Fifty years ago today, a monumental event was just beginning.
Amid a maelstrom of press hype and counterculture speculation, as many as 600,000 people – one-third more than Woodstock and six times the native population – were arriving for 1970’s Isle of Wight Festival, and the organisers were feeling the heat.
The Foulk brothers, an enterprising band of impresario siblings, had put on successful (and mildly profitable) festivals on the Isle in the two years prior. Yet by 1970, their ambitions had grown considerably. “We want this to become an annual event. We want it to last,” they said at the time. The brothers anticipated 250,000 patrons – still more than double the Island’s 1970 population – and spent a year investing equal-parts in artists, management and promotion as toiletries, land and amenities.
They sidestepped council opposition to lease East Afton Farm at a cost of £8,000 (or around £125,000 today) for the duration. But just adjacent to the site, a large National Trust-protected hill, known by the Festival’s end as ‘Devastation Hill’, owing to its vast quantity of litter, promised panorama views outside the walls without a £3 fee.
The prospect of a free festival was only too tempting. Many of the 600,000, then, had simply turned up without a ticket.
“We jumped on the morning ferry along with a few thousand others”, Danny Hodrien recalls. “We all seemed to have been drawn there by an invisible force.
“What greeted us I will never forget. People as far you could see, like an ocean of humanity. I had never seen so many people in one place and still haven’t to this day. So many unusual people, sights and smells – we didn’t have too many hippies in Wallasey,” he says.
Looking back, it’s hard to imagine the musical and emotional peaks the Festival contained. Each morning, in a kind of psychedelic sunrise, proceedings opened with the blare of a Hendrix-styled ‘Amazing Grace’ through the PAs.
The Who, led by a boilersuited Pete Townshend, tore through Tommy with extra stacks of enormous amplifiers. Miles Davis, an unusual choice for a hard rock gathering, mystified audiences with walls of psychedelic avant garde saxophones. John Sebastian, after a visibly stoned one-and-a-half hour acoustic set, reunited The Lovin’ Spoonful live on stage.
The Doors ritualised for ‘The End’ in near-total darkness. Hendrix ‘Purple Hazed’, Cohen crooned to Marianne, and the ever-theatrical Emerson, Lake and Palmer – always the least self-aware of the 1970s bands – would let off two enormous cannons at the performance peak. “The rest of their set was somewhat muffled by my ringing ears”, Dave Longman remembers.
Yet in the years since its conclusion, revisionists have sought to recast the Festival as something of a dark episode, perhaps comparable to the murderous chaos of the Altamont Speedway Festival in 1969. And not without seeming justification, either.
On the site’s periphery, a radical community of communist agitators set up a camp named ‘Desolation Row’, and were intent on de-commmercialising any and every component of the Festival.
They snapped off the fencing for firewood, penetrated the gates, slapped Marxist slogans on the walls, and planted the Algerian Liberation Front flag on the speaker tower. And during a quiet appeal by a local vicar, pamphleteering Maoists spat aggressively on the stage, drawing a now-legendary tirade from the Festival’s compere, Rikki Farr.
“We put this festival on you bastards with a lot of love,” he screamed. “We worked for one year for you pigs. And you want to break our walls down and you want to destroy it. Well you go to hell!”
The chaos was given special currency in Murray Lerner’s 1995 documentary, Message To Love, released after two-and-a-half decades of legal wrangling. Yet among those who were actually there, the scenes of disruption were hardly recognised at all: at best unrepresentative, and, at worst, almost-wholly deceptive.
Caroline Coon, of the drugs advice agency Release, was quick to credit the Festival’s “really wonderful atmosphere” at the time.
“There was a good community feeling. That’s why, when the festival came under attack from the anarchists outside, the community inside took the side of the festival.” Indeed, Danny Hodrien remembers one Good Samaritan who went up and down the fences smashing the vandals’ fingers with a mallet. Loris Valvona, a rare Isle hippie who attended the Festival, recalls that “everyone seemed to be blaming the trouble on the French anarchists”.
“Most of us thought [they] should just f**k off back to France if they didn’t want to pay!”
And where the Isle of Wight Festival did have problems, they were more Spinal Tap than French Revolution. The sheer scale of the event added a new layer of chaos to the bookings, and smaller bands would largely pay the price. Not that they were actually paid, though.
Pete Daltrey was the lead singer in Fairfield Parlour, a psychedelic-progressive band from London. As the band literally approached the stage, they were told their set would be cut in half. The group’s contracted recording of the festival’s “official theme song”, scheduled to play in between every act, met with problems, too.
“[The DJ] put it on, and then Ricky Farr grabbed it off the turntable and tossed into the crowd like a Frisbee. ‘That’s enough of that crap,’ he said. It was never, ever played again throughout the whole of the festival.” And as a final salt in the wound, it wasn’t even released under their name, Fairfield Parlour. The song was credited without consultation to ‘I Luv Wight’.
“…It’s a weird thing but, to be honest, I was so traumatised by what happened that I can’t remember seeing a single act”, Daltrey says.
For the fans, the lax toilet facilities were a frequent annoyance. The steady chemical diet of cannabis, exhaustion and hunger didn’t always help with watching the acts, either. Roy Bowen, for example, slept through half of Jimi Hendrix. And having already napped through The Who, Sly and the Family Stone, and two follow-ups to John Sebastian, Dave Longman fell asleep during blues pioneers, Free. “I was far too tired to stand up and watch – just lay back on what used to be grass, but which was now just rubbish-strewn bare earth, and let it all wash over me.”
Another challenge was geography. Simply put, the sheer size of the grounds meant that leaving your encampment risked a missing person’s case. “[My friend] Wally went for some food, fish and chips, [and] he was missing most of the day”, Glenn Showler remembers.
“[We] started shouting Wally at the top of our voices, and some Germans near us thought this was funny and started shouting Wally as well.” Within a few hours, the chants of ‘Where’s Wally?’ had consumed the entire Festival. How linked the chant is to the eventual gamebook, we can only speculate.
Not that any of this really matters, though. “I was there. I experienced the biggest (and arguably the best) rock festival this country has ever seen. It changed my outlook on life, my views and my attitudes”, Dave Longman concludes.
“That is enough.”