The 1970 Isle Of Wight Festival - 40 Years On
25 Aug 2010
by Dave Smith
As the 1970 Isle Of Wight festival celebrates it's 40th anniversary
this week, we take a look at the incredible five days which, amidst
the clash of hippy ideology, establishment and near-bankruptcy, came
to define the shift of power from fans to business and the beginning
of big-budget festivals.
"We put this festival on for you bastards, with a lot of love. We
worked for one year for you pigs. Now you wanna break our walls and
you wanna destroy it? Well you go to hell!"
The unforgettable words Master Of Ceremonies Rikki Farr barked out to
the hundreds of thousands who had descended on the Isle Of Wight in
the summer of 1970, as the conflicts between the organisers and a
section of the crowd looking to impart their own convictions on
matters reached boiling point with proceedings in full swing. The
beliefs and care-free attitudes of the day which they had hoped would
be encapsulated by that year's Isle Of Wight had been crumbling
around the management, as what was supposed to be a celebration of
music and freedom for the largest gathering of people at a music
event in history, was instead becoming a nightmare of police
regulations, money problems and lack of organisation.
After it's modest beginnings in 1968, the Isle Of Wight festival had
quickly gained a worldwide reputation after an estimated 300,000
people attended the event in 1969 after the lead promoters Ron, Ray
and Bill Foulk had secured the services of Bob Dylan and The Band
despite the legendary Woodstock festival taking place on Dylan's
doorstep at the same time in New York that year.
It's growing status as a Mecca for those who believed passionately in
the era's hippy counter-culture which had evolved from the previous
decade's civil rights, anti-war and free speech movements meant
numbers in 1970 were expected to surpass even the total who had
attended in 1969. After just two years, chiefly thanks to the
incredible coup of booking Bob Dylan, the curators had turned the
Isle Of Wight into an internationally recognised occasion, and
despite already attracting crowds which exceeded the population of
the small island itself, they were determined to make 1970 the
biggest musical gathering the world had seen.
The first major headache for the Foulk brothers was to find a
suitable site for the upcoming occasion. They were well aware of the
problems that would be met if they chose an area surrounded by high
ground and searched in vain for the perfect location having being
blocked by the local council from using their previous grounds due to
strong opposition from local residents.
In the end, with time running out and in desperate need of land, they
were forced to accept the one venue the authorities would allow them
to use - East Afton Farm. It was no coincidence that this particular
place was about as troublesome a location as could have been chosen,
and the council had handed them the keys to a region which would
present ideal opportunities to those intent on travelling to the Isle
Of Wight in search of a free week's music.
After being overwhelmed by numbers a year earlier, the leaders hoped
they would leave nothing to chance in 1970, and had spent almost as
much on providing adequate facilities for those in attendance as they
had for booking the bands themselves. The new amenities anticipated a
larger gathering than in 1969, and they hoped everything was in place
to turn the Isle Of Wight into a long-term, viable celebration. As
they said at the time: "We want this to become an annual event. We
want it to last."
Unfortunately for the promoters, the actual number of people
intending to travel to the island that August dwarfed even the most
outlandish estimates, and it would prove to be impossible to control
the influx which would more than double the population of the entire
island in just a few days. To make matters worse, a significant
percentage of those travelling were doing so without a ticket.
For many of the ever-growing number of promoters in the UK and US,
the initial view of free festivals was already going out of fashion.
Traditionally seen as an opportunity for artists and fans to come
together and promote their shared doctrines based around equality and
anti-consumerism, this notion was now giving way as planners began to
compete for the services of the biggest acts of the time, bowing to
new pressures from agents to pay outlandish prices for their most
On top of this, these free carnivals were beginning to be seen not as
place of peace, but of a haven for troublemakers following a series
of setbacks, most notably at the now infamous Altamont Free Concert
which particularly highlighted the problems being faced by the
curators as these events moved into mainstream society and began to
attract congregations of a size no-one had anticipated a few years earlier.
In 1969, the organisers of Woodstock had faced similar problems,
having being forced to move from their own desired location not long
before they expected the first arrivals. In fear of violence around
their fencing perimeter, and with reports of fans carving sections
upon arrival, they took the decision to pull down the restrictions
and allow freedom on to the site. It was a move which could have lead
to financial ruin, but it also helped to pass Woodstock into
folklore, and continued the tradition of freedom for fans.
The Phun City Free Festival had also been held just a month earlier
in England, and various underground groups who had been in
attendance, including members of Hell's Angels looking for another
stint of security work, were now moving on to the Isle Of Wight
expecting much of the same.
