The Secret Policeman's Film Festival comes to AFI

pete townshendPete Townshend becomes the first rock star to perform for Amnesty - and simultaneously starts the "unplugged" phenomenon at 1979's "Secret Policeman's Ball." (By Paul Cox)

It was in June of 1979 when "Monty Python" funnyman John Cleese hosted the first "Secret Policeman's Ball," a series of landmark London concerts that put comedians and rock stars on the same stage. The goal? To raise awareness to the charity work of Amnesty International. The event featured a now-legendary acoustic performance from Pete Townshend and would go on to influence countless charity concerts to come.

In celebration of the event's 30th anniversary, the AFI Theatre in Silver Spring is hosting "The Secret Policeman's Film Festival" -- a series of films documenting the concerts. SPB co-creator and producer Martin Lewis will be at the theater Thursday and Friday evening to discuss the impact of his groundbreaking comedy-music-charity hybrid event with former Washington Post critic Richard Harrington.

Post Rock spoke with the garrulous Lewis this morning about his involvement in the Ball, its enduring legacy and a young Bob Geldof's love of four-letter words.

(Tales of Townshend, Bono, Sting and Geldof, after the jump.)

How Lewis got involved: I was a young music industry publicist and I'd been mentored by the late Derek Taylor -- the Beatles publicist -- and with all the supreme confidence that comes when you're 22... you can do anything. I volunteered my services to that first show - I likened the show as the comedy equivalent to The Concert for Bangladesh, George Harrison's great achievement for a good cause This brought together the leading lights from the tribes, if you will, of British comedy.

On booking an "unplugged" Pete Townshend for the first Ball in 1979: John Cleese was doing the usual job of rounding up Britain's best comedians and I went up, rather timidly, to John, rather like Oliver Twist asking "Could we have some more?" I asked, "Could we have a little music, sir?" John Cleese, bless him, was the only Python who wasn't interested in music... So I approached Pete Townshend. And since we were this comedy show, and music was going to be a sort of sorbet between sets, we didn't have the ability to put on a full band."

On booking Sting, Eric Clapton and Bob Geldof for the 1981 Ball: The first person I approached was Sting. And this is when I noticed the talismanic power of the show, the title. I started, "Secret Poli..." to Sting. And he said, "Oh, the thing Pete Townshend did? Okay, I'm in." Eric Clapton? Same thing. And I wanted to get Bob Geldof... There was a bit of edge we were lacking and Geldof had edge. So when I asked him and he said no, I said "What do you mean no!?" I had this litany of "Yes!"

He said, "It's a [expletive] waste of [expletive] time. You [expletive] hippies. All the [expletive] same. You [expletive] think you'll [expletive] change the [expletive] world with your [expletive] stupid [expletive] charity shows..."

We got into a real shouting match. In the end I wore him down and Midge Ure, later his partner in Live Aid, said "You realize what you did? You out-Geldofed him."

On inspiring Bob Geldof's future activism: I think Geldof was totally infected by the spirit of the other musicians and comedic performers, and what Geldof [went on to do] was far bigger than anything we at Amnesty have done. But I love the fact that he got the spirit. Sting says that Bob literally saw what was going on, took the ball and ran with it -- and ran farther than anyone could dream of.

On combating the "benefit fatigue" of the mid-80s: I remember Rolling Stone had an interview with Bono and said "Come on. Isn't this just a [stroke] of the ego for the artists and the audience doesn't really care?" And I remember Bono just said this: "The audience is much smarter. I'm the living example of that. I was in the audience for the Secret Policeman's Ball. I saw that. It planted a seed and became a part of me."

By Chris Richards |  December 10, 2009; 5:29 PM ET Local News
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