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!”
In fact, the outside agitators devoured so many of the headlines that today, the most memorable aspect of the festival was not actually a part of the official event. Two bands from the extreme fringes of London hippiedom, Hawkwind and the Pink Fairies, decided to gate-crash the event as a protest against what they saw as the blatant commercialism of the festival. Establishing a canvas city on the perimeter of the festival grounds (for as long as the gates still stood — by the end of the weekend, says deejay Andy Dunkley, “they were basically playing just outside the main stage arena”), the two bands staged a festival of their own, for free.
The Pink Fairies were the driving force behind the protest. “We knew the Pink Fairies and Hawkwind had to be at the Isle of Wight. We’d gone down there in advance to suss the scene out, to look at the layout of the festival site. It was the time of the [underground action group] White Panthers, which we were very much part of; we were very anti-music business, so we went down there with the intention of trying to turn it into a free festival, and while it obviously turned out to be too big for us to do that, we did stage an alternative festival.”
Still reeling from the effects of an acid-spiked apple juice, Hawkwind guitarist Huw Lloyd Langton remembers, “our performance must have been awful.” Nik Turner and Dave Brock used to tune up to Langton’s guitar, “but I thought I’d been transported to another planet, and I couldn’t get my tuning together because all the notes wavered.” He ended the show on his knees, praying.
Turner wasn’t too concerned. He was having the time of his life, posing for the myriad press cameras that had descended upon the tiny Isle of Wight. With his hair in plaits and silver stars punctuating his already gaudy clothing, his face painted silver to match, Turner was hard to miss.
Hendrix dedicated one song “to the cat with the silver face,” and after his set, sat in with the band for a smoke. In fact, had Hendrix not died a month after the show (the Isle of Wight was his final U.K. show), Turner is convinced that Hawkwind and Hendrix would have worked together in the future. In fact, according to bandmate Dik Mik, Jimi Hendrix intended appearing alongside them at the following year’s Stonehenge festival. “He agreed to... the day before he died.”
Of course, there was plenty of excitement on the main stage, too. The Moody Blues’ performance was superlative (as the Blu-ray edition of the DVD proves); Cohen was phenomenal, too. And Taste, with Rory Gallagher, was so impressed by their showing that they preserved their show for a live album. Elsewhere, onlookers saw Joni Mitchell having her set interrupted by peace protesters, Black Widow enacting a Wiccan ceremony onstage and Jethro Tull playing a set that, even today, Ian Anderson reckons was among the best of his band’s career, despite the whole affair, he says, being “a disaster.”
“It really did mark the end of the hippie thing in the U.K. It was an attempt to recreate Woodstock, and it really did end in tears, a denial of all the supposedly good and worthwhile and wonderful ideals of the hippie thing. There were people breaking down fences, the promoter becoming so disillusioned that he walked offstage... it’s wonderfully funny looking at it. And most of the bands were diabolically awful!”
ELP was one exception to that rule. Their inclusion on the festival bill was, in fact, one of the last to be confirmed. The group was originally scheduled to make its public debut at the Plumpton Festival, staged that year between Aug. 6-9, following that with an Aug. 14 headliner at the London Lyceum’s season of Prog Rock showcases. These engagements were canceled when the offer to play the Isle Of Wight came up.
“There was talk about Plumpton, because The Nice had played there,” recalls Keith Emerson, “but I think we all viewed the Isle Of Wight thing as being a far bigger event, a lot more prestigious.”
They warmed up with a low-key show at the Plymouth Guildhall, back on the English mainland, then headed across the water.
The trio appeared next to bottom of the bill on the second day of the festival, following a John Sebastian set that rapidly turned into an impromptu Loving Spoonful reunion. The Doors and The Who topped that day’s bill. But despite its lowly roost, ELP triumphed, and again, there’s a DVD to prove it.
Of course, the festival belonged to Hendrix — even after he turned in so ill-tempered a set that afterwards, he turned down the invitation to jam with the gatecrashing Hawkwind. He was simply too depressed. After a month off the road, drummer Mitch Mitchell admits that it was a mistake not to at least try rehearsing before they took the stage.
“We were rusty, and it showed. The audience didn’t help, and we had technical problems, with funny voices coming through the PA.” And, of course, “it was cold and dank.”
Cold and dank, wet and windy... to the hardy hippie convoys that spent every summer shifting inexorably from site to site, that was festival weather, no reason to be downcast or dark-hearted. Barefoot songstress Sandy Shaw was so enthused that she even recorded a song about it... “Wight is Wight” was hardly Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” but it captured a mood, regardless. And those people who complained about that mood, be it communal joy or weatherbeaten martyrdom... well, they just weren’t festival people, were they?
1970 Isle of Wight performers
Wednesday, Aug. 26, 1970
• Judas Jump
• Kathy Smith
• Rosalie Sorrels
• David Bromberg
• Kris Kristofferson
• Mighty Baby
Thursday, Aug. 27, 1970
• Gary Farr
• Andy Roberts’ Everyone
• Black Widow
• The Groundhogs
• Terry Reid
• Gilberto Gil
Friday, Aug. 28, 1970
• Fairfield Parlour
• Tony Joe White
• Procol Harum
• Voices of East Harlem
Saturday, Aug. 29, 1970
• John Sebastian
• Shawn Phillips
• Joni Mitchell
• Tiny Tim
• Miles Davis
• Ten Years After
• Emerson, Lake & Palmer
• The Doors
• The Who
• Sly & the Family Stone
Sunday Aug. 30, 1970
• Good News
• Kris Kristofferson
• Ralph McTell
• The Moody Blues
• Jethro Tull
• Jimi Hendrix
• Joan Baez
• Leonard Cohen
• Richie Havens
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