Performers flex their might at the Isle of Wight

JIMI HENDRIX’S performance at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival came just a month before his untimely death. Courtesy Laurens Van Houten/Frank White Photo Agency

By Dave Thompson

With the exception of Woodstock, the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival is the most visible classic concert ever held. Full performances by many of the week-long event’s performers are now readily available on DVD… Jimi Hendrix, Leonard Cohen, The Who (a career-best outing), Miles Davis, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Jethro Tull, Free and, most recently, The Moody Blues among them; while director Murray Lerner’s cameras were also responsible for a two-hour-plus documentary of the entire event, “Message to Love.” Taken together, they add up to an essential souvenir of a truly legendary event.

Located just off the south coast of England, the Isle of Wight was no stranger to festivals. Events had been staged there in 1968 and 1969, although the 1970 event was to be the biggest of them all — in fact, at the time, it was the largest festival ever staged. Running from Aug. 26-31, 1970, at Afton Down, the attendance has been estimated at anywhere between 600,000 and 800,000 people.

The fact that many of these visitors entered the grounds for free, breaking down the fences around the festival, was material only to the venue’s organizers, Fiery Creations. But Ron Foulks (one half, with brother Raymond, of that team) was adamant. “This is the last festival. Enough is enough. It began as a beautiful dream but it has got out of control and become a monster.”
The Isle of Wight’s residents agreed with him. Reeling from an unprecedented invasion of long-haired pop fans, it would be 2002 before the authorities again opened up their island to a pop festival.

Putting the festival wheels in motion in the first place, Fiery Creations knew they had a hard act to follow. The previous year, Bob Dylan broke a three-year concert silence to play the festival, and when the first plans were laid, it was hoped that The Beatles might be tempted to break their own live embargo to perform.

Of course they wouldn’t — the band broke up in February 1970. But Jimi Hendrix made a fabulous substitute, and with him on board, other artists were quick to add their own cachet to the bill. (See the sidebar for the list of performers.)

“Message To Love” paints a very thorough portrait of the festival itself, both the good (the majority of the featured performers) and the ugly. We see the audience booing Kris Kristofferson after his performance was reduced to sludge by sound difficulties; The Doors performing in near darkness after Jim Morrison refused to allow spotlights on the stage; and, most memorably of all, promoter Gary Farr attempting to restore order by taking the stage and howling the audience down. “We put this festival on, you bastards, with a lot of love! We worked for one year for you pigs! And you wanna tear down our walls and you wanna destroy it? Well, you go to hell!”

4 thoughts on “Performers flex their might at the Isle of Wight

  1. I was 14 when this album was released. Up until that time, I hadn’t really “experienced” the Eagles as a regular fan. It was strange to me that my 12 year-old step-brother turned me on to this record! Yeah, brothas and sistahs, the music was absolutely stunningly incredible! Today, it remains in my top 10 desert-island classic rock releases, an LP one can listen to repeatedly without getting too burned out by repeated listenings.

    As for the cover, it is absolutely brilliant in its ability to capture the essence of the dark side of life in Southern California in those 1970’s. Kosh’s photo’s historical brilliance fully captured the hot, steamy, unpredictable, sinister subject matter of the song itself, and perhaps others on the record; hands down, like no other album jacket I’ve committed to memory, Kosh’s totally inspired work to create possibly the world’s finest rock and roll [jacket designed to reflect the time, the music, the attitudes and the place] of an era has become an iconic wonder for those of us who grew up WITH the record in the ’70’s. I dunno about Californians, but my life on the East Coast, having never been to the old west, much less California, Kosh’s cover, combined with the music on this record, left almost nothing to the imagination. In-your-face, it unapologetically exemplified Southern California (at that time, it was the ENTIRE state to me): not as a state, per se, but as a state-of-mind and existence. Obviously (or perhaps not), my reflections here are based solely on my imagination of anyone’s “life” in the ENTIRE state of “California.” Though Napa Valley down to San Francisco contains its own imagery, the truth is now a bit of a let-down for me. If my wife and I ever take a vacation to the west coast (she’s originally from California), no matter where she decides to take me, I’ll never be able to get the LP’s cover image out of my idealistic mind – there’s only ONE Hotel California (nee California Hotel) that sums up “my” permanent image of what California will always “look” like to me, thanks to an album cover that was indeed, spot-on for its purpose.

  2. Does ANY DVD version of THE ISLE OF WIGHT contain every act who performed? There are hoards of us who’ve never seen the original footage of THE GROUNDHOGS’ performance, nor the SUPERTRAMP appearance as well.

  3. Gary Farr was a musician not a concert promoter. Gary Farr did not take the stage to tell the crowd off..his brother Ricky did. Most the world ignored the very talented and now gone Gary Farr because his dad happened to be a world class boxer(Tommy) and his brother Ricky was a concert promoter. At Isle Of Wight Gary played solo acoustic and he had played in 69’s isle of wight as well as did some solo albums and played with the band Lion that did running all night in 1980. Gary was singer for the T-Bones for God sake..get it right on your facts man. He deserved to be none for what he did, not mistaken for his brother or his dad.

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