Despite the pressure, The Faulk brothers stood firm against the
ticket-less travellers, and began to face some of the predicaments
which had been anticipated at Woodstock a year earlier. The retention
of the barricades secured the contrasting views of Woodstock and Isle
Of Wight, with one
being looked back on as the peak of 'hippy fun', and the other being
seen as one the symbols of it's demise.
Of course, it is important to remember the majority of the near
600,000 people in attendance were there to enjoy a week of music and
freedom with friends just like so many people do today. A significant
section had no intention of paying, but for a large portion of them,
the social impact now synonymous with the festival would no doubt
have seemed like nothing more than an inconvenience being played out
on the periphery. It was the vocal minority who would make that year
remembered for what it is now, and who etched it a permanent place on
the British, and worldwide musical landscape as they looked to force
their soon to be outdated dogma on the celebrations.
By the time proceedings were officially opened on Wednesday, 26th
August by the prog-rock group Judas Jump, a new community had already
made it's home around East Afton Farm's enclosures. 'Desolation Row',
as it became known, was being frequented by some radical groups and
anarchists from all over Europe, alongside those who simply expected
unimpeded access, and who had thought their outlook on music and life
were still mirrored by those who were both promoting, and performing
at these mass get-togethers. The management soon became the focal
point for the groups in Desolation Row who were finding themselves
being encouraged to move away from their new locality with increasing force.
At the time of the famous Summer Of Love three years earlier, artists
willingly presented themselves as spokesmen for the peace and
anti-establishment movements which were the backbone of the time, and
were happy to stand by side with their fans. Free festivals were seen
as an opportunity for those bands to give something back, and they
became a very important icon of the unity felt between the two
groups. Now, these fans' ideologies were being dismissed before their
eyes, and to them, the very bands who championed their beliefs just a
few short years beforehand were instead standing alongside the system
they despised. As a consequence, they centred their frustrations on
the organisers who they felt were pandering too easily to the demands
of bands and their agents instead of concentrating on what they felt
should have been the priority - the fans themselves.
Tensions were growing day by day, and the increasing struggles of the
Faulk brothers still trying to put on a stable event and the
resentment of sections of the crowd who were not getting what they
expected to say the least, was fuelling a darker atmosphere. The
almost innocent approach of the curators flying in contrast to the
mindset of those in Desolation Row is probably best summed up by an
idea to attempt to engage those off-site whilst trying to diffuse
some of the growing anger at the same time.
The decision was made to provide cans of paint and brushes to the
groups, in the hope that they would decorate sections of the fencing
that they had made their home beside with positive messages. Instead,
to the consternation of the planners, the campers used the
opportunity to cover the walls with nazi symbols and
anti-establishment propaganda, leaving the barricades in a worse
condition than when they started, and forcing the promoters to cover
over the new graffiti at their own expense.
Soon, the management were feeling the pressure from the authorities
as well as the fans. Not long in, Rikki Farr was asked by the police
to announce their idea of a drug amnesty, where anyone aged 17 or
under could hand in their drugs without fear of prosecution. The
disdain with which the message is articulated was matched by those it
was aimed for, and soon after Farr is found giving his thoughts on
the fact that not one person had elected to take up the police's kind
The meddling continued and other unwelcome distractions included a
visit by health officials who were alerted to the rather rudimentary
conditions of the toilets; drug amnesties and toilet checks were not
exactly what was expected by the masses, and added to the feeling
from some that the organisers had their priorities all wrong.
So amidst all this, what of the line-up itself? The huge ambition of
the festival as a whole is certainly reflected in the bookings, a
fact which would again cause trouble for Ron, Ray and Bill as they
struggled to meet the fees demanded by the scores of acts due to play
over the next few days.
The line-up is impressively eclectic, if at times inconsistent. The
bill contains some of the true stars of the day, some of whom were
entering the peak of their careers, and who were seen as the closest
representatives of their generation, such as Joni Mitchell, Joan Byez
and Leonard Cohen.
Many of the stand-out performances did indeed come from these
artists. Joni Mitchell delivered a note-perfect set on the Saturday
afternoon, and was one of the first acts to directly address the
crowd on the conflicting mood which was simmering after her
performance was interrupted by a hippy reportedly named Yogi Joe, who
was intent on delivering his thoughts on the unfolding story
manifesting on Desolation Row to the audience. After settling the
masses, Joni Mitchell closed the set with her classic 'Big Yellow
Taxi' to a warm response from spectators.
Another much-talked about set came from US songwriter Kris
Kristofferson, who was one of the first acts to perform on the first
official day. His set suffered from teething problems, and a large
number of onlookers were unable to hear his music. The attempts from
the audience to get the sound fixed, combined with the growing
dis-quiet being heard from the fringes of the site, convinced him to
leave the stage prematurely, after he mistakenly believed he was being jeered.
