Concert History: Remembering the Police Picnics

[Intern-in-residence Dorothy Lee is a young’un who wasn’t around for the Police Picnics. Her assignment was to research and write about the first one. Yes, I gave her an essay project.- AC]

Back in the day, the Police Picnic was like “Oakville’s secret Woodstock”. On August 23rd 1981, approximately 25,000 to 29,000 people (according to different sources) attended the first The Police Picnic at The Grove, a 70-acre farm field located northwest of Trafalgar Road and Highway 5 in Oakville. The show began in the early afternoon on a hot and sunny Sunday. The line-up included The Payola$, Nash the Slash, Oingo Boingo, Killing Joke, Iggy Pop, The Specials, and The Go-Gos, and The Police who performed around 11:00 pm as the headliner for this amazing all-day event.

According to Oakville Beaver/InsideHalton.com, this all-day concert “more or less defines where New Wave music came from” …

New Wave music developed in the early ’80s and The Police Picnic is a snapshot of this evolution in music history. Punk rock became fused with Ska and Pop to produce something new. Oakville saw Iggy Pop, the Specials, and the Go-Gos — three acts that are still deeply influential to modern alternative music.

The capper is that Killing Joke started bringing the crowd to its feet in the early evening. “The Joke” is still cited as an inspiration to current hardcore acts. This is where New Wave became heavy and sullen, and hard.

The Go-Gos, who gained popularity by touring in Britain with Ska bands, performed after Iggy Pop. “Their major hit ‘We Got the Beat’ is classic” … and “their fame was just beginning to break when they played Oakville” (Oakville Beaver/InsideHalton.com).

The Oakville Beaver/InsideHalton.com also noted that there were 200 Halton Regional Police officers working at the show, and the cloud of marijuana smoke throughout the day led to three arrests. The officers also confiscated watermelons that were for sale because they were being spiked with liquor.

Keith Dawes who is the owner of Recordings on Kerr Street, formerly Records on Wheels where Police Picnic tickets were sold commented that it was a “historical event for Oakville”; and the Oakville Beaver/InsideHalton.com noted that the show is a “tiny slice of New Wave history” that is “ingrained in the Town of Oakville”. It was the first and only time that The Grove has hosted a concert, and also the only time that Oakville has hosted a concert of such stature.

This was the first of three events known as The Police Picnics, organized by Gary Topp and Gary Cormier. The second show happened on Friday August 13th 1982 at the CNE Exhibition Stadium; and the line-up included Joan Jett and The Blackhearts, The Talking Heads, The English Beat, A Flock of Seagulls, and was headlined by The Police. According to Billboard (September 4th 1982), there were 38,824 people in attendance. The third show happened on Friday August 5th 1983, again at the CNE Exhibition Stadium; the line-up included Simple Minds, James Brown, Peter Tosh, and was again headlined by The Police. Approximately 35,000 people attended the show.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

4 thoughts on “Concert History: Remembering the Police Picnics

  • October 26, 2017 at 6:56 pm
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    There was also a concert in summer ’80 (I think) called “Heat Wave” at Mosport with the Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, The Pretenders, the B52’s, Nick Lowe, Dave Edmonds/Rockpile, Teenage Head and couple of others I can’t think of. It was terrific!

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  • August 5, 2018 at 5:34 pm
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    Simple Minds ended up not playing in 1983 as that is when they recorded Sparkle In The Rain with Steve Lillywhite and the only time he was available. I believe that James Brown was booked to replace Simple Minds. I was fortunate to attend all three Police Picnics and still have all three ticket stubs.

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  • October 30, 2018 at 3:18 pm
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    Killing Joke played early in the day not at night.

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  • May 27, 2020 at 8:31 pm
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    The 1st pp at the CNE had Talking Heads (maybe instead of the Beat? I don’t remember them playing, but I do remember the Heads were really amazing and arguably better than the Police. I also remember the crowd was wildly against Joan Jett. It was kind of sad how much they got booed and stuff thrown at them)

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