An English backwater with all the pleasures of a genteel seaside resort. Hendrix, The Who, California Sunshine acid and an army of anarcho-hippies intent of smashing down the fence... Uncut revisits the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival where idealism and innocent entrepreneurial spirit me head on.
AS EXPLOSIVE AS were The Who, as intermittently brilliant as was Hendrix, the real star of the 1970 Isle Of Wight Festival wasn't, in fact, a musician at all. Some people remember the bands. Some remember the bad vibes, a fence being torn down, and the secretly men with dogs. But whatever else they disagree on about what happened at East Afton Farm over August Bank Holiday Weekend, 1970, everyone remembers Rikki Farr.
"An extraordinary character," says Peter Harrigan who was press officer for the event. "I wouldn't want to suggest that the son of a professional boxer was a drama queen. But he was certainly a drama king. Almost a drama emperor."
The Who Producer and MC of the festival, son of the boxer Tommy Farr, Rikki Farr was as a music business professional, and afterwards went on to a successful career in sound equipment a career only curtailed by his 2008 conviction for tax evasion. In 1970, however, after a weekend punctuated by money worries, lapsed security, and obscene daubings on the festival's perimeter fence, he lost it, big style, and took on the counterculture, single-handed. "We put this festival on, you bastards, with a lot of love," he said, addressing the crowd with a menace that was somehow slightly tearful. "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!" Farr might have been a little emotional. But whether he liked it or not, he became the symbol of the conflicts and contradictions that 40 years ago came with the territory of staging a major rock event. Rather than a beatific scene, or a store of great performances, the 1970 Isle Of Wight Festival if often portrayed as a battle between artistry and commerce, audience and promoters, fences and the free festival ethos. But is that fair? And what really happened anyway
A small island separated from the UK mainland by the waters of the Solent, the Isle Of Wight at the end of the 1960's was a steadfastly uncontroversial place. The island's "mainstream" population extended a welcome to tourists, and other outsiders. Its more gentrified areas were home to retired members of the admiralty, and their blue-rinsed wives, a stoutly conservative rump.
In 1968, the island needed an indoor swimming pool, and to help finance it, a festival was mounted in a field, headlined by Jefferson Airplane playing on the flatbed of a lorry. The event was a modest success, but the company that promoted it had ambitions for a show on rather larger scale. In winter 1968, Fiery Creations - the working name of brothers Ronnie, Bill and Ray Foulk - began hiring staff for their 1969 festival, an event they hoped would be headlined by Bob Dylan.
He was like the returning messiah says Ray Foulk, today. "He'd been in an accident. He'd retired. It was only by landing Bob Dylan that the whole thing kicked off as a viable proposition,"
As optimistic an idea as it might have been (this would only be Dylan's second live show since 1966), the Foulk brothers had an ally in Aylan's camp. In 1968, Bert Block, a one-time 30's bandleader who worked for Dylan's manager Albert Grossman, had become the team's talent booker. He forwarded the Isle Of Wight's interest to Dylan. After some weeks of negative speculation ("doesn't want to work..."), Block suggested there were still grounds for a small amount of hope. Could the team supply Dylan with a flavor of the island? Bill Foulk, a student at the Royal College Of Art, shot a cine film of the island: the proposed site, majestic download, Dylan's proposed lodgings, and sent it to New York, with an accompanying booklet, made by Ray, then a printer. Eventually, strong views on public urination had mobilized and organized. When Fiery Creations went looking for a site for the 1970 event, they found themselves facing down hostile regional meetings, officiated by wily and high-ranking former military personnel. ("Who would have turned their blunderbusses on us," says Peter Harrigan. "If they could have.)
Eventually, a site was found on the rural west side of the island- and at this new location, just in time to capture, arrived respected US documentary filmmaker Murray Lerner.
Lerner was, and remains a vital part of the story of the Isle Of Wight Festival, 1970. Having seen how well the Woodstock movie had performed it made sense to the organisers to try to secure upfront a deal for an Isle Of Wight movie. However, every time a backer expressed an interest. Lerner seemed a little cagey about what sort of a film he wanted to make, which in turn led to the waning of investor interest. Eventually, Fiery Creations tired of this, and tried to have Lerner replaced as director. He successfully sued for breach of contract and by way of settlement, he took all rights to the film."
