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Long known to LA residents as the impresario behind the Mods And Rockers film festival for American Cinematheque (which has been sadly MIA for a few years now), British expat Martin Lewis has produced an official release of the numerous benefit concerts organized on behalf of human rights organization Amnesty International between 1979 and 1998. Beginning with the Secret Policeman’s Ball benefits in the late 70s, coordinated by Lewis himself, the Amnesty concerts served to raise awareness and as well as funds, making the plight of political prisoners across the globe a water-cooler conversation topic among rock fans. This Sunday afternoon, the Aero Theater in Santa Monica will host a theatrical premiere with highlights from Released!, a 6-DVD set to be put out by Shout! Factory on November 5. Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers from the Police will be on hand for a Q&A, to talk about the tour that brought them back together after they’d been broken up for three years.
Perhaps the best-remembered of the benefit concerts was the 1986 summer tour featuring U2, Peter Gabriel and the briefly reunited Police, which culminated in a New Jersey stadium show that included Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell, Third World, Bryan Adams, the Neville Brothers, Joan Armatrading, the Hooters, and a rare stateside appearance by the recently-freed Fela Anikulapo Kuti as a guest of salsa legend Ruben Blades. I skipped my senior year baccalaureate to watch that show broadcast live on MTV, and remember it as a satisfying and remarkably diverse day-long festival bill. I also remember seeing some of the first signs that U2 was about to become insufferable, as they blew half their set on dirgey covers by Dylan and the Beatles, and Bono did his best Jim Morrison impersonation, but at least they did something unpredictable in the process.
That show makes up a healthy 5-hour block of the DVD set, which also includes a 3-hour film from the 1988 Human Rights Now! tour which featured Gabriel and Sting alongside Bruce Springsteen, Tracy Chapman and Youssou N’Dour, a 150-minute program taken from a 1998 benefit with Radiohead, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, and some of the usual suspects, and additional performances from various Amnesty concerts around the world. There’s also about 4 1/2 hours of “companion content” including new interviews with Sting and Springsteen, Gabriel’s home movies from the 1986 tour, and a new documentary.
One of the most classic Amnesty benefit collaborations, a duet between Pete Townshend classical guitarist John Williams, will also be reprised, a must for Who fans that may have missed the Secret Policeman’s Ball DVD sets a few years ago. Lewis told me that the duet was not a planned part of the 1979 show, but sensing an opportunity for magic, he approached both men individually backstage and said of the other, “He loves your work and really wants to do something with you!” After, he introduced them to once another with a handshake and ran away as quickly as possible. When the two took the stage for a truly unique performance of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” a short time later, he was as shocked and delighted as anyone in the building. Those moments of shared spirit and spontaneous joining together were one of the things that made the Amnesty benefits so charming, and so worth commemorating.
Click here for information and tickets to the LA premiere, and here to purchase the DVD set or companion 2-CD audio set, From Shout! Factory.