Culture Clash? Pop in a royal park
Fifty years ago, the Rolling Stones gave a concert in Hyde Park that turned into a memorial to founding member Brian Jones. It was an event that passed into legend. But back in 1968, when Peter Jenner, manager of Pink Floyd, wrote to the authorities asking for permission to hold a concert in Hyde Park, he received a negative reply, which he described as ‘crusty’.
So how did it come to pass that a whole series of pop concerts was held in this royal park between 1968 and 1969? Find out in this talk with Contemporary Records Specialist Mark Dunton.
This talk is called Culture Clash – Pop in a Royal Park.
It was presented by Mark Dunton and recorded on the 5th July 2019 at The National Archives, Kew.
By way of introduction we used an image of a young couple on a scooter to publicise the talk. This is actually from a road safety poster from the late 1960s and on the original poster there’s actually a slogan by this couple stating ‘Helmets are in’ and a speech bubble for the female scooter rider stating ‘You know it makes sense’. I love the design of this, it’s just so groovy, it’s sort of ‘mod meets psychedelia’.
Now apart from me there are three stars of this talk and the first star of my piece is Hyde Park, one of London’s eight Royal Parks and one of its finest landscapes. Acquired by Henry VIII from the monks of Westminster Abbey in 1536, over time it became a venue for national celebrations.
The next star of my talk is the very reason I’m able to give it. A wonderful file which actually comes under the Office of Works and its successors and the reason we have it is that the Ministry of Works and Public Buildings were responsible for the administration of the Royal Parks and pleasure gardens, and this is one of their files and it’s absolutely packed full of interest.
So our story begins with a letter from Peter Jenner, who is also central to my talk. He is another star. After gaining a First Class Honours degree in Economics at Cambridge University, Peter Jenner became a lecturer at the London School of Economics at the age of 21. And on the 31st of January 1968 he wrote in to the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works and he said the following:
‘Dear Sir, I am the manager of various pop groups, notably the Pink Floyd, and whilst on a walk last Sunday, my eyes fell upon the Hyde Park bandstand. It seemed to me that it would be very nice to put on some free concerts which would appeal to young people for whom there is rarely, if ever, any suitable free entertainment’.
And you know many of you may be familiar with the bandstand in Hyde Park and it’s a very nice structure. Now in his letter Mr Jenner continues, he says:
‘I do feel we could provide some extremely good and popular entertainment and we would studiously avoid any advertising’.
He’s already conscious that that is one of the major problems from the park authority’s point of view, to avoid advertising which was seen as vulgar. Anyway he says:
‘I’d be delighted to come and see someone to discuss the matter further’.
Now just to reiterate that these are the really early days in terms of large pop gatherings. The term ‘pop’ or ‘rock’ first of all, is not in usage in Britain at this time. We are talking pop concerts and note Peter Jenner is proposing some free pop concerts. There had been some free pop events at Central Park in New York and also some experiments with concerts organised by the Greater London Council, which were also free, so perhaps it was only a matter of time before it was tried in Hyde Park.
I think one can say that the motivation was genuinely altruistic and the publicity was, of course, fantastic, for the bands concerned. However how was Jenner’s request received?
So he received a reply from a Mr R Phillips and it’s very courteous but it is in the negative and he’s saying essentially, ‘I’m afraid that it is the department’s policy to limit musical performance in the Royal Parks, to those given to established military and civilian brass bands, and I’m sorry to have to appear unhelpful in this matter, but we have to consider the interests of all park visitors and try to strike a balance between their often conflicting demands’.
However, Peter Jenner doesn’t give up, he starts to lobby a young Labour London MP Ben Whittaker, so he approaches him, and he writes a letter to him and he says:
‘As one might have expected, I got a very crusty and almost duplicated reply from the Ministry. This really doesn’t seem to be good enough and I’d like to enlist your services in a campaign to get them to be a little more imaginative. I’m writing to you as one of the youngest and most enlightened London MPs not in the government and therefore perhaps in a position to help’.
Now Ben Whittaker in turn, he then approached Robert Melhuish who was the Minister for Public Buildings and Works and around this time as well, Peter Jenner wrote to Lord Kennet at the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, who also approached Robert Melhuish about the issue and Lord Kennet took a keen interest in the matter, and was in favour of experimenting with a concert in the park. He wrote to Mr Melhuish:
‘It strikes me as a rather good notion provided the amplification were not excessive’.
