Amnesty International has been very fortunate over the years to have received considerable support from the world's leading musicians.
The breakthrough in securing support from the rock music community came in 1979 when Pete Townshend of the Who was invited to perform at Amnesty's "Secret Policeman's Ball" benefit show in London.
(See Pete Townshend relate the background here).
Townshend's solo acoustic performances of some of his most-cherished compositions, including "Pinball Wizard" and "Won't Get Fooled Again," made a huge impact at the show and in the subsequent album and movie. It directly led to other rock musicians accepting invitations to perform in 1981's "Secret Policeman's Other Ball". These artists included Sting, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Phil Collins, Donovan and a young Irishman appearing in his first-ever charity show - Bob Geldof.
The impact of those shows was enormous. As Bono of U2 explains: "I saw 'The Secret Policeman's Ball' and it became a part of me. It sowed a seed... It's a mysterious and extraordinary event that certainly changed my life..."
Just over three years later, Bob Geldof instigated the Band-Aid single "Do They Know It's Christmas?" which he co-wrote and produced with another musician he met at the Amnesty show - Midge Ure. A few months later in July 1985, Geldof produced the monster-sized, global rock telethon "Live Aid". Among the many artists he recruited for the show were musicians he met at Amnesty's "Secret Policeman's Ball" and others similarly inspired by it - including Sting, Bono, Phil Collins and Pete Townshend.
As Sting describes it: "The seed was planted at Amnesty for Bob Geldof. He saw what they were doing. He saw how entertainment could help that process and then he took the 'Ball' and ran with it. Further than anybody could possibly imagine."
All these seeds blossomed in 1986 with the "A Conspiracy Of Hope" tour - the first of what became Amnesty's "Human Rights Concerts" series.
Over the span of the next 12 years, Amnesty presented two concert tours - one of the USA and one of the world - plus two major stand-alone concerts - that together redefined the way music was used as a means of outreach for social and political causes.
Inevitably, many of the musicians who were the first to come on board what was dubbed Amnesty's 'caravan' in 1986, were those who had been recruited to the cause through the "Secret Policeman's Ball" shows in the UK. British and Irish musicians such as Sting, The Police, Peter Gabriel, U2, - and very fittingly - Bob Geldof. In addition to those artists, the pioneering godfather of 'Rock Musicians for Amnesty' - Pete Townshend - also flew to New York to perform at the grand finale concert of the tour. (On arrival at the stadium, he learned that his father had just been taken seriously ill - necessitating him immediately returning to London - and thus missing the concert).
The passion of these musicians from the British Isles in committing to support Amnesty, inspired American and Canadian musicians to join their fellow rock troubadours in the good fight. And thus the six-concert, ten-day "A Conspiracy Of Hope" US tour also featured artists such as Jackson Browne, Lou Reed, Bryan Adams, Joan Baez and the Neville Brothers. Many more signed up to appear as special guests for the tour's all-day-and-night final concert (televised live by MTV) from Giants Stadium just outside New York City. The musical guests at that final concert included Miles Davis, Carlos Santana, Fela Kuti, Joni Mitchell, Joan Armatrading, Ruben Blades, Howard Jones, Yoko Ono, Peter, Paul & Mary, Third World, The Hooters and Steven Van Zandt.
Other luminaries who participated in the show to help convey Amnesty's message included Muhammad Ali, Robert De Niro, Christopher Reeve, Lee Grant, Elliott Gould, Michael J. Fox, Richard Belzer, Pam Grier, Matt Dillon and Kevin Bacon. Millions of Americans saw and heard that final concert on TV and radio. Amnesty's US membership soared. And new local Amnesty action groups sprouted in schools and colleges throughout the country.
In September & October 1988, Amnesty took an idea hatched by two of its longtime activists - to stage a world tour commemorating the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - and turned it into reality. The six-week, five-continent, fifteen-nation, twenty-concert "Human Rights Now!" world tour was headlined by Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman and Youssou N'Dour. Other musicians, including Bono, Joan Baez, Pat Metheny, k.d. lang and Roy Orbison joined in at various ports along the tour.
