Three consecutive summers of Police Picnics — and four consecutive summers of music festivals — come to a close for me with this final edition.
Another summer, another all-day music festival in Toronto headlined by The Police. The last of the three, in fact.
It was part of the band’s final tour undertaken during the time of their original existence, as a promotional vehicle for their fifth album, Synchronicity, which was an immediate blockbuster upon its early June release. Advertised as being along for the ride this time were former Wailer and reggae legend Peter Tosh; the brilliant King Sunny Adé and His African Beats; bland, contemporary new wavers The Fixx; Toronto’s own Blue Peter, then nearing both a career peak and the last throes of their existence; and, best of all and initially the biggest reason for my purchasing a ticket, Scotland’s Simple Minds, then finishing up their global flogging of what is for my money one of two truly brilliant long-playing moments from their career: 1982’s New Gold Dream (the other being 1981’s Sons and Fascination).
Police Picnic ’83 was held at CNE Stadium, as was the 1982 edition, and I again attended with my friend, Le Château (Lady Bump, who had come along to the first Police Picnic as well as the second, sat this one out). As was also the case with Police Picnic ’82, this year’s shindig involved yet another drug misadventure for us.
Wait, scratch that. This time around it definitely wasn’t a misadventure. What’s the opposite of that? Bonadventure?
Once again, it was all down to pills. I really can’t remember at what point I stopped taking speed, but I was certainly still a pillhead of sorts as late as ‘83/’84. Just as it was with the 1982 festival situation, I can’t recall why we didn’t have any to take with us, bennies usually being as ubiquitous as leather jackets and Chuck Taylor sneakers in the circles I was operating in. But, for whatever reason, cupboards clearly were bare at that time. I do recall that we had a fifth of vodka to devour on the two-hour bus ride to Toronto (we skipped Music Mann tours following the nightmarish experience the previous year, this time pooching any ideas of smuggling in booze or taking in a cooler, blanket or other cumbersome items), and something to puff on at some point, but no black beauties.
Le Château and I caught the mid-morning bus to Toronto in order to spend a bit of pre-festival time in the city before heading over to the stadium for the day’s shenanigans. It was a warm, sunny, early July Friday morning, and LC and I set to work on polishing off the bottle — sans mix or chaser! — once boarded, settling into one of the near-the-back twinned seats. It was instantly clear to us that the entire back section of the bus was heading to the festival. Merrymaking ensued.
During the concluding leg of the journey, a fellow who was seated in our area began making the rounds of the obviously festival-bound folk, flogging his chemical wares. He offered to sell us bennies, and I came back with an emphatic “NO!” I wasn’t going through a repeat of last year’s drug-related horrors at Exhibition Stadium. But upon return from the bathroom, I found LC sitting with his wallet open and few bills out.
He had talked to the dealer who assured LC that the pills were good — not just good, but great. So great that he was recommending to everyone who bought them to take only one at first to see how they responded. To demonstrate that he was on the level, the dealer said to Château that he’d take his dose then and there. At that moment, Mr. Dealer reached into the bag, randomly grabbed one, and downed it.
With that, LC felt they’d be ok and I somewhat hesitantly concurred. We each bought a few, and I distinctly remember looking at them and thinking that they were substantially larger than the black beauties I was used to taking. “Perhaps they’ll have a bigger, longer kick,” I reckoned.
An advertisement from my archives for Police Picnic 1983. Simple Minds were initially slated to appear but ended up being replaced by funk legend James Brown.
Soon thereafter, as the Greyhound was pulling into the station, Mr. Dealer stood up once again to address his customers, reiterating that we should all start by testing out one pill only until we had gauged if they were possibly too potent. Having scored them a few days earlier and been knocked sideways by the l’il darlins — but in a good way — he de-encapsuled one of them to study its contents. He concluded that there was probably something else in these babies besides speed.
