Arts Desk

The Secret Policeman’s Ball(s):
Martin Lewis, John Cleese, and the Origin of the Superstar Benefit Love-Fest

A conversation with Martin Lewis is a lot like a celebrity benefit show: there's name-dropping, obligatory roasting, flash and panache, and a definite hint of the self-congratulatory. The man has helped manage Eric Burdon and Donovan, produced records, films, and festivals on both sides of the Atlantic, and served as HuffPo's resident "least-reserved Englishman." Hell, when he was 15 he compiled the discography for Hunter Davies' Beatles bio; by 19 he was recruiting Pete Townshend to write dust-jacket blurbs.

These days, Lewis is making the interview rounds in celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of the first Secret Policeman's Ball, an Amnesty International benefit launched in 1979 after modestly successful incarnations as "A Poke in the Eye With a Sharp Stick" (1976) and "The Mermaid Frolics" (1977). (It was the 1981 SPB that inspired an initially skeptical Bob Geldof to found Live Aid four years later.)

There's no shortage of collectible archived footage of the events—which began as an edgier version of a traditional British variety show (featuring the Pythons, Rowan Atkinson, and Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, among others) and later came to incorporate predictably supergroup-pedigreed musical lineups. In honor of the thirtieth, Shout! is releasing a DVD of previously un-/underseen music tracks from the 1979, 1981, 1987, and 1991 gigs. While by no means worth the price of admission—Sting sings "Roxanne"! Clapton and Beck play the blues!—the concerts' "unplugged" hook sells itself on a couple of the tracks...most notably, the Townshend/John Williams duet on "Won't Get Fooled Again" and a wordless, acoustic "Imagine" courtesy of Mark Knopfler and (yes) Chet Atkins.

Lewis, who with John Cleese co-piloted (and named) the Secret Policeman's Ball(s) spoke by telephone to discuss Amnesty, the origins of the celeb superbenefit, and Townshend's love-hate relationship with Napoleon brandy.

Tell us how it began.

It really dates back to 1976. At that time, in England, Amnesty International as an organization was 15 years old. But at that time, in England and in other countries, it was a very low-profile organization, virtually below the radar. Even the words 'human rights' were not in the popular was not a topic of great awareness. So Amnesty in the U.K. had noticed that one of the people who'd sent a donation to Amnesty was someone named J. Cleese, and surmising that this might have been John Cleese of [Monty] Python, Amnesty contacted him, thanked him for donation, and asked: 'Are there other ways in which you'd be willing to support us?'

What was the precedent for this?

ML: In 1976, certainly in Britain, fundraisers for an organization such as Amnesty were very unusual indeed. Charity shows as such tended to be for middle-of-the-road things like cancer or heart research and were like old-fashioned variety shows: middle-of-the-road comedians, musicians, jugglers, etc. The new wave of comedians and musicians had not yet affiliated themselves in Britain with charitable causes. Only real example had been in the USA in 1971, with [George] Harrison's 'Concert for Bangladesh.'

And then in '79, the music came in?

ML: In '79, I was speaking with folks at Amnesty.... They'd raised their profile with these shows, but they wanted a bigger scale. That's when I got very closely involved with John Cleese. We divided up areas of responsibility. He went back to recruit the comedians, and I thought it might be nice to have a little music in the show. I wanted baby-boomer musician equivalents to the Pythons. And the first person I approached was Pete Townshend.

Why him?

ML: Pete was one of the more aware people in the rock world. He knew there was this thing called Amnesty but hadn't gotten involved before. He was all shy and nervous about it, which I didn't understand, being a youngster. "Not sure if I can do's quite overwhelming." I'm thinking, this is the guy who stood onstage in front of half a million people at Woodstock. Of course, then he was onstage with a band.

And on the tape you can see him flub the lyrics to "Pinball Wizard."

ML: Right. He was solo acoustic; he was nervous. But that first year, it was an amazing reaction. We hadn't billed the musicians, of course. So when Pete walked onstage, there was this incredible roar.

Closing backstage Pete Townshend anecdote?

ML: Pete was a massive alcoholic. I didn't know this—I'd been raised in a British Jewish family and we didn't drink alcohol. On the night of the show, I'd decided Pete'd do "Pinball [Wizard]" early and "Won't Get Fooled [Again]" late. So Pete did his first two numbers and asked, 'How much time do i have?' I said, 'Oh, about an hour and a half.' And he asked for a small brandy.... So I decided, 'Why be stingy? He's playing for free.' And I brought him a bottle of brandy and a one-pint mug. Pete doesn't remember this; he said, 'No, no, no, just a small glass, that's all I want.' Of course, the show was another two-and-a-half hours, so it was close to three in the morning when I went to get Pete. He was completely comatose. He'd gone through the entire bottle. Which was on the floor. As was Pete. So I helped him downstairs, got him down onto the stage where John Williams was already seated behind the curtain—they'd planned to do this sitting down because John, being a classical guitarist, needed to work off a chart. You could smell the brandy from 50 paces.  I rush out into the audience. Standing on the other side of the theater. And to my horror, about 45 seconds into the song, Pete fell asleep. Or, 98 percent of Pete fell asleep—he slouched forward, his eyes closed, but he continued to strum. Meanwhile, John Williams is baffled because he's working off a chart and Pete has gone literally off the chart. The audience was so tired I don't think anyone actually noticed.

I call my tape of that performance "Won't Get Drunk Again."*

*Lewis clarifies over email that he considers himself the guilty party: "The way I look at the incident now is that it's not so much that Pete got drunk – as it was that I "over-served" him!!!"

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