The Doors were onstage on the Saturday evening, but failed to match
the mood of the event (or matched it perfectly, depending on your
location), with frontman Jim Morrison performing the entire set in
near total darkness. Despite that, the class of the band is still
obvious, and it was another real plus to deliver one of the most
important groups of the era. Later, the wide-ranging make-up of the
bookings was highlighted by an enchanting display from one of the
true legends of jazz, Miles Davis.
The highlight of the week was undoubtedly The Who, who took to the
stage on the Saturday evening to deliver yet another spellbinding
performance. By August 1970 the band were now cementing their
reputation as one of the greatest live acts of all time, as Pete
Townshend's ever evolving songwriting helped the boundless talents of
the four members to grow into a deafening wall of noise which was
virtually unique at the time.
Their first rock opera, 'Tommy', had been released a year earlier,
and had helped to showcase the expertise of The Who during this
period which meant it was almost impossible for them to fall flat
live. At the Isle Of Wight, they were undoubtedly at the top of their
game, and delivered one their most powerful and memorable sets. In
doing so, they handed the Isle Of Wight what any major event of it's
kind needs - a defining performance.
Another defining moment of a different kind, and one which also
helped to create the legend of the festival, came on the final day of
the event when Jimi Hendrix made his last UK appearance before his
tragic death less than a month later. Hendrix is often recalled being
off his game, with plenty believing some of the problems which are
said to have led to his death being already apparent on the stage
that night. Certainly Hendrix wasn't helped by the massive
expectations following his seminal show at Woodstock a year earlier.
As the 1970 Isle Of Wight and Woodstock festivals are often compared,
it's quite fitting that Hendrix's contrasting fortunes offers a
perfect metaphor for the highs and lows experienced at the two events.
As affairs drew to a close, sections of the fencing were eventually
breached by the relentless onslaught from those gathered on
Desolation Row. After nearly a week of constant protestations, Rikki
Farr publicly admitted there was now no chance of them generating
anything near a profit, and ordered the fencing to be pulled.
Finally, Desolation Row had got the free festival they desperately wanted.
Despite threatening to cancel the whole event on more than one
occasion, arguing with agents over the phone on the subject of fees,
and scrambling together every last penny from punters who were
willing to pay at the gate, the Faulk brothers had managed to deliver
a full roster, and did indeed get their premiere acts up on stage. On
the Sunday night, providing another link between Isle Of Wight and
Woodstock, Richie Havens, the man who had opened Woodstock in July
'69, brought proceedings to a close.
So should the Faulk brothers have made the same decision as Woodstock
had under duress in order to avoid the trouble which they
subsequently encountered? There's no question if they had done the
legacy of the event would have been very different. Financial ruin
was virtually unavoidable once the council had forced them on to East
Afton Farm anyway, and they may have prevented a lot of the struggles
if that fact had been accepted earlier. What must be remembered
however, is the crowds gathered on the Isle Of Wight that week had
far exceeded anything seen anywhere in the world at the time. No-one
could have anticipated just how popular that year would prove to be -
the in-experience of just a handful of people could never have
controlled the vast numbers from a wide-section of society who were
on the island that week.
Today, most festivals have grown into huge money-making monsters,
with punters routinely forking out hundreds of pounds over a weekend
on tickets, food, drink and merchandise. Back in 1970, as the
thousands descended on the Isle Of Wight, they were still seen as
hugely important cultural events, and ones which should belong to the
youth of the day. By the time the five days had been completed, it
had become painfully clear to those still clinging on to the various
philosophies of hippy culture that the shift to the commercially
dominated events we recognise now was in motion. The aims which had
led to the first music festivals, when amateur organisers had bands
playing out of the back of lorries to just a small group of people,
were giving way to big business and huge salaries. Now, power has
been shifted to agents out to get the right price for their clients,
and to the rules and regulations of police and safety authorities
which are needed today.
As the dust settled it had become clear that before the modern
slickly-run operations, where hundreds of people work tirelessly to
ensure the smooth running of events which have less than half the
numbers the Faulk brothers had to contend with, a festival on the
Isle Of Wight was always going to be a short-lived venture. Instead
of heralding an annual mass gathering of music lovers, those waving
goodbye to the Isle Of Wight in the August of 1970 would probably
never be back - it would be over thirty years before the island again
hosted another music festival.
During that inimitable week, the Isle Of Wight had managed to
encapsulate the hope and optimism of the Sixties giving way to the
harsh realities of the real world as the Seventies arrived. As it
turned out, the numerous stories which were played out over the
course of the festival could not have better summed up the crushed
dreams of a section of those who made the trek to the Isle Of Wight
on that hot August week forty years ago.