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Vinyl Cave: Party down with Paul McCartney at the Concerts for the People of Kampuchea

Musicians tend to be a giving lot, and there's been countless benefit concerts over the course of pop music's modern history. From bands and friends gathering at a neighborhood bar to international events like Live Aid, the planning needed to put together a benefit -- and the amount of money raised -- can vary widely. One of the more ambitious such events which has been somewhat lost in the mists of time was the Concerts for the People of Kampuchea, a series of shows to benefit UNICEF efforts on behalf of civil war-ravaged Cambodia.

The four concerts, which took place at the Hammersmith Odeon in London at the end of 1979, were both recorded and filmed in their entirety, likely in hopes of more fundraising via the Woodstock model of successful record and film projects. From what I can tell the film side of the equation didn't have too much success; IMDB lists only a TV version from 1983. The Wikipedia entry on the film mentions Miramax picking up U.S. theatrical distribution later in the '80s, but I can't find any other reference to that actually happening. That entry also shows a picture of a bootleg DVD cover, and it appears that much of the filmed footage has surfaced surreptitiously online.

The concert recordings had an easier time making it to the shops, edited down into the double set Concerts for the People of Kampuchea which hit Billboard's album charts in 1981. According to the liner notes, the concerts were inspired by a contact between U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim and ex-Beatle Paul McCartney, who at the time was leading one of the final incarnations of '70s arena rockers Wings. McCartney gathered a mix of both established superstars: The Who, Queen, and up-and comers on the U.K. rock scene, including now-legendary groups The Clash, The Pretenders and Elvis Costello and the Attractions. Some of the other names on the bill -- like Ian Dury and the Blockheads, The Specials -- may not be as well remembered by American audiences, but they were equally big hitmakers in the U.K. as the other up-and-comers at the time. Then there's pub rock legends Rockpile, a group that included both Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds, and served as the de facto backing band for the '70s "solo" albums by both. Left off the album completely was reggae band Matumbi, but the disc does make room for a whole side of a hoarse-voiced McCartney. That includes three cuts by a version of Wings dubbed "Rockestra" augmented by about 15 other players, many of whom didn't participate otherwise. In fact, part of Rockestra's set was probably the last live performance of Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, who died the following year.

So, with all this firepower the album must be a stunner, right? Well, not exactly. Do you want to hear horns on The Who's "See Me, Feel Me"? Or about 20 British rock legends led by McCartney pounding "Lucille" into submission? (Well, actually that's kinda fun.) Then this album may be for you. Nobody falls flat, but nothing's particularly gonna make a listener three decades later jump up and down in glee, either; I guess you had to be there. One thing I do appreciate is that other than the Who's side, the material here is nearly all drawn from non-hit tracks by the various groups -- so for the most part it's not just yet another version of the same old songs.

Highlights include the two Rockpile tracks (of course), one of which is a cover of "Little Sister" with Robert Plant on vocals, the tough-sounding Pretenders tracks, and Dury's weird "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick," which makes me wish I still had my Ian Dury albums.

Unlike many of the albums drawn from other high-profile benefit projects of the '70s and '80s, Concerts for the People of Kampuchea was allowed to go out of print after its initial release. That's something of a surprise since there's always interest in nearly anything Beatles-related, not to mention the continuing cachet of venerated bands like The Who, Queen, Led Zeppelin and The Clash. All that star power is probably what's keeping this album on the shelf, as untangling the legalities of reissuing something involving so many bands with high-powered business representation ain't gonna be fun for anyone. Luckily for those who are interested, it sold well at the time and the LP can still be found pretty quickly by scanning your area dollar bins and thrift stores; it only took me about a week to track one down after a friend suggested I check it out -- and there were three copies there that day! (Atlantic, 1981)

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