In the studio

The album version of ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’ was recorded at Trident Studios on 8 and 9 September 1969.

Bowie was backed by Junior’s Eyes, the band who accompanied him for much of the Space Oddity album. Mick Wayne and Tim Renwick played guitars, John Lodge was on bass guitar, and John Cambridge played drums.

This was written as a homage to the Free Festival, organised by the Beckenham Arts Lab, which was held at Croydon Road Recreation Ground in Beckenham on 16 August 1969. There were Arts Labs all over the UK around that time. I was there, it was a very moving event and the song portrays it beautifully. David plays what was considered a toy electric organ, a Rosedale, sold through Woolworths, but it had a beautiful sound. Marc Bolan bought one as well and used it on a song called Children Of Rarn. It was only electric in the sense that a motor blew air past real miniature organ reeds, there was no circuitry inside.

Junior’s Eyes were back. We invited all our friends to sing in the end repetitive choir, many came from Beckenham. It was a blissfully chaotic session. If you were blindfolded and threw a doughnut across the room with ricochets you’d hit 15 hippies at any given angle.

Tony Visconti, May 2015
Five Years (1969–1973) book

The finale was sung by Marc Bolan, BBC radio presenter Bob Harris, his wife Sue, their friend and future Sony executive Tony Woollcott, and an American woman known only as Girl.

We were all gathered around a microphone and Bolan was standing opposite me. As we were singing, for a laugh I encouraged Marc to copy some Temptations-style dance moves, like pointing at the sky and then the floor, along to the music.
John Cambridge, 2009
Any Day Now, Kevin Cann

The five singers were recorded several times by producer Tony Visconti, until the appearance of a massed choir was sufficiently created.

David recognised me from an appearance I had made at the Roundhouse and he invited me to Beckenham, where he was living with Angie. I had no idea who he was, but was pleased that he liked my music. I hung out with David and Angie for about a month, jamming until dawn most nights. He then invited me to sing on ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’.
Girl
Any Day Now, Kevin Cann

The single re-recording was begun at Trident Studios on Saturday 21 March 1970, with work continuing over the following two days.

It was completed on Friday 3 April, with a session at Advision Sound Studios in London. A Moog synthesiser was borrowed from George Martin’s Air Studios, and was played by Ralph Mace on the recording.

The single version featured Mick Ronson on guitar, Tony Visconti on bass, and John Cambridge on drums. This was Bowie’s new backing band, Hype, which had their live debut at London’s Roundhouse on 22 February 1970.

I was with Bowie for eight months before Mick Ronson met him. The very first track Mick played on with Bowie was when we did the rearrangement of ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’. When it came out, it was like, ‘This is Woody’s first thing’, but he didn’t do it. That’s me playing, not Woody. But he’s credited with playing on it.

You know the chorus at the end, ‘The sun machine is going down’? That was Mick’s first studio appearance with David, and he said to David, ‘Why don’t you put some kind of chants in between?’ He cited Paul Rodgers, those kind of grunts. This was the first time Mick Ronson had an input with David, trying to tell him what to do. As he’s saying this, David looked at Mick and said, ‘You go and do it.’

John Cambridge
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)

Although commonly cited as Ronson’s first recording with Bowie, he had actually contributed guitar and handclaps to ‘Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud’ in the summer of 1969.

We recorded this as a single in between the album and The Man Who Sold The World. The label wanted a single to follow up ‘Space Oddity’. That was a hard act to follow, the best we could come up with was a very pretty song called ‘The Prettiest Star’, but it flopped. The label thought we could whip together a better version of ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’, and this time we had Mick Ronson on guitar and Woody Woodmansey on drums, along with Ralph Mace on Moog. That version is just wonderful, but again the follow up hit single continued to elude us.
Tony Visconti, May 2015
Five Years (1969–1973) book

The song was mixed at Trident on 4 April, ahead of the single release in June 1970.

Live performances

‘Memory Of A Free Festival’ was performed live by David Bowie between 1969 and 1971.

In May 1973 the song was added to the Spiders From Mars’ repertoire during a handful of UK tour dates, as part of a medley with ‘Quicksand’ and ‘Life On Mars?’.

‘Memory Of A Free Festival’ was reworked in a gospel style by The Garson Band, who performed it during 1974’s Soul Tour as the closing song of their support slot.

BBC recording

David Bowie recorded ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’ once for BBC radio.

The session took place on 5 February 1970, and was broadcast three days later on The Sunday Show. It was recorded at the BBC Paris Studio in central London, and was produced by Jeff Griffin.

Bowie was joined by Mick Ronson on guitar, Tony Visconti on bass, and John Cambridge on drums. They recorded a total of 15 songs: ‘Amsterdam’, ‘God Knows I’m Good’, ‘Buzz The Fuzz’, ‘Karma Man’, ‘London Bye Ta-Ta’, ‘An Occasional Dream’, ‘The Width Of A Circle’, ‘Janine’, ‘Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud’, ‘Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed’, ‘Fill Your Heart’, ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’, ‘The Prettiest Star’, ‘Cygnet Committee’, and ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’.

The BBC recordings of ‘Amsterdam’, ‘God Knows I’m Good’, ‘The Width Of A Circle’, ‘Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed’, ‘Cygnet Committee’, and ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’ were released in September 2000 on Bowie At The Beeb.

The performance of ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’ was edited from 6:40 down to three minutes for the BBC broadcast. The edit was retained for the album release.

The entire session, apart from ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’, was released on the 2021 album The Width Of A Circle.

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