Cumulatively, over one million people attended the twenty concerts held in gigantic stadiums. Millions more saw the three-hour film of the tour on TV. Amnesty's worldwide membership grew exponentially - especially among younger people who discovered the movement and the human rights cause through the outreach of music.
In October 1990, the liberation of Chile after 17 years of the brutal dictatorship of General Pinochet, was celebrated with a special two-day Amnesty music festival "Un Abrazo a la Esperanza" ("An Embrace Of Hope...") Veteran Amnesty supporters Sting, Peter Gabriel, Jackson Browne and Ruben Blades were joined by Sinead O'Connor, Wynton Marsalis, local heroes (returning from exile) Inti-Ilimani and even teen-throb, boy-band New Kids On The Block.
On December 10th 1998, on the exact 50th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Amnesty marked the milestone with a grand concert in the city where that landmark document was signed - Paris. As was becoming an Amnesty tradition, the performers were a mixture of returning Amnesty stalwarts and newcomers to the cause. The veterans included Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman and Youssou N'Dour - reunited for the first time since their Amnesty world tour ten years earlier. Among those newly joining the cause for the concert titled "The Struggle Continues..." were Radiohead, Jimmy Page & Robert Plant, Shania Twain, Asian Dub Foundation, Kassav and Alanis Morissette. Dignitaries in attendance at the concert included His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
One of the most profound developments to emerge from the concert series was the way in which many of the musicians became ever more involved as social and political activists. For example, prior to being recruited to Amnesty in 1981, Sting had comparatively little awareness of the human rights issue. As he told the BBC during the 1986 tour: "I've been a member of Amnesty and a support member for five years, due to an entertainment event called 'The Secret Policeman's Ball' and before that I did not know about Amnesty, I did not know about its work, I did not know about torture in the world."
As a result of his membership of Amnesty, in 1987 Sting learned how Chilean women in mourning for their loved ones who had 'disappeared' at the hands of the brutal regime of Chilean dictator General Pinochet - would dance the 'Cueca' (the national dance of Chile) alone -
with photographs of their disappeared loved ones pinned to their clothes.
Deeply moved by this, and wanting to register his own protest against the heinous Pinochet dictatorship that had slaughtered thousands of innocent Chilean citizens since seizing power in 1973, Sting composed the song "They Dance Alone". He recorded the song for his 1987 album "Nothing Like the Sun."
For the final concert of the "Human Rights Now!" tour in October 1988 in Buenos Aires, Sting performed the song with Peter Gabriel and invited on stage the Argentinian equivalent of the Chilean movement of mourning mothers. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo (known as the Madres) - an association of Argentine mothers whose children had 'disappeared' during the 'Dirty War' of the military dictatorship, between 1976-1983. After singing the song in a combination of English and Spanish, Sting and Gabriel then danced with each of the bereaved women - a public gesture of support that human rights activists said brought some solace to the inconsolable.
Sting reprised his dramatic show of solidarity for such women when Amnesty organized the "An Embrace Of Hope" concert in October 1990 to celebrate Chile's liberation from Pinochet. As he sang the song, Sting was joined on stage by over twenty Chilean women with photos of their lost husbands and sons in their hands or pinned to their clothing. Again Sting - joined by Peter Gabriel - danced with each of the women. They no longer danced alone. Now they were dancing with Sting... with Peter Gabriel... with 100,000 people in the stadium... and with millions of people around the world who were grieving for their loss and heartened by their courage. This is Amnesty International at work...
