The Police Picnic turned the spotlight on Oakville 40 years ago

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Published August 23, 2021 at 6:58 am

Forty years ago today, 25,000 young people and a bunch of musical upstarts came together in a wide-open Oakville field for one of the first festivals of a new kind of music.

The Police Picnic helped take new wave music out of the small clubs and into the mainstream with a festival-like outdoor show that took place at what was then called The Grove, located near Dundas St. and Trafalgar Rd (to be precise, the concert took place on land bordered between Upper Middle Rd./Third Line/Fourth Line/Dundas St.). Tickets were $20.

The headliners, the Police, were a British band that had seemingly started out as punk rockers. But a few hit records changed all of that as the rough edges of punk were rounded off and the Police got lumped in with a lot of other U.K. acts that were called new wave, a genre that still carried a hint of danger but with a lot more commercial appeal (think Culture Club, ABC, Simple Minds, Depeche Mode and the Cure).

The Police, after enjoying initial success in Toronto, decided to launch their large-scale concert plans but none of the typical downtown venues were willing to handle a stadium-like show with bands that had not yet proven to hold stadium-like appeal. A year earlier, Heatwave, a concert with similar-style bands at Mospart east of Toronto was a commercial failure if not an artistic success.

For their part, the Police were hoping for something a little more pastoral and less confining than Toronto, and Oakville appeared to be the perfect spot.

According to legend, local organizers of the show, fearing that the gentle folk of Oakville might not be accepting of such a large display, downplayed the rock concert angle of the performance.

“We went to the land owners and told them we wanted to hold a police picnic, so naturally they thought it was going to be a picnic for the police…department that is,” explained one of the organizers of the show who to this day won’t publicly lend his name to the subterfuge. “When they found out what we were up to they wanted to cancel the deal. But it was too late. The contracts were signed and we proceeded with the show.”

 

Whether that story is folklore or fact, the concert went ahead as planned and in the early afternoon of August 23, 1981, the crowd was welcomed by the eccentric sounds of local hero Nash the Slash.

The rest of the day saw the Payolas, Oingo Boingo, Killing Joke, Iggy Pop, the Go-Go’s and the Specials. The Police closed out the day with a performance befitting a headlining act.

After all was said and done, the show was a success. There were no major problems except for some traffic jams up and down Trafalgar as people tried to make their way to the QEW or 401 to get home.

Oakville has since not seen an event of this magnitude.

In following years the Police staged their picnic at the CNE in Toronto – the centre of the universe, of course – and the band went on to become international sensations. Lead singer Sting still enjoys rockstar status.

But for one day exactly 40 years ago, the attention of the music world was on Oakville…and it was a good place to be.

(Listen to a live recording of the Police that day)

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