What if…The Beatles had reformed for Bangla Desh?

The Concert for Bangla Desh was, of course, one of the crowning moments of George’s solo career. Held at New York’s Madison Square Garden on 1 August 1971, it was the first major all-star rock fundraiser, laying the foundations for Live Aid 14 years later. Such events seem to happen every other week now, but then it was a novelty for pop musicians to translate worthy words and social consciences into hard action to help people in need – in this case, the millions of refugees displaced by the Bangla Desh Liberation War in Pakistan that year who were facing mass starvation. George, arguably the biggest rock star on the planet at that time, rounded up big-name pals like Ringo, Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan, plus a notable supporting cast including Badfinger and Billy Preston, for two sell-out gigs which also spawned a chart-topping live album and concert film. Notwithstanding the contractual wrangles which later held up the flow of badly-needed humanitarian cash, it was a fantastic achievement which raised millions of dollars and made headlines around the world. But if George’s original plan had worked out, it would’ve been something even bigger – a Beatles reunion show. 

The four Fabs pictured during the early 1970s

It’s fairly well documented that Harrison asked both Lennon and McCartney to take part in the show (a typically selfless move, considering he no longer needed their support to command mass interest and huge ticket sales). John initially accepted the invitation, but the thorny issue of Yoko’s participation seems to have put paid to the prospect of him taking part. George apparently stipulated that he didn’t want her more esoteric approach to music-making as part of the show, something which – as John and Yoko were still very much joined at the hip during this period – became a problem. John fell out either with George or with Yoko as a result, depending on who tells the story, but either way he ended up pulling out of the show. Paul, on the other hand, flatly refused, citing the band’s internecine legal conflicts which were raging during 1971. It’s easy to be critical of such a stance in hindsight, but you have remember that relations between Macca and his former bandmates were at an all-time low at that point. He’d taken them to court at the start of the year in a bid to remove what he saw (correctly, as it turned out) as the malign influence of Allen Klein over their company Apple and all the money flowing into it. The fall-out from that sparked bad feeling on both sides, with John especially wasting few opportunities to trash Paul in public as the year unfolded. Indeed, with help from George, Lennon had recorded the bitter McCartney rebuke ‘How Do You Sleep?’ that very summer, which would emerge on his Imagine album released just a few weeks after the Bangla Desh concert. And Klein was still very much in cahoots with the other three Fabs (he’s actually quoted in the contemporaneous book Apple to the Core gleefully contemplating how Paul’s absence from the show would damage his public image). So it’s hard to, ahem, imagine a worse time for possible Beatles reformation than August 1971. 

That said, it’s tantalising to consider what might have happened if they could have put their differences aside for just one day. If Yoko had seen the bigger picture and opted to step aside, urging John to take to the stage in support of what was effectively an anti-war event – something you would think would be very close to both their hearts. If John and George had called a halt to the public sniping (if not the legal disputes) and promised Paul that Klein would be nowhere near the event. If Paul had then swallowed his pride and accepted the olive branch without giving any ground over his position on the complicated dissolution of Apple. There are an awful lot of ifs and contingencies in there, true, but they might not have been totally insurmountable. In an alternate universe, there could’ve been some kind of fleeting rapprochement, a one-off truce in Beatle hostilities for the greater good. Okay, the whole of the US eastern seaboard might have gone into meltdown in the clamour for tickets once word got out, but what a moment it would have been. Or would it? And what form would the show have taken? 

