Exactly fifty years ago last weekend I caught a bus from my semi-squat in Catford to Crystal Palace and joined the crowd of long-haired, patchouli-scented hippies streaming into the park to witness the first ever rock Garden Party. The Crystal Palace Bowl with its distinctive hemi-spherical stage (think a dinky version of the Hollywood Bowl) overlooking a small lake had opened in 1961, but up to that point it had only hosted classical music. That day, headliners Pink Floyd were to usher in the dawn of a new age (but then everything was a New Age back then) with amplifiers, inflatables, dope and semi-nude people frolicking in the water in front of the stage.
I had already seen the band several times by that point, including the Azimuth Co-ordinator tour – it was a joystick that controlled a quadrophonic sound system, allowing panning from speaker to speaker – at the Liverpool Empire. Although in the pantheon of PF gigs, that palls in comparison to the one my friend, writer Jonathan Futrell, witnessed: -Syd Barrett-era Floyd and Jimi Hendrix at the Albert Hall – it was a hard act to follow.
Indeed, I was slightly underwhelmed by the band that day, not helped by being damp and cold (the weather was capricious in the extreme, much like this May) and the lengthy wait for them to set up. Atom Heart Mother without the orchestra didn’t carry the same punch as on the album, and although they did play one unfamiliar work – The Return of the Son of Nothing, later to become Echoes – most of the set was the familiar workhorses from the live disc of Ummagumma. Plus the inflatable octopus that was meant to rise majestically from the lake was a damp squib.
I was mainly there for Mountain, a band featuring plus-sized guitarist Leslie West and bassist Felix Pappalardi (later to be shot dead by his wife Gail), a key figure in several Cream recordings. I don’t recall that much of their performance apart from Jack Bruce’s Theme for An Imaginary Western, their big hit Mississippi Queen and the long coda to a gloriously extended Nantucket Sleighride – later the theme for TV’s Weekend World. To my surprise, Rod Stewart, in a pink corduroy suit, and The Faces put on a fantastically rumbustious, amiable and crowd-pleasing set although, I have to admit, I wasn’t quite sure who he was. But I was young then. And wise enough to go back to the bowl a few more times, because it was – and will be again – one of London’s great outdoor venues.
The subsequent Garden Parties featured the likes of Elton John, Roxy Music, Yes, Jimmy Cliff, Ian Dury, Santana and, er, Vera Lynn. The most famous gig was probably Bob Marley and the Wailers, when capacity was increased from 15,000 to 25,000 and Jonathan Futrell (then a writer for Black Echoes) waded into the lake, stood on a milk crate and snapped an iconic photograph of the singer that now hangs in the Bob Marley Home & Museum in Trench Town, Kingston, Jamaica.
The original stage fell into disrepair and was replaced by a more angular (and now rusty) steel one in 1997 but that too became dilapidated. The final, small-scale concerts took place around 2009. Recently, however, a successful crowdfunding campaign (match-funded by the Mayor) has raised enough money to rebuild/refurbish the stage and bring back live music to the Bowl. In the meantime, a temporary structure will be floated onto the lake and used until the new permanent structure is complete. First up in this re-birth is the South Facing Festival (southfacingfestival.com), a month-long series of concerts with The Streets, Dizzee Rascal, Cymande, Soul II Soul, Sleaford Mods and the English National Opera. There is also a healthy smattering of jazz on offer and I’ll be writing more about that and the festival in the new Kind of Jazz column in the Camden New Journal over the coming weeks.