David Bowie: vocals, Rosedale electric chord organ
Mick Wayne, Tim Renwick: guitar
John Lodge: bass guitar
John Cambridge: drums
Marc Bolan, Bob Harris, Sue Harris, Tony Woollcott, Girl: backing vocals
David Bowie: vocals, acoustic guitar, Rosedale electric chord organ
Mick Ronson: backing vocals, electric guitar
Tony Visconti: bass guitar, backing vocals
Ralph Mace: Moog synthesiser
John Cambridge: drums, backing vocals
‘Memory Of A Free Festival’ was inspired by the Beckenham Free Festival, also known as the Growth Summer Festival, which had taken place on 16 August 1969.
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.
Disc and Music Echo, 25 October 1969
The free event took place at the Croydon Road Recreation Ground in Beckenham, London. Bowie was the compère and performed a solo set, with occasional backing from musicians including Tony Visconti. The performances took place inside the Edwardian wrought-iron bandstand.
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.
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 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.
Backstage Passes: Life on the Wild Side with David Bowie
Although Bowie later recalled being “very happy” at the festival, others remembered his mood being unusually dark. He was in mourning for his father John Jones, who had died of pneumonia on 5 August 1969. The funeral took place on 11 August, just five days prior to the festival.
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.
Alias David Bowie, Peter and Leni Gillman
Bowie wrote ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’ about the experience. It became the climactic finale of his second album, with the repeated mantra “The sun machine is coming down and we’re gonna have a party”.
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.
‘Memory Of A Free Festival’ was re-recorded in 1970 for a European single. It was released in two parts across both sides of the single.
‘Memory Of A Free Festival’ was the closing song on David Bowie’s self-titled second album, also known as Space Oddity, in November 1969.
The song was later chosen for a single release by Bowie’s American label Mercury, although it was only made available in that country as a promotional disc.
The single was released in Europe on 12 June 1970. Bowie promoted it with appearances on the UK television show Six-O-One, and on the Dutch programme Eddy, Ready, Go!. Despite these efforts, it was not a commercial success.
An ‘alternate album mix’ of ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’ was included on the 40th Anniversary Edition of the Space Oddity in 2009, along with Part 1 of the single version.
At 9:25, the remix lasted more than two minutes longer than the original album version. It was made in 1987 by PolyGram’s Tris Penna at London’s Chappell Studios. The 2009 release also included a previously-unreleased Penna mix of ‘Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud’.
The original single versions were released in 2015 on Re:Call 1, part of the Five Years (1969–1973) box set.
Marc Bolan was in the crowd for ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’. I found it doing the remix; he’s singing with about six other people but his voice is as clear as a bell because he’s not quite singing with the rest. I don’t know if he did it on purpose, but by nature he wasn’t a joiner. I’d asked him to come over, and he did it with Steve Peregrine Took and Bob Harris, the DJ. That was my crowd.
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)
A new ‘2020 Mix’ of ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’ by Tony Visconti was included on the 2021 album The Width Of A Circle, along with the two-part original single version.
Two versions of ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’ were included on the soundtrack of Brett Morgen’s 2022 film Moonage Daydream. The Harmonium Edit lasts less than a minute and contains no vocals, while the longer Moonage Daydream Mix Edit consists mainly of the “Sun machine is coming down” mantra.