Free festivals are practical demonstrations of what society could be like all the time: miniature utopias of joy and communal awareness rising for a few days from a grey morass of mundane, inhibited, paranoid and repressive everyday existence…The most lively [young people] escape geographically and physically to the ‘Never Never Land’ of a free festival where they become citizens, indeed rulers, in a new reality.
Anonymous leaflet ca. 1980, quoted in George McKay’s Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance Since the Sixties.
Is this the way they say the future’s meant to feel?
Or just twenty thousand people standing in a field?
Pulp, “Sorted For E’s and Whizz.”
“Memory of a Free Festival” is a false memory, experience refurbished by regret. The festival in question was an open-air concert and fair held at the Croydon Road Recreational Ground in Beckenham on 16 August 1969 (the same weekend the Woodstock Festival was happening) that featured performances by Bowie—including a reggae version of “Space Oddity,” thankfully not recorded—and other groups like The Strawbs, all introduced by John Peel, puppet shows (of course), Tibetan goods (natch) and coconut shies. Bowie’s new girlfriend Angela Barnett cooked hamburgers in a wheelbarrow. The festival was peaceful and a relative success, with some 3,000 attendees (Bowie was complimented by Bromley’s mayor and chief of police, who also showed up).
The song David Bowie wrote about the festival soon afterward, which became the last song of the Space Oddity LP and was possibly the last song he recorded in the ’60s, depicts a blissful afternoon in which Bowie’s narrator wanders through a happy crowd of flower children, exchanging kisses, greeting Venusians. It ends with a communal worship of the setting sun and hopes for pleasures in the night ahead.
This wasn’t quite the case in reality. The festival was held five days after Bowie had buried his father, and he was in a foul mood, calling his partners “materialistic arseholes” for making money on hamburgers and T-shirts, complaining about the lousy PA system and eventually storming off in a black cloud at the end of the night. Mary Finnegan, Bowie’s once-lover and collaborator in the Beckenham Arts Lab, later called Bowie a hypocrite for writing a peace-and-love anthem about a festival at which he had been such a bore.
But “Memory of a Free Festival” is a requiem more than it is a celebration, the first clue being in the title—the naivete, the warmth, the easy unity that the song commemorates are already receding into the past. Bowie calls the hippies “children of the summer’s end,” suggesting they will soon have to return home for the impending winter. And Bowie’s narrator has a touch of wit in his descriptions, with lines like “We claimed the very source of joy ran through/it didn’t, but it seemed that way” or “Satori must be something like the same.”
Free “spontaneous” festivals first appeared in the UK in the summer of 1969, with free concerts given in Hyde Park by Humble Pie and, more famously, the Rolling Stones; the template for the model became Woodstock, though of course Woodstock, like the 1970 Isle of Wight concert, was a for-profit event forcibly converted into a free one by the assembled mob. It’s arguable that the Arts Lab festival was the first intentionally free festival held in Britain, one that served as a vanguard for later editions like the Phun City festival in July 1970 and the Windsor Free Festivals of the early ’70s, which eventually were shut down by the police.
The insistence on a concert being free was both idealistic (music is meant to be free, it gets corrupted by the capitalists, etc.: the same sort of thing a pro-Napster person was writing on a message board in 2001) and hipper-than-thou purist (how very bourgeois to make money on hamburgers and ticket sales). Cynics would claim the free festival’s natural endpoint is the disastrous Altamont concert, with Hell’s Angels murdering concertgoers, though the dream of a spontaneous gathering of the tribes, something medieval in our souls, has kept the dream alive in the forty years since.
“Memory of a Free Festival”‘s original recording starts with Bowie playing the Rosedale electric chord organ (a sort-of electric harmonium that only has about twelve playable chords), which serves as the main accompaniment for the song’s four verses, offering a humble ecclesiastical complement to Bowie’s wavering vocal. A interlude of organ swirls, snippets of chatter and laughter and guitar grunts follows (this chord chart aptly terms it “WEIRD BIT”), leading to a four-bar refrain (D-G-C-D, repeat ad infinitum) that carries the song to its end: The sun machine is coming down and we’re gonna have a party!. Yes, it was 1969.
Bowie loved “Hey Jude” (having included the “na na na” refrain in his demo of “Janine”) and this is his obvious attempt to imitate McCartney’s structure—extend a three-minute song into an epic via five minutes or more of ragged communal chanting over three repeated chords (according to Pegg, some of the backing singers included future Sony VP Tony Woollcott and Radio 1 DJ “Whispering” Bob Harris).
In the spring of 1970, Bowie’s American label Mercury asked him to re-record “Memory of a Free Festival” as a single. Mercury thought it had potential to be a hit, instructing Tony Visconti to pick up the tempo and move the “sun machine” refrain to about two minutes into the track. The compromise was to break the track into two parts, with the single’s B-side being simply the “sun machine” bit. It’s a stronger record, with Mick Ronson quickly establishing himself as lead guitarist and a sumptuous Visconti string arrangement, though the fragile naivete of the original has been swallowed by grandeur and spectacle. Here come the Seventies.
The original was recorded ca. September 1969, on Space Oddity; the remake single was recorded on 3, 14-15 April 1970 and released as Mercury 6052 026 (it was a colossal flop, as Pegg found that it sold a mere 240 copies in the US in its first month of release).
Children of the Sun Machine
The “sun machine” chant, having evanesced at the end of the ’60s, returned a generation later. “Memory of a Free Festival (Part 2),” a trance-inducing repetition of a meaningless earworm, was a natural ancestor of a rave chant, and in 1990 E-Zee Possee had a minor hit with “The Sun Machine,” in which the “sun machine” chant was sung over house piano. Dario G’s 1998 “Sunmachine” is something of an officially-approved sequel to “Free Festival,” with Visconti playing flute and Bowie graciously sending Dario G the master tape so they could isolate his vocal for the new recording. I’m not sure we’re done with the sun machine yet—expect Animal Collective to use it at some point.
From the top: The Stones bury the Sixties at Altamont, December 1969; “Memory of a Free Festival Pt. 1” single; bathers in the Serpentine, Hyde Park, 1969.