In this fashion, the "Human Rights Concerts" developed their own style over time. But there were also occasional nods in homage to the show's "Secret Policeman's Ball" lineage. Bruce Springsteen honored the roots by following the example of Pete Townshend's pioneering 1979 performance in which the Who songwriter/guitarist had deconstructed three of his stadium-sized rock compositions, and re-imagined them as intimate acoustic performances. (Senior MTV executives later told Townshend that this had been the direct inspiration for their "Unplugged" TV show.) In Amnesty's 1998 Paris concert, to the audience's delight, Springsteen performed three of his own songs that were usually heard with full band backing - stripped back to their acoustic core.
Another "Secret Policeman's Ball" motif - the historic couplings that had seen
Pete Townshend collaborate with the world's leading classical guitarist John Williams;
Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton perform together for the first time ever;
and a fretboard pas de deux between Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler and country guitar virtuoso Chet Atkins - was echoed by Sting who at various Amnesty concerts vocalized in memorable duets with Bono, Peter Gabriel and Bruce Springsteen.
A key organizational figure in the first three events of the "Human Rights Concerts" series was Jack Healey - Executive Director of Amnesty International USA between 1981-1993. Following the success in the US marketplace in 1980-1984 of Amnesty UK's "Secret Policeman's Ball" movies, videos and music albums, Healey decided to build on this breakthrough by organizing concerts for Amnesty that focused on rock music. Healey was the primary driving force behind the concerts - that in the case of the 1986 and 1988 tours, he co-produced with seasoned rock promoter Bill Graham.
Jack Healey and Bill Graham
The 1998 Paris concert was very much the vision of Amnesty planning officer Blair Gibb (who sadly died of leukemia, age 52, just months after the concert) and Peter Gabriel. Gabriel incidentally is the only musician who performed in all of the "Human Rights Concerts". Other musicians who were integrally involved in the concert series and have continued their support for Amnesty include U2, Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Ruben Blades, Joan Baez, Youssou N'Dour and Tracy Chapman.
Following this series of concerts, Amnesty has continued to enjoy the support of the music community but in recent years has harnessed that support primarily through creating audio recording projects rather than by presenting large-scale concerts. Two projects in particular, primarily instigated and supervised by Amnesty USA's then Director of Special Projects Helen Garrett, exemplify this new approach:
Blair Gibb    Helen Garrett
The 2007 album "Instant Karma" - a collection of John Lennon solo songs newly performed by multiple stars including U2, R.E.M., Green Day, Black Eyed Peas, Aerosmith, Duran Duran, Jackson Browne, Lenny Kravitz, Ben Harper, Dhani Harrison, Jakob Dylan, Youssou N'Dour, Willie Nelson, Avril Lavigne, Meshell Ndegeocello, Angelique Kidjo, Christina Aguilera, Corinne Bailey Rae, Regina Spektor, Jack Johnson and Mick Fleetwood.
(Helen Garrett worked on the album with Art For Amnesty founder Bill Shipsey, who executive-produced the album with Amnesty USA's then Executive Director Larry Cox and music executive Jeff Ayeroff. Yoko Ono generously donated all music rights to Lennon's songs to Amnesty for the project and the album has raised over $5 million to date for the human rights organization.)
And the 2012 album commemorating Amnesty's 50th anniversary - "Chimes Of Freedom" - a set of Bob Dylan compositions freshly recorded by a wide range of stars including: Pete Townshend, Sting, Jeff Beck, Seal, Mark Knopfler, Paul Rodgers, Nils Lofgren, Joe Perry, Eric Burdon, Bryan Ferry, Jackson Browne, Elvis Costello, Mick Hucknall, Kris Kristofferson, Steve Earle, Billy Bragg, Tom Morello, Dave Matthews, Lenny Kravitz, Ziggy Marley, Raphael Saadiq, Adele, Joan Baez, Patti Smith, Carly Simon, Sin'ead O'Connor, Angelique Kidjo, Marianne Faithfull, Evan Rachel Wood. Underscoring the diversity of Amnesty's appeal the album included new recordings by the then 19-year-old Miley Cyrus and the then 92-years-young Pete Seeger.
