Music History

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/, 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/

The Oakville Beaver/ 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/ 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 40+ 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.

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14 thoughts on “Concert History: Remembering the Police Picnics

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • Killing Joke played early in the day not at night.

  • 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)

    • The English Beat did play. I was there. I remember people throwing shit at Joan Jett and saying we love real rock and roll. Joan Jett sucks. Her manager threatened to stop the whole show.

    • Talking Heads played Heatwave Festival not the Police Picnic.

  • I was at both Heatwave and the first Police Picnic. Both were great! When I told my parents I was going to the Police Picnic they asked me who I knew in the Police(force) haha.

  • Talking Heads and The Beat both played at thr first CNE picnic. But, you’re right about the anti-Joan Jett venom until she played Iove rock n roll. The whole stadium sung along to that.

  • I attended the 83 concert a few weeks before I first attended McMaster Engineering school and recall seeing surprise artist James Brown strutting and dancing just like Mick Jagger.
    I did not realize at the time, but it was James Brown that Mick was heavily influenced by.

    After the Police, I was there to see The FIXX (Are we ourselves? One thing leads to another! Stand or Fall ) It was a (sweltering hot) magical day for a 19 year old moving away from home and visiting the big city of Toronto for the first time! I saw Blue Peter again a year later in Sept 1984 when they played at a free outdoor FROSH week concert at McMaster University.

  • The woman that played Spike on Degrassi Junior High (the one with the big spiked hair) said in the podcast that the 1981 Police Picnic was her first encounter with punk.

  • The highlight of the day was The Specials….the stage filled with dancing and hopping-about band members…though nothing quite equaled the absolutely stunning performance the year before at Heatwave by Talking Heads….lowlight of the day at Poloice Picnic was when the manager of the Police Myles Copeland ordered the plug be pulled on Nash The Slash because things were running behind…pulled it right in the middle of Nash (in his OPP motorcycle cop outfit and his face as always wrapped) wailing away at Dopes On The Water…rip, Nash)

  • I attended ‘82 and ‘83 and regret missing ‘81 as I absolutely love Iggy.
    Highlights for me: James Brown bringing the funk leading his killer band and getting the party dancing again. Peter Tosh! He looked 10 feet tall with that Pope style hat with Sly & Robbie laying down da riddums. Talking Heads stellar lineup w Adrian Belew, Nona Hendrix and Manzanera.
    And of course The Police. Hard to imagine anybody headlining after all that great music. They rocked it.

  • Amarcord…. I was working at CNE stadium with VS services, which operated all the sporting event + concerts (overpriced) food services. Luckily, I worked on the field for the 1983 picnic, serving drinks to a hot crowd, heat made worse with all the giant black rubber mats covering the field. I think the Fixx + Blue Peter were the first acts, and were brief which was OK since they really lacked more than a couple of decent songs between them. I recall a long delay before James Brown who was probably the most intense performance of the whole show. Then later, Peter Tosh seemed to play one constantly booming reggae song that seemed like an hour. The Police were last, but by then my shift was ending + I was too tired & hot to stick around after they started with “Synchronicity”. Too bad I didn’t catch the first two Picnics, as their line ups seemed much better.

  • I attended all 3 Police Picnics, and loved them all.
    I clearly remember the rude idiots in the crowd yelling and throwing bottles and crap at Joan Jett.
    I see no one remembers when James Brown was about to come out, they had the chant from his band ,” James Brown, James Brown,” and the entire stadium was chanting back, “ F@ck You, F@ck You”.

    He, like Joan Jett won the crowd over. What were they thinking though, when they surprised us with James Brown! Totally different from the kind of music we were there to listen to. Much rather have had Simple Minds.


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