No shit, Sherlock. A more accurate query to ponder would have been as to whether there was any amphetamine in them at all. They kicked in for both of us shortly after disembarking and the impact was swift and substantial. In retrospect, it’s abundantly clear to me that we had taken a narcotic, not merely a stimulant such as speed, and a strong one at that. Rather than the usual teeth grinding, body flashes, and that …
zoomingandneedingtodoeverything RIGHTNOWRIGHTNOWRIGHTNOW andreallyquicklywithanabundanceofenergy
… feeling that came with speed, this was the polar opposite. Everything seemed liquid and … waaaannnnerrrflllllllll …..
I was consumed with a full body serenity, feeling like I was floating along Yonge St. rather than walking down it. I was engulfed in an invisible cocoon, observing all that was bustling and whirring around me, yet removed. It seemed like I was watching downtown Toronto through a life-size movie screen while in a warm, relaxing bath, everything unfolding in front of me in muted slow motion. Whatever this was we took, it was golden. We were both in a “whoa” mode, relating to each other how we felt. The adventure was on. Suffice it to say, at that point I’d wished I bought the whole bag.
It also came with a certain numbness that was highlighted when Château and I decided to head into the Eaton’s Centre (the mega-mall opened in downtown Toronto in the late 1970s) and I got stuck in the revolving doors trying to make my way in. I pushed and pushed with my left hand but — midway through revolving — the door simply locked and I couldn’t get it to budge. I turned around to see if I could deduce why, and discovered that there was indeed something jamming the doorway.
It was my right arm.
Two other events stick out in my mind from our early afternoon wanderings in the city. First, we ended up doing the rounds on Queen Street West, Toronto’s hipster area, and descended the stairs into this one particular basement boutique. As I entered, with my arms swinging like rubber ribbons in a wind, that same naughty right hand slammed into a vintage smoker, smashing the ceramic ashtray as it crashed to the floor. Mortified, I began apologizing profusely, but the perky alternagirl working there simply flashed a smile and said not to worry about it. “That happens all the time, and we have a bunch of them in the back.” Sure enough, before we left, the mess had been cleared up and a replacement smoker was in its stead.
My late grandma’s smoker, circa late ‘50s/early ‘60s, now a fixture in our living room. Luckily for me and the smoker, it never made its way to a certain hipster boutique on Toronto’s Queen Street West in the ‘80s (Photo by VA).
The second thing took place on one of the backstreets around the CityTV building. As LC and I staggered around the perimeter of the Toronto broadcasting studios in our surreal daze, a side door opened just as we walked by it. Who should emerge but Andy Summers from The Police and Jeanne Beker, now best known as the host of FashionTelevision but was then the co-host of City’s landmark music program, The NewMusic. Just the two of them: no other security or peeps of any kind.
A real WTF? moment.
Beker had done a famous interview with Summers during one of the previous Police tours, as he soaked in a tub. In the process, the two became chums of sorts. When we happened upon them, they were probably exiting discreetly following a pre-show interview at the CityTV studios and, thinking quickly, LC quickly procured a pen from his knapsack and got Summers to autograph his pack of cigarettes while Beker stood around impatiently. What I most recall is Summers — who has a decade on his other bandmates — looking substantially older in person than he did in his then-contemporary photos. Ahhh, the magic of a good make-up artist, the right lens, and airbrushing.
Andy Summers and Jeanne Beker reunite 30 years later on FashionTelevision, here recreating the famous bathtub interview from The NewMusic, only with both of them in the tub this time. Note Summers’ hair catching on fire at 2:30 minutes.
Shortly thereafter, the two of us moseyed on down to Exhibition Stadium on the grounds of the CNE, wafting effortlessly through security, and staking out a good place on the football field, to the left of the stage, about one-quarter of the way back.
Our pal Special Guests was also there that day, attending with his friends Sammy the Goose and W. We were going to look out for each other but — surprise, surprise — never did catch up in that sea of people. He doesn’t remember much besides that “we took a picnic, and I snuck in a bottle of vodka down the front of my pants. Sammy the Goose and I spent the day wandering around. We got to the front of the stage and just walked through the crowd. We got talking to a couple of girls who invited us to a party (we didn’t go) and arguing with some woman for some reason.”
