The Secret Policeman’s Ball will cross the Atlantic for the first U.S. edition of the ongoing series of fundraisers for Amnesty International with a big-name comedy and music lineup set for Sunday, March 4, in New York City. The event will be carried live on the EPIX cable channel and also streamed live at EpixHD.com.
On the comedy front, the show marking Amnesty’s 50th anniversary this year will include Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Eddie Izzard, Russell Brand, Sarah Silverman, Fred Armisen and many more, while Coldplay and Mumford & Sons will help out on the music side, connecting the two bands to a long, storied thread through pop music history.
This will be the 11th edition of the event that was born in 1976 in England, inspired in large part by George Harrison’s archetypal all-star rock music benefit, the Concert for Bangladesh, five years earlier at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan.
In conscious acknowledgment of that connection to the ex-Beatle, Amnesty this week is releasing a video of Evan Rachel Wood’s performance of the George Harrison-Bob Dylan song “I’d Have You Anytime” from the new “Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan” four-CD set benefiting Amnesty.
Monty Python founding member John Cleese, along with journalist and publicist Martin Lewis, instigated the series that would come to be known as the Secret Policeman’s Ball, starting out exclusively with comedic talent to sell tickets from which proceeds would go to the human rights organization.
In 1979, Lewis came up with the SPB name and invited the Who’s Pete Townshend aboard to add a musical component. Townshend gave his first major solo appearance at that show, performing “Pinball Wizard” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, a performance credited by many as helping usher in the “unplugged” idea that became a hallmark of other benefit concerts and a popular series of MTV specials.
Because of Townshend’s appearance, Lewis was able to persuade other musicians to take part in subsequent shows, including Sting, Donovan, Bob Geldof, Midge Ure, Phil Collins and, in their first performance together, English rock guitar gods Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton.
Geldof and Ure became the driving forces behind the charity Band-Aid project and the “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” single generating money for African famine relief in 1984, which expanded into the Live Aid transatlantic benefit concerts the following year in London and Philadelphia. Many of those participants had met at previous Secret Policeman’s Ball shows.
Additionally, U2 singer Bono has credited the 1979 Secret Policeman’s Ball with fully igniting his desire to tap music to help others in a concrete way.
Live Aid segued into the Amnesty's 1986 Conspiracy of Hope tour that included six concerts over 10 days around the U.S. with the Police, U2, Peter Gabriel, Lou Reed, Joan Baez and the Neville Brothers.
Likewise, after taking part in 1987 in the Secret Policeman’s Third Ball in London, Gabriel (who was joined there by Geldof, Jackson Browne, Reed, David Gilmour, Kate Bush, Mark Knopfler, Chet Atkins, Duran Duran and World Party) went on to join Amnesty's Human Rights Now! tour in 1988.
That six-week tour also featured Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Sting, Tracy Chapman and Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour on a five-continent string of 20 concerts. A quarter century later, Live 8 shows on several continents both celebrated and expanded upon the original Live Aid idea.
Springsteen, Gabriel, Robert Plant & Jimmy Page, Radiohead, Chapman, Alanis Morissette and Shania Twain showed up in 1998 for Amnesty’s "The Struggle Continues…" show in Paris marking the 50th anniversary of the signing in that city of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Efforts shifted last decade to benefit recordings, first with a double-CD tribute to the music of John Lennon by dozens of acts for “Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur,” which has since generated more than $4 million for Amnesty, and most recently with “Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan,” on which dozens more performers filled four CDs with renditions of Dylan’s music.
-- Randy Lewis
Photo: George Harrison, left, and Bob Dylan perform at the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971. Credit: UPI.