I recently picked up the 2009 “deluxe” 2 CD 40th anniversary set of David Bowie’s eponymous 1969 album, David Bowie (released in America as Man of Words/Man of Musicand then later as Space Oddity before reverting back to the original British title in 2009). It’s an album I know quite well and it includes some of my favorite “underdog” deep catalog cuts from Bowie’s discography, namely “Cygnet Committee,” “Janine.” “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” and the epic seven-minute-long number from the album “Memory of a Free Festival.”
“Memory of a Free Festival” is a ghostly-sounding evocation of what seems to be some mind-blowing Hair-like hippie celebration from long ago and far away, but the actual event it celebrates (the Beckenham Free Festival of August 16, 1969, organized by Bowie and Mary Finnigan) was only about three weeks in the rearview mirror when the song was written and recorded (and it took place in Croydon, not exactly the fairy wonderland implied by the song’s blissed-out chant)
At the request of the record label, Mercury Records, the song was re-recorded as a harder-rocking “electric” version—and split into an A and B side of a 45rpm single—by a pre-Spiders from Mars band that included Mick Ronson (his first session with Bowie), drummer Mick Woodmansey and producer Tony Visconti, who played bass.
“Memory of a Free Festival” is essentially two separate songs: the long, slow build-up, with Bowie accompanying himself on a cheap Rosedale kids organ, and then the long drawn out fade/chorus/chant: “The Sun Machine is coming down and we’re gonna have a party” a line that is repeated 27 more times.
The two songs were connected by the sound of a cymble being sturck by a mallet and then slowed and manipulated on tape. The single was a huge flop, selling but a few hundred copies, which probably shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise considering that the catchy bit doesn’t even start until around the three-minute mark, and thus the B-side.
The original version of “Memory of a Free Festival” as it appeared on the album:
The rockier “Memory of a Free Festival” single, parts 1 & 2. Dig Mick Ronson’s guitar work here, he’s on fire.
Echo-drenched, more chaotic alternative album mix with two extra minutes, clocking in at 9.22. Unrelased until 2009. Listen LOUD:
There’s also a fourth version of “Memory of a Free Festival” recorded at the BBC that was included on the Bowie at Beeb set, but it’s not on YouTube. The song has been covered by the likes of Ween, Mercury Rev, Kashmir, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and Polyphonic Spree.