Toronto’s Blue Peter (or Blue Penis as they were oft cheekily re-named in my circle) had already begun their set by the time we arrived, warming up the crowd. BP had emerged from the late ‘70s Toronto punk scene, gradually turning into a poppier, and then funkier, latter-day-Roxy-Music-esque proposition as they made their way into the early ‘80s. By this point, they’d cultivated a national following and landed on the radio with hits such as “Chinese Graffiti” and their then-current number, “Don’t Walk Past.”
A Blue Penis, er, Peter badge (courtesy of Ms. P) and their hit at the time of the PP83, “Don’t Walk Past.” A real slice of 1983.
This period turned out to be their career peak, as they eventually disbanded two years later (When I think of Blue Peter, I always recall having a humorous debate the following summer at about 4 a.m. at an afterhours boozecan with vocalist Paul Humphrey and my friend The Bass Player, arguing the merits of David Bowie’s David Live vs Stage — they were incredulously championing the former, me the latter).
Somewhere in and around this time, LC and I decided to each take a second pill, now that the effects were winding down after several hours having passed. Again, within short order, that full, floaty feeling flooded back, each of us a sea of radiant pharmacological splendor — and just in time for the day’s highlight: King Sunny Adé and His African Beats.
An established star in his native Nigeria, he was at this time beginning to court the international market starting with the release of his Juju Music album: a collection of some of his best material, edited down from its standard 20-minutes or so lengths to more bite-sized, Western-ears-friendly chunks.
JuJu Music, King Sunny Adé and His African Beats (1982)
I can’t remember if I had bought Juju Music in advance of seeing Adé or picked it up after seeing him live. What I do remember is that I thought he and his band were utterly jaw dropping. Sensational. Revelatory. He and his extended group of musicians played a number of long, transportive pieces. Let me tell you, long, intricate, visceral, hypnotic numbers make a great date for the narcotically-enhanced mind, body, and soul. A truly memorable performance.
I went gaga over Juju Music for a period, although in the long run it turned out that fellow countryman, Fela Kuti, ended up as the Nigerian artist who I become truly besotted with.
“Ja Funmi,” fromJuJu Music
Bland, commercial new wavers The Fixx followed, delivering a set that was forgettable even as it was happening. Having to follow Adé was brutal enough, but these MTV-approved boys had the doubly unfortunate “honour” of preceding the Godfather of Soul, James Brown.
As mentioned earlier, Simple Minds dropped off the bill at some point, much to my extreme chagrin (I eventually got to see them many years later, with that show coming up down the line as concert no. 202). That chagrin was short-lived when it was revealed to me that Brown had been added in their stead.
When I think of the my interest in music during the 1977-1984 period, the definitive characteristic would be “new”: new sounds, groups, styles, approaches. I probably listened to more older stuff than many of my peers, but even trips to the past were massively overshadowed by the focus on the here-and-now.
I’ll eventually be discussing about how my interest in both past and present pretty much hit parity in the mid-‘80s, with these dual-direction perspectives informing my listening tastes from then till now. But the biggest precursor to this soon-to-come wholesale excavation of the past was my early ‘80s rediscovery of soul, funk, and r&b. While I was a fan of those genres in the early and mid 1970s, the arrival of punk temporarily took them off my menu of interests.
James Brown’s legendary performance from The T.A.M.I. Show (1964).
With the decade’s start, I began reinvesting in more groove-based music that was increasingly being incorporated into much of the newer alternative stuff I was listening to, touching off a re-fascination with the mothership genres and their history. Particularly in tandem with with my brother-in-law, we became passionate in sharing our re-exploration of these avenues, with my enthusiasm for it now deeper and more intense than it had been in my younger days.
