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Three shades of Wight   Print

by Geoffrey Cannon
Guardian
September 5, 1970

APART from the music, what went on at the Isle of Wight last weekend? Here are the most popular theories.

1. Ben Hur...or something

One journalist to another, in the beer tent late on Sunday: "I've got very interested in theDecline and Fall of the Roman Empire aspect of the thing." Second journalist: (guardedly) "So have we all." What Is The Future Of Pop Festivals? the papers ask. Or else: People Have Been Saying, For A Long Time Now (since before Monterey presumably) That The Day Of The Pop Festival Is Over. What this means is that journalists are pushed for a new angle.

So we writers went to the festival at Afton primed with the Decline and Fall idea, which fitted in with the notion that pop festivals were a bit, um, decadent. Moreover, spokesmen for Fiery Creations have been letting the world know what a terrible thankless labour putting on pop festivals is, and how there can never be another one (meaning that if they can't make the Afton festival succeed on their own terms, no one else can).

"Looks like they're making 'Ben Hur,' or something, " said Joni Mitchell, at the beginning of her act. She was looking out, past the light towers, past the corrugated iron fences, one of which straggled on an dpetered out up the Down, to the tents and encampments and files of people moving up and down the skyline. And at the time her analogy seemed as good as any other.

At midnight on Saturday, backstage hours after his act, John Sebastian strode up and down inside a glass walled changing-room, lit from within, looking just like a Technicolor gladiator.

And there was Phillippe, from the Living Theatre, who dressed as follows: tight blue calf-length boots with three-inch heels, and silver stars up the front; a Hells Angel jacket, with heavy zips and studs underneath a jerkin of black net, sequinned; under that a wool jumper, striped red, green and yellow; two thick red leather bracelets with brass studs; a five-inch belt; a silver slave necklace, with pendant; silver rings; silver finger-nails; silvered hair, and heavily made-up eyes. third choice for the photographers, after the bald-headed couple and the nude bathers, Philippe was perfect 1970 Petronius material. I'd seen Fellini's Satyricon two days before and it was difficult to avoid Philippe.

But Philippe was one uncharacteristic person in a crowd of uncharacteristic people. to any ovserver at AFton, dtached from what was actually going on, the Decline and Fall idea was tempting. and a colleague came back to his seat on Saturday evening, from telephoning his paper, saying that the night editor was delighted with his interview with Pete Harrigan, who had said, "We will never organise antoher Isle of Wight pop festival." Here was the New Angle on pop festivals. But the truth is that maybe Afton will be the last festival devised as a vast prolonged single-stage spectacle, and maybe Afton proves that no promoter can be sure to make vast profits from festivals; but there will be more festivals. I've just finished talking to Toby Roberts, who has been involved in the stage-managing of Monterey, Woodstock, Newport, and now Afton. He is going to another festival in Germany, and later he will help to put on a festival in the Gulf of Mexico. Like rock 'n' roll, pop festivals are here to stay.

2. Psychedelic concentration camp

The French Situationists put out a manifesto round about the time of the May Events in Paris, in 1968. The Situationists, who can, crudely, be described as French Yippies, state that the two basic principles of society are: "The commodity and the spectacle...Modern capitalism and its spectacle allot everyone a specific role in a general passivity."

The French kids on Afton Down (nicknamed Desolation Hill) were, by and large, Situationists, there with the deliberate intentino of indentifying Fiery Creations as a new, sly version of capitalism, luring the kids to pay too much money in the name of Peace and Love. Early on Friday I apssed a security man, dressed in a kind of blue battledress which made him look somwhat like a convict. He looked harmless. His alsation did not. "He's a bit snappy today, " he said, nervously, of the dog.

Later that day an American heckler came on stage. "What are those dogs doing here? This is a psychedelic concentratin camp" he bellowed. The audience booed him, mostly. Rikki Farr explained the dogs. "last night there was a live hand grenade on Desolation Hill," he said. (Presumably the dogs were trained to swallow hand grenades.)

The manifestations on Desolation Hill gave Afton a political aspect new to pop festivals. the Down overlooked the stage; and in spite of frantic last-minute building, Fiery Creations failed to fence it. so kids without the money or the inclination to sit inside the fence at the bottom of the hill encamped on the Down and watched for free. In surroundings far more congenial than those inside the fence.

Dogs were sent to the hill on Friday morning to clear the people off, and were met by "a barrage of rocks and insults, mainly in French" - according to the "Freek" free newsletter. And in spite of threats, harassment, and on-stage pleas from Rikki Farr, Desolation Hill stayed occupied.

Radicals like Mick Farren, lately leader of the Social Deviants, who now styles himself a White Panther, did the talking on behalf of the people who broke down fences and who upset Fiery Creations. (Ron Faulk, reported in the "Evening News", "To think I spent nine months defending these people, saying how peaceful they were, fighting for them. Now look what they've done.") Farren's attitude is that rock music makes sense only in terms of eliminating the distinction both between the performer and the audience, and between the entrepreneur and the consumer. but, "there is always this paradox between the commercial way music is marketed and its content."

Certainly when Rikki Farr pleaded for peace and love, he was asking for the audience to pay £3 and sit quiet inside the fences, and not to invade the VIP area, where seats gained Fiery Creations £10 apiece. And Farren was, for me, right to ask why the bands should be paid so much money. Why should Joan Baez be paid £10,000, or £12,000, or £20,000 - whatever the true sum was - when such payments involve kids in paying £3, involve security guards with dogs, and when, given a festival with less emphasis on money, Baez would come for less?

Afton was not a psychedelic concentration camp, because people could choose to watch for free. And, again, for the future, the pop festivals that will work best will be those where the audience can choose to pay, or not to pay, as they like. That's how listener subscriber radio works in America; and if Fiery Creations have to go bankrupt (and I dobut that they will) discovering that money isn't everything, that may be not the end of the world.

3. "I have seen...remarkable sights"

The Saturday newspapers carried a story about a VD epidemic threat. The story was squashed by the local Health Officer, Dr. Quantrill. Again, there were plenty of press stories about obscene behaviour, which were countered engagingly by the Chief Constable of Hampshire, Mr. Douglas Osmond, who was alleged to have donned "hippie gear" and walked among the kids on the hill.

Mr. Osmond said: "there have been no complaints of indecency, although I have seen some most remarkable sights."

So had the citzens of the Isle of Wight I spoke with - local policemen, shopkeepers, waitresses, taxi-drivers; and holidaymakers and locals attracted to the spectacle. And they weren't complaining, either. One taxi-driver said, "I wonder if I'm right to live in a little box that keeps the neighbours out. those kids really seemed to be enjoying themselves." It seems that a bit of culture shock will never do anyone any harm. "You don't know what you've got, until it's gone." sang Joni Mitchell. But next year pop festivals will be back. Maybe the sun will shine again, too.

 

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