Thoughts on the 1970 Isle of Wight Pop Festival.
They descended in their hundreds of thousands, like some MGM biblical epic, a whole nation of young individuals looking for a make-shift promised land; searching for a collective tuned-in experience, hoping in vain to extend the conscious spirit of the previous ‘summer of love’.
A nigh fatal blow at Altamont eight months before – the Rolling Stones misconceived event heralded the final death knell of the chosen generations hopes for the future with a bloody bang – with the culmination of Charles Manson’s sideline goading of his followers to carry out a final sickening final solution that same year, and with the growing violent clashes between the authorities and students in both France and West Germany, time had been called on the 60’s.
To stage an event, now, in 1970 was naïve at best, the dream was after all, over, the spokesman and women of a generation had peaked, their best efforts were now been behind them, those leading bands and artists of the epoch were beaten.
Yet a group of individuals thought otherwise, staging the biggest event of its kind, to the biggest audience ever seen for a music festival.
Estimates and ferry figures, put the number of people crossing the Solent to attend the festival at anywhere between 500,000 to over 600,000, a staggering amount, the same number as Napoleons Russian invasion force of 1812, all making there way towards this small picturesque holiday Isle – at the time the resident population barely registered at 100,000.
This inconspicuous island, where I was born and bred – lies perched skulking at the bottom of the UK, just off Portsmouth. A convenient harbour for the yachting fraternity and an ideal short stay destination for both the holiday camp enthusiasts and coach tour parties, who swarm on mass during the summer months to the small old-world villages, lapping up the stereotypical adorned shortbread tins, cheap fudge and obligatory cream-teas.
Many visitors are totally oblivious to the musical heritage that this island holds dear.
Three festivals occurred here from 1968 to 1970, for over thirty years it became an enigma, swept under the proverbial carpet by the authorities and a minority of locals, as though an embarrassment or a horrific vilified chapter in the islands history, treated with contempt.
There was even a law passed through parliament, instigated by the then Islands MP, specifically halting any such future event from ever happening again, until the eventual return of the festival in the noughties – a poor excuse of a festival, which has nothing in common with the former, yet poaches the artwork style as though latching onto its credibility.
Of course the Isle of Wight always had a mythical sparkle and an ethnological thread running through its soil. This was after all the one time home of Tennyson and fellow Victorian cultural icon Margaret Cameron, who both lived a stones throw from the festival site of Afton itself.
Parts of the landscape carries Tennyson’s name; and Cameron’s home, Dimbola Lodge, houses her collection of pioneering photography alongside international exhibitions of notable giants in the field – of course the council tried to pull this landmark down once already, a bitter hard fought battle by campaigners kept it standing. Luminaries such as Patti Smith have even visited and given talks, and a steady stream of cultural tourists converges all year round on this shrine.
In the 60’s most touring bands tripped across the Solent to play as part of their nationwide tours. The likes of Pink Floyd, The Nice, Pretty Things – who’s Dick Taylor decided to live here permanently – and The Move all spooked the Island audience, the Stones had appeared in the early 60’s just on the verge of breaking out commercially.
You could say to a degree that the island was used to seeing near enough every band going at the time, the only exemptions being The Beatles and Small Faces.
It conceivably seemed that this regular assembly line of bands would continue forever, but this was not to be. The onset of greed, ever-heavier cynicism and with the lessons learnt by managers and the industry on how to not get ripped–off, the music scene changed forever, the consequence being that bands no longer hauled their arses over to the island. It would take thirty odd years before they returned.
In 1968 three brothers, Ray, Bill and Ron Foulk, calling themselves Fiery Creations, together with partner Ron Smith, conceived the idea of staging a one-day festival in aid of the Isle of Wight Swimming Pool association. Said to be the first rock event of its kind in the UK, 10,000 heads turned up to witness the likes of Tyrannosaurus Rex, Arthur Brown, The Move and San Frans finest Jefferson Airplane, performing on a stage constructed from two trailers for the nominal fee of £1.25, near the quaint picture-postcard vilage of Godshill. Despite the ramshackle attempt at putting this one-day event together, it seemed favourable to put on a follow-up shindig the next year.
Out of sheer audacity or down to the optimistic spirit of our plucky promoters, it was decided that the festival should be extended to two days and include an even bigger headliner. When Dylan’s name was mentioned, laughter echoed round the room. After all this was Dylan in his recovering from a near fatal motorcycle accident period guise, the one that saw him shy away from the public, becoming ever more cranky and obtuse. But come he did.
1969’s event would be moved to the new location of Wootton, and would see a huge audience of 150,000 people turn up, knocking the previous years effort into the mire.
Dylan played alongside The Band, The Who, Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and The Moody Blues, as though it were a precursor lead-up to the next year’s extravagant behemoth.
Plans for a third, and final, festival were even grander in scope; the meltdown apoplectic scenes of their American counterparts Woodstock, far from denting their optimism instead fuelled them onto take an even bigger risk.
