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!”