In the process, James Brown had re-entered my musical vocabulary in then-recent years, and I was gobsmacked to be able to see him just as my appreciation for Soul Brother #1 and his innovations were now raging for me. I was massively primed for his set and, indeed, as with Iggy Pop and the Specials in 1981, and the Talking Heads in 1982, James Brown was the act at the Police Picnic I was most anticipating.
And what a colossal letdown he was.
The label of my copy of James Brown’s 1973 hit, “The Payback.” Nice ‘fro on the label, James (I had one in the mid-’70s too … didn’t we all?)
At this point, Brown may just have been at his lowest-ever career ebb to date. Furthermore, we all now know what most of us didn’t then: this was the period wherein the formerly fascistically straight-edged Brown privately fell right off his moralistic anti-drugs pedestal, descending into hard substances, including PCP (ouch! … even I wouldn’t have touched that stuff at my most experimental). It seemed as if he spent half of the set off of the stage, appeared to be going half-heartedly through the performance motions, and was a shadow of his former high-energy self. The word “embarrassment” comes to mind.
I was gutted. One of the all-time concert-going disappointments.
Brown did bounce back to small degrees creatively, especially with the Unity EP he recorded with Afrika Bambaatta in 1984 — an early, important endorsement of hip hop from one of its essential progenitors and a key ingredient of my soundtrack to that summer — and a full hit the year after that with the jingoistic Rocky number, “Living In America.” Sadly, it appears his personal life just continued to devolve and there was little of note musically from the late ‘80s onwards.
Above: My copy of the Unity EP, released the summer following his disappointing set at PPIII. An old-school/hip hop summit with Afrika “Planet Rock” Bambaatta, it was the best thing Brown had done in years.
Chastened by his deeply disappointing appearance, it felt as if Brown’s set had killed the day’s momentum, but it turned out only to be a blip on the radar. Moving into mid-evening, now-second-on-the-bill Peter Tosh was up next. He ended up as almost a big a shock as Brown but for opposite reasons: he was sensational!
I had first learned about Tosh upon discovering Bob Marley and the Wailers in the mid-‘70s, eventually checking out his Legalize It and Bush Doctor albums, but nothing really after that. By this point, I hadn’t much listened to Tosh in the preceding years and so while I was expecting to enjoy his set, it wasn’t at the forefront of my mind. That was until he came out and put on a passionate, mesmerizing show that completely reminded me of everything I’d liked about him in the first place, and then some.
Peter Tosh performing “Bush Doctor” in Holland in 1983, the same year I saw him at the Police Picnic. Nice assault rifle guitar, Peter … and as for that spliff …
He got an enthusiastic response from the packed stadium, completely erasing the bad vibes from Brown’s set which had clearly frustrated many.
With Tosh’s exit, the stage was set for the night’s headliners, as I saw The Police for the third, final, and best time. If I thought they were boring and sucked in 1981, and much improved in 1982, then this 1983 performance jumps to mind as particularly wonderful. As I have previously written, The Police will never be on my list of “essential acts,” but having said that, their music catalogue is great and I love Reggatta de Blanc without question.
As for Synchronicity, it’s been a while since I’ve heard it in its entirety, but my take on it back then was that it was possibly their finest album. The Police really were nothing more than a polished, professional pop group who just happened to emerge concurrently with the artistically rich, challenging environment of late ‘70s UK post punk — “post punk” here referring to both the time frame and the genre — who’d often cluttered up their strengths in order to pay lipservice to strands of “hip” that they really didn’t embody. It always seemed to me that, with their final album, they simply went “screw the pretense of even trying to be interesting or innovative — let’s just make a very polished, strictly radio-friendly album, and do it well.” And they succeeded, minus Summers’ “Mother,” the LP’s failed and pointless attempt to go beyond the Fern Bar.
Synchronicity, The Police (1983)
They may just be one of the very few acts I can think of where the more accessible and commercial they got, the overall better they probably were (the Manic Street Preachers are probably another).