Local opposition, ending in threats by retired generals – seemed to be a popular destination for washed up old school tie wearing ex-officers and majors to retire to – and strait-laced locals, almost put the kaboosh on the whole affair, with even the IRA throwing in a death threat just to spice matters up, issuing a warning that they would shoot the first band going on stage on the Friday, which would happen to be poor old Fairfield Parlour.
Another location was earmarked, the huge rolling fields of Afton, on the west coast of the island, though the council threw an underhand spanner in the works by turning down the ideal original site, moving them off the desired location to one that would prove to be the main catalyst for the event turning into an unsolicited free-for-all.
The main stage and arena would now have to be situated in a bowl like area surrounded by the hills, where large numbers of people could view the whole thing for free. National Heritage wouldn’t allow a fence to be built higher up this observational geographical seat, so tens of thousands of people descended on it and made it their home for the five days, forgoing the need for a ticket – this area would be christened Desolation Row.
Along with French situationists, anarchists, White Panthers and Hells Angels – fortunately pale imitators of their Altamont brethren – mini-rioting broke out over the first two days, their mantra for a free festival proved rather unfair, seeing as the promoters put on two days of bands for nothing and the nominal ticket fee was a reasonable £3 – the average wage at the time being 8 – 10 a week, with inflation etc. today’s equivalent ticket price would be £50!
Despite the financial shortcomings – they needed £100,000 just to pay the acts – and lack of facilities to cope with the tidal wave of numbers attending, which far exceeded Woodstock, they coped. I mean no one actually died, every-one got to the gig, and the vast majority had a great time. Even a fire on the main stage couldn’t dampen spirits, with the bands continuing to play on regardless of the danger.
The line-up itself speaks volumes, with most groups giving some of their best seminal important performances, and being amongst the last curtain calls for both Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison.
This festival can’t help but creak under the heavy loaded weight of significance, bridging the gap between the last supper allegorical meeting of the previous late 60’s greatest with the on-set of a more sobering cynical era to come.
Not even Glastonbury can claim to carry on its spirit, this corporate, middle-class affair continues to squeeze out the art, for an ever growing cosy armchair experience, that plays to MOR market especially.
Can you imagine say, Eavis shambling onstage in 1970 to tell The Who that their set had gone overtime, so can they now wrap things up, oh and keep the noise down please, oh no, Townsend would have given him the same sharp shrift boot that he administered to Abbie Hoffman.
This was the era where The Who could blast out a four hour set, finishing at dawn, with a sound so loud that they could be heard up to 40 miles away – Sly and the Family Stone had to wait till 6:30 am until they could go on.
No, its all too safe now, too corporate, too nice, the sort of experience where you take your mum and dad along and grandma, don’t for Christ sake get me started on the whole circus aspect of modern festivals. I mean apparently its not enough to watch bands, you have to have distractions of funfairs, and multiple stages, the boredom threshold can’t possibly entertain the thought of attending a music festival because you want to just hear the actual music.
Over five days, Joni Mitchell, Miles Davis, Free, Jethro Tull, Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen and Family entertained half a million souls.
Hawkwind and The Pink Fairies perhaps felt to be too far-out for the organisers tastes to play the main stage, took up residence on the back of a truck at the entrance, hustling their brand of space-rock to the waiting fans as the trundled by.
John Sebastian of The Lovin’ Spoonful fame, now a solo artist, ambled his way through a jovial two hour set, armed only with his acoustic beaten-up guitar, joined at one point by his former compatriot Zal Yanovsky for a touching reunion.
Hendrix needed two goes at his performance, starting with ‘God Save The Queen’, then slowly and indolently hitting his stride with a rather macabre nodding ramble – oddly Pink Floyds own David Gilmour was pulled out of the crowds to help mix Hendrix’s set, you certainly wouldn’t get that now.
‘Message to Love’ the eponymous movie of the festival, cuts and edits some fantastic moments, even if it mixes the chronological order up to fit its own particular narrative – in much the same way as the Woodstock film, balances out the ideals and performances with the chaos and break-down in order.
Yes the bands and management did argue, people were threatened and fences breached, yet what an experience to take to the grave!
It hardly dented the popularity of most of the acts that took part, and is now remembered with a certain fondness.
Ok, some detractors or so-called realists would argue that there’s a certain rose-tinted view of this event, and of course to a point they’re right, but the sheer audacity of staging such a moment must account for something, right?
Also the book of the same name by Island resident and acclaimed music writer Brian Hinton is well worth checking out. It never shies away from the fall-outs and incriminations, yet still emanates a certain passion, one that can’t help but lead the author to conclude that this meeting of like-minded people were “looking outside themselves”.
Music festivals would never achieve such dizzying heights of pomposity and naivety again.
1970 could be said to have been a disaster, a failure, but what is wrong with that?
If, as some commentators sneered, failure means creating the greatest ever-musical event the worlds witnessed, one that will be remembered forever as the pinnacle of an age, then who wants success!
Of course today with the overheads, restrictions, laws and hindsight, you’d never get away with staging anything like it again, but then maybe that’s how it should be.