IN OUR HOURS OF DARKNESS...
The individual Beatles have always been people of their time. In the darkest hours of the Vietnam war in 1969 it was John Lennon who spoke for the true majority of people when he wrote and recorded "Give Peace A Chance" - a paean to world peace. In the horror of the civil war and resulting refugee crisis in Bangla Desh it was George Harrison who rose to the occasion by recording his "Bangla Desh" song and then organizing the "Concert For Bangla Desh" in 1971. (More about that later in this column.)
When we heard and saw the terrible horror of September 11th - the waves of grief, despair and anger experienced all over America - and most other parts of the world - were intense. Among the ways we as a society have tried to heal the pain and raise money to help the victims - music has of course been one of the key ingredients.
How fitting then that music created by the Beatles has played such an important role in applying balm to the deep wounds we suffered. The superb "Concert For Heroes" TV special just ten days after the attack featured Neil Young's remarkable version of "Imagine." Then came the "Come Together" concert originally planned by Yoko Ono as a tribute on John's birthday - but fittingly dedicated to the city of New York that John so adored. The evening was a reminder to the whole world of the genius of John's writing. I was especially moved by the exquisitely poignant rendition of "Strawberry Fields Forever" from New York's Strawberry Fields by Cyndi Lauper.
Last but not least was the magnificent "Concert For New York" - inspired by Paul's determination to do something really special. I made a special trip to New York - just for that night - and as the last echoes of the reprise of Paul's "Freedom" song were fading into the ether - and the audience was streaming out into the Manhattan streets - I found myself reflecting on how wonderful it was that the music of the Beatles - and the commitment of Paul - had played such a big part in the effort to heal the nation and honor the heroes of New York. Yes, ever since the sixties - in our hours of darkness - the Beatles have always been there for the world.
HERE COMES THE KNIGHT?
As all Beatles fans know - the Beatles were honored by the Queen in 1965. They were awarded the M.B.E. - which stands for Member of the British Empire. A rather archaic notion since our Empire rather ceased to exist somewhere in the late 1940's! However - the nation's honor system retained the old wording. In fact the M.B.E. was the least of several honors available. The next ones up the ladder are the O.B.E. and the C.B.E. (Order and Commander of the former British Empire respectively...) From there you go to a knighthood (making you a Sir.) After that there's not too much going except for a Lordship...
So the Beatles originally got only the lowest title on the honors totem pole. However it was completely revolutionary that the Beatles even received the decoration. The title had previously been reserved primarily for long-serving members of the military or as a reward for long civic service. The occasional entertainer or sports figure also received such honors. But usually only after many years of endeavor in their field. So when the Beatles were named as recipients of the award in June 1965 - barely two years after their British breakthrough - it caused a minor riot among the establishment. Retired colonels and stuffy old aldermen started returning their own medals in protest!
There are two interesting things to note about the honor. First of all the citation for the Beatles did NOT refer to their music or the great pleasure they were giving millions of people all round the world. In mid-1965 the Beatles were still primarily a pop group rather than a rock band. The beginning of that transition from entertainers to serious artists was still a few months away. And of course the establishment itself did not recognize the artistic achievements of the Beatles in that later 1966-1970 period anyway. They were perceived in those years (quite rightly) as being part of the counter culture - and at that time that was perceived (quite wrongly) as a 'Dangerous Thing.'
So in mid-1965 the Beatles were given their awards for their services to exports! Yes it was their contribution to Britain's troubled economy that got them the nod.
The other notable thing is that since the awards are physically doled out by Her Majesty - most people outside Britain naturally assume that the Queen herself makes the choice of recipients to honor. However - the British monarchy don't actually decide anything. Haven't done since the time of Charles II back in the 17th century. These days they are there just as the titular heads of state and to please the tourists at flashy ceremonies. (In defense of the importance of the monarchy - you have to admit that our royal family was dysfunctional long before it became fashionable!)
The decision about who gets the awards is always made by the Prime Minister of the day - and they are then given out as though they are the Queen's choice. In the case of the Beatles - the decision was made by the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson - the head of the Labour Party government that ruled Britain from October 1964 until June 1970. He had been Prime Minister for less than nine months when he decided to honor the Beatles. Now a lot of cynics said that he was simply trying to curry favor with Britain's youngsters. That if the Labour Party was seen to honor the Beatles it would make them more attractive to young voters.
This really missed the point. First of all in those days you still had to be 21 to vote - and most Beatles fans were in the 12-17 age group. More importantly - Harold Wilson's Labour government - while not a perfect administration - was making a genuine attempt to free Britain of the very same stuffy, old-fashioned class-based attitudes of the past that the Beatles were sweeping aside in their own way. Honoring the Beatles was a clear break with the past - a way of demonstrating that young working-class people could also be heroes and that honors should not be given just to the middle and upper classes - and not just to people in the later stages of their lives.
Why this history lesson about Britain's honors system? After all the system did honor the Beatles in 1965. And - finally in 1997 it honored Paul with a knighthood.
Well the reason for giving you this background is because I think there has been an egregious oversight. I'm talking about George Harrison. Now I could certainly make a case that George and Ringo should have been knighted at the same time as Paul. But Paul was not knighted for being a Beatle. He was cited for his contributions to British society - especially the charitable and educational causes he has supported. His founding of LIPA (the Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts) is obviously a key example of his good works.
