They say that music is the universal language. No matter your place on the planet or the words you use to express yourself, the chords and scales or your typical tune will supposedly translate across continents and between borders. It also has charms to soothe the savage breast/beast (take your pick) and is the ambassador to people and places where traditional means of diplomacy find failure. Music can also become the voice of humanity, the power within revolution and the anthem to change. The use of sound as a means of protest wasn't strictly the stuff of the '60s, however. Before Bob Dylan introduced the world to activism via his arcane lyrics, Woody Guthrie and his ilk were taking folk traditions and turning them into commentary on our then current social norms. By the time we found ourselves dying within disco, the notion of musicians as mouthpieces for various political causes seemed comical. When they spoke, most made a mere nuisance of themselves, while others were so strident that they alienated an audience who was only interested in the hedonism the genre worshipped.
In the '80s, however, British musicians took to using their stardom as a means of making certain causes more famous. They did it for a famine-plagued Ethiopia (with Band Aid, then Live Aid), and for Human Rights. The US quickly followed suit, adding the family farmer to the list. However, with the help of the organization Amnesty International, the plight of political prisoners and those being held within their home countries for unknown acts against the State, as well as the overall need for carefully considered human dignity, became the fodder for a series of concerts which saw several big names - Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, U2 - aided by up and comers (Radiohead, The New Kids on the Block, Sinead O'Connor) rallying support for the ending of such suppression. Originally, these were known as The Secret Policeman's Ball. By the time the populace was chanting "We Are the World," AI had set-up a series of showcases where the famous faces within rock made their presence and their philosophies very clear.
Now Shout! Factory has put together a six disc DVD set of some of these shows, highlighting the powerful live performances that resulted. While some of these shows offered here are mere clip compilations, what we wind up with are a collection of competent efforts from individuals there to celebrate all the good work the organization does. Here is a overview of some of what you will find here:
A Conspiracy of Hope (1986) - Filmed in the US, this all-day concert features Peter, Paul and Mary, Jackson Browne, Yoko Ono, Miles Davis, Howard Jones, Carlos Santana and Fela Kuti, Joan Baez, Peter Gabriel, The Neville Brothers, Bryan Adams, Joni Mitchell, U2, The Police (in the throngs of their infamous break-up), Steven Van Zandt, Bob Geldof, and Lou Reed, among others. The presentation here is over five and a half hours long.
Human Rights Now! (1988) - A compilation from this successful tour featuring Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Tracy Chapman, Sting, Peter Gabriel, and Youssou N'Dour. We get a three hour showcase.
An Embrace of Hope (1990) - Over a brief and brisk 72 minutes, Sting, Jackson Browne, Peter Gabriel, Wynton Marsalis, Sinead O'Connor, Ruben Blades, those frontrunners for global change, New Kids on the Block and Chilean folk music act Inti-Illimani entertain.
The Struggle Continues (1998) - Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen, Alanis Morissette Tracy Chapman, Youssou N'Dour, Shania Twain, Radiohead and Jimmy Page with Robert Plant, among others, round off this set with a rousing two and a half hour show.
There are also dozens of clips from the entirety of the Amnesty International brand, including moments featuring Mumford and Sons, Ozzy Osbourne, The Hooters, Green Day, and many, many more.
Way back in 1971, George Harrison used his Beatle clout to collect a group of friends to perform for the people suffering in Bangladesh. Fast forward a decade and we had the Concert for Kampuchea and No Nukes. In between, various individual causes saw specific celebrities step up to be recognized. But thanks to the song "Do They Know It's Christmas" and the work of Boomtown Rats' Bob Geldof, the concert stage as center for change became a power piece of propaganda in the '80s. The shows here support his idea, moving beyond the established ability to see your favorite rock star playing their hits to a more communal, common cause concern. It's great to see Peter Gabriel step up to support his fellow headliners. Similarly, duets between divergent acts make the experience all the more special. It's also fun to see some fledgling acts (Radiohead, for example) before they became worldwide phenomenon, while some fads (NKOTB) are best left to their particular pop culture niche.
Overall, the experience is one of time travel and temperament. Nowadays, a hurricane hits or an earthquake devastates and suddenly Paul McCartney is singing "Hey Jude" with Lady Gaga and Bruno Mars. Efforts to aid those hurt by disasters both natural and manmade seem more frequent than ever. Back in the '80s and '90s, these shows were more symbolic, the ivory tower of rock stardom still more difficult to infiltrate than Mordor. Now, thanks to the democratization of the medium via the Internet (and the "guest star" concept prevalent in today's iTunes oriented market), said collaborations are beyond common. Still, there's magic in these moments, just as there are goosebump inducing elements here. Take the late Lou Reed delivering a defiant "Walk on the Wild Side," or Jimmy Page and Robert Plant rediscovering their Led Zeppelin zing. Sure, we can slag off a certain boy band, but one would gladly give them their moment to see the Police pound through "Message in a Bottle" or Gabriel grind out a grand "Shock the Monkey." While one imagines the audience for these nostalgic trips back into the past is relatively small, Shout! Factory deserves kudos for creating this lasting record of the good done by Amnesty International and those who would serve them, sonically.
It also goes without saying that the older the material is here, the more suspect the transfer becomes. Shout! Factory has done a decent job with the "remastering" of this footage, but old video complied from MTV can't hold a candle to professional shot onstage footage from a decade later. Still, the 1.33:1 image is uniformly excellent, avoiding many of the pitfalls of the format while begging for an HD update (though, one imagines, it would be difficult to truly spruce up many of these moments). The sound situation here is much, much better. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix (there is also a stereo version) is wholly immersive and indicative of the live concert experience. There is clarity in the presentation of the performances as well as a nice feeling of being in the crowd watching the artists onstage.
It's the added content that will truly blow you away. As stated before, there are dozens of additional songs selected from various Amnesty-sponsored shows. There's also a documentary on how this all started, interviews with luminaries like Springsteen and Gabriel, and even a few backstage moments and home movies of the various shows. But it's the additional footage that will fulfill your basic needs. It is here where you can find Coldplay, Pete Seeger, and Evan Rachel Wood, among others.
I'll always remember picking up a copy of The Concert for Kampuchea, partially because some of my favorites bands at the time - Elvis Costello and the Attractions, The Clash, The Pretenders, Ian Dury and the Blockheads - were front and center. While the live performances ran the gamut from good to god-awful, I was glad to hear the musicians I idolized standing up for something they believe in. It's a similar experience with this massive box set. Earning an obvious Highly Recommended rating, there is enough here to satisfy even the most picky rock fan. Not everything is polished and pristine like today's backing track aided experiences, but what it lacks in polish, Released: The Human Rights Concerts makes up for in passion.
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