George performing ‘My Sweet Lord’ at the Bangla Desh show

Even if the Fabs had managed to put aside their differences, I doubt very much the event would ever had turned into a full-blown, full-length Beatles concert. They were all very much hitting their stride as solo performers then, and I don’t think any of them would’ve had the appetite to turn the clock back completely and put on Shea Stadium part two. Two many bridges had been burned; they weren’t a band anymore, and the level of pretence would’ve been too much. In addition, this was a ‘George Harrison and Friends’ show, very much his baby, and I think he would have remained the lead player. To that end, I don’t think the first two-thirds of the gig would have been much different to what actually transpired. Riding high on the success of All Things Must Pass, I reckon George would’ve run through the same tracks from that album, plus a couple of his Beatles biggies (‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ and ‘Here Comes The Sun’), with the same backing band – Clapton and all. I’m guessing there’d still have been the solo spots for Ringo and Billy Preston performing their recent hits, and – possibly – Leon Russell’s sprightly medley of ‘Jumping Jack Flash/Youngblood’. But then, instead of the surprise guess appearance by Bob Dylan (it was touch and go whether he would even show up at all, and I can’t imagine he would’ve wanted his thunder stolen by a Beatles reunion), I think the crowd would have gone even more berserk with the introduction of two of George’s very special friends. 

Paul live onstage in 1972

I think John and Paul would have performed short solo sets first. Interestingly, neither had a backing band at this time – Lennon’s relocation to New York was still more than month away, so he hadn’t yet hooked up with the Elephant’s Memory Band, while the first iteration of Wings hadn’t quite taken shape – so they would most likely have performed with the band George had put together for the event (though I can see Harrison himself taking a breather at this point, thus allowing his former bandmates the full spotlight for a few numbers. Ringo may well have stayed behind the drums, though). But who would’ve taken to the stage first? John being John, my guess is that it would’ve been Paul (though possibly in a trade-off for something later in the show, which I’ll come to in a moment). There wasn’t a lot of McCartney solo material to choose from at that point, just a couple of albums (McCartney and Ram), and one single. A second 45, ‘Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey’, would be released in the States the day after the Bangla Desh show (to huge success) but, even given Paul’s famed eye for promoting his work, this orchestra-laden tune would’ve been nigh-on impossible to reproduce live back then (and it remains a song he’s never attempted in concert to this day). That being the case, I think he would’ve kicked off his mini-set with a rocker from Ram (which was still riding high in the charts). The digs at John in ‘Too Many People’ would probably have made that inappropriate for the conciliatory occasion, while the inane lyrics about smelly feet and bad breath would likely have ruled out ‘Smile Away’ as the first live song performed of his post-Beatle career. So I think he’d have walked onstage with his Rickenbacker bass and ripped into ‘Eat At Home’, a song he did play live with Wings the following year. Linda’s prominent presence on the studio version would have been missed, but I can’t imagine Paul would’ve plunged her into such a big event for her live debut (and that’s before you consider he’d have had to abide by the ‘no spouse’ ruling which applied to John). Then I fancy he would’ve switched to acoustic guitar for ‘Another Day’, his debut single from earlier in the year, a big hit and a track we know from recent years translates well to the concert arena. And I don’t think there’s much doubt he would’ve closed out his section by moving to the piano and singing ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’, a recent FM radio staple and already a stone-cold Macca classic.

John performing at Madison Square Garden a little over 12 months after the Bangla Desh concert

Then, after returning to the stage and exchanging a (perhaps slightly awkward) hug with the retreating Paul, George would’ve stirred up more frenzy by introducing John. Lennon had even fewer released songs than McCartney at this time, comprising just four singles and 1970’s John Lennon/Plastic Ono album. And while that LP had enjoyed huge critical acclaim, it hadn’t sold as well as Paul’s or George’s early efforts, and some of its stark numbers might not have come over well in such a setting. So I reckon he’d he’d have kicked off with ‘Power To The People’, a hit single just a few months’ earlier. True, it’s not a great song (John later professed to be slightly embarrassed by it), but he’d have wanted to play something recent and its vague political notions might have given it some kind of activist relevance for a benefit show. With Clapton and Ringo onstage, as per the record, I think it’s a given he’d have performed ‘Cold Turkey’ (and if it had been anything like the rendition he gave at the same venue a little more than a year later at his One-to-One fundraising show, it would’ve been a treat). I did ponder whether he might have introduced the world to ‘Imagine’ at this show – it would certainly have fitted the bill, lyrically, and the crowd would probably have lapped up anything by this point, even an unheard song. But I suspect he’d have wanted to finish his three-song slot with more of a bang, so would have chosen to hammer out ‘Instant Karma’ on the piano. A big hit, of course, and another number which came off really well when he sang it at Madison Square Garden the following year. Then he’d have stood up, thanked the crowd and strode into the shadows, followed by the rest of the band – leaving the audience baying for an encore…