Lerner a funny and affable seventysomething, was, he maintains, only ever interested in making a certain type of film. A few years before, he'd made a documentary called Festival, which had shown the behind-the-scenes machinations at the Newport Folk Festival. At the Isle Of Wight, he saw the chance to explore some of these ideas in a new film.
"I was interested to show not only the festival, but also the behind-the-scenes activity, the jockeying for position, publicity, power," says Lerner today. "How the counterculture philosophy would gradually be co-opted by commercial interest.
Today, irrespective of their legal battle, there persists a feeling among the organisers that the festival was not well-served by Lerner's film. They feel that the film's central drama (the conflict between organisers and crowd, the bands and the crowd)simply didn't play out in the way Lerner portrays it, with particular reference to when the crowd began to attack the fences. And they resent the idea that it makes the festival look to history like a sear-of-pants venture by bumbling, occasionally ridiculous Englishmen.
As relieved as Fiery Creations were to have found site for their 1970 festival, there were still problems with East Afton Farm. Namely, that it and the festival arena was overlooked by Afton Down, a piece of National Trust land that proved impossible to fence off from the public.
While some punters paid their money and took their seats in the arena, more pragmatic fans pitched their tents on the hill, and settled down to enjoy the free music from a position that was, if anything, better than the official site. In late August 1970 a year after Dylan left, the Isle Of Wight again had Desolation Row.
Outside the arena, there gradually swelled an alternative population less interested in Fiery Creations' idea of a festival, who had mobilized instead to put their own spin on the gathering. Some were hardline French anarchists on a mission to disrupt. Others organisers of an unofficial Tent City. Some were members of Hawkwind, who set out to play outside, for free, for the majority of the weekend.
"It was like a riot, we played for 13 hours solid," remembers Nik Turner. "Miles David came over - we played free jazz in a rock'n'roll context, all drug-fuelled. There were all these hippies from California there who had bottles of California Sunshine acid, mixed with orange juice.
"It was going on and on," continues Turner. "Jimi came in and had a look, but he was a bit down, really. We had a lot of people come and check us out. We played outside in the day, and in the evening we'd to into the inflatable tent, shaped like a bit condom. It was a lovely community thing."
"They tell me there were more people there than at Woodstock," says Billy Cox, who played bass with Hendrix at his headlining show. "I don't know.... We didn't see it because it was a field at night-time. WE had a trailer in the back there, and we chilled out until our time came.
"We were doing 'In From The Storm' and 'Dolly Dagger', and songs of that nature, which the public hadn't heard. But they were really receptive. They really liked them. So we mixed those in, and Jimi said, 'Well, we know we're going to have a dynamite album, because they've never heard them before, and they're still reacting! " Just three weeks later, Hendrix was dead.
Onstage, in the main arena, much great music was heard. What may have been just as important, thought, is what else was heard there. This was also a place where, in spite of being a commercial enterprise, the festival still attempted to engage with the counterculture. Random speakers were given a platform by Rikki Farr. The crowd, misunderstanding the ironic intent of Kris Kristofferson's song, "Blame It On The Stones' (Join the accusation/ Save the bleeding nation/Get it off your shoulders/Blame it on the Stones") booed him offstage.
Joni Mitchell delivered a school-mistress homily about respecting the performers. If you were a French anarchist or a performer, you may have occasionally had occasion to feel aggrieved at the Isle Of Wight Festival. With hindsight, though, it seems a particularly vital British happening: a dialogue between the possibility of how things could be, and how they actually would come to be. It wouldn't necessarily be pretty. "Rikki Farr gave spout time to these people to spout their philosophies," remembers Ric Lee from Ten Years After, who had played Woodstock the previous year. "Then there were people breaking the fences down, and so they brought out the dogs and batons. It was ugly by comparison with Woodstock. The peace and love element seemed to have disappeared.
At his home in Oxford, Ray Foulk has a collection of his Isle of Wight materials. He has a copy of the prospectus that he and his brothers sent to Dylan's management in 1969, as well as a brochure sent out to prospective artists to interest them in the 1970 event. He also has a slightly more bittersweet volume, much like its neighbors, entitled Isle Of Wight Festival, 1971 - a proposal document.