts, this one brought along some bizarre collaborations, but perhaps because it was the early 1990’s, they were slightly more bizarre than most. These include some songs performed by Queen alongside Metallica and Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi, or Queen together with Elton John and Axl Rose of Guns n’ Roses. In its own way, this concert led to some wonderful moments, and to a great increase in the awareness of AIDS.
Metallica—Enter Sandman https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vF1V4wb_At0
Guns n’ Roses—Paradise City https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m0aBlgoONH0
Spinal Tap—The Majesty of Rock (Hilarious opening) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EBn1rrqR3QY
Queen & Robert Plant—Innuendo / Kashmir / Thank You https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v7LM9s3Lm4A
Queen, David Bowie & Annie Lennox—Under Pressure https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCP2-Bfhy04
1986 to Present Day—California: Bridge School Benefit Concert
The Bridge School in Mountain View, California, assists children with severe physical impairment and complex communication needs. Musician Neil Young (along with now-ex wife Pegi Young) has been curating an annual benefit concert since 1986 until this very day (with the exception of 1987, where a concert wasn’t held), always featuring the best and hottest names in the music industry. As an indie lover, I personally love these concerts because unlike the massive events mentioned above, they always include less-known artists alongside some of the greatest artists alive. Again, since this concert has been running for so long, it’s difficult to mention all the outstanding acts by name, but a glimpse into the listings of past years will show what a great benefit concert it is.
Ryan Adams—Oh My Sweet Carolina https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9wWyUw5DIgU
Arcade Fire—Half Light II https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ta6pa1bCbIw
Tom Waits—Lucky Day https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N5oIRw4iq3U
Beck—Guess I’m Doing Fine https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UkaqpS_tBYI
Metallica—Hero of the Day https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XkyHOu9RrTc