And what an encore it could have been. Picture the scene: the lights go up, and four familiar figures take to the stage. The Beatles! As per their last live performance together, Billy Preston slots behind the keyboards, but everyone is too busy losing their shit to notice that. The front three briefly tune up their guitars and share a few words with each other, before John announces: “We haven’t done this for a while, so you’ll have to bear with us,” before laughing and counting the band into ‘Come Together’. It was the one Fabs song he chose to do at his solo concert a year later, and it was a favourite of all the band, so it makes sense they would’ve played this one, with Billy replicating Paul’s keyboard part. And you can see them all grinning at each other as they rediscover the joy of playing together, especially when Paul harmonises with John’s lead vocal. Then another tune from Abbey Road, with George – as per the actual event – singing ‘Something’. Finally, it would be Paul’s turn to close things out with ‘Get Back’, surely the perfect track for the occasion, You can imagine the ecstatic response as the audience recognises that galloping intro, Beatlemania reborn. It might seem obvious now that they’ve have put ‘Hey Jude’ in there to wrap things up, but I feel that would’ve given the finale too much of a McCartney flavour for George and John at that time. I also think George would be keen remind everyone what the show was actually about before saying goodnight, and so would’ve summoned the full backing band back onstage for the (very fine) high-speed version of his ‘Bangla Desh’ single which ends the existing live album. The other Beatles would probably join in, but would just be part of the all-star blow-out. I don’t think the four would be able to resist a curtain call bow together, though, before hugging one another as they retreated to the wings and the lights came up.

Always ready to support his mates – Ringo at the Bangla Desh gig

So I think the show setlist (and who knows, maybe a live album) would’ve gone like this:

‘Wah Wah’ (George)

‘My Sweet Lord’ (George)

‘Awaiting On You All’ (George)

‘That’s The Way God Planned It’ (Billy Preston)

‘It Don’t Come Easy’ (Ringo)

‘Beware of Darkness’ (George)

‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ (George)

‘Jumping Jack Flash/Youngblood’ (Leon Russell)

‘Here Comes The Sun’ (George)

‘Eat At Home’ (Paul)

‘Another Day’ (Paul)

‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ (Paul)

‘Power To The People’ (John)

‘Cold Turkey’ (John)

‘Instant Karma’ (John)

‘Come Together’ (The Beatles)

‘Something’ (The Beatles)

‘Get Back’ (The Beatles)

‘Bangla Desh’ (all).

A mouthwatering prospect, indeed, and it’s hard to imagine how this could’ve been anything other than awesome, assuming all four Fabs could have left their disagreements at the door and got into the spirit of the show. But, of course, things were just too fractious at the time, and relations would become even more strained – for a while – when John detonated ‘How Do You Sleep?’ just a few weeks later. But you know what, maybe it’s a good thing they didn’t reunite then. Maybe Paul was right in questioning the wisdom of getting back together so soon after they had split up. In time, it might have been seen as being a bit ‘after the Lord Mayor’s Show’; they had signed of their live career so perfectly with the iconic Apple rooftop gig in 1969, why do it again just a couple of years later? And I always find it fascinating that they avoided any kind of formal reunion – either when John was alive, or at events such as Live Aid and their 1988 Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame induction – until they were ready to do so, with the Anthology project in 1995. It would be on their terms, no-one else’s, and that quarter-century wait certainly gave the reformation all the more impact when it finally happened. Still, in this era of cinematic superhero multiverses, it’s fun to dream of an alternative dimension where, for one night only, The Beatles returned to rock the 1970s and leave another golden moment for us all to savour.

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