Beckenham Free Festival.


A small yet significant event in rock's heritage - recounted by someone who was there.

By David Bebbington
August 16, 1969

In mid-1969, David Bowie was still a long way from superstar status, despite having been in the music business for several years. He was living in Beckenham with a friend Mary Finnigan, and appearing most Sundays at The Three Tuns pub in Beckenham High Street.
The shows began as a way for him and Mary to make a little money and to showcase his talents, but developed into what was christened the Beckenham Arts Lab "Growth". I co-hosted these shows and played as a blues duo with my friend Ken Symonds when Bowie had other engagements.
Bowie once told me that he had spent the night in the waiting room on Stockport Station, using his guitar as a pillow after playing at a Folk Club and missing the last train home.

As a further development of the Arts Lab idea, and in the hope of raising money to fund permanent premises, it was decided to organise a free festival at Beckenham Recreation Ground on August 16, 1969. Bowie rang round his friends in the music business but didn't get many positive replies from name artists. For example, the manager of Noel Redding (who had just left the Jimi Hendrix Experience and was now leading a group called Fat Mattress) declaired "Noel Redding is a superstar and doesn't play free festivals " .

In the end Bowie played solo, and the bill also included singer-songwriters Bridget St John, Kieth Christmas and Toni Visconti. I appeared (invisibly) as a puppeteer in the Brian Cole Puppet Theatre, presenting a rather drug-influenced version of a children's puppet play. There were numerous stalls at the festival selling jewellery, ceramics, herbs and food (including hamburgers cooked in a wheelbarrow by Angela Bowie-to-be).

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' 'Wide-Eyed Boy From Free Cloud', 'An occasional Dream' and others. 

David Bowies on Bandstand at Beckenham Free Festival

David Bowie
David Bowie at Croydon Road August 16, 1969.
( Photo's: David Bebbington.)

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 Defense. 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.

These pages and images are the copyright of Beckenham History and Dave Bebbington.


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  • Admin

    Hi Clem,

    I tried tracking you down when I was putting these pages together. If you have anything that you would like to contribute contact me via the site.


    from Beckenham, Greater London, UK
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  • Clem Alford

    Hi I also used to play sitar at the Arts lab in the Three Tuns on a Sunday evening. Bowie used ask me to come down and do a spot. I used to live just along the road from there. It was quite a scene in those days and full of new stuff.

    from Central London, London WC2N, UK
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  • Admin


    Contact me via the site

    from Beckenham, Greater London, UK
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  • Paul Williams

    It was very moving visiting that bandstand today with my two young boys and seeing the tributes. I grew up in Beckenham and was 11 in 1972 when the fame really hit. I did have the good fortune that year to see Mick Ronson in Beckenham Junction car-park wearing a shiny metallic jumpsuit and stack boots. I followed him a bit, pushing my bike, as he headed up the road to Haddon Hall but bottled it...

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  • Comus played here too! I woz there :-) x

    from Oxfordshire
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  • Roger Sargent

    Interesting and nice story and well appreciated about a great person, such an icon and it seems even more now. So sad of his death - tragic! Will be at the Beckenham Festival on 13th August to celebrate and be part of this funding excercise. Best regards RS :)

    from East Grinstead, UK
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  • John

    It was great festival!

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  • Steve

    It's was awesome!

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  • Cassandra Morrison

    Noel Redding was undoubtedly a talented bassist...but "Superstar"? No.

    from Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Area, USA
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  • Lovely memories David. I was the manager of Gas Works. David Bowie got to know of us when we provided the improvised music for a one-man mime and dance show at the Drury Lane Arts Lab by The Great Orlando (Lindsey Kemp's partner). Bowie then invited Gas Works to play at the Beckenham Arts Lab several times and they also played at the Free Festival. When Starman became a hit in America we were invited to the big house for a party to welcome David home from the States. He travelled home by theTrans Siberian Railway. He was scared of flying. We met Tony Visconti at the party and when Tony got his first independent deal to make records his first two artists were Sparks and Gas Works. There's an appreciative and truthful paragraph about his involvement with Gas Works in his recent auto-biography.

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