Meanwhile a fascinating internal discussion amongst departmental officials in the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works ensued. So the civil servant R Phillips was not keen. He wrote:
‘We must consider the effect of these concerts on the park itself. It is regrettable but undeniable that pop groups attract more than their fair share of the rowdy element, and the prospect of clashes between them and the more sedate park visitors is not attractive’.
That’s what he wrote on the 21st of February 1968, and colleagues N Downing and L Potts were in agreement with him. Here’s N Downing commenting:
‘It seems to me that the pop fraternity are already very well catered for, and within a short radius of Hyde Park they can get as much pop as they can absorb. Live, on record or on the radio. But the only place where people can get a bit of peace and quiet is in the Royal Parks’.
And then L Potts also chimes in:
‘Heaven preserve the parks from being turned into a sort of extension of Carnaby Street. They are needed to escape from the so-called Swinging London. Mr Jenner’s letter sounds very high-minded but I strongly suspect that his suggestion is motivated by reasons of self-interest’. He continues:
‘The bailiff is horrified at the thought of pop groups giving concerts on the bandstand in Hyde Park. He is convinced that mobs of screaming teenagers would ruin the flowerbeds and shrubberies in this area, as well as causing other damage. He had some experience of this recently when mobs invaded Kensington Gardens in the hope that they would catch sight of some of The Monkees group, who were staying in the Lancaster Hotel’.
Well I think you know The Monkees were unlikely to be inciting people to cause damage to the shrubberies, after all they were ‘just trying to be friendly’.
The point can be overdone but as a generalisation, there was more of a gap between young people and their parents or grandparents in the 1960s than there is nowadays. There was more of a generation gap. This was particularly apparent in terms of pop and rock music and the associated culture, fashion and elements of protest. I’m going to draw on some of my family memories to illustrate this.
I recall my grandma Dorothy, telling me that she liked The Beatles when they were ‘wholesome’. She was referring to their mop top period, when their appeal went wide across society. But by 1967/1968 the psychedelic Beatles, with their drug references and ever longer hair, became rather more disturbing to the older generation, and I am going to really give away my age now and this is a rather hazy memory, but I don’t think I was all that impressed at age seven when the Beatles’ ‘All You Need Is Love’ was released. I remember saying in my naïve little way, ‘All the pop groups’ nowadays just keep going on about love love love’. In fact I was to fall in love with pop music myself shortly after I made that comment. My dad said something like, ‘better that than to sing about war’. But my granddad Ted said, ‘Oh I totally agree Mark, it’s terrible’, or words to that effect.
My grandparents Ethel and Ted would have fallen into the category of the more sedate visitors to a park that R Phillips mentioned. Now they had interesting stories to relate. Ethel had been a lively social person back in the roaring twenties and they’d obviously lived through some very tough times during the war. Ted had been an Air Raid Precautions Warden. They were, I guess, socially conservative and understandably would not have been that keen on the hippified pop and rock culture of the late 1960s.
So my point is that nowadays, for the sake of argument, it wouldn’t be that unusual to see a grandparent wearing a Rolling Stones or Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt or to be actively supporting a grandchild who is an aspiring rock musician or singer songwriter. But in those days, as a generalisation, there was more of a gap.
Now back to the narrative. Robert Melhuish, the Minister of Public Buildings and Works, agrees with a civil servant called Mr Barrow. R Barrow was actually sympathetic to the proposal for a pop concert in Hyde Park. He does advise that ‘we should proceed with some caution’ and he talks about the fact that Greater London Council, with its experiences of running pop concerts in their parks, the experience has not been entirely happy.
They found that such concerts are apt to attract gangs of noisy and unruly youngsters and also the amplification of pop music needs to be kept within reasonable limits. But he suggests that, as a first step, ‘we experiment with two of these pop concerts in Hyde Park, just two concerts and then we’ll be in a better position to judge whether or not we can go ahead with more’. And then it’s also suggested that ‘perhaps we could have Mr Jenner come in to meet and have a discussion with us’.
So that’s on the 29th of February 1968 and the Minister Mr Melhuish agreed with this suggestion. On the 14th of March the Bailiff of the Royal Parks, Mr Downing and L Potts, who I mentioned earlier also, they met with Mr Jenner to discuss his proposals for free concerts on the bandstand.
