Beckenham History

Beckenham Free Festival.

David Bowies on Bandstand at 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 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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24 Responses

  1. Dave mentions that everyone went for a Curry afterwards. For historical reasons does anyone know which curry house they went to? At that time there were 2 in Beckenham, one was The Bengal Cuisine In the High Street a couple of doors away from the Bricklayers Arms. The other was The Curry Cottage in Kelsey Park Lane over the road from The Greyhound pub in the High St. Curry Cottage is still there today.

  2. I was there also. I had rented a candy floss machine and spent the day selling candy floss the proceeds going to the arts lab fund. We used to meet with David in the Tuns to discuss arrangements. David’s dad had left him a Rover P4 but as he hadn’t passed his test my mate sat with him as qualified driver. He swapped the Rover for a Fiat 500 dear dead days!!!

  3. Nice pic of DB in Croydon Road Rec. I wonder if the photographer knows The National Portrait Gallery has a copy of it in its collection!

    1. Yes I thought that was good, It was such a good time! Do you think they will hold another one like in 2013?

  4. 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.

    1. Hi Bob.
      Wow, good to see your post ! I asked Tony V a little while back whether he know of the whereabouts of John & Mick. Said he hadn’t heard of them for some while. A bit of history – Tony Kingsbury and I were at the 1969 Beckenham gig. We ran folk clubs and concerts around East London ( Leyton, Walthamstow ) and West Essex ( Loughton, Epping) we had Gas Works many times on at our clubs. I seem to remember in those hazy days coming with my band ( Annick and John. / collectively Thyme) down to visit yourself and the guys at your house in ( Sth ?) London. I remember having a good old reminisce plus a game of tennis!!
      Fab days. We’re still running clubs on an ad hoc basis. Be good to hear from you Bob.

  5. 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 🙂

  6. Thank you for your article about David Bowie.I like to listen his music, especially, his albom “Reality”. And I very sad, that I can’t listen David Bowie’s alive music again.

  7. 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…

  8. 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.

  9. 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.


  10. I went to Beckenham Free Festival but got there late and missed Bowies’s set. Mind you, I did see him play the Three Tuns on several occasions.

    I have great memories of the music of this era, and of various festivals. I saw the Blind Faith and Stones Hyde Park shows that year (1969), and also went to the National Jazz and Blues Festival at Plumpton in East Sussex (The Who, Floyd etc).

  11. Many of these acts are still performing after all those years. It was good to see Bill Leisagang of Appendix Part One perform at this years festival. Bowie himself contributed items for the raffle.

  12. Wow, the first time I have ever seen anything on the BFF. I was at the original festival in 1969 and this brings it all back. I dont think I remember The Strawbs all the same.

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