Prison concerts are a strange concept. A band or an artist is invited or actively endeavours to find a show at a penitentiary where they play to an audience of captive convicts. This is something that Jeremy Bentham would surely have found fascinating given his utilitarian concept of the prison and the panopticon, which is utilised globally in prisons today. However, it is still a peculiar phenomenon.
A musician or act enters the prison from the outside world, where thus far they’ve stayed clear of the force of the law, and performs to an audience, all of whom, have presumably committed a wide array of crimes. The notion of whether they deserve the spectacle should be dismissed as it is futile and does nothing for the point. The discussion around prison shows should be concerned with the question of, what is the point of them?
Back in the day, before smartphones, the internet and streaming services, prisoners couldn’t readily access an artist’s new music, so it begs the question of why an artist would do it. Apart from the totally flawed reasons behind both the video for Metallica’s single ‘St. Anger’ and the Sex Pistols contrived performance at Chelmsford prison in 1976, it seems as if prison performances come from a place of altruism.
Johnny Cash is the most famous prison performer, with 1968’s At Folsom Prison one of the most iconic live albums of all time. He released a string of prison concert albums, including 1973’s På Österåker from the famous Swedish penitentiary. Cash’s 1955 song ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ reflected his perception of a prisoners condition and kicked off his trend of prison shows.
Cash wasn’t the only legendary musician to play in prisons; it was actually somewhat of a trend at the time. In November 1961, with his early band Neil Christian and the Crusaders, Jimmy Page, who would later form Led Zeppelin, played Holloway Prison in London. The band were mysteriously booked to play a show at the women’s prison, something that Page didn’t expand on when he made the revelation via an Instagram post in 2019.
Before the show, the band were escorted to the Governor’s office where they were made to give their word that if they knew anyone who was incarcerated there at the time they would keep it a secret when they were released.
Page recalled: “We played a show to the inmates who were dressed in washed-out yellow, green, blue and red faded floral print dresses and wearing homemade mascara, using the charcoal from burnt matches.”
What ensured was typical of a prison concert of the day. Page said that after the performance a “large percentage” of the audience enjoyed themselves, and by the time they returned to the Governor’s office to finish off proceedings and be escorted out, the band heard the prisoners rioting. “But strangely, the Governor appeared oblivious to the hubbub!”, Page appended.
Jimmy Page performing in a prison is not surprising. Not confined by space or environment, across his career, he showed himself to be one of the most relaxed and versatile performers in all of rock, writing full albums whilst on mammoth world tours. It’s a shame no footage of the concert exists, it would surely have been quite something.
Listen to Jimmy Page ‘Prison Blues’ below.