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How George Harrison invented the charity single with 'Bangla-Desh'

The 1980s was jam-packed with charity records. In that slim decade, we got everything from Live Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ to USA for Africa’s ‘We Are The World’, neither of which, it has to be said, have aged particularly well. The charity record may have reached its full potential in the ’80s, but the phenomenon has its roots in the 1970s, and more specifically in George Harrison’s 1971 track ‘Bangla-Desh’, in which the former Beatle asks listeners to dig deep and provide support to the Bengali people.

To understand why Harrison decided to write ‘Bangla-Desh’, it’s important to note his friend and mentor, Ravi Shankar. The legendary sitar player was raised in India but was of Bengali origin. The Beatles guitarist was introduced to Shankar’s music by Roger McGuinn and David Crosby, both of whom had been greatly inspired by his work. Harrison’s incorporation of classical Indian instruments into recordings like ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ and ‘Norwegian Wood’ helped bring Shankar’s music to a mainstream Western audience.

It was Shankar who informed Harrison about the plight of the Bengali people who, at that time, were fighting for independence from Pakistan. This fight for liberation spawned the brutal genocide of Bangladesh, which in turn caused a refugee crisis. On top of that, the year prior, Bangladesh had been hit by a devastating cyclone, which led to extreme flooding in many regions. On hearing all of this, Harrison went about setting up the Concert For Bangladesh, for which this song was written. The event was held at Madison Square Garden in 1971 and was the first benefit concert of its kind, featuring a star-studded lineup that included Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Shankar, and Harrison himself.

Both ‘Bangla-Desh’ and The Concert For Bangladesh owe a huge debt to Harrison’s former bandmate John Lennon, who also released ‘Imagine’ in 1971. Lennon understood the power of the media and used it to great effect during his infamous ‘bed-in’ with Yono Oko. With this single, Harrison used the music business as a conduit to raise awareness about the suffering of people halfway across the world. While ‘Bangla-Desh’ is by no means Harrison’s finest work – in fact, it’s downright clunky in places – it did exactly what Harrison intended, gaining a lot of airplay ahead of the Concert For Bangladesh.

Unlike Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, however, Harrison was keen to avoid taking an obvious political stance in ‘Bangla-Desh’. Instead, he focuses on the suffering of the Bengali people, describing the state of Bangladesh in the present tense. In this way, Harrison’s song can be seen as the blueprint for the likes of ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’, ‘We Are The World’, and ‘Tears Are Not Enough’. Now that’s quite the legacy.