I’ll just read a little extract again from the file because you’ll see just how Peter Jenner has won the civil servants over and you know, this is an account from L Potts, so he says:
‘Mr Jenner, who looked to be in his early 20s, seemed a reasonable and intelligent person. He really had no concrete proposals and sounded as though he would be quite happy to fit in with anything we wanted. It was provisionally arranged to have one concert on Sat 29th June and another on Saturday the 27th of July, both in the afternoon. Mr Jenner accepted that the second one would have to be cancelled if the first proved to be a fiasco’. But those comments that L Potts makes there about Mr Jenner, show that he’s been completely won over and he was one of the most fiercest critics in the first place. I think Mr Jenner must have had a lot of charm. It was agreed that the policing of these concerts would be light touch and discreet and so advertising for the first concert went ahead, in fact in one magazine it just reads:
‘Free Hyde Park, [there’s a word missing here], at the Cockpit, Hyde Park, 3pm Saturday 29th June. Pink Floyd and Tyrannosaurus Rex, presented by the Ministry of Works’.
Perhaps the Ministry of Works could be seen as a predecessor as the Ministry of Sound.
Now referring to this gig involving Pink Floyd and Tyrannosaurus Rex, who of course became T Rex later on, John Peel said of this event ‘it was the nicest concert I’d ever been to’. In a quote which is attributed to Peel, he said:
‘I always claim that the best outdoor event that I’ve ever been to was the Pink Floyd concert in Hyde Park, when I hired a boat and rowed out and I lay in the bottom of the boat, in the middle of the Serpentine and just listened to the band play’.
It does sound blissful, does it not? And this first concert was a success, for example there’s a thank you letter on the file from a member of the public and they say:
‘Dear Sirs, we would like to say how very much we enjoyed the pop concert at Hyde Park on Saturday. The audience was quiet and extremely well behaved, and listened with quiet appreciation. We think that it was most enterprising to have staged this. Our facilities should be for every one of all tastes and we think by the obvious success it should certainly be repeated’.
And Peter Jenner, on the 3rd July 1968, thanked the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works and he wrote to Mr Downing and said:
‘I think we can all congratulate ourselves on a really splendid afternoon last Saturday. Every report I’ve had from people who attended has been most favourable and mentions there have been no complaints and thank you for all the help you’ve given us. I’m now looking forward to July 27th for the next concert’.
All very positive.
Now when you look at the listings of the Hyde Park concerts in the period from June 1968 up to June 1969, it’s quite interesting. I’ll just read some of them out; so 29th June 1968 you had Pink Floyd, T Rex, Roy Harper and Jethro Tull on the bill. On the 27th July you had Traffic, The Nice, The Pretty Things, The Action and Juniors Eyes. On the 24th of August 1968 you had Family, Fleetwood Mac, Fairport Convention, The Election and 10 Years After, and then on the 28th of September you had The Move, The Strawbs, Roy Harper, The Action and a group called Clouds, and then on the 7th June 1969 you had Blind Faith, Donovan, Edgar Broughton, Richie Havens and the Third Ear Band. So it’s an interesting mixture of pop, rock, folk and progressive music. And of course there are, just looking at that list, there’s strong hints of a more kind of underground scene coming through.
In terms of locations, the first three concerts were held at the Cockpit and this is fairly close to the Serpentine; it’s roughly in the middle of Hyde Park. The Cockpit has been described as a naturally sloping amphitheatre and it does feature some lovely trees.
The fourth concert headlined by The Move was actually held on the Bandstand, which is really quite close to Hyde Park corner. It was held there due to bad weather, but this was felt to be a less satisfactory location. It was in rather too open a spot and I think there were many complaints about noise.
Which brings me on to the next section. And this is about problems and complaints which start to mount. So the file shows that these problems and complaints begin to mount and these include inadequate toilet facilities. So some of the Hyde Park staff were actually housed within the park and they understandably objected to their gardens being used as latrines.
High volume of music started to cause problems and complaints. The volume of noise at the Aug 24th 1968 gig was described as ‘extremely high’ by the Met Police. You can see in the file that the park authorities and to some extent the police, were concerned that subversive literature was being distributed at these events. Black Dwarf magazine is mentioned, for example. It’s realised that there is little that the police can do in reality, but they note, park authorities note, that this is going on. In a letter from one of the co-organisers of the concert Andrew King, he mentions in a letter that some ‘nasty little pink leaflets were being distributed, but that it was nothing to do with him’.
And then there’s the problem of damage and debris being left afterwards. After the 28th September gigs, the foreman of the park described the Cockpit area as looking like a battlefield. Broken deckchairs, damage to plants and litter. However, I’ve also seen reports of young people concertedly picking up litter at the end of the concerts, as well. Another complaint centred on obscene language, again regarding the 28th September 1968 gig. A Metropolitan police inspector referred to the ‘blasphemous, insulting and obscene language’ used by one performer.
