When it’s announced that The Rolling Stones are planning a free concert in Hyde Park on July 5, 1969, we decide we have to be there. There are four of us, 16-year-old school friends, music a common bond between us.
We get an early train from South Wales to London and by mid-morning we’re at Paddington. We don’t have to ask for directions or try to make navigational sense of the A-Z one of us has, a tatty thing rescued from the back of a drawer that looks like it might date back to before the Great Fire, last referred to by someone in a periwig and bloomers.
No, we just join a huge crowd with whom, by the look of them, we share a common destination. Many thousands of us walk through Sussex Gardens, onto the Bayswater Road. The crowd gets bigger as we move along, people pouring into it from side streets, coming up from the tube stations at Marble Arch, Lancaster Gate and Queensway. There are hardly any police around, just a few Bobbies in shirt sleeves looking a bit stunned by this enormous drift of people towards the Serpentine, which is now in sight. We can see a stage, a banner over it, the whole thing rickety compared to what you see at such events today. There are speaker stacks on either side of it, some sparse decoration, what looks like a palm tree.
In the pictures I’ve just been looking at, you can clearly see where we ended up, slightly to the left of the stage as we’re looking at it, under the first bank of trees, the ground in front of us sloping gently down towards some makeshift barriers manned by Hells Angels, who look less the strutting desperadoes of legend than a motley bunch of lags in fancy dress. The crowd continues to grow around us. Every time you turn to look, the audience seems to have doubled, more and more people arriving by the minute, no end to them. The crowd goes on for what seems like forever and if it isn’t quite the quarter of a million of popular estimate, it’s still a lot of fucking people.
We’re all sitting down, of course, because that’s what you did in those days. You went to a gig anywhere and sat cross-legged on the floor and, you know, dug the music. There’s none of the shrill hysteria that these days attaches itself to festival crowds, no mosh-pit full of flailing bodies, no heaving surges, jostle or crush. There’s a marked absence of drunken loutishness, too, since there’s nowhere to buy booze. There’s nowhere to buy anything, in fact. There are no facilities at all, including toilets, which I strangely don’t remember being a problem. It’s blisteringly hot, because back then we had actual summers, and the prevailing mood speaks of nothing but good vibes, which on reflection may have had a lot to do with the amount of dope being smoked. Whatever, it’s all very groovy.
In many versions of the day’s narrative, as told to Peter Watts in the terrific feature he’s contributed to this month’s issue, the Stones when they appear are an anti-climax. This doesn’t seem to me to be the case at all. They are admittedly ramshackle at times and often the guitars are out of tune, but who really cared? This is the first time they’ve played since the police persecution that almost saw Mick and Keith behind bars, Mick Taylor is making his debut and Brian Jones has just died. In the circumstances I am inclined to think they are positively heroic, even if it is slightly creepy to see Keith Richards in daylight.
In Peter’s article, Mick is ridiculed for his reading of Shelley’s poem Adonaïs – “Peace, peace! He is not dead…” – in tribute to Brian. But to me this seems a genuinely emotional moment, nothing ridiculous or pretentious about it at all, a highlight of an amazing day.
If you were there, tell me about it at the usual address.
ISSUE ON SALE JULY 4TH