Live: Beckenham Free Festival

The Growth Summer Festival took place on Saturday 16 August 1969 at the Croydon Road Recreation Ground in Beckenham, London.

The free event was began at midday and ended at 8pm. David Bowie compèred the event and performed a solo set, with occasional backing from musicians including Tony Visconti. The performances took place inside the Edwardian wrought-iron bandstand.

The other performers included composer Lionel Bart, Bridget St John, Sun, The Gas Works, Keith Christmas, The Strawbs, Amory Kane, Kamirah & Giles & Abdul, Oswald K, Dave Jones (not Bowie performing under his real name), Nita Bowes, Comus, Gun Hill, Clem Alford, Peter Horton, and Appendix To Part One. The DJ was Tim Goffe, a former housemate of Angie Barnett and BBC presenter Bob Harris.

I actually didn’t enjoy the day at all! I was very grumpy, I remember. I thought everybody was just in it for the bread ‘man’. I think I stomped off in a temper tantrum at the end of the day. I certainly turned it around by the time I came to write the song, because I thought the idea of it was great, so I’ll write about the idea. I do happen to know that a lot of people did enjoy it. They had a great time at this thing. I don’t think anything had been quite like it in Beckenham.
David Bowie, 2002

Although mentioned on the flyer, BBC Radio One DJ John Peel did not attend. Nor did Junior’s Eyes, the band which provided backing for Bowie on his second album.

The festival was hugely successful, with around 3,000 people in attendance. In addition to the musical performers, there were stalls selling food and drink, clothing, magazines, posters and artwork, hand-crafted jewellery and ceramics, a children’s assault course, and fairground attractions including a puppet show, astrologers, street theatre, and tarot readers. Bowie’s partner Angie manned a successful hamburger stand.

About five thousand spectators and participants showed up, people of all sorts, and things went off peacefully, pleasurably, and properly. The local mayor and chief constable went so far as to congratulate David publicly on a job well done. David played for a good hour and a half that day, performing among other numbers a reggae version of ‘Space Oddity’ (yes, really!), but I wasn’t aware of what went on entertainmentwise. Having worked my tail off helping Mary Finnigan line up the acts and deal with the authorities, I spent most of the festival day itself obscured by grill smoke, serving endless platters to streams of stoned, munchies-crazed young suburbanites. Which, I must say, pleased me greatly. The feeding of the five thousand was a very successful feat indeed: they ate well and heartily—not your macrobiotic mush, mate, but good old charred flesh hunks, and plenty of ’em—and we made out like bandits. My catering operation cleared a good £2,000, which equaled about $5,000, and in those days that kind of money went a long way. The more than slightly shaky finances of the Arts Lab, not to mention of David himself, had improved considerably when the day was done. From a profit perspective, a free festival could be pretty cool.
Angela Bowie
Backstage Passes: Life on the Wild Side with David Bowie

A prime purpose of the event was to raise money for the Beckenham Arts Lab, Bowie’s showcase of folk and alternative performance which took place at the Three Tuns pub in Beckenham. The festival was intended to raise money to find permanent premises for the nights, which were also known as Growth.

On the day the weather was exceptionally good – and there was no violence either, thank you. Bowie played many of the tunes which would appear on his Space Oddity album, such as the title track, ‘Janine’, ‘Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud’, ‘An Occasional Dream’ and others.

He was totally professional about his performance, despite being in emotional turmoil – his Father had died on August 5, and been buried five days before the festival. Understandably, Bowie didn’t speak much to anyone on the day, nor did he join the rest of us for the final post-festival party in a local Indian restaurant.

At the time I was a professional photographer, working for the Ministry Of Defence. At Bowie’s request, I took many shots of him, both at the festival and elsewhere.

Bowie was flat broke at the time and was unable to pay me. I printed up the picture here and gave it to Bowie, who in turn presented it to his mother. I understand it was her favourite picture of her son for some time and was displayed on the wall of her home.

David Bebbington
Beckenham History

The plans for the outdoor event were laid in mid-July 1969, perhaps inspired by The Rolling Stones’ recent Hyde Park concert and other similar al fresco events. While the Beckenham festival was taking place, the Woodstock festival was entering its second day in New York.

It was a drug-oriented festival. Even if I had tried to write the song without drugs in mind I would have rather not written the song. Everybody was, all of us were very heavily into drugs.
David Bowie
Zygote, 1971

Bowie was filled not with peace and love, however. He was in mourning for his father John Jones, who had died of pneumonia on 5 August. The funeral took place on 11 August, just five days prior to the festival.

The loss took its toll on Bowie, who was in a dark mood for much of the day, as his landlady and lover recalled:

He was in a completely catatonic state the whole of the festival. He was vile. We were ecstatic because we had made all this money, but David was absolutely foul to us. He called us all ‘mercenary pigs’. We actually made some money and he hated us for it and I hated him.
Mary Finnigan
Alias David Bowie, Peter and Leni Gillman

Bowie later wrote the song ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’ about the experience. The song became the climax of his second album, and was re-recorded and released in two parts as a single.

Interestingly, Bowie’s recollection of the festival was one of happiness, in contrast to the impressions of those around him.

Well we go out on an air of optimism, which I believe in. Things WILL get better. I wrote this after the Beckenham Festival when I was very happy.
David Bowie
Disc and Music Echo, 25 October 1969

The album version of ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’ was recorded on 8 and 9 September 1969. The single was recorded in March and April 1970, and was released on 12 June.

Single release: Space Oddity
UK album release: David Bowie (Space Oddity)
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