The trio may have been at each others’ throats off the stage, but in spite — or perhaps because — of that, they played with considerable intensity. This performance was also spirited by coinciding with the group ascending to No. 1 around the globe via the Synchronicity album and its sweet-sour lead-off single, “Every Breath You Take.” Moments like that — when an artist has just taken a big career jump or hit an ultimate summit — can often be the best time to see an them live: that sometimes orgasmic vibe that’s a result of an alchemical interaction between a juiced band and audience, generated in tandem with a zeitgeist-y peak.
The audio of “Demolition Man” from this very gig at CNE Stadium. This was originally written for Grace Jones for her brilliant Nightclubbing album. The Police do a good job here … but Jones’ version is truly Amazing, Grace.
And that’s where everyone was on this night. To be there in the midst of this huge outdoor gathering, caressed by the velvet July warmth, under indigo skies with floating stars, to a spirited set of music, experienced through that luxurious narcotic/herbal sensuousness: mmmmm … sweetness.
Musically, the only specific thing that really jumps out was when they did “Every Breath You Take,” which had just taken one step down the chart stairs after a long residence at the top step, the 60,000 or so souls erupting in recognition. I’m pretty sure they did most of Synchronicity plus most of the usual sing-a-long suspects (“Roxanne,” “Message In A Bottle,” “Da Doo Doo Doo,” etc.) but remember more how it all felt rather than details. Even if not a major fan, I really had to give them props for this one, and afterwards Le Château and I talked about how they really had been dynamite that evening.
“Synchronicity 1,” in and around when I would have seen them, live in Atlanta. They were considerably more energized in 1983 than when I’d seen them in 1981. What the hell is Sting wearing??? What would Trudi say?
Aside from the vibe and “Every Breath You Take,” there’s another component from this final Police Picnic that’s significant for me: this was the first show I had attended that featured the concert being live-filmed and transmitted to the Jumbotron screens. I noted in my Bob Seger piece about how, back then, performers were gesticulating specs on a stage for the further-backs. The now-ubiquitous use of the screens at large gigs started in and around this time, helping somewhat to level the playing field sightline-wise. Le C et moi loved it and appreciated what it added to the experience.
At one point, the videographer followed them backstage as they took a mid-set break to have a cup of tea while the whole stadium watched on. Yeah, pretty hokey, but the ability to do that was new at the time so it was pretty cool.
After the usual battery of encores, Sting, Summers, and Copeland exited the CNE for the second and what turned out to be final time. Within a year, The Police were retired. As I wrote in my piece on The Beat and R.E.M., a new era was coming on as an old one was winding down. Blue Peter would soon be history and Peter Tosh would be murdered in 1987, while a number of acts I’d seen in recent years would soon dissolve or already had: The Jam, The Specials, The Beat, the Gang of Four, The Clash, and The Go-Gos among the best known.
This day also marked the final of four consecutive summers that included me attending an outdoor summer festival, starting with Heatwave in 1980. It would be nine more years before I became a festival-going dude once again, with Lollapalooza in 1992 (coming up way down the line as no. 76).
As for the rest of the night, I have no recollection of the bus trip home. It must have been a quiet and uneventful journey, a thankful contrast to Music Mann nightmare of the previous summer.
I’m sure we probably both fell into a deep sleep as that Greyhound bound back home, courtesy of whatever the hell those were we’d taken.
“Walking On the Moon,” from 1979’s Reggatta de Blanc, both my favourite Police song as well as an apt description to how that day felt.
Next On Stage –> I will be jumping forward in time for a brief stop in the 1990s before going back to the start of this decade and bringing recent times up to speed while still leapfrogging back to the past.
Up next … In the depths of a depression, I witness Patti Smith’s return to live performance — and have a personal revelation during the second set.
… and also … No. 20 will be a two-parter and quite different from all other entries in this series. Rather than writing about gigs I have seen, next time I’ll be writing about those I didn’t, looking back with 20/20 vision …
© 2011 VariousArtists