On Friday, August 19, Showbox Sodo will host the Rock Against the TPP tour, a free show featuring Talib Kweli, actress Evangeline Lilly, Anti-Flag, Hawaiian slack-key guitar legend Makana, Downtown Boys, comedian Hari Kondabolu, and others. Conceived by Tom Morello and digital rights group Fight for the Future, the tour aims to bring awareness to the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement currently being mulled over by Congress.
Alongside the music and comedy, the event will feature a teach-in on organizing from Lilly and most likely several impassioned speeches on a very important issue that affects us all. It’s hard to argue against it being a good cause, and the show stars great artists and you can’t beat the price. But Rock Against the TPP is also a chapter in the sometimes checkered history of all-star activist concerts, with their many pitfalls—from misused funds, to massive egos overshadowing the causes, to Eric Clapton. Here’s a refresher on the lineage.
The Concert for Bangladesh (1971)
At the behest of organizers George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Billy Preston, Leon Russell, Badfinger, and Eric Clapton (who was almost too strung out on heroin to perform) played two shows at Madison Square Garden to raise awareness and fund relief efforts for refugees from Bangladesh following massive flooding and a raging civil war. Shankar had hoped to raise around $25,000. The shows, attended by more than 40,000 people, raised 10 times that amount. By 1985, it was estimated that the film and album release of The Concert for Bangladesh had netted more than $12 million.
Success, right? Except the reason that 1985 stat exists is that the money from the concert, album, and movie had been tied up for more than a decade. Because the funds were funneled through Harrison/the Beatles' Apple Corp. instead of a nonprofit, the IRS argued they weren't tax-exempt. In the 11 years it took the parties to reach an agreement, the floodwaters receded and a stable government was established. Still, good concert.
Rock Against Racism (1978)
Speaking of Eric Clapton... At a 1976 concert in Birmingham, Clapton let loose with an intoxicant-fueled hate-speech tirade, including his thoughts on Britain's immigration policy ("Get the foreigners out, get the wogs out, get the coons out," "This is England, this is a white country, we don't want any black wogs and coons living here," "Keep Britain white!" and a lot more) that inadvertently helped to inspire the Rock Against Racism movement. RAR and the Anti-Nazi League sponsored a 1978 march and concert that featured artists like the Clash, Steel Pulse, and X-Ray Spex playing before an estimated 100,000 people who'd embarked on a six-mile march to protest racial violence and reach the concert grounds. RAR would hold two more massive events that year that saw 40,000 people attend rallies and concerts that featured Elvis Costello, Stiff Little Fingers, and Graham Parker and the Rumour, among others. RAR's legacy continues today as the rebranded Love Music Hate Racism organization.
No Nukes (1979)
Inspired by the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in March of 1979, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Graham Nash, and others formed Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE), organizing a series concerts at Madison Square Garden, along with the compulsory (triple!) live album and film. The event is notable musically for being the first time Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band were captured on film, debuting the now-classic "The River." The shows are more notorious for the wealth of coked-up performances—from James Taylor and Carly Simon hamming up a regrettable duet of "Mockingbird" (no wonder they don't speak to each other anymore) to Graham Nash's protest "song" about throwing children into the nuclear-waste-filled "Barrel of Pain" that was also creating giant mutant sponges in San Francisco Bay. The levels of 1970s serious-rock hubris were clearly more toxic than a meltdown.
Live Aid (1985)
Live Aid, the absolutely epic worldwide concert event organized by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure to raise money and awareness for Ethiopia's ongoing famine, took place simultaneously in venues in the United States, England, the Soviet Union, Japan, Austria, Australia, and West Germany and was attended by more than 300,000 people all told. Live Aid was also one of the biggest television events of all time, as it was seen by an estimated 1.9 billion people in 150 countries around the world during its live broadcast.
Despite being an undeniably impressive spectacle on several levels, Live Aid was rightly criticized for having only one African-born performer out of hundreds (Sade) and for distributing charitable funds to unbelievably nefarious causes. Much of the money raised ended up in the hands of the Derg, the communist military organization that cruelly ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1987, executing or imprisoning anyone who opposed them. Frank Zappa declined his invitation to perform, questioning the motivations of those involved and decrying the event as "the biggest cocaine money laundering scheme of all time." For his part, Robert Plant described the ill-received Led Zeppelin reunion as "a fucking atrocity for us," which is not much of a surprise when one considers the role of John Bonham was filled by Phil Collins. Led Zeppelin hated the performance so much, they blocked it from ever being released—until the advent of the internet made the train wreck available for all to enjoy/cringe at. No good deed goes unpunished, Mr. Geldof.
Farm Aid (1985—Present)
Founded by Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and John Mellencamp, Farm Aid sprang from comments Bob Dylan made during Live Aid in which he hoped American farmers would get at least "a little" of the money from the massive event. They didn't, but Saint Willie and company far surpassed Dylan's wish—the inaugural event brought in around $9 million for American farmers in debt. That staggering sum spurned Farm Aid forward into a yearly event that has hosted a jaw-dropping number of amazing acts over its 30-year history. Beyond its annual concert, Farm Aid exists today as an organization that works year round to increase awareness of noncorporate family farms, as well as establishing an emergency fund for farming families in need. There's a valuable lesson here: If you want something done right, have Willie Nelson do it.
Live 8 (2005)
Live Aid's greatest legacy may be the Live 8 and Farm Aid benefit concerts that sprang from the original event. Live 8 was basically Bob Geldof's sequel to Live Aid, timed to coincide with the 2005 G8 Summit, and the event came under much of the same scrutiny as its predecessor despite being another undeniably impressive event on the surface. Live 8 featured thousands of performers (including the first Pink Floyd set in 24 years) playing at massive venues in each of the G8 states and again aimed to raise aid for Africa—and yet again it featured very few African artists (though many were added after worldwide criticism).
Geldof's second massive worldwide show was also criticized for serving as a desperate promotional gambit for aging rock stars in the face of a waning record business—and indeed, many artists involved in Live 8 saw a boost in sales. In response to this, musicians like David Gilmour donated all increased sales of Pink Floyd's Echoes to charity after the concert. Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz) suggested a tariff on the record companies and artists who profited from their appearances, and was presumably shouted down. Similar criticisms were hurled at Al Gore's Live Earth two years later, but most people were too busy chuckling at the irony of an event designed to raise consciousness about climate change creating such an enormous carbon footprint to notice.