This song describes the plight of the people of Bangladesh, who were fighting for independence from Pakistan. George Harrison decided to help after learning about it from Ravi Shankar, his friend and mentor (Shankar is from India, but is of Bengali descent). Harrison wrote the song for the Concert for Bangladesh, a fund raiser he helped organize with Shankar that was held at Madison Square Garden over the course of two shows on August 1, 1971. Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr and Leon Russell all participated.
The song was released three days earlier to promote the event and start raising money for the cause; Harrison then performed it during the concert as an encore at both shows. He never performed the song again.
The country of Bangladesh was known as East Pakistan until March 26, 1971, when it declared independence. This triggered a war with Pakistan, which ruled the country to that point. Many in the area had died during a massive cyclone in November 1970, and the war was ravaging the country once again. Refugees, many Hindu, fled to India by the millions.
Outside of South Asia, this wasn't a major news story, but Harrison's efforts brought it to the forefront, especially in America. For many, this song was the first time they heard the word "Bangladesh."
This was the first charity single by a major artist, and the Concert for Bangladesh was the first benefit concert on this scale. Harrison pulled a page from John Lennon's playbook by making it a multi-media event, with a single, concert, album and film all pulling to help the same cause. It was a remarkably ambitious undertaking that has yet to be duplicated on this level, although Live Aid, which was associated with the single "Do They Know It's Christmas?
," was broadcast with a global footprint to an enormous audience and had a much greater impact.
This song charted and got a lot of airplay when it was released, but it quickly vanished because it's locked to a specific event and sung in the present (so many people are dying fast). Of George Harrison's hits, it's the one you're least likely to hear on any playlist.
George Harrison is the only credited writer on this song, but Leon Russell, who performed at Concert for Bangladesh, gave him some help, suggesting the opening lines that set up the story ("My friend came to me with sadness in his eyes"). Russell most likely played piano on the track.
The title is officially "Bangla Desh," but has also appeared as "Bangla-Desh" and what has become the common spelling of the country's name, "Bangladesh."
Harrison recorded this song with producer Phil Spector, who worked on Harrison's solo album All Things Must Pass in 1970.
George Harrison was careful not to take a political position in this song, instead staying focused on the suffering. In this way, it was the model for most charity songs that came after.
The song and the concert were pulled together in about five weeks. The concert album wasn't released until December 20, 1971, and the film didn't appear until March 23, 1972. The album won the Grammy for Album of the Year at the 1973 ceremony.
Harrison was in London producing the Badfinger album Straight Up
when he pivoted to organize the Concert for Bangladesh. Todd Rundgren took over as producer to finish the album, which includes the hits "Day After Day
" and "Baby Blue
." Badfinger served as part of the backing band for the concert, and their lead singer, Pete Ham, joined Harrison to perform "Here Comes The Sun
Getting the money earned from this song and the related relief efforts to the right place proved challenging. The IRS audited The Beatles' Apple Records during the '70s, which prevented a lot of money that was raised from getting to Bangladesh. $2 million was sent through UNICEF in 1972 before the audit; $8.8 million was finally sent in 1981. Harrison kept doing good deeds through his Material World charitable trust.