Now Ringo has certainly done his fair share of charity work over the years - but the honors system is not designed to be perfectly symmetrical - and the scale of his contributions to British society have not been on the same level as Paul's. For starters - Ringo has spent a considerable number of years as a tax exile from the UK - whereas Paul has never left Britain - however high the taxes have climbed from time to time.
But there is a different situation with George. There are two major contributions that George has made as a British citizen that - when undertaken by others - have resulted in THOSE people receiving knighthoods.
First of all George made a massive contribution to the revitalization of the British film industry in the 1980's through the movies he made with his Handmade Pictures company - including films such as "Time Bandits" and "Withnail And I" Many other figures in the British film industry who have made far lesser contributions have been knighted. But not George. Why not? I have no idea. But I think that George certainly deserves recognition for that important cultural contribution.
But - even greater than that - is the arena of charitable projects. Bob Geldof of the Boomtown Rats was rightly given a knighthood after his incredible efforts with the Band-Aid charity single "Do They Know It's Christmas?" followed by the Live Aid concert in 1985. Bob Geldof was actually given an honorary knighthood because as an Irish citizen he could not receive a full knighthood - which is reserved just for British citizens. (Other honorary knighthoods have gone to Americans such as Steven Spielberg - and Margaret Thatcher's conservative crony - Ronald Reagan.)
Now nothing should be taken away from Bob Geldof. His contributions were magnificent. But let's give credit where it's due. George Harrison made an even greater contribution to the world of charity events in 1971. Not greater monetarily - but as a pioneer. When George wrote and recorded his "Bangla Desh" single - and then organized the incredible concerts for Bangla Desh it was the first time that such things had happened. No pop or rock star had ever recorded a song specifically about and for the benefit of a cause of that nature before. And despite the numerous multi-artist concerts and festivals in the late 60's and early 70's - ranging from Monterey, Woodstock, Altamont and the Isle of Wight - no one in the rock world had ever conceived of harnessing the enormous power of rock stars to charitable deeds.
George's vision was a first - and had an incredible impact. Not just the awareness and money raised for the cause - but the inspiration it gave to other entertainers to lend a hand and raise money and consciousness about causes dear to THEIR hearts.
I can speak directly to this because George's amazing concerts for Bangla Desh were a direct inspiration to me on the series of benefits I produced in England with John Cleese between 1976 and 1981 for Amnesty International. These were the fund-raisers that are known collectively as the "Secret Policeman's Ball" shows. These shows were primarily comedy galas starring the Monty Pythons and other leading British comics. I in particular felt directly inspired by what George had done. The press release I wrote for our very first show in 1976 ("A Poke In The Eye - With A Sharp Stick") described the show as intending "to be to British comedy what the 'Concert For Bangla Desh' was to the rock world." In other words - we tried to gather together British comedic stars to help Amnesty just as George had gathered together music stars to help Bangla Desh.
And with the 1979 and 1981 shows - when I recruited rock musicians such as Pete Townshend, Sting, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins and Jeff Beck to play in between the comedy skits - I was very conscious that we were directly emulating the great example set by George - and I know that all the musicians felt that way too. And the spirit of musicians giving to others - that originated with George Harrison obviously got passed on to... Bob Geldof.
Yes - Bob Geldof was one of the musicians I secured at the last minute to play at the very last of the four nights of the "Secret Policeman's Other Ball" in September 1981. I remember him telling me that it was the very first time he had ever played a charity show. Well obviously the spirit of the other musicians in the show ignited something in Bob - and in late 1984 when he became aware of the famine in Ethiopia - he organized the benefits that did so much good - and for which he was rightly awarded a knighthood.
But what of George? The man whose efforts inspired so many to emulate his charitable work - including John Cleese and I to stage the benefits for Amnesty - which in turn inspired Pete Townshend, Sting, Eric Clapton et al - and of course SIR Bob Geldof.
So how come George is not SIR George? No good reason I can think of.
So that brings me to a suggestion. Why don't we fans draw this situation to the attention of the only person who has the power to remedy this horrendous oversight?
His name is Tony Blair - and he is the current Prime Minister of Britain. (Now you know why I gave you that history lesson about who has the power to give awards! I didn't want you to waste your time writing to Her Majesty The Queen!) Well we know that Tony Blair is fairly busy at the moment - providing staunch support to America's fight against terrorism. But I can tell you from personal knowledge that he is a solid Beatles fan.
In 1997 I was lending a hand to the organizers of the wonderful official Liverpool celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the July 1957 day when John Lennon and Paul McCartney met for the first time, I suggested to the primary organizer Jean Catherall (who runs the Liverpool Beatles fan club) that perhaps we should get some messages from world leaders to read out on the day. Well I volunteered to secure such messages - and I found out just how appreciated the Beatles were in high circles.
Eventually I received greetings for the occasion from President Bill Clinton and even Her Majesty The Queen. But the very first world leader to send us a greeting was - the newly-elected British Prime Minister - Tony Blair (just two months after he'd been elected to that office.)
So I urge all readers of this column who share my feeling that George should be honored with a knighthood for his services to the British film industry and/or his services to charity - please write a polite, respectful letter to this effect to Tony Blair at the following address. And perhaps one day soon Her Majesty will get to say the words "Arise Sir George!" He deserves nothing less....
Write to: The Right Hon. Tony Blair. 10 Downing Street, London SW1A 2AA England.
(And if you like - please send me a copy of your letter. PO Box 461378 L.A. CA 90046 USA)