J R Hair, the Park Superintendent, commented on the concert held on the 28th September 1968. He said:
‘I would like to comment on a number of points made by Inspector Searle. I heard most of the offensive monologue reported. It was to my mind disgusting and quite unsuitable for a crowd which included very many children and family parties. Whilst I would say that the account in the News of the World was exaggerated and the pictures probably specially posed, there is no doubt that this hippy element is getting bigger at these shows. The odour of joss sticks was well in evidence on Saturday. Probably it helped to kill the smell of cannabis’.
Now around October 1968 the park authorities reviewed the situation asking themselves, are we going to allow the pop concerts to continue as a regular feature. This is the view expressed by R Phillips which sums up the consensus within the Ministry, so he writes:
‘At first glance it would appear that there has been a slow process of degeneration from the promising beginnings in July, far in excess of our expectations, to the events of September which are hallmarks of the type of event we try to discourage in the Royal Parks. However before we write off the series of concerts as a failure, because of the activities of the more unruly actions of sections of the audience, we should consider the thousands of people who were content to gather and listen to the groups without causing any disturbance and to see whether we can still cater for them’.
The Ministry decide to go ahead with three more concerts in 1969, to be held on the 7th June, the 5th July and the 2nd of August, but controversy continued, fuelled by story’s such as one in the Sunday Mirror, and this I think is from February 1969, and the headline was:
‘Jimi (that’s Jimi Hendrix) wants you to strip in the park’.
Jimi Hendrix was reportedly, according to this news story, making an approach to the Royal Parks authority for permission to hold a free concert in the park. And he’s quoted as saying;
‘I propose to invite the whole audience to take off their clothes. Too many people these days are hung up because they’re covered up’.
Well the Ministry received a letter from an outraged member of the public about this, but they had not received an application from Jimi Hendrix to play in the park and as far as I can tell, he didn’t actually play there. Now after a gig with the super group Blind Faith, headlining on the 7th June 1969, now this renewed concerns about the sheer numbers turning up, litter, people sleeping in the park overnight, all these kinds of concerns, and the subject of pop concerts in Royal Parks was even debated by the House of Lords on the 25th June 1969, and Lord Derwent put down a question which read as follows:
‘To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether it is in accordance with their policy to allow entertainments in the Royal Parks, which attract audiences of 70,000 people, to the detriment of the usual amenities and the peaceful enjoyment of the parks by other citizens. And whether the regulations of forbidding sleeping in parks when the parks are closed, were in force on the night of the 7th and 8th of June’.
So this sparked off quite a lively debate in the House of Lords and there’s this rather remarkable intervention by Baroness Llewelyn Davies of Hastoe and I must just read you this:
‘My Lords’, she says, ‘I am quite sure that it is a good thing that the young should be able some times to have the use of the parks for the sort of things in which they are most interested. The groups which play in the park at these popular concerts are in fact internationally known. They are among the best of the groups. Their names may not be wholly familiar to your Lordships, but there were groups like The Cream, The Pink Floyd, The Move and one which I am sure will delight noble Lords opposite, The Election. I am quite sure that they would approve of that’.
Now that really does seem to be touché, in many ways.
Now I’ve had some comments and feedback because, knowledgeable people have told me that they do not recall this group, The Election, and there was another group around the time called The Eclection. Could it be a mistake, although I just don’t know?
Now here I must make a break in the narrative to mention Brian Jones, the supremely talented guitarist and founding member of The Rolling Stones. On June 9th 1969, it was announced that Jones was leaving The Rolling Stones. A statement was put out which read:
‘I no longer see eye to eye with the others over the discs we are cutting’.
On July 2nd he was found dead, having drowned in his swimming pool. I’m not going to go into the controversy surrounding his death. Arrangements for The Rolling Stones to play a free concert at Hyde Park on Saturday the 5th of July, were already far advanced, when news of Jones’s death came. The group decided to go ahead with the performance in the words of Charlie Watts, as ‘a memorial to Brian’.
It marked the debut of new guitarist Mick Taylor. Crowd estimates varied from 250,000 to 500,000. A series of bands played first. When the Stones eventually arrived on stage Jagger’s appearance was remarkable. In Phillip Norman’s words, ‘it looked like he was wearing a little girl’s party dress’, but many people have thought, well actually what Jagger was wearing shows that Jagger was really way ahead of his time with this sort of unisex fashion. So you know, it can certainly be regarded as part of that trend.
