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How Amnesty International Rocked the World: The Inside Story

Behind the famous 1980s concerts with Bruce Springsteen, U2 and Sting

October 25, 2013 9:00 AM ET
Bono of U2 performs in Chicago during the Amnesty International tour.
Bono of U2 performs in Chicago during the Amnesty International tour.
Paul Natkin/WireImage

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band had been all over the planet with Sting, Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman and Youssou N'Dour by the time the 1988 Amnesty International Human Rights Now tour touched down on Africa's Ivory Coast. However, they'd never seen a crowd like the 50,000 fans at le Félicia soccer stadium. "It was a stadium of entirely black faces," Springsteen recalled recently. "Clarence [Clemons] said to me, 'Now you know what it feels like!' There were about 60 seconds where you could feel people sussing us out, and then the whole place just exploded. The band came off feeling like it was the first show we'd ever done. We had to go and prove ourselves on just what we were doing that moment on stage."

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The concert was one of the final stops on the Human Rights Now! tour, the second of two all-star tours that Amnesty International staged in the mid-1980s to spread awareness of human rights atrocities across the globe. They were herculean efforts that made all previous benefit concerts – Live Aid included – seem like a minor undertaking. 

The Amnesty International tours featured once-in-a-lifetime performances by U2, Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, Sting, the Police, Joan Baez, Bryan Adams and many others. However, for the past two-and-a-half decades, they've only been available as low-res VHS bootlegs and YouTube videos. On November 5th, they are finally coming out in ¡Released!: The Human Rights Concerts 1986-1998, a six-DVD package with remastered audio/video and hours of unseen footage from backstage, including new interviews (which you can watch first here). 

Amnesty International began plotting the first tour just weeks after Live Aid raised millions for famine victims of Ethiopia and made hundreds of millions of people around the planet aware of their plight. "Amnesty realized it wouldn't be sufficient to just do music on one day," longtime Amnesty activist Martin Lewis told Rolling Stone. "[Amnesty USA Executive Director] Jack Healey had the idea of doing a tour. It helped immensely that he went to Bill Graham, who they couldn't have done the tour without."

One of the first calls they made was to U2. "It couldn't have been worst timing," the Edge said in the book U2 by U2. "We were building up to go into the studio [to record The Joshua Tree] and I was worried all the focus and concentration would be lost." But it was an offer they couldn't refuse, and they agreed to not only delay the recording of their album but actually lobby other artists to join the tour. "We rang everybody we knew," said Bono. "Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Prince…"

None of those people agreed, but Amnesty wound up with a lineup guaranteed to pack stadiums around America: U2, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Bryan Adams, Lou Reed and Joan Baez. The six-show national tour inspired great moments; for the final three shows, Sting made a last-minute decision to reunite the Police, who hadn't performed anywhere since they broke up in early 1984. "I hadn't seen my drums in months," Stewart Copeland told Rolling Stone. "I've always been very fond of Amnesty, but if it had been for Exxon, I would have been there. Playing with my old band was an exciting prospect."

Every show ended with all of the evening's performers gathering onstage to sing Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released." At the final show, the Police handed their instruments to U2. "It's been called a symbolic passing of the keys to the musical kingdom," said Copeland. "But since we had been defunct for a number of years, I'm not sure we had any keys in our possession. We joked around that Andy [Summers] should de-tune his guitar before handing it over to the Edge."

The tour was a huge success. Amnesty International raised their profile among young Americans in a huge way and their numbers swelled, but soon after it ended, the organizers began plotting out something significantly more dramatic than a mere six American concerts. "In October of 1986, I sat around the pool of the Sunset Marquis with Jack Healey," said Lewis. "He alerted me to the fact that 1988 was the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He said it was the Magna Carta of human rights and we have to do something spectacular."

"His first idea was a literally insane idea of taking over Madison Square Garden for 24 hours, a rock & roll marathon," said Lewis. "I said to him, 'I thought we were trying to abolish torture. That sounds like a new definition."

They ultimately plotted a six-week tour that would take Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman and Youssou N'Dour to North America, South America, Europe, Asia and Africa. "You can't go around the world and play countries outside of the U.S. and developed Europe without practically taking the entire stadium with you," said Lewis. "I thought we could put people on commercial flights. It never occurred to me you'd have to take two DC-10s around the world."

The Human Rights Now! Tour -- which was produced by Healey and Bill Graham -- was one of the most logistically complicated undertakings in rock history, and it traveled to countries that rarely see these type of shows – including Hungary, Costa Rica, India, Greece, Zimbabwe and Argentina. The artists spent six weeks sharing busses, hotels and cramped backstage facilities. "At one stadium in Africa, there was a moat around the entire stadium," Nils Lofgren of the E Street Band told Rolling Stone. "It ran though the dressing rooms and we started to complain about it. We realized it was going to get much worse because it was the friggin' bathroom. There were no toilets and people were pissing and dumping into the moat. It just turned into a river."

The musicians formed tight friendships while traveling the world together. "Branford Marsalis and I played a lot of basketball," said Lofgren. "We had two ping-pong tables and had a spectacular tournament with about 30 players. [E Street pianist] Roy Bittan and [Peter Gabriel drummer] Manu Katche came in the top three. . . It's still one of my favorite tours I've ever gone on. There was so much camaraderie and I was in a close proximity with so many great musicians for such a long time."

Much like Live Aid, the shows – which also included a later, one-off show in Paris in 1998 with Radiohead, Springsteen, Peter Gabriel and Jimmy Page and Robert Plant –  were filmed for television, but no thought was given to ever releasing them in an official capacity. But in 2005, Bob Geldof decided to break his pledge and release Live Aid on DVD, partially to combat the bootlegs that were beginning to pop up all over the Internet.

Inspired by the move, Lewis – who as co-creator/producer of Amnesty’s “Secret Policeman’s Ball” benefits had instigated Amnesty’s outreach to the rock world - convinced Amnesty International that releasing the concerts would be a great way to raise money for the organization. "The Amnesty tapes were spread to the four winds, the five winds," said Lewis. "Oh, the things I had to go through to find them all. MTV shot a lot of footage and lost it all. I know they have hundreds of hours of Menudo and Wang Chung up the wazoo. They probably have hundreds of hours of Mr. Mister, but nobody knows where the Conspiracy of Hope tour footage is."

After years of work, and painstakingly efforts to transfer the footage (often taped in archaic European and South American video formats), Lewis had to go to each artist and get permission to release the film. They all agreed, and Peter Gabriel even told him he filmed much of the tour on a camcorder, but he lost the footage. "We tracked some of it down to a farm in upstate New York," said Lewis. "What we found there was incredible." 

Bruce Springsteen is extremely picky about which live footage he releases to the public, but he ultimately signed off and granted Lewis an extensive interview. "This was the mid-1980s and the E Street Band was still very much a provincial band," he said in it. "It was an eye-opening tour and a tremendous adventure for us. It opened our minds to the world as one big place. It was also a tremendous adventure."

For more information on the Human Rights Concerts, check out this comprehensive tribute site.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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