Isle Of Wight Festival 1970

Isle Of Wight Festival 1970
Authored By Johnny Blogger

600,000 people on an island with a population of just 100,000. Political protesters taking the stage. Jimi, Jim, Joan, Joni and even Mungo Jerry (almost). The last weekend of August in 1970. It was, of course, the Isle of Wight Festival.

Where's the stage, man?
Where's the stage, man?

It would be the third year in a row that the organisers, Fiery Creations, would put on a festival on the small island off England's South Coast. But the two previous years were not even in the ballpark in terms of size. The 1970 Festival would be the largest rock event ever, bigger even than Woodstock. But it nearly didn't happen...

Miserable, posh, stick-in-the-mud residents didn't want the cream of the rock world descending on their patch for a third year running and shunted the site around during negotiations in a bid to make logistics as difficult as possible. Eventually, though, it was agreed to hold the event at Afton Down on the West of the Isle.

The hippies were not welcome. Brian Hinton's excellent book on the IoW festivals contains some great material from an appalled local counsellor:

"(Local resident) Mrs H. reported that at 10.30pm a stark naked man jumped out and danced in front of her car" and: "Mr F., High Street, reported an indecency outside his shop at 8am. He told those involved that the village was not used to such behaviour and he would send for police if they did not move on."

Ha ha, yeah, well, freaks are gonna freak, dude.

The Fiery Creations lads, brothers Ray and Ron Foulk had their site: now they needed acts. And toilets. But first the acts. Once they secured Jimi, the rest fell into place pretty quickly. Bob Dylan had played the IoW the previous year - his first gig since his 1966 motorbike crash, so there was plenty of profile for the biggest US names.

They put together a stunning line-up which would never be equalled again for depth and breadth - including The Doors, The Who, Miles Davis, Sly and the Family Stone, Free and Emerson, Lake and Palmer - playing their second-ever gig. Laughing Leonard Cohen performed stand-up. Not really, but he did play - and in fact performed one of his greatest versions of the beautiful 'Suzanne'.

Kris Kristofferson, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, The Moody Blues, Procul Harem, a very early Supertramp, Hawkwind, Donovan, Chicago... what a feast of hairy freakdom. Every colour of the rainbow was catered for.

What wasn't catered for was the vast amount of toilets required. So site manager Ron Smith set up a makeshift assembly line to make loo seats in a disused button factory. As you do when you're one of rock 'n' roll's early entrepreneurs. Bet Perry Farrell never did that for Lollapalooza.

Anyway, because 1969's festival had been such a massive scrum, supplying the site with food and drink had been nearly impossible: when bars ran out of drink there was no way to get lorries to them. So for 1970, they hit upon a scheme of having two walls around the site, so that the space between the two could be used for access. Smart idea, but a lot of the punters didn't take to it. People felt that the site looked more like a prison camp than a festival, and the event was marred by simmering bad feeling throughout.

Dog handlers patrolled the fence and hard men were employed to break heads of anyone caught trying to get in for free. It was all to no avail. The fence eventually came down. The thing is, you can't help but think that these seemed like big acts of defiance on the day but in a broader context are pointless acts of rebellion, which were doing nothing to further any kind of revolution. Those who thought music should be free would have to wait until the 21st century and peer-to-peer file sharing. Is the Spotify world really better? 

I guess these days, where fans are all too used to regimented, sponsored-by-Starbucks kind of corporate gigs, that it seems a bit unreasonable to have a go at the organizers because you didn't like the fencing, but these were different times, man. No rock culture as such existed. No-one knew where it was all headed but there was an end-of-an-era vibe to the festival, as if the crowd felt that the Sixties were over now. "They're selling hippie wigs in Woolworths," as Withnail put it.

But there were there some rocking performances over what Melody Maker called 'Five Days That Shook The World'. The Doors played one of their greatest versions of The End, in a spooky, semi-dark stage - Jim didn't want the strong lights that the film crew were using.

Where's the stage, man?
The Doors played in near darkness

If you get a chance, check out Murray Lerner's 'Message To Love' film of the Festival for awesome footage of that. The Who gave it the full gun with the complete Tommy - and ended with a belting 'My Generation' and 'Magic Bus'. This was The Who at their road-hardened finest, still essentially on the tour during which Live At Leeds was recorded. They're the very manifestation of the tight but loose principle of rock 'n' roll.

The Who giving it some serious rock n roll
The Who giving it some serious rock n roll

Free were stunning. Just stunning. Koss wrenching blues from his Les Paul like the world was crying.

Also on the Saturday, Joni Mitchell's performance of 'Woodstock' was interrupted by distinctly Manson-ish beardie called Yogi Joe who wanted to protest the perceived corporatisation of the event. Joni pleaded with the crowd for calm and respect and played Big Yellow Taxi. "You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone - they paved paradise to put up a parking lot."

The Who giving it some serious rock n roll
Joni wearing an actual Big Yellow Taxi

Jimi Hendrix, beautiful and damned, played his second last gig on the Sunday, just three weeks before his death. He was pretty out of it beforehand - his roadies were worried that he might not even make it on stage. But he did and opened with a savage, magnificent take on 'God Save The Queen'. His show was an angry, torrid climax to a thrilling, often ugly, era-defining five days.

The live record culled from his set is an emotionally charged, messed up piece of sonic brilliance with Jimi making weird, spaced-out comments and, ever the musical magus, conjuring howling noise beauty out of the Strat. Though often dismissed, for me the Isle Of Wight live record is superior to the Band of Gypsies, Fillmore East live album.

Jimi plays a wild and edgy set
Jimi plays a wild and edgy set

But after the storm, there was hope as well. Richie Havens - who had opened the Woodstock festival - played last here, with the sun coming up on the final morning as he gave his lovely take on 'Here Comes The Sun'.

Optimism, then - but there would be no repeat of the Isle Of Wight Festival in '71. The commercial and logistical issues were just insurmountable, and the 1970 Festival stood as the last for the century. A monument to all that was good and bad about the end of the Sixties and the way that rock music, and society, were changing.

Perhaps of all festivals in this period, this one has found its way onto live albums more than most. Taste, Free, Jimi, Moody Blues, ELP, The Who and The Doors sets have all found their way into official releases. The Taste set is especially good with Rory on blistering form.

Jimi plays a wild and edgy setKoss wrenches the blues out of of his Les Paul

The festival was both a huge success and a massive failure, with everyone losing money and bad vibes from those who wanted it to be free and those who were trying to stop it being free.

This was Britain's Woodstock, it really was. But whereas Woodstock was a flowering, full of hope and beauty, Isle Of Wight was a more tense affair with splits between the various factions of the counterculture already very apparent. No-one was dropping flowers from a helicopter. The movie captures it perfectly and is essential viewing for anyone interested in the music and politics of the time.

Isle of Wight Festival is back now - but it's 21st century incarnation is all very corporate and clean and tidy and full of people in crocs behaving in the prescribed manner. While the 1970 version was, to some extent, horrible and aggressive and unreasonable - at least you knew you were at a cultural event and not merely shopping for music as a lifestyle accessory.

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