Jagger addressed the crowd:
‘Listen, will you just cool it for a minute, because I would really like to say something about Brian. About how we feel about him just going, when we didn’t expect to’.
He then read two stanzas from Shelley’s ‘Adonais’, the poet’s elegy on the death of John Keats, beginning ’Peace, peace he is not dead, he doth not sleep, he hath awakened from the dream of life’.
As Shelley’s words died away the Stones’ stage hands opened several cardboard boxes and shook them towards the crowd, releasing several hundred white butterflies. Although this was a powerful visual image as Dominic Sandbrook comments, conservationists however, objected that many of the butterflies must have suffocated in the cramped boxes and London’s gardeners complained for weeks that they had caused terrible damage to their plants. If you see the film documentary ‘The Stones in the Park’ made by Granada TV, you’ll see that many white butterflies were swirling around the Stones for quite some time.
That documentary also shows that it was far from being a great performance by The Rolling Stones. Bass player Bill Wyman admitted, ‘We soon went out of tune in the hot sun. But perhaps it wasn’t surprising that it was a bit of a shaky performance, given the circumstances, you know, just after Brian Jones’s death’. It was certainly very powerful symbolically and in Wyman’s words, signalling the end of an era – ‘the band changed but the band went on’.
There was certainly a sea of people there that day.
Here’s a brief extract from a Metropolitan Police report on this concert:
‘Most of the arrangement made by Blackhill Enterprises was successful and the artistes arrived and left without much difficulty. However the provision of barriers and stewards around the stage was unsuccessful as this area was full of people when The Rolling Stones appeared. After the concert Jo Bergman, Personal Assistant to The Rolling Stones, wrote to thank Mr Hair, the Superintendent of the Central Parks, and we have the letter she wrote on Rolling Stones letter-headed note paper, and she’s writing in to Mr Hair:
‘Dear Mr Hair, The Rolling Stones have asked me to write to you to express their thanks and appreciation for the help which you and your department contributed to last Saturday’s concert. I hope that there was no damage done to any park property, but if so, would you please let us know and we will try to sort out any problems’.
And they’re passing on ‘an especial thank you to the surveyors, the electricians and others who put in extra work on our behalf’.
And there were also Peter Jenner and Andrew King who also helped to organise this concert. They also wrote to Mr Hair on the 10th July and there’s an interesting paragraph there:
‘We understand that a tree in the park was damaged and we have had a long think about this and having talked about this to The Rolling Stones, we would be very pleased if your department could accept a small tree which we would like to see planted in the park. We feel that this would perhaps be the nicest contribution that we could make and we would be grateful if you could let us know the approximate cost and what sort of tree would be the most suitable’.
This was because some of the fans did get up into the trees and unfortunately cause damage to some of the branches.
Now, there was a piece in the Guardian by Richard Gott, summing up this amazing concert and the headline was ‘A glimpse in Hyde Park of Britain in ten years’ and I would just like to read brief extracts from it:
‘Most fantastic at all was that this was a free concert – an event which seemed to be taking place in a socialist society in the distant future. The participants almost all born since the Second World War, had a classless air and they were less disciplined, less puritanical than the middle-class protestors of earlier days. Today there is no protest but merely a feeling, perhaps a false one, that a kind of freedom has been achieved in spite of, rather than because of, the activities of Heath, Wilson and company. Anyone who wants to understand the present political malaise in Britain, or who wants to have an inkling of what Britain will be like in ten years’ time, should have been in the park on Saturday’.
And now I think that Richard Gott made some prescient comments there because Britain was on the way to becoming a more relaxed, less uptight society in some ways. And pop concerts now are commonplace but they are rarely free and there’s a great deal of commercial involvement.
Now Bill Wyman wrote that The Rolling Stones performance at Hyde Park on the 5th July 1969 remains the biggest open air free concert ever held in Britain. Breath-taking, stunning, spectacular in its impact.
I hope I’ve succeeded in showing how the Archives can enrich our understanding of how society was changing in the 1960s, and the material has largely been based on the contents of just one file, which is pretty amazing. Coming back to the title of this talk, there was a culture clash in a sense, as one can see from the initial reaction of the park authorities when approached by Peter Jenner, but he won them over by sheer charm, I reckon. And once the experimental gigs were underway they were happy to co-operate, despite some difficulties, and the file also shows that the attitudes expressed by the establishment were not always predictable and one-sided by any means. Take that House of Lords debate for example.
Thank you for listening.