Written by Liz Buckley

Arts

A Blast From the Past: The Isle of Wight Festival 1970

Standard Issue writers are taking an event from history and poking it with a stick. First up, music wonder Liz Buckley looks at the star-studded clusterfuck that lives in infamy.

Isle of Wight Festival photo by Roland, via Wikimedia Commons.

Isle of Wight Festival photo by Roland, via Wikimedia Commons.

A 45th birthday for anyone can feel like the true mark of being middle aged, the year there’s finally no getting away from knowing you’re at least 50 per cent ‘done’, the year you stop saying, “Hey! 40 is the new 30” and admit you have sudden worries about jowls, a double midriff and an unexpected need to buy a fleet of vintage cars or cats.

This year, the Isle of Wight Festival has the dubious honour of being 45 years old. The most rebellious of youthful gatherings is finally a fully-fledged responsible adult. And, as with so many who hit middle age, it’s actually lying about its age: the Isle of Wight Festival was, in fact, born in 1968, but 1970 is what it usually talks about on its CV. It probably claims to have a practical knowledge of spoken French and work well in a team, too.

Towards the end of the swingin’ 60s, the festival had quickly established itself as a mecca/safe haven for the beatnik counter-culture, with hundreds of thousands of people descending on the sleepy retirement island to effectively create their own massive commune.

“This year’s event had the initial rumblings of feeling more like a rally or a coup d’etat than a bohemian party. Genghis Khan had nothing on a hippie hoard hunting down firewood, stolen entertainment and strong weed.”

With just one year of existence under its belt, such was its hypnotic reputation that in 1969 the organisers persuaded Bob Dylan (at this point not having performed in the three years since his motorbike crash) to headline – and I really salute anyone who can convince Bob Dylan that going on a minibreak to the Isle of Wight has more kudos than playing Woodstock. Two years earlier, the event had begun as a charity fundraiser for the island’s Swimming Association and its main claim to fame was coloured sand.

The 1970 festival line-up – worth £3 of anyone's money?

The 1970 line-up – worth £3 of anyone’s money?

In 1970, the year Isle of Wight Festival is truly famous for, more than 600,000 people took over the place, the volume of visitors far exceeding any gathering at any other music event and indeed, far exceeding the population of the Isle of Wight.

With a vast, unexpected influx of people not wanting to pay for a ticket and with the violent disaster of Altamont in the recent past, this year’s event had the initial rumblings of feeling more like a rally or a coup d’etat than a bohemian party. Genghis Khan had nothing on a hippie hoard hunting down firewood, stolen entertainment and strong weed.

There was, understandably, huge resistance from the locals to the festival returning in 1970 and in a year where all the free love totems were collapsing, this newer, freer society was also imploding on itself.

In reaction to the boundary fences, the free paint on offer to decorate the site was used to add swastikas, the fences themselves torn down by the festival’s end and the announcement of a drugs amnesty by the police – whereby people could avoid prosecution if they handed in their stash – was greeted by mass hostility. Perhaps unsurprisingly, and quite amusingly, there was not one taker.

The mood was simmering and the crowd was pitched against the organisers. I do not, then, envy Judas Jump who went on first. Judas Jump were a short-lived supergroup who enjoyed success both before and after Judas Jump. I think this sets the tone.

It is with some relief, then, that the music side of the festival quickly descended into extreme farce, with all fears that this island may have been the genuine start of the apocalypse quickly falling by the wayside. The wind blew across the site at such velocity that the sound was lost, the organisers having to rope in help from Pink Floyd, which no one really wants to do. The weekend’s bill was so eclectic it seemed aimed at Satan-worshipping, jam-making, smooth jazz-loving, bong-using, knife-owning canoers. To say it was a mixed bag doesn’t even cover it.

“Kris Kristofferson took the crowd’s attempts to help cheer him on as jeering him off and left the stage prematurely.”

Reading through the reviews of the performers that year is a giggling joy, so let’s go through some highlights. Redbone were on the bill but did not perform, David Bromberg wasn’t on the bill but thought he might as well while he was there. Mungo Jerry were there but decided against it. Lighthouse played twice. It’s not noted if anyone wanted them to. The Voices of East Harlem played – not actually a band, but a bunch of singing schoolchildren.

Ralph McTell went down a storm but the stage was cleared before he could do an encore. Jethro Tull performed a sound check, which was certainly informal of them. Kris Kristofferson’s set couldn’t be heard by anyone except himself. In a further communications error, he took the crowd’s attempts to help cheer him on as jeering him off and left the stage prematurely. Not to be outdone by the sound problems, The Doors then took to the stage in total darkness, so they could be heard, but not seen.

Everyone at least had their own individual angle on how to deprive one of the senses. The Who played for so long that their premiere of the entire rock opera Tommy was the middle of their set. I’m not even sure if they’ve finished yet.

Detail of Jimi Hendrix's outfit for the festival. Photo: Adam Jones/Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

Detail of Jimi Hendrix’s festival outfit. Photo: Adam Jones/Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

Kris Kristofferson played again, but wasn’t wanted that time. Interruptions were rife, Joni Mitchell being stopped by a speech from a hippie about on-site politics. It’s hard to go back to Big Yellow Taxi after that. Pentangle were interrupted by a German woman with an unknown cause and Sly & The Family Stone were accidentally hit with beer cans when the audience were trying to bottle off another interrupter.

Pete Townshend tried to give Melanie a pep talk about her set but she didn’t know who he was. Procol Harum failed to make history or a mark at the festival when their performance is summarised with the lone sentence on Wikipedia: “Frontman Gary Brooker commented that it was a cold night.”

The hero of rival festival Woodstock the previous year, the Godlike Jimi Hendrix, even had terrible technical problems, the security guard’s walkie talkies taking over the PA with blips and comments on the weather. Hendrix, high on LSD, suggested everyone walk away and get a hot dog. He then decided to die two weeks later, which really was the worst performance of all.

In keeping with the great organisation of the event, all the sets at the festival were professionally filmed by award-winning film director Murray Lerner but due to financial difficulties, nothing was released until 27 years later.

The Isle of Wight County Council Act of 1971 was perhaps the least surprising piece of hastily implemented local legislation known to man, but the festival did finally return over 30 years later. Just like we all return to our youth when having a second wind. It probably arrived in an Aston Martin and fretted about the cat sitter beforehand, but the Isle of Wight Festival has grown old in a way I applaud and has some great stories to tell you by the campfire.

@liz_buckley

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Written by Liz Buckley

Department manager at an independent record company. Liker of Frank Sinatra and Nick Cave. Very sudden laugh. Pasty but tasty. Quite tired.