The event did not start out as a forum for historic music occasions. The British Amnesty International fundraiser – developed by John Cleese of Monty Python fame, AI executive Peter Luff and entertainment mogul Martin Lewis – began life as a comedy showcase billed as “A Poke in the Eye” in 1976. The event became the Secret Policeman’s Ball three years later, when organizers played host to solo performances by the Who‘s Pete Townshend and Tom Robinson.
Then came the Secret Policeman’s Other Ball. There was comedy during the shows, which ran from Sept. 9-12, 1981 at the Drury Lane Theatre in London – from Cleese, Rowan Atkinson, Billy Connolly, Neil Innes and others. But music ended up grabbed the spotlight and the headlines, thanks to performances by Sting, Phil Collins, Donovan, Bob Geldof and Johnny Fingers from the Boomtown Rats. The show also paired former Yardbirds Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck.
Watch Sting Perform ‘Roxanne’ at the Secret Policeman’s Other Ball
The occasion marked Sting’s first solo step away from the Police. He’d already ventured into new musical waters – such as the 1978 collaborative project the Radio Actors – while also trying his hand at acting, including the movies Quadrophenia, The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle and Artemis 81. But the Other Ball represented his most public effort outside of his band, delivering arrangements of “Roxanne” and “Message in a Bottle” that would become templates for his own performances in years to come.
Sting was also prominent in the show-ending full-cast rendition of Bob Dylan‘s “I Shall Be Released,” one of the biggest highlights from the Secret Policeman’s Other Ball. It would be nearly four years before Sting released his first solo album, 1985’s The Dream of the Blue Turtles, and then launched a full-scale solo tour, but the seeds were planted here.
Collins was in a similar boat when he took to the Other Ball stage. He’d previously worked outside of Genesis with the instrumental group Brand X, and then watched as his first solo album, Face Value, reached No. 1 in the U.K. and Top 10 in the U.S.
Watch Phil Collins Perform ‘In the Air Tonight’ at the Secret Policeman’s Other Ball
Collins sat at the piano for renditions of “In the Air Tonight” and “The Roof is Leaking,” two of the LP’s standout tracks. He’d previously performed the former song on the BBC’s famed Top of the Pops program, but the Other Ball represented his first solo foray in a true concert setting. Despite this, Collins wasn’t immediately diving headfirst into solo life: Just two weeks later he was back in Genesis mode with the band’s Abacab album and tour.
Additional highlights from the Other Ball included Clapton and Beck burying the perceived hatchet. Their first on-stage collaboration included performances of “Crossroads,” “Farther on Up the Road” and “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers”; they also joined the all-star finale. Elsewhere, the event also reportedly provided Geldof with his first opportunity to meet Ultravox’s Midge Ure, who would later become his co-writer and producer of Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas.”
The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball was filmed, recorded and subsequently released for the first time, giving it a historic and legendary status greater than its predecessors, and successors, would enjoy. (Townshend and Robinson’s performances were included on the VHS home release.)
Watch Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck Perform at the Secret Policeman’s Other Ball
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