(Helen Garrett executive produced the album for Amnesty with Karen Scott in tandem with music executives Jeff Ayeroff & Julie Yanatta. The album's Contributing Producer was Martin Lewis. Bob Dylan was very generous in granting Amnesty permission to utilize his songs in support of the human rights organization.)
After their solitary TV broadcasts in 1986, 1988 and 1990, the first three films of the "Human Rights Concerts" were - in the ethos of that era's "Live Aid" concerts - placed on the proverbial shelf. So those concerts have never been made available for home enjoyment. The 1998 Paris concert was available for a short time on VHS and DVD but has not been available for many years.
A shift in the attitudes about making deep-vaulted, vintage benefit concerts available took place early in the new century and the iconic "Live Aid" concerts were finally released to the public on a four-disc DVD set in 2005 to mark that concert's 20th anniversary
2013 sees the
65th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the
25th anniversary of the landmark "Human Rights Now!" world tour - and to commemorate
these anniversaries, Amnesty is taking a leaf from Bob Geldof's "Live Aid" playbook and is finally releasing the "Human Rights Now!" film and all the other historic "Human Rights Concerts" on DVD and CD.
Sting and Martin Lewis in 1983
The "Human Rights Concerts" have been restored and produced for release by Martin Lewis - who was co-creator (with John Cleese) of Amnesty's "Secret Policeman's Ball" series and co-producer of all the 'Ball' shows, movies, TV specials and albums between 1976-1985. It was Lewis who first instigated Amnesty's outreach to rock musicians by recruiting and producing Pete Townshend, Sting, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Phil Collins, Tom Robinson, Donovan, Midge Ure and Bob Geldof in the 1970s and 1980s. Lewis co-conceived the 1988 "Human Rights Now!" world tour with Amnesty USA Executive Director Jack Healey. Among Lewis' recent credits for Amnesty, he was Producer Emeritus of the 2012 "Secret Policeman's Ball". And he was the Contributing Producer of Amnesty's "Chimes of Freedom" CD set of Bob Dylan compositions - instigating and producing or executive-producing tracks featuring Pete Townshend, Jeff Beck, Seal, Paul Rodgers, Nils Lofgren, Joe Perry, Mick Hucknall, Billy Bragg, Evan Rachel Wood and Pete Seeger. Lewis has been an Amnesty supporter and activist for 37 years.
Pete Townshend and Martin Lewis in 2013
The title of the new "Human Rights Concerts" box-set is another tip of the hat to Amnesty's history with the music community and also a reminder of one of the organization's foremost missions - the freeing of prisoners-of-conscience who have neither used, nor advocated the use of, violence.
The DVD collection is titled "¡RELEASED!"
In the 52 years since Amnesty was founded in London by British lawyer Peter Benenson, the organization's grassroots, member-driven campaigns have assisted in securing the release of tens of thousands of political prisoners. Indeed many freed prisoners attended the various "Human Rights Concerts" and spent time with the musicians - an experience that the artists found especially enriching.
Amnesty's musical connection to the title "¡RELEASED!" stems from 1981's "Secret Policeman's Other Ball".
Show producer Martin Lewis
had chosen Bob Dylan's 1968 song "I Shall Be Released" to be Amnesty's unofficial anthem and had arranged for the song to be performed as the grand finale by an all-star band led by Sting. This usage received the gracious blessing of the composer himself who, without seeking any publicity, very generously waived all his royalties in favor of Amnesty. Five years later, Sting and Bono reprised the idea and used the song for the all-stars-on-stage-together finale of all the concerts on the "A Conspiracy Of Hope" tour. At the last concert of the tour in Giants Stadium, the musical finale was graced by the presence on stage alongside the musicians of a score of recently-released political prisoners. It was a powerful, emotional climax in which cause and content were perfectly fused.
Given that three of the concert films had never been available for home enjoyment - and the fourth had been long unavailable - it is fitting indeed that finally, at long last, the "Human Rights Concerts" have been ¡RELEASED!