In the beginning there was Murray the K, putting out albums commemorating his multi-band revues at the Brooklyn Fox. Then there was Woodstock. And The Concert for Bangladesh. And Mar Y Sol. And even No Nukes. And a couple of lesser extravaganzas captured on vinyl for posterity and/or profit. Somehow, though, most of the artists who tend to be involved with major rock festivals or benefit concerts aren't the kind who would interest too many people on their own. From Aerosmith to James Taylor, from the Grateful Dead to George Harrison, their appeal lies in some part with a good-timey "we're all one disgusting family" attitude. Which is largely why I never have liked either festival/benefit concerts or, as a direct result of the sort of bands usually involved, the records that they usually produce.
Finally, one with a difference. The Concerts for the People of Kampuchea were held in London around Christmas 1979. It has, predictably, taken all this time to sort out the mammoth legal problems posed by inter-label cooperation, but this unique collection of some of Britain's top acts was worth the wait.
Any record that presents the Who and the Clash starts out with a bunch of gold stars, but this two-record set also presents the Pretenders, Elvis Costello, Rockpile, Queen, Ian Dury, the Specials, Wings and Rockestra, the everybody-join-in superduperstar band organized by Paul McCartney. Everyone is in fine form, but producer Chris Thomas deserves credit for an aurally satisfying live album—one of the few. The Concerts sound clear but have enough ambience to avoid the sterility pervading most current live records.
The Who fill up the entire first side with three boring old chestnuts and one old newie that they bring off with the sloppiness and bum notes acceptable only from a group of their stature. Who says that rock bands featured on the cover of Time magazine have to be in tune? "Baba O'Riley" is ramshackle and routine, but it's nice to hear a live "Sister Disco," complete with intelligent jamming towards the end—and "Behind Blue Eyes" has a surprisingly explosive bridge that recalls the Who of legend. I will never understand the popularity of "See Me Feel Me," and the Who apparently feels the same way; Pete Townshend's guitar solo is bad beyond belief. With these "hits" appearing hard on the heels of Face Dances, it will be interesting to hear which garners more airplay.
The Pretenders, who fill half of side two, have the same problem with release schedules. They've just released a 12-inch EP with a live version of "Precious" similar to the one here. Can d.j.'s tell the difference? Do they care? Probably not; whatever the Pretenders' faults may be live, they're hot and smoking on their three Concert cuts ("The Wait" and "Tattooed Love Boys" in addition to "Precious"). The band is only sloppy enough to sound human.
The Pretenders are followed immediately by the Jake Riviera portion of the program. First, Elvis Costello and the Attractions do an intense little reading of "The Imposter"; then the now-defunct Rockpile performs "Crawling from the Wreckage" and Elvis Presley's early-'60s hit "Little Sister," the latter sung by Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant. Plant sounds happy to be with a group that isn't so out of it, and the song is just right for his swaggering pose. Things to come?
Queen seem awfully out of place on this record, but their track, "Now I'm Here," isn't that bad (except for a Freddie Mercury-led singalong) and ends after a reasonably brief six-and-a-half minutes. The segue into the Clash's "Armagideon Time" is so smooth you don't even realize the change until Joe Strummer opens his mouth. Just the right echo on the vocals contributes to an overall atmosphere that couldn't possibly have been as effective live.
Ian Dury and the Blockheads stroll on next with a boisterous but controlled "Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick"; after them the Specials do "Monkey Man." Again, the sound here is not only an improvement on the Specials' in-person thinness, but even their studio work.
Side four will undoubtedly get the most attention from press and radio. Paul McCartney's three selections — "Got to Get You into My Life," "Every Night" and "Corning Up"—are just what you'd expect: slick, tuneful and superficial. It's a long time since Macca's been a rock 'n' roller, but no one can fault his philanthropy as the prime instigator of these concerts.
Closing out the side and the LP is McCartney's pet project, the Rockestra, introduced on the most recent Wings album. In this second incarnation (how in hell did he work that out?), the 20-man combo (including members of the Who, Pretenders, Led Zeppelin, Rockpile and a horn section) whirls through Little Richard's "Lucille," the Fab Four's "Let It Be" and McCartney's own "Rockestra Theme." The effect is not especially awesome—millions of dollars worth of talent playing the same notes roughly in unison doesn't make for a lot of individual expression—yet there is an amazing tonal quality to so large an ensemble, recorded with such skill. Mixing all those electric guitars down to two channels must have been a nightmare.
In sum, the recording of the Kampuchea benefit concerts (soon to be a movie or TV show as well) is a resounding success, with the bands included some of the finest around